This is a contentious topic both for me and for the literary community at large: whose stories do I get to tell? If the only stories I get to write are those of middle-aged white gay men of middling privilege, well, yawn! Who wants that career? Stores full of clones of myself? Granted, I’m a fascinating guy but seriously, ask my husband, the glamour eventually wears thin.
I had been struggling with this topic before Readercon 2016, but then I attended an excellent panel that helped sketch out some guidelines not just for writing the other, but for doing the other justice, respecting the other, accurately representing the other.
I’d like to share some advice from that panel, titled “Who Gets to Tell My Story?” Panelists
Keffy Kehrli, Mikki Kendall, Robert V. S. Redick, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, and Sabrina Vourvoulias tore the topic apart in the best way, sharing impassioned perspectives the sparked with anger.
- Every culture has its own language, phrases, foods, etc. These things change based on where you are from. Any representation that doesn’t use these correctly will come across as inauthentic to readers from that culture
- PRO TIP: if you don’t know someone from that culture, you probably shouldn’t be writing about that culture
- Disability is not a binary. It’s a spectrum. Only 5% to 10% of the blind population is fully blind, yet all media representations of the blind are fully blind. Disability is a wholly unique experience for every person with a disability
- PRO TIP: disabled people have sex!
- Reach out to experts of any kind you need to for help with your representation:
- Community organizations
- Friends, family, friends of friends
- PRO TIP: the time professionals spend to help you is valuable. PAY THEM. They may decline or suggest you donate to a community organization instead
- Futuristic “cures” for disabilities erase identities and oversimplify disability in a harmful way. Utopian solutions are generally false, and not everyone wants to be cured
- The transgender experience (and spectrum of sexuality in general) is complex and nuanced. Again, if you don’t know a person of the sexuality or gender identity you want to express, find one and talk to them. Even then, don’t assume that a single experience defines a population
- Mental illness, and chronic physical illness, present their own unique struggles
- If the whole of your experience with a culture or ability is tragedy, pain and suffering, this is probably not your story to tell
- PRO TIP: make sure that your representation of ability, gender, sexuality, culture, race, etc. is justified by and within the world you have created
I was encouraged by this panel to believe that the door is open for me to write the other. Secondary worlds can have different abilities, races, and identities just like ours does. I feel freer now, not more confined, to tell stories that are diverse in every possible way.
Many writers – outside of your genre – have explored writing from the point of view of “the other.” “Moll Flanders,” the “autobiography of a woman, was written by a man. More recently, so was Kate Vaiden. There was a recent best seller by a woman, written from the point of view of a gay man. I think it’s done all the time.