What are we allowed to write?

I’ve been really interested in the discussions we’ve been having lately about what we do and don’t have permission to write about. It’s a question that I’ve read about a fair amount on various websites and discussed with friends both online and in person. The question of “What should we be permitted to write?” is such a multi-faceted question that it’s almost too intimidating to answer. I’m just going to look at two different ways to approach this question. I realize that it isn’t enough to answer a question as complex as it, but it’s the best way I have, currently, at approaching it.

The Writer: Someone, in our first class, mentioned that writing anonymously would basically negate this whole question of what we can and can’t write, because it would make the readers focused on the writing instead of who wrote. While I understand where this person is coming from, I completely disagree. Writing, regardless of the genre, is founded in some sort of truth. As writers, we’re supposed to adhere to certain principles of truth, so that our readers don’t feel untrustworthy of our work.  Anonymity allows writers to be less truthful, because it allows readers to assume things about the writer. If you take away the context of the writer, you take away the ability to hold the writer to a cultural standard, which is dangerous when it comes to interpreting their work. An author, who is actually a white man, could be regarded as a Chinese woman. That’s an entirely different cultural position. One that a white man doesn’t have the authority to write about, because he has never lived the life of a Chinese woman.

I’m not saying that a white author can’t write a Chinese woman character, but he has to own up to being a white author. He has to allow readers to regard his cultural position and assess whether or not his view of this character should be regarded as accurate or not.

 

The Character’s Issues: I’ve been working on an extended piece of fiction for nearly a year now. Several of my characters in it are different races, genders, and sexualities than I am. From everything I’ve read the best sentence to sum it all up is: Write diverse characters, but don’t write about diversity.

What this sentence gets at is that, it’s really important to write diverse characters (both in poetry and fiction). We have a culture where white characters are dominant in literature, and that can be detrimental to non-white readers, who can never recognize themselves in characters. (I actually have an interesting position as a reader. I often recognize myself in characters because I’m a white female, and there are lots of white females in the genres I like to read. It’s really nice to be able to recognize myself in a character and sink into it. On the other side of things, I’m also asexual. I have yet to read a book where a character is openly asexual. I have never seen my sexuality represented as a character in a book, and sometimes that can be very, very frustrating. I’m tired of reading book after book where there are sexual and romantic relationships.) So it’s incredibly important that writers write characters who are diverse regardless whether or not the characters match the writer. HOWEVER, and this is the second part of the sentence, writers should not be talking about diversity.

This is sort of hard to explain, so I’m just going to use an example of one of the characters I’m working on. As we’ve already covered, I am a white woman. One of the characters I’m writing is a black man. His name is Mark, he likes Elvis and his dad’s a barber. He’s scared that his friendship with his best friend, Vincent, will fade during college, and he’s scared of leaving his home town. I love Mark so much, and I’m always very scared that I’m going to write is character incorrectly. But, from what I’ve read and discussed with people, it’s completely fine for me to write Mark as long as I don’t focus on issues of being black. I can write about him and Vincent having water balloon fights, but I can’t talk about him facing racism. I just don’t have the authority to write about racism from a black perspective.

 

And in general, I think this is the best way of approaching writing race (or sexuality or gender). It’s completely fine to write characters who are different than you, but you don’t have the authority to write about the issues they face due to their cultural position. The line between what is an isn’t related to their cultural position is a tricky one, but it’s an important line to find as a writer. I think that it’s also a line that every writer should experiment with finding.

2 Replies to “What are we allowed to write?”

  1. I have two statements I’d like to respond to, together:

    1. Write diverse characters, but don’t write about diversity.
    2. But, from what I’ve read and discussed with people, it’s completely fine for me to write Mark as long as I don’t focus on issues of being black. I can write about him and Vincent having water balloon fights, but I can’t talk about him facing racism. I just don’t have the authority to write about racism from a black perspective.

    I want to argue that 1 is totally and completely correct, but that to write diverse characters you cannot avoid diversity (you can simply avoid writing ABOUT it and having it BE the focus of the story). But for two, I think to not write about Mark’s issues with racism is to write a white story through a black body. To write a story about a woman who doesn’t ever have to face sexism is to write the story of a man, in the body of a woman.

    The point is that your story about Mark shouldn’t be solely about his race, but should include the complexity of how racism affects him as he goes about living out the rest of his story. My example would be – maybe you write a story about a woman, discovering herself on a college campus. To ignore her fear walking home at night, the men at frat parties who make her uncomfortable, the pressure to be sexual and yet also proper in her dress and mannerisms. These don’t need to be central – her discovery and main journey could be about her love of art, her growing desire to go into the medical field, etc. But to ignore those factors that are an integral part of a woman’s experience is to not truly write a complete and complex woman (perhaps you also don’t need to include all of them, but address them). In real life, these struggles with sexism don’t make women’s whole stories but they frame our lives and stories and impact us subtly daily. That subtle discussion of diversity must be a small part of your character’s life, or I don’t think you’re really doing the diverse character justice.

    But that’s also why I think we must be so overwhelmingly careful, when writing about diversity. We must read and research the stories of those we hope to portray, do our best to understand. We need to feel the weight of the responsibility – socially – to fight for the rights of the real life people that our characters are representing. And we need to understand, each time we write a diverse character, that we are undertaking an exercise in respect; to show that respect we must do justice to the diversity that makes us different, and the hardships different groups face, without making that the whole story. It never is.

  2. You have a really good point. When writing characters who are diverse, it would be writing a “white story” to not include any affects of racism. So maybe it would be fair to show a character (like Mark) interacting with racism or sexism or what ever is appropriate for that character’s position, but not to necessarily speak about it through their mouths?
    If you interviewed someone that matches a character (in race/ gender/ etc) and were given permission to use their word, then would it be okay to allow the character to directly quote them? Or would that still be crossing the line?

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