Writing Excuses 13.32: How to Handle Weighty Topics
Key Points: How do you decide to tackle characters who are suffering from difficult things like racism, sexism, or people who are different from yourself in your fiction in an appropriate way? Start with who you are, your worldview, your writer voice, and be authentic. How do you handle it carefully? Start with “everyone knows what it’s like to bite into a piece of fruit,” and remember that we have more in common than not. Start with the things you have in common, don’t make your character just differences and marginalization. Start with empathy, and let the character teach you something. Be careful when writing about something you do not have a personal connection to, to avoid damage. Will getting it wrong damage people? Am I reiterating something learned from the media that already reinforces issues that the community has to deal with on a daily basis? Watch for the pressure points, where people are already bruised. See the other as people. Readers are not a monolith. Where do you draw the line between what is my story to write versus my need to write the other? Think about why you feel that you have to write this, what do you think you are doing with it? Remember that your life experience may be the exotic thing to your reader. Representing diversity does not always mean pain, marginalization, and trauma. Sometimes people just want characters who look like them and talk like them to have adventures and be the protagonist, going on the kinds of adventures and interesting things that we love in science fiction and fantasy.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 32.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to Handle Weighty Topics.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] [pause] Oh. And we’re not that smart.
[Maurice] Don’t mind me. Don’t mind me.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m laughing. I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] We are going to talk about dealing with very weighty topics.
[Amal] We are off to a great start.
[Brandon] We got off to a fantastic start.
[Mary] This is called nervous laughter. That’s what this is.
[Brandon] So I wanted to make sure we did a podcast about this this year when we’re talking about character because it’s going to come up in your writing, and you’re going to think about it, and we want to deal with, on the podcast, how and if you should and these sorts of things, tackle characters who are suffering from difficult things like racism or sexism or people who are very different from yourself suffering from prejudice or whatnot or even just kind of approaching someone very, very different from yourself in your fiction and doing it in an appropriate way. I wanted to actually pitch this at Maurice, first, because I know you’ve done weighty topics a lot in your stories. How do you make the decision to do this, and how do you approach it?
[Maurice] Well, part of it is just a function of who I am. Honestly, I mean, it’s part of my worldview, it’s part of what I consider my writer voice, so it’s a matter of… I don’t know, when I sit down to write something, it’s like what am I feeling at the time? Where is my heart space? Where is my head space at? Then I just sort of dive in from there, because that’s obviously what I’m thinking about, it’s obviously on my heart, and that’s the space I try to write from. That, I think, is what plays out as authentic to people when they read it. Well, there are two examples I have that’s actually not for my writing, that are two stories I read earlier this year that just stuck with me. One is up on tor.com. It’s by Kai Ashante Wilson. It’s called The Lamentation of Their Women. It is a powerful, absolutely raw story. It tackles racism, being marginalized, and police brutality. All in one novelette. It is kind of a tour de force of rage in a lot of ways. But it is one of those things where it’s like we’re now past writing, we’re actually… You can actually like see Kai’s heart at this point. I mean, it’s just all over the page. The second story is by Chesya Burke, and it’s called Say, She Toy. It’s a story that’s up on Apex Magazine. It’s about a robot that’s black. Basically, it’s an advanced black sex doll and the abuse that’s heaped upon this sex doll by its users. It’s just this… Almost like this monologue of this is what I am experiencing. Is this all to my existence? That sort of thing. It’s just… It’s a heavy story. Like I said, it’s tackled so brilliantly and Chesya has such a deft hand with this sort of writing. It’s like… We are… From the opening on… I can’t even tell you the opening line. It’s… You will know when you encounter this story, from the very first line of this story, and it hits you right in the face, and it grabs you right there. This is what we’re talking about. You’re going to go with me for this ride.
[Brandon] So, let me kind of expand on that and ask the why. This is for any of you. Or the how, I mean. What are these authors doing that is making these stories work? You say deft, words like that, and handled so carefully. What are they doing? What can our listeners learn from them?
[Amal] So what you were describing, Maurice, seems to be like… These are two instances of people… I mean, so Kai and Chesya are both black and they’re writing about experiences that are… Like the black people experience. But I think that when it comes to writing people who are different from you, I always, always think of something that Nalo Hopkinson said on a panel at ReaderCon a few years ago, which was that, “Yeah, people are different from each other, but most everyone knows what it’s like to bite into a piece of fruit.” From that example, and from that… She goes on to say, “Most people, we have more in common than we have not in common.” If you try to ground… At this point, I’m just extrapolating. I’m no longer paraphrasing what Nalo said. But if you are approaching writing a character who is different from you by focusing exclusively on the differences, it’s just going to happen let that character is not going to be fully rounded. That character is only going to be whatever marginalization you’ve given them. As opposed to if you try to ground your character in the things that you have in common, in the things that you can imagine, in the fact that, yeah, you both know how to bite into a piece of fruit, you both know what it’s like to have to wait for the bus, you both know what it’s like… All sorts of different things, and to maybe try to whenever you’re building a character and trying to get out their experiences, build out from the things that you feel you have in common. Then, from that point, think about how the differences inform those same experiences. I mean, if you’re at a bus stop and you’re white, you’re probably going to have a different experience than if you’re at a bus stop and you’re black and something… Some inciting incident based on race takes place all of a sudden, right? But you’re still… You can still know what it’s like to be tired and annoyed and frustrated and aggressed and all sorts of things like that. So it’s… I mean, writing is so entirely about empathy. I think that when you’re talking, Maurice, about the writing from your heart space, as well as your head space, and things like that, it sounds to me like what you’re saying is, you’re also writing from a place of empathy, you’re writing from a place of… I almost want to say love, honestly. Like, write from a place of love for these things that are different. If you approach writing a different character from a place of humility, as well, a recognition that… That you don’t know everything, and that you almost want a character to teach you something. This maybe sounds too facile and didactic, but that when you’re approaching a character with a background that differs from yours, approach that difference with humility and care as opposed to as a science project. I mean, sure, some people approach their science projects with humility and care, but… Look at my humanities background here.
[Amal] But just to have that care is so important, I think.
[Mary] One of the things that I’ll see people going wrong, and I say this as someone who has done this in my earlier writing, and I’m sure it’s something I will do again unwittingly, where there’s a topic that is current or something that I’m thinking about, but not necessarily I have a personal connection to, so I will want to write something that comments upon that. But it’s impossible for me to talk about it with the same… With any degree of nuance, because I haven’t experienced it. That’s not to say that, oh my goodness, you must experience everything. Because Lord knows, I’ve never experienced spaceflight, either. But… But when you’re dealing with a really weighty topic, one of the things that is going to happen is you will be expressing your opinion about it. If you’re not in the group that you are expressing opinion about, the chances of that opinion being damaging increases disproportionately. So when I am looking at something, about whether or not I should tackle something, the thing that I look at is not whether I’m going to get something wrong, but is whether or not getting it wrong will damage people. Like, getting something wrong about spaceflight, that’s not actually probably going to damage anyone. Getting something wrong about someone else’s lived experience, the chances of damage increase disproportionately, especially if it is a piece… If the wrongness that I am delivering is something that I have inherited from media that I have consumed that is already reinforcing issues that that community has to deal with on a daily basis.
[Amal] I completely agree. I think that maybe one way of thinking about that problem is that maybe when you’re approaching a new character, a character with a different background, be aware of the fact that you’re not writing in a vacuum. That as much as you feel like you’re alone with the page and with this character, part of the reason I think we called them weighty topics is because there is a disproportionate amount of pressure in the world surrounding these things. Like, I’m literally imagining the world as a body with pressure points, and the pressure points are these weighty topics. So if you touch very lightly even on one of those pressure points, the pain or the shock of it is going to be, as you say, disproportionate. Whereas on places where that pressure isn’t, it isn’t already there… I often talk about it as sometimes friends want me to see a movie that is popular, and I see the trailer and I’m like, “No, I’m good. I don’t want to see that movie.” They’re like, “But why? It’s so great.” I say, “Well, it… I’m pretty sure that it’s going to punch me where I’m already bruised.” It’s like that thing that there are a lot of people who walk around carrying a lot of bruises, and that even a light touch on a place where you’re bruised is going to really, really hurt. You want to try and recognize that.
[Brandon] So, this sounds to me a little bit… I think somebody could listen to this and say, “So you’re saying just don’t do it?”
[Brandon] So, what’s the difference between what you’re saying and just don’t do it?
[Amal] The flipside of this is… I’m going to recommend this really, really amazing article by Kamila Shamsie called The Storytellers of Empire. In it, she is doing a whole bunch of things. It’s a brilliant, brilliant essay. She starts out by talking about how… Her background is Pakistani, but she writes novels by like one image coming to her mind and she really… Like, the image kind of guides her into the book she’s going to write. The image that kind of burned itself onto her brain was about Hiroshima and how when the bomb went off, patterns from people’s kimonos were burned onto their skin. She suddenly got this really vivid image of someone with a kind of kimono pattern on their back and stuff. She wanted to write from that. So she dove into teaching herself about the history and the culture and everything, but in the rest of this article, what she points out is that for North America, for the West if you will, she has this amazing line that says, “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” It’s so, so striking. Like, it seems like she’s actually saying the flipside, she’s saying, “well, yeah, why aren’t you writing people who are different from you?” Whenever I see another horrible hot take on the idea of cultural appropriation, people are often saying things like, “Oh, cultural appropriation doesn’t exist because everyone is always appropriating, and also, we should try to understand each other.” Those are two different topics as well. What I want to say here is, yes, do the thing. But ask yourself a lot of questions, and recognize that the thing is hard. Recognize that there are pressure points, and that sometimes you are going to do damage, but that you should try to decrease that pressure. If there is pressure all over the world, then ask yourself how can you siphon some of that off? Because I do think, we all have a responsibility to be as empathic as possible with each other. So, not trying is not ever going to solve that problem, it’s just going to reduce the space in which you can operate. When instead, we want to try and expand that.
[Maurice] so, I actually felt like reading… Like, when I was writing Buffalo Soldier. That was my novella from Tor… tor.com. I was really nervous, because like the last half of the novel takes place in Native American territory. So I have Native American characters, I have reimagined Native American culture, the technology, their cityscapes, everything. It’s a complete reimagining. I was nervous. Because I did not want to get this wrong. In fact, actually, it kept me… Actually, that nervousness actually attributes a writer’s block in me, so I actually set the project down for I think like three months, because I was ahead… I was already picturing the social media backlash on me. So that alone kept me from writing. I was like, “Oh, man.” But then I had to like trust myself as a writer. Like, I’m doing the job of a writer, I’m being empathic and I’m doing my research and I’m being careful in what I’m doing. Then, I’m going to turn it over to a beta reader who’s Native American and go, “All right, if I got that wrong, let me know where and why and how.” Because my job is… I don’t want to add to that hurt. I want to… Well, I want to set the story here. So that’s what I ended up doing. I have a friend whose Lakotan. She agreed to read it for me and she gave it her blessing. Actually, she really liked what I did in terms of dialogue and the reimagining, because she was just like, “You see us as people.” That’s all I wanted. I was like, “I wanted to… That’s what I… That was my end goal.” I wanted to see them as people.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for a book of the week. That’s actually one of your books, Maurice? Tell us about The Voices of Martyrs.
[Maurice] So, The Voices of Martyrs is my short story collection. In a lot of ways, it mirrors my career. So there are stories set in the past, stories set in the present, stories set in the future. Basically, it is… It’s almost like a collection of weighty stories. But part of it is… I realized, you know what, as part of my writing process, I realized I am a black nerdy male. Unless I’m going to write all of my stories about being a black nerdy male, I’m going to have to write the other. But I even appro… Because of my background, coming from being born in London, my mother being Jamaican, and raised in a predominantly white culture in a lot of ways, I treat everything as me writing the other, even if it’s writing about other black people. That’s how I approach all of these stories. So even the stories set in the past. Like, the first story opens up in ancient Africa. But then we moved to stories of someone being in a slave ship, or on a plantation, or in the 20s, going through a boxer battling… Basically battling his own demons at this point. Then moving into stories of the present, with urban fantasy stories. But then ending with Afro future tales. So basically, I’m going from dealing with these sort of issues of culture identity and just hard history to a time of hope. Not… The past is there. The past is what it is. The present is where I am. Now, I get to dream about the future. That’s the way I approach all of that.
[Mary] So, one of the things that I was thinking about before we took the break, when you were talking about doing the history and getting beta readers, is… And I’ve talked about it on the podcast before, that I had a novel that I chose to pull because I, at the very end, I had a beta reader who had a very negative reaction to it. But you actually have read this book. One of the things that I remember when I was making the decision was… And coming back to you and saying I’m getting this reaction was that you said that you felt like you had done me a disservice because you hadn’t flagged things. So I think one of the things that I want readers to be… Or listeners to be aware of is that even when you try to do all of these things, you may still have a project that is fundamentally flawed.
[Maurice] That is a fear. So one of my mottos has always been, you know what, I will learn my lessons, and then fail better the next time. Because when I think about doing you a disservice, I was like, you know what, there was stuff that I flagged and stuff that I didn’t flag. I was like, “Ooo, I wonder…” It kind of goes like, “Is it my place to flag certain things?” That was actually what… It became a wrestling exercise on my end of things, too. Which is like I’m having different reactions. But I’m going to have certain reactions as a black male versus if you have passed a reader through a black female, for example. I’m going to have a certain set of biases, and there are certain things I’m not going to see, for example.
[Mary] Even within that, like I… One of… Because I had about 20 beta readers on that, and tried to get people that I didn’t know, to eliminate that… The sympathy aspect of it. One of them, when I went back and said I just wanted to let you know that I pulled the book because damage, she was upset because the book spoke to parts of her life. But her life experience was very different from the life experience of some of the other people who had read it. That’s one of the things… Recognizing that your readers are not a… Your readers are not a monolith anymore than characters are. Which is why I’ve begun using the metric of what is the damage. That’s… That is… It’s a tricky, tricky thing. Like, there’s… I don’t think that there is actually an amount of research that you can do to make a book that will be flawless and harm no one.
[Amal] This is a thing, too. It’s so difficult to control for what will harm or what will help people. I think about this a lot. Because partly, because I’m a critic as well. So, a lot of the time, the way that I have seen discussions in publishing shift as to whether or not a book should be published, a lot of the time, I look at that and go, “But surely there is a… There is room here, or there is a role, for discourse to play?” For people to actually have a public conversation about the elements of a book that are harmful or helpful in how. I… But… So my instinct is, I would rather, in the abstract, see books published and talk about them than not. At the same time though, to make a hypocrite of myself, I have read books or started to read books that were so terrible… Like so hateful in what they were portraying or so damaging in what they were portraying that if I could make a recommendation… like it’s not just a matter of panning it. Like there was one time that I read something that was early enough in its production that I made the publisher aware that this is like horrifically racist and maybe you weren’t aware of that, but I would like to make you aware. They actually did the work of consulting other people on that and deciding, “No, you know what, it is actually really, really awful, and we’ll just pull it.”
[Mary] I had that happen as well with a book that I blurbed. The author was like, “Oh. Ha. You’re right.” I actually didn’t blurb it, but they asked me to blurb it. I was like, “I can’t, because of these things.” The author… They actually told the author… They didn’t tell the author who, but the author went back and corrected things. Sorry, you were going to say something?
[Maurice] Oh, yeah. I was wondering like, what you were saying, Amal, where do you draw that line between what is my story to write versus my need to write the other?
[Amal] I guess that’s a really good question that gets to the core of it. Most… I mean… Here’s the thing, too, I think we’re covering a lot of ground and sometimes I’m wondering if our listeners, some of these things will sound so contradictory, but the reason they’ll sound contradictory is because this is really complicated territory, and there are so many different situations and so many different scenarios, and sometimes something is an exception, sometimes it’s a rule. Like, for me, personally, I can think of a lot of different controversies that happened around whether or not a book should be published, especially in the last few years. I’ve had different opinions on every one of them, given the context around them. Maybe not every one of them, but certainly on several of them, given the circumstances surrounding them. A lot of that will hinge on that question of why did you feel like you had to write this? What did you think you were doing with this? A lot of the time, when I see these things done… I’m going to pick an example which… I’m going to just name it, because I really, really hated this book. Which did get published, and it got published to great acclaim, which made me feel a lot less bad about how vocally I hate this book. It’s called Your Face in Mine by Jess Row. I mean, here I am, giving it publicity. It’s just… It’s basically… It’s a book that is tackling a premise which is… Feels weighty, feels like, okay, this is a complicated issue and will engage a lot of intense feelings and it’s because it’s got this core of racial reassignment surgery, basically. That you can just… You can change your race with surgery. It’s a very, very near future thing. But what pissed me off about it was that it was entirely… Entirely about a white middle-class man’s kind of complicated feelings of guilt about race and stuff. This was just a device… Just a device that wanted to demonstrate ultimately how much res… But there’s literally… There was a bibliography at the back demonstrating how much research this man had done on all of these things. But reading it, I just kept wanting to throw up. I just kept wanting to be like… I… This is… You’ve done so much work to so little purpose. Or to such a… Just a terrible purpose, a purpose that uses trans discourse to terrible ends, to ends of basically equating trans peoples’ difficulties and the things that they live with with something that is speculative and… Anyways, I’m sorry, I’m going to get on my… I should get off this soapbox. But the point is that all of this work was done, and I kept going, “But why did you do that? Why did you feel this burning need to write this book about… Like… Ultimately, to kind of exonerate your white guilt?” It just made me so angry when I read it that I resent it.
[Mary] There was something that I was talking with Mary Anne Mohanraj who was one of our guest hosts last year, and she said, “You know, Mary, I never see you write Southern characters.” It suddenly made me go, “Huh! You’re…” I mean, I do, sometimes. But I think that there is a thing that we do what we tend to assume that… That we… We always talk about how you will assume that your own life experience is normal. But I think that there’s a thing that white writers are particularly prone to which is that they will want to write the other because it is exotic, and that they will forget that to other people, their own experience is the exotic thing. So I actually think between that and something that Desiree Burch said on the podcast a couple of years ago, I actually feel like a lot of the things that people could do is simply be more specific about writing their own specific experience and writing about the topics that affect them specifically instead of wanting to go and play with someone else’s life because it is set dressing that seems new and exciting to them.
[Amal] That’s a really good point. I think, to come back to the question that Brandon was asking before about this sounds like you should just not do it, I found myself going, what is to stop you from writing a character that’s just in your books? Like, totally determined by your plot, your setting, and so on, but make them a different ethnicity or make them a different gender or make them… This is, I guess, you could call it the aliens version of doing… All right, so you’ve written a character as a dude, and now you just make that dude a woman. There’s criticism about this, about that kind of approach, but I think that one of the reasons that people react so strongly to the absence of diversity in books is that a lot of the time, people just want to see not their pain or their marginalization represented, but people who look like them and talk like them and experience the world like them getting to have adventures or getting to be the protagonist of a novel that isn’t about pain or getting… Because there’s a sort of ancillary thing to all of this, which is that one of the unfortunate results of these conversations when people don’t… Are too afraid to do the work of representing whoever is other to them, it falls on those people, those who are of underrepresented ethnicities, backgrounds, and groups, and so on, to only be able to tell the story of their pain, and to only… Like it’s to have their pain be the only currency they have in the marketplace of ideas. That really disturbs me. I could go on and on about. I won’t. But it just… That’s something that I would like to see lifted as a burden as well, to just be able to have characters of all different backgrounds going on the kinds of adventures and interesting things that we love in science fiction and fantasy.
[Mary] You don’t have to equate representation with…
[Brandon] All right. We could go on forever. This has been a 30 minute podcast already.
[Mary] Sorry, guys.
[Brandon] Amal, will you give us some homework?
[Amal] Yes. So this is… Basically, this is a little tricky. It’s maybe more of a sort of shift in perspective than it is about generating something new. Basically, if you’ve ever… This is more of a revision exercise. If you take something that you’ve written where you represented someone from a group that you are not part of, and write a scene in which a person of that group is reading the thing that you wrote. This kind of forces you to imagine the fact that someone of that background will probably encounter your work, and see where that takes you.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.