On Writing the Foreign – A Confession

On his FB feed recently, Steven Brust (a man whose writing I’ve enjoyed for over 30 years), expressed something that has troubled me for a few years now.

He wrote, “I keep seeing that white people shouldn’t tell the stories of black people, that men shouldn’t tell the stories of women, that straight people shouldn’t tell the stories of gay people. Yet, I never see the least hint of an objection to an academic with a six-figure income telling the story of a poor person or a toiler.”

Now, Brust has a very specific political philosophy, which is why he went down the path of affluent versus not-so-much, but I have been focused on the first part of his question, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember. When I started down the path of this whole writing career thing, it naturally manifested in my own fiction.

To couch this as almost a confession of sorts, I am a heterosexual Caucasian male of Italian-American descent raised in middle-class, mid-western suburbia. I have written short fiction that featured as the protagonist:

  • An alien, ex-government assassin
  • A clockwork gunslinger
  • An Asian chemist in Los Angeles who is a certified genius
  • An Italian mobster
  • A Russian pit fighter
  • A ghost seeking absolution for betrayal
  • A black, teenage girl who learns she is descended from a freed slave who operated an underwater railroad during the civil war
  • The Caucasian wife of a deceased slave owner who assists in the underwater railroad
  • A black teenage girl who swears to avenge the lynching of her father
  • A Caucasian school teacher who was raped by the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan back in 1925 (an actual, historical event)
  • A buffalo soldier in the old west who rides with a Caucasian gunslinger and who has special, paranormal abilities
  • A Hispanic prostitute in a 19th century mining town who seeks vengeance for the murder of her sisters

And these are only some of the voices in my head.

In the past six or seven years, there has been a marked increase from some quarters in the suggestion that people like me should never ever engage in fiction involving non-Caucasian heterosexual males. Indeed, I have read articles and posts that are particularly critical of those people who “presume” to write outside of their culture and, therefore, their experience base. The supposition is that they (we) couldn’t possibly understand what’s it’s really like to be black or female or whatever.

I’ll say to them, publicly and without shame, precisely what I posted on Brust’s thread: “I just don’t listen to those people. I write the stories that are inside me. Sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes I get it right. But the stories deserve the telling regardless of what other people think.”  I went on to say, “Let me add that I will always listen to an honest and informed critique of my work. After all, how can I get it right the next time, if I don’t. But nobody gets to tell me what I should and shouldn’t write.”

It’s a razor’s edge that I walk. I endeavor to be cognizant and respectful of everyone’s opinion, even and sometimes especially, if I disagree with them. I don’t always succeed in that either, but the intention and effort is there.

As a science fiction author, let me ask you, the reader, a question: How could anyone ever write from the perspective of an alien if we adopted the rather limited philosophy that we should only write within our cultural experiences or even those cultures we thoroughly researched?

The answer is that we couldn’t. And yet, I remember being moved by the plight of a mother horta in an old Star Trek episode. I recall movies like “Enemy Mine,” and episodes like “Darmok” and “Tin Man,” from STNG. And these are but a few examples. Speculative fiction for the past nearly two hundred years has embraced the notion of stepping outside ourselves and exploring the existence of others in hypothetical circumstances.

The truth is that, as a writer, I am often compelled, even driven by the desire to put my feet in the shoes of others and explore those circumstances. I read a great deal (at least I used to), and this gives me at least some idea of the conditions others live with. I have a diverse group of friends and associates, and through them I endeavor to learn the nuances of other cultures as well as the distinct travails individuals within those cultures encounter.

Could I ever possibly comprehend fully what life is like as a teenage black girl in the early 1900s?

No.

Is it worth the attempt to explore it and do my best to express it in my fiction?

Absolutely.

I write this not as an admonition of those who would call for me to silence my stories, but more of a request that they at least read what I have attempted to accomplish in my fiction. I’m an honest writer and a caring person who truly feels for those people who have suffered at the hands of others. I would caution anyone from demanding that anyone else silence their voice.

Having said that, I understand pretty well where the criticism comes from. The truth is that the voices of women and minorities have been silenced by white males (or males in general) for literally thousands of years. And this is why I am also an advocate of diversity in both writing and publication.

It is my sincere hope that editors, agents, convention owners, studios, directors, casting agents, and literally every gate-keeper in the whole of creative industry seek out properties that are representative of the whole of human experience and endeavor. There is beauty and value everywhere, if we all simply choose to seek it out and give it the light it deserves.

One more thing: if you are a writer and someone tells you to not write something because you are of a particular culture, heritage, race, gender, preference, ideology, or whatever, don’t listen. If the words are inside, let them out. I’m a proponent of the First Amendment as well, even when I disagree with what people are saying. It’s a rough stance to take in some cases, but it’s important that everyone’s voice be heard so that we, as a collection of sentient beings, can make our own decisions about good and evil, right and wrong, delight and suffering.

We are ghosts operating meat-wagons on an insignificant rock revolving and evolving around an insignificant star, and our growing comprehension of existence—in all its diversity—is about the only reason I can think of for us to keep doing it.

Keep writing.

 

~ Q

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