Writing Excuses 14.21: Writing The Other – Yes, You Can
Key points: Does #ownvoices mean you can’t write inclusive, representational, diverse fiction? No! Yes, you can write the other! Do the work to get it right, don’t be so afraid you don’t try. Resist the default, and represent the world we live in, with all the richness and complexity it has. Write the best character of that identity. Do the research, read books, talk to people, listen to feedback. Do your due diligence, your homework, and do a good job. Bad representation often looks like bad writing, with a character acting as stand-in for an entire culture or identity. People are more complex than that! Give your characters specificity. Read magazines aimed at that group. Talk to people. Read 100 books, fiction, nonfiction, children’s books. People don’t pitch fits about books they love, but… criticism happens. Don’t worry about taking up space by doing this, help lift the boat for everyone by promoting the great authors you find. Do your best, give it your best effort, and be ready to take your lumps.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 21.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. Writing The Other – Yes, You Can.
[Tempest] 15 minutes long.
[Dongwon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Dan] Awesome. We have been talking about Writing the Other a couple of times so far this year. There’s one question that we get a lot. I would go so far as to say the single most common question we get on this podcast whenever we talk about diversity or decolonized writing or any kind of writing the other at all, which is, “But I’m not from that thing. What about #ownvoices? I’m not allowed to do this.” Tempest, what do we do?
[Tempest] Well, first of all, like I wanted to talk about this in specific because, in addition to like that sort of general question, “Ah, what do I do?” But I also hear a lot of writers who come to me and they say, “I wrote a book and it has a character who is black and I’m white or is disabled and I’m abled or whatever. I took it to my editor, took it to my agent, and they said oh, you can’t do that, because #ownvoices, like, you just can’t.” I’m like, “Uh, that’s incorrect, oh, I’m so sorry.” Because then they come to me and they’re like, “Well, what do I do, because I want to write inclusive fiction, I want to write representational and diverse fiction, but my agent or my editor or a potential agent or a potential editor is saying I can’t?” So, I was just like, no, I don’t want people to think that this is a problem. Because I understand some of the impetus behind it, because yes, #ownvoices fiction is very important. But at the same time, I don’t just want people to only write characters who are like them. I teach classes on Writing the Other, I’m very invested in the idea that you can. But I also want to talk through like some of the reasons why agents or editors might say this, and some of the things that you can come back to them with. Dongwon is here because I really wanted to ask him, like, “Do you know why… Have you heard this said, and do you know why it is that editors and agents might say this to an author?”
[Dongwon] I have a strong sense of why agents and editors are saying this, or why there’s a perception that people will say this. I suspect it’s happening less than it sounds like it is. Or people are misinterpreting what is being said in some ways. That said, one of the things we really need to do to fix this in the long term is get more diversity, more representation of different cultures, inside publishing houses, so that people who are actually informed about how this conversation should go are in decision-making positions. Right now, what’s happening is you have two people who may not know the situation talking to each other and trying to figure out how to get it right. Right? So if you have a white editor and a white agent and a white author, all trying to figure out how do we publish this book with a black protagonist, it increases the odds of getting it wrong. I think the fear can kind of magnify as they are in that conversation. One thing I want to say is a lot of this is coming from fear, right? Is coming from fear that you’re going to get in trouble, you’re going to get yelled at, your book’s going to get canceled, whatever it is. I think there is some value to that. I think the fear can be a good thing in some ways. Because it means you’re going to put the extra work in to get it right. That said, I don’t want you to be so afraid that you don’t even try. Because the thing that we really need to resist is the power of the default. The default is this idea that if you are not writing characters who are from other cultures or have other marginalizations like disability or queerness or whatever it is, then we’re not going to get that inclusive fiction that we all want and deserve. So what we need to do is resist the default, and the only way to do that is by representing the world that we live in, which often has people coming from all kinds of cultures, all kinds of marginalizations, that are intersectional and rich and complex.
[Tempest] Definitely. So, the biggest thing is, the first step you always have to do is just make sure you have done your due diligence in making sure that you have like written the best character of that identity, whatever they are. That means ensuring that you have done the research, that you have read the books, like the Writing the Other book or any other book, or any essay or whatnot, about like writing people from that culture. After you’ve done that and after you’ve finished your draft, making sure that people from that culture have read it. Have given you feedback on it. All the steps. Then, once you have done that, that’s sort of like your foundation, your base. Then when you give that book to an agent, when you give that book to an editor, and you can say to them, “Hey. So I did this amount of work. I made sure that, like, I took this class, I read this book to get this right, to learn how to get this right. I talked to these people.” Maybe you want to ask them, like, “Do you know a sensitivity reader that we could hire?” But just making sure that you can alleviate some of that fear. Because a lot of the fear, yes, comes from the fact that there have been many high-profile cases recently of a book’s coming out, and the representation is really not on point, and everybody on the Internet is yelling. But the other fear that actually authors have is that somebody’s going to yell at them for writing a character outside of their identity, and it’s just because they wrote a character outside of their identity. Which is actually not what happens. What happens isn’t just that, like, “Oh, you’re a white author and you wrote a character who’s black. You shouldn’t be doing that. #ownvoices, #ownvoices!” It’s that you did a bad job of it. That’s when people start to get angry, when an author does a bad job of it, and they then don’t apologize and it’s clear that they didn’t do the work, they didn’t do their due diligence. So, you have to do all that first, because then you can sometimes alleviate the fears that agents may have or editors may have.
[Dan] Doing that diligence is so great, it is such a great feeling. I’m in the process right now of trying to sell a book that I’ve written where the main character is a foster child. That is not something I have any personal experience with. So I went out, I talked to foster kids, I talked to foster parents, I interviewed half the Utah care system for… The people who work with them. I made sure that I was doing this. Over this draft, I kept weeding out all of the clichés and all of the problems. Now that I’m taking this around and people are asking, I am able to say, “Well, actually, I have done this. I’ve done my homework. I’ve looked at this and I’ve looked at all this.” It helps you to feel better about yourself. But it also, it made my book so much better to do that homework.
[Dongwon] The thing that I often find is when you have bad representation, it’s often indistinguishable, for me, from bad writing. Right? Like, the way that comes into play so often is when writing those characters, they’re acting as a stand-in for the entire culture, the entire identity, in some way. This is not how people operate, right? I’m the child of Korean immigrants. But… Being a Korean American is a really important part of my identity, but it’s certainly not the only vector on which I operate. I have a complex relationship with that. The way you can get around this issue is by writing specificity into your character. Making sure that you’re not writing a black character or a Latinx character or a queer character, but instead, you’re writing a specific person, who comes from a place in a city in a neighborhood, and from a family that has a history, and all those things. If you invest it with all the detail that you would give… Hopefully, any good character that you’re writing. That can really help make sure that you’re not going to have the kind of generic stand-in that is then very easy to say, “Well, you’re saying that all black people are like this, or all Asian people are like this.” So you really want to make sure not only that you’ve done your homework, but that you then remember to apply it to writing a character that is nuanced and intersectional and really well-developed and has a rich, complex interior life.
[Dan] Which is something you’re going to want to do regardless.
[Tempest] Yeah. Exactly.
[Dan] Tempest, what is our book of the week?
[Tempest] The book of the week is My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier. The reason why this book is so relevant to this conversation is because Justine has infused this book with so many different types of people who are like main characters and secondary characters. I was like… I loved her books ever since she started writing novels. But this one, I was particularly impressed with because of this reason. The book centers on a young boy named Che who… He’s actually 17. His sister, who is 10, is a psychopath. He has been trying to protect the world from his sister, and also his sister from the world for most of her life. But things come to a boiling point when their family moves to New York City. So, because their family has moved to New York City, there is now, like, the whole of New York City in front of them. New York City is a place that is full of people who come from all different kinds of identities. So we have the girl that Che falls in love with, and her roommate, and then the family that is friends with his parents, like, they have kids. Then the oldest daughter, her friend group. There are just all these people, all these different identities, and all handled really well. They’re all identities that are not the identities of Justine, wrote the book. But because she is a person who, again, she does due diligence and she also, she has lived in New York City, she understands how the diversity works there. She brings that to her books always, and I just really loved this one, so I definitely suggest reading My Sister Rosa.
[Dan] My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier.
[Dongwon] I really love that you chose this book. In part, because I think part of the problem with this conversation is we don’t talk about the times where this goes well, right? The things that we talk about are where this goes badly, and everyone on Twitter is screaming.
[Dongwon] There’s a little bit of schadenfreude fun to that, but it can also be very unpleasant. Then, we have #ownvoices, right? #ownvoices is a hashtag that is a really wonderful celebration that is a really wonderful celebration of people who are writing their own stories and their own identities. That is very powerful, and we should continue to celebrate that. Lord knows, I’m not saying take away from that. But, at the same time, it’s also really great when you see this done really well. Justine is a great example and it’s something she’s been doing for a lot of her career, is writing people who are outside of her identity and doing a really good job on it. I think a lot about The Expanse, which is a thing that I was lucky enough to have worked on that has a lot of characters derived from Earth cultures that are not the cultures of the guys who wrote that book, who are both extremely white. They’ve given us some of the best women of color that we have in science fiction, but also on TV. Christjen Avasarela is a character that I adore. Getting to see this character on television and representing her culture and dressed in a beautiful sari and all these things is something that is, I think, really powerful and really wonderful that these guys have been able to bring to the table.
[Tempest] Thinking about like the kinds of homework that you can do, obviously reading as much about a culture as you can. If you’re writing something that’s set in contemporary times, one of the best ways to sort of like start your research about that culture is to read magazines that are intended for people from that group, and get as specific as you can. Like, you’re like, “I want to write a black character.” Okay, wait a minute. Is it a black woman? Is it a black man? What age are they? Are they from the Midwest, or are they from California? Because, like, all of that is going to produce a very different person, right? So, this is also the same with magazines. Magazines are sometimes laser focused on like one aspect of one kind of people, right? But this is also why they can be really good sources of like foundational research. Talking to people, which we have mentioned many times.
[Tempest] Just, like, having conversations with people from that group and asking them about some of the specific aspects of their culture in order to help you create a specific person. One piece of advice that I love. This came from an article. It’s, like, you have to read a hundred books, if you’re going to write a character from a culture. A hundred books seems like a lot of books. It seems like a very… A monumental task, but these books can be nonfiction books, as well as novels. Even children’s books count, because sometimes, when you’re like trying to dip your toe into an identity or a culture, it helps to get down to that level of “Okay, like what do kids who are this identity read?” I should read what they read because they are learning about their culture from these children’s books, or they should. So, yeah, reading all the books is a great way. But, essentially, you just want to be able to come to anybody who has said to you, like, “I don’t know if you should because #ownvoices,” and say, “Well, actually…” Well, they’ll say, “Well, actually.”
[Tempest] Say, “I have done this research, I have done this work. I have made sure that I have done the best that I can. I am also willing to have a sensitivity reader and learn from them.” That’s the other thing, is that if you are projecting to your potential agent or a potential editor that you are willing to do more work to get it right, that’s probably going to make them less fearful. Because they’re going to say, “Okay, like, I’m not going to like have to fight this author to make this book right if I want to buy it.”
[Dan] I want to get back to something that Dongwon was talking about earlier. Just good characterization. Since so much of this is driven by fear, when you think about it, no one is going to pitch a huge fit about a really wonderful book that everyone loves. People are going to love that kind of thing. If we look and we see our own culture represented really well, then it doesn’t matter who it came from, we’re still going to love it. So we don’t need to be as afraid of that kind of thing.
[Dongwon] Well, I also want to point out criticism is going to happen, right? I don’t care what you’re writing about, I don’t care if you’re writing about only white characters, white cis het characters, or what it is, somebody’s going to come for you. You’re going to get a one star review. Sometimes a review is “I ordered a toaster and I got this book instead,” right? I mean…
[Dongwon] But the thing is, there’s no protection from criticism, right? I recognize that when that criticism says you wrote my culture badly or you got this wrong or I think you’re racist, or whatever it is, that’s incredibly hurtful, right? But there’s a wide range of criticism out there, there’s a wide range of sort of receptions. I think a lot about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, and I’m probably going to get in trouble here talking about this. But, for me, that character had a Korean American character as a love interest, and… He’s hapa, he’s half Korean, half white, and it was the first time I’d really seen that on the page. That book meant a lot to me, to see that. All of my Asian American friends are currently screaming into their telephones while they listen to this about a lot of people think that was a really bad representation. A lot of people have a lot of problems with how Park was represented in that book. It’s been a long time since I read it. I should probably go back and check and see if I still have issues with it, or if I have new issues with it. But it’s… The book is beloved. There are ways in which she got it wrong, and there are ways in which she got it right. Ultimately, what I’m going to say is, I think that that’s okay. Right? I think it’s okay that many of my friends and my peers have problems with that book, and I think it’s okay that a lot of people love that book. The thing that I would love to have is more nuance in this conversation going forward. At the same time that we should also be ready to call out things that are actively harmful and hurtful. It’s a difficult part of the conversation, but it’s an important part.
[Tempest] One last thing is, sort of the end of this worry that a lot of authors have when they come to me and talk about this is, “Am I taking up space by doing this, then?” Sometimes you are, and that’s actually a good question to ask yourself, like, are you actually taking up space that’s for somebody else? But at the same time, there are things that you can do as an author to make sure that it’s not just you who is putting out the representation from this group. Like, as you are doing your reading, your researching, and asking people, you’re going to come across other authors who are from that identity that you’re trying to represent, right? So then it is on you to say, “Hey, everybody, have you heard about this wonderful author? Like, I’ve just read this great book. I read it for research, or I read it because I loved it. Do you know about this? You should read it.” If you have people who you know who are writers who are from that identity, introduce them to your agent, introduce them to your editor. Make sure that like other folks on twitter no. Like if they’re participating in [pit…] be sure to retweet so that more people see their thing. Just constantly do that, constantly make sure that you are lifting up the voices of the people that you are trying to represent. Because then, that hopefully raises the boat for everybody. So then, it’s not as if you’re taking up the only space, because now more people know about this author or this issue or whatever. So you can use your privilege to help people who don’t have as much privilege to be able to come into this space more. Like, it’s never just a we can only have this many things. Like, right now, if we only have this many things, you can expand the number of things that we can have with your voice. So always make that part of your process, too.
[Dongwon] I think Rick Riordan is like the gold standard here, right? He took the Percy Jackson series, and not only Trojan horse having a white character as the protagonist, and then brought in all these other cultures, all these other perspectives, but he’s now putting his time and energy into launching the Rick Riordan Presents in print to really celebrate stories from other cultures and writers from other cultures. And doing it… He’s using his power and privilege to make sure he’s lifting the voices of other people, and not just profiting off of their experiences and their stories. It’s a really beautiful thing to see. I’m very happy to see that this is where the industry is headed.
[Dan] That’s great. So, we’re going to talk about homework. I want to make clear one thing. When we talk about doing your due diligence, doing your homework, before doing this. All of the homework you do, all of the sensitivity readers that you hire, is not the magical rubberstamp of immunity…
[Dan] To complaint.
[Dan] So I don’t want people to come back to us and say, “Hey, I did everything and people still yelled at me and now I’m mad at you.” You gotta be ready to take your lumps. But we do want you to try. We do want you to do your best. Give it your best effort.
[Dan] So, in light of that, Tempest, what is our homework today?
[Tempest] The homework is to make a list of the things that you did or are going to do to ensure that you have done that due diligence. So, I will always say, when people come to me and are like, “Oh, can I write…?” Yes. Yes you can. Read the book Writing the Other. I’ll never stop saying this in my life…
[Tempest] Read the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Go to writingtheother.com where there are, like, other free resources for doing this. If you, like, still feel like, “Oh, I need stuff,” like, you could take a class, whatever. But make sure that you have the foundation, the knowledge, going forward to be like, “Okay, these are the things I need to do.” Then do those things. Like, make a list of the kind of stuff that you have read, the kind of research you have done, and the people that you’ve talked to. If you want to go ahead and go so far as to get a sensitivity reader before you actually present the project to the agent, to the editor, whatever, do that. Then, make sure they know. So it’s like have that list and have that ready for when somebody, whether it’s the agent, the editor, or even somebody else says, “But, you’re not this type of person.” It’s like, “No. I’m not. But these are the things that I did to be sure that, like, I did the best that I could to represent this person in a way that is true to, like, who this person is and their identity.” It’s not going to be 100%, and that’s okay. But what you gotta do is just make sure that everybody knows, I didn’t just sort of show up on Monday, and I was like, “I did this.”
[Dan] That’s great. Dongwon described this earlier as your homework is to show that you’ve done your homework. So that’s what it is. Preparing this list in advance is also going to help make sure that your homework is right.
[Dan] You might get halfway through this process and realize, “Oh, you know what. This argument’s really super weak, isn’t it?”
[Dan] “I haven’t done enough. I need to do more.” So, anyway, this is wonderful. We really hope that you feel inspired by this episode, rather than afraid. We want you to try new things. We want you to represent more people and write outside of your own experience. It takes work, but it’s worth it. So. This is Writing Excuses, you are out of excuses, now go write.