Thursday, November 1, 2012

On "Writing the Other"

Now that NaNoWriMo '12 has officially begun, I thought I'd compile a list of links on cultural appropriation, creating diverse characters, and "writing the other." Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward are co-authors of a book by the same name, which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it. I've taken a few writing workshops, and how to thoughtfully create characters different from you -- particularly characters who members of marginalized groups --  is something that's rarely talked about. There's an assumption that every is there for the taking, and questioning oneself -- "is this something I should be writing?" -- stifles one's creativity. s.e. smith wrote a great post about writing the other  that explains it better than I can.

Jim C. Hines, fantasy author, says, "Most of the time though, when I hear 'We’re not allowed to write _____ characters,' it’s an author talking. Upon investigation, it usually turns out that nobody told our author friend that he or she wasn’t allowed to write these characters; instead, someone criticized him for doing it badly." Nisi Shawl, in a pretty lengthy essay , agrees that there are a lot of bad examples of trans-cultural writing:
"A good deal of transcultural writing's bad reputation is owing to authors and audiences who act like Invaders. In one unpublished story I've seen, the writer took a sacred song here, a tattoo there, snapped up a feast featuring roasted pig and manioc root from somewhere else and presto! South Pacific Island culture at our fingertips! That this Islands analogue was inhabited by blond, blue-eyed people may have been meant to soften the act of appropriation by distancing readers from its victims. Or the point may have been to allow the blond, blue-eyed author or reader easier identification and access. The effect, unfortunately, was one of cultural theft squared. Not only were the appurtenances of the culture removed from their native settings, they were placed in the hands of people deliberately marked as racially distinct from their originators."
For those of us who are not science fiction or fantasy writers (and most of the advice I've found has come from within the fantasy community), the same standards nicely apply. If you're writing from a place of privilege, you're destined to fail. This is something I've been thinking about a lot since the uproar over Girls' lack of diversity.  The lack of people of color cast is compounded by the show itself being billed as "universal." You can't just add diversity, shake well, and hope for the best. Carefully crafting characters whose experiences differ greatly from your own requires the awareness of your own set of privileges.

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