On Twitter some time ago I wrote a tweet thread about “diverse” characters and writing people who are different from you. I wanted to expand it into a post because several people asked me to. And then life happened: Acute health issues. My wife continues to have mobility problems that leave me the primary caretaker. Orlando. A family tragedy. The draft of this post sat unfinished. But it’s time, now, to explain why writing stories about people different from you should be like making a mixtape for a crush.
Full disclosure on why I am writing about diversity, if you’ve never seen me before: I am a queer non-cis chronically ill disabled mixed-race Filipino-American (don’t let the name throw you). My adoptive grandfather was a Mexican, my grandmother was white-passing mixed race Cherokee by way of New Mexico and Oklahoma. I am formally converting to Judaism after discovering a heritage connection, and I have Muslim family, so when it comes to Bad Representation, there’s a lot of fuckups. As a Filipino-American, there’s also a lot of, well, nothing. I have Strong Feelings about representation.
First of all, I have a few things to say about “diverse” writing. One is that it’s absolutely crucial. Western English-language writing has been dominated by cis, able, heterosexual white men for a long time. Adding cis, able, heterosexual white women did not diversify it very much. If you are any combination of those, that’s no shade — but publishing is VASTLY dominated by these voices at every level, especially when it comes to who makes decisions of what gets published. These experiences and voices are overwhelmingly “centered” in publishing, pushing everyone else to the edges of the field — commonly called “marginalizing” them or making them “minorities”, or, as I prefer, “decentering” them.
A word about why this language: marginal, marginalized, the margins, comes from the concept of a book. Every life is a page in a book. You, your life, is at the center. The things that directly impact your life are the circle around you. In circles, slowly moving outwards, are people you know, things you’ve seen, the global news, issues you care about but don’t directly impact you. If you’re a cis white heterosexual person, the Pulse shooting in Orlando isn’t center and forefront of your life experience the way it is for a gay or trans Puerto Rican living in Orlando. If you’re a white middle-class Brit, the life of an immigrant of color to Australia is going to be so far on the edge of the page as to be just a tiny blip, unless you’re very close to one. The farther from your life experience a thing is, the less centered it is to your reality, until you hit the edges, the margins of the page. The page is only so big and eventually, things don’t fit on the page at all — the average reader of my work has never been to Abkhazia, for example (and is probably going to google it right now). But flip the page. Another writer — a disabled bisexual immigrant Muslimah living in a rural US town (example is drawn from my circle of friends. This is not a theoretical person.)– is now the center. The last page, suddenly, is on the edges. Her lived experience puts the other two experiences on the edges of her life knowledge.
The need to diversify publishing at every level is hugely important, and involves involving disabled, trans, LGB+, asexual and aromantic, and non-white people of every culture, class and religion at every level of publishing. The OwnVoices hashtag coined by YA speculative writer Corinne Duyvis, took preexisting conversations and gave it a convenient hashtag: the idea that people of “marginalized” or, as I prefer, “decentered” writers can, and should, write about their experiences, and that their own voices should be supported, promoted, and generally preferred over that of people centered by publishing who are, ultimately, GUESSING what it is like to live with an oppression as part of daily life.
To those white & otherwise centered writers, I have two pieces of advice:
Do not try to write an Issues Story about an experience you don’t have. What do I mean? If you’re a white cis woman, don’t try to write the coming out of a black trans woman. If you aren’t a gay Latino, don’t try to write about the struggles of a gay man trying to be accepted by his immigrant Brazilian family. These pieces are often called “Identity Stories” because they focus so heavily on the struggles of the main character to reconcile their identity to the mainstream culture that alienates them, and there is really only one set of people qualified to write them: the people who live these experiences of identity. If your story totally falls apart without you explaining what it’s like to be an X, and you’re not an X, (a somewhat famous non-speculative example: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, about intersex identity and gender transitioning written by a self-identified cis man) this story is not your story to tell. You are guessing, based off things you’ve read, people you’ve known, twitter threads, sociology textbooks — if you did you research, which many authors don’t. It is possible to write an “Identity Story” that isn’t terrible (parts of Middlesex genuinely moved me as an intersex person who was wrongly assigned at birth), but “isn’t terrible” is a low bar and you should calmly, quietly, clear space for identity stories that reflect actual lived experience and do your best to root on people who have stories to tell of their own.
That said, you should, by all means, write people different from you in your stories. To do this, though, provokes incredible anxiety in many writers — often, the anxiety of doing harm. Good, you should be anxious about that if you are historically centered by publishing, your literary forebears have historically hurt us a lot with your portrayals of us as recently as yesterday (JK Rowling, ahem). Awfully, sometimes, the fear is of criticism and bad book sales if representation is wrong, rather than fear of harm. To that end, I have written a checklist to help you determine if you are ready to write a story about or featuring a marginalized person (hopefully persons, plural, we tend to travel in groups, belong to families, have friends, know people, it is weird to have The One Gay Friend or the Token Latinx in your story). If you are afraid of criticism, this post is not for you. If you are afraid of harm, keep reading.
- Are you friends, actual friends, or have you been actual friends, with a person from your decentered character’s background or who shares their marginalization somehow?
- Are you writing the book or story with the desire (whether possible/advisable or not) to give it to them with pride to say, with excitement and a little anxiety, “hey, I wrote a character for you!” with the hope of a reaction of “wow! I never see people like me in stories!”?
If the answer of either of these questions is “no”, you need to go change your book or story idea or friends circle until the answer is “yes”.
I know this is a controversial statement. Let me explain.
- If you are not actual friends (internet friends count if you actually talk to each other — one-sided following of someone you’ve never had a private convo with does not) or family with someone you want to represent on the page, you are not close enough to the subject to EVER research it enough to be true to life.
- If your primary imaginal audience is a person who is just like you, your representation will not center the people you are writing about — it will Other them. We will become objects of the Othering Gaze, as you explain how weird and different from your presumed audience of Normal White(/Cis/Straight/Able) People. You will not mean to do this. But it will seep into every part of your story and word choice and plot concepts and it will hurt your readers who ARE that demographic, because we will see ourselves through your eyes, and your eyes will be fixated on Difference, and we will feel alienated and objectified.
I do not write exclusively OwnVoices stories. I sometimes write characters who do not share my religion, or who are from a different part of the world than my family, or have a different disability or gender or sexuality. I often do this and give them a struggle of my own simultaneously, because writing straight up about myself is not a thing I enjoy doing (if I did, I’d write autobiography). But I write them with someone in mind: a specific reader who is from that demographic. The goal, my goal, is to theoretically give it to that reader and say “I wrote this character for you”. Not based off them or a copy of them, per se. For them to read and see someone like them — with their sexuality, their gender, their skin color, their cultural heritage, their disability — as a good person who they can identify with or who somehow reflects their reality, who exists in MY imaginal world, a place they can see they exist in. When you are decentered constantly, you want to exist, somewhere, without something Fucking Awful happening to you like a plot-contrived reason your girlfriend has to die. In reality, you do not maybe want to give your lesbian romance to your aunt who is a conservative Christian, or don’t talk to that friend anymore for one reason or another — but the idea of your character causing them emotional distress should upset you enough to be determined to do the best you can.
Your feelings, when writing a story containing someone who is decentered or marginalized, should evoke the anxiety of making a mixtape for your crush. You want them to know how you REALLY feel about them — and that feeling should be “you are wonderful and I am happy you exist”. If you want to include decentered people for any other reason– just stop. If you want to do it for money or because it’s a trend or ANY reason other than love of another SPECIFIC human, stop and write an autobiography. You should do things you think will make your specific, real, actual human reader happy; even if they NEVER READ THE STORY or you are telling a story they wouldn’t want to read anyway, you should treat your act of representation as compiling that mixtape you are going to give to your crush to show how much you like them and how well you know what they like to listen to.
If there isn’t a real actual human in your life past or present you would be anxious about reading your story and worry about causing feelings of hurt by what you wrote, you are not close enough to the subject to write it. Every act of representation should be an intentional gift to SOMEONE from that group — because if it isn’t, you will inevitably, by default, end up writing about your idea of what life is like for that group for readers Just Like You, with your prejudices, biases, and preconceived ideas about what that group is like. And you will be wrong, and we will be hurt, and sad, and wonder wtf happened.
This “WTF” isn’t a theoretical response and isn’t limited to things like Nazi romances or anti-heroes who belong to hate groups or books that misrepresent marginalized religions, or the current trend for murdering black lesbians on TV (though all those things contribute). It happens pretty much constantly, because the decentered subjects of a story are not considered the audience.
I won’t name the story or venue, but an author who does not ID in public as disabled wrote a story about losing a limb and acquiring prosthesis. A disability story! I thought. Until I read it. The dream prosthesis functioned perfectly, replicated a lost limb perfectly, caused no pain, and was acquired in a way without trauma. As a person with severe pain issues, that sounded like a fantasy I could only hope for. Instead, this was framed by this able author as a horrible, monstrous, terrible loss and an alien pathogen on their character’s body. Prosthesis as dehumanizing. Amputation as monstrosity. My stomach sunk. How had the editors let this side? Couldn’t they see how offensive it is? I have friends with prosthesis (and use assistive devices). A prosthetic limb that works exactly indistinguishable from a real one and causes no pain is a dream come true for an amputee. But this was a horror story. The horror of amputation– a disability that in no way altered the life of the main character– that centered people afraid of becoming disabled as the primary audience. This is an Issue Story gone horribly wrong — an actual amputee would have quite different feelings about such a prosthetic, which, at the time of writing, still exists only in dreams. The whole piece was about the horror of a perfectly functioning prosthesis — not about the frustrations of bad prosthesis, not about the difficulty of life with imperfect technology, not the traumatic events of the loss: simply the premise that prosthesis is horrifying and alien even if it is perfect. I felt sick for days and couldn’t stop thinking about this story for all the wrong reasons. Why hadn’t anyone else seen how offensive it is? Why didn’t the editor stop them? But none of the editors publicly identify as disabled, either, and clearly did not think how amputees would feel reading such a story about their bodily trauma that turned it into a dehumanizing and alien experience that made them less human and alien in the text.
To take another example, a famous magazine published a horror piece about Haitian Voudou that replicated basically every old stereotype about Voudou from the 1800s, including brutal, cruel Haitians and violent dangerous “gods” who were framed as monsters. How could such a prestigious magazine have accepted such a piece? The author admitted they had never been to Haiti, did not know any Voudou practitioners and had never met a Haitian person. I can only presume none of the other editors had either — or they would have been ashamed to have any part in a story a Vodouisant or Haitian might read. Jesus Christ Vampire Blood Sucker is clearly offensive, or Murder Buddha, and if you aim to offend, well, that’s one thing — but it was clear no one had intended to publish a controversial piece. If anyone had been thinking of Haitian readers at all, that story wouldn’t have existed, period.
When a decentered reader picks up a story that promises representation, we hope for a couple of things. We hope to exist in a way recognizable to us. We hope not to be disappointed by stereotyping. We hope to be fully realized people and not Issue Characters. Many of us hope for happy endings, or at least, not to suffer inexplicably more than the centered characters of the text (don’t believe me this happens? Watch a horror film sometime and see how many black people make it out alive with all their family. Watch any 2016 TV show with lesbians and watch them die like fruit flies in a vinegar trap, often in cruel and sadistic ways.)
If you love the idea of your story but you don’t have a specific ideal reader in mind, someone who twists your stomach into knots at the idea of reading it and hurting, maybe put that story on the shelf. Maybe bring it closer to home and see if you can change aspects of your decentered characters to reflect the people you ACTUALLY know. And always, always, ask yourself: is this a story that someone else should write, because they live through the things in it every day, and I’m just watching from the sidelines and guessing?
Speculative fiction is about the possible and what we can dream of. Trans astronauts and black dragon-riders and disabled knights can be written respectfully and thoughtfully by cis and non-black and abled people. But if you really want to avoid harm, if that is truly your goal, write them in there out of love for fellow humans. Take extra steps to make sure you aren’t hurting people like asking for (and paying) sensitivity readers. Your stories are a gift to the world, and representation is a gift to the communities you represent. That should make your stomach flutter a bit in a nervous way. You would go out of your way to give your best friend a present that reflects their actual tastes and wants and desires. You wouldn’t buy them a present your annoying racist auntie would like. Don’t write about us like you’re writing for Aunt Gertrude to avoid a holiday fight. Write FOR us, the readers you are choosing to represent. Or write something else for people like you, leave us out of it, and clear some space for us tell our own stories. Honestly, we’d like to spend more time writing than we do telling other writers why they’re hurting us.
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