We are always writing the other, we are always writing the self. We bump into this basic, impossible riddle every time we tell stories. When we create characters from backgrounds different than our own, we’re really telling the deeper story of our own perception. We muddle through these heated discussions at panels, in comments sections, on social media, in classrooms — the intersections of power and identity, privilege and resistance. How do we respectfully write from the perspectives of others? Below are 12 guidelines to get you started.
One of the best articles I’ve read on the subject. I want to hand this out at every art & diversity panel I speak on. Seriously.
Great, if daunting, list. Takes a while to get over number 2, but you have to.
The bit that I’m struggling with is number 12. If the answer is “no”, does that mean I shouldn’t write at all? Nobody, let alone me, wants a whitewashed story, so if I don’t feel I can do justice to the other then the remaining option seems no story at all. I mean, I haven’t any right to write, but I like to.
It matters who and what is being focused upon in fiction. It matters who is creating a fictional account of these tellings. I don’t think the “burden of representation” rests upon the shoulders of those who are positioned as under-represented. If this were the case we would fall into an essentialist trap that will serve no one well. However, I’m okay with saying that it is my hope that white writers who are interested in writing about cultures and subjectivities outside of their own consider very carefully:
1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story,
2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story?
3) who will benefit if you write this story?
4) why are you writing this story?
5) who is your intended audience?
6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?
Silence. In the space where your voice would have rang out with its distinct articulation. The moment you silence yourself a gap opens up, and someone else who may have no qualms in occupying that space, will leap in to speak out on their own terms. If you’re a writer (a dreamer) from a people, a community, a history that has been long-marginalized, silenced or misrepresented, we so desperately need to hear your story in your voice, in your own grammar of perception and articulation….
Also consider Diversity Cross Check, a resource blog for authors trying to write outside their own experiences.
I’m a little bummed today. A few weeks ago I took a break from all my other work to spend 2 weeks painting over a dozen paintings. I did this at the request of a calendar company that had commissioned me, via my agent, to create a New Age Celtic themed calendar. They gave me very little time to create and format all the images, write captions for each, and to create 3 different cover options. I did all the work, and got it to them on time. Today my agent received an email from them that stated that the owner of the company is Christian and he “did some research and he found out that Celtic Art is Pagan and he’s not comfortable with that and he’s canceling the contract.” (I’ve cleaned up the language a bit, honestly, it was very offensive)
I want to be clear. Even though the calendar was created per their specifications, they rejected it later (after first signing a contract and accepting it) because they believe it’s Pagan and Pagan=Bad in their minds. Their language in their email was clear on these points. Also, please know we did offer to change the calendar in any way they wished. They refused. So, their issue doesn’t appear to be simply that they didn’t like the “Pagan Aspects” of the calendar - it’s more that they don’t want to work with us - with ME, because I’m Pagan. So while a private company does have the right to conduct their business as they wish…to suggest that their motivation is “just business” and “not personal” seems at odds with their actions.
Obviously I am saddened at this news. My fabulous agent is currently taking steps to see how he can find a way to get this calendar to you despite the adversity. I’m just puzzled and offended and sad and wondering what you all think? I imagine many of my Christian friends would be surprised to hear that Celtic Art is Pagan. Many of my Pagan friends would take great exception at the idea that Pagan art is somehow evil (which is what was very strongly implied in the email). And many of my atheist and humanist friends would shake their head and say “are you kidding me with this bigotry?”. I also know that many of my Celtic History friends will narrow their eyes in confusion and irritation at all this nonsense. Oh heck, I bet most of us fall into the C. All of the above category. That’s where I’m at.