Monday, July 25, 2016

Yes, This Again - Writing Outside Yourself

So one of the recent RITA winners included a book featuring a main character of color written by an author not of color.  There's been a lot of talk about this, including this post by Deborah Mello, and I don't want to repeat a lot of it, but there is a thing that we have to think about as writers.  Particularly when you are writing people that are not like you. 
I am multiracial, but one of those races is white and I read as white to a lot of white people.  But being multiracial doesn't mean I automatically know how to write all multiracial people or even all multiracial people who happen to be the same mix as me authentically without doing any work.  Just like I took psychology in college, but would need to do research before writing a character who was a psychologist. 
Julia Quinn said in the historical chat at RWA, that writing contemporary is a lot of work, because people may tell you they didn't think Regency England was like that, but people will absolutely tell you that no Wisconsin isn't like that, or no, in Maryland no one takes Biology in tenth grade*. 
Malinda Lo wrote a post about how writing contemporary caused her to really take a hard look at how she represented gender in her books which has stuck with me.  Writing a story of any type means you are creating a world.  It may look like a slice of our world, but there's still a lot of responsibility because in our current world we have a patriarchy problem, a homophobia problem, a racism problem, and a transphobia problem, just to list a few.  I recognize that in short romances you often have a small cast because you are dedicating most of your words to the main couple.  But if you have only one character in your book who is of X marginalized group, then that character represents a lot of things.  This book may be the first book by you a reader ever reads.  They may not know you have this or that book where you have more people from that group.  And also, your book should stand on it's own.  If a reader dives into this book and says wow, that was a stereotypical representation of that group, why would they trust you as an author to try another book?  
And look, you cannot please all the readers, you just can't.  But as an author there need to be really good reasons for creating a character who may actually cause harm.  Because in the end, writing a story that some people don't like is pretty low on possible harm.  Picking up a book you were hoping to provide you an escape only to be hurt by the representations it includes, is a really big deal.  
So, if you are writing a character who is part of a marginalized group that you are not a member of, what should you do? 
1. Read books written by authors of that group.  
2. Talk to members of that group.  Real talk.  Not, hi, teach me how to write you, please, and thank you.  
3. Reach out to trusted friends to read drafts.  If you have no friends of this type, there are sensitivity readers and sensitivity databases.  Many of those will ask for either money or other type of reciprocity. (This is not a complaint, strangers who work for you should get compensated, you should probably also do something nice for the friends who work for you too. This is just preparation.)
4. Work to expand your circle, in life and online, so that you are listening to more marginalized groups, especially those you are planning to represent.  
5. When you get feedback listen.  Yes, just like all feedback, you are the author.  But as with all feedback, think about why you are resisting.  And if you get conflicting feedback, again think about how that might point to a deeper issue and not just mean that you can ignore all of it. 
6. Be willing to scrap the story.  Or make huge changes.  Or both.  Can you do something the experts tell you you can't? Sure.  But if a firefighter said, hey, that wouldn't happen like that, you'd probably figure out another way to write the fire.  Fire is inanimate.  People should get more consideration. 
7. Accept that just like any writing you put out there in the world, there will be feedback.  You cannot please everyone, but if there is a case where if you have caused harm, not just I didn't like it, but that was harmful, you may need to listen.  You can't change the published book, but you can learn, grow, and do better.  It won't just make your writing better. 

*I took biology in tenth grade. In Maryland.  I have no idea if that's still common, so again research.