Writing Excuses 15.12: Writing the Other – Being an Ally
Key points: What demonstrates being a good ally? Don’t just promote your book, but also boost the work of others. Make them the center of the conversation. Build a relationship with a whole person, not just the identity. What’s an ally? Someone who will ride or die for you on your terms. Empathy writ large. Think raid group makeups, the tank, the person who makes safe spaces for others, lots of different roles. Beware Leeroy Jenkins! What about the ally who overshot and missed the mark? People who step up and speak for me, taking away my agency. You don’t get cookies, credit, a prize for being an ally. When was someone a good ally without blocking your voice? White people shaming a woman who used the N-word in karaoke rapping. The support of a micro-community when you need it. People in a large conference who smiled, made room, and invited participation. When writing the other, listen to your sensitivity readers, and do no harm. If you can’t write the other, maybe you can challenge inequity, and the systems that create it. Be aware that there are lots of different marginalizations, and lots of different kinds of ally-ship needed.
[transcriptionist note: I may have confused Piper, Tempest, and Erin in the transcript. I have very little hearing in the high tones, which makes it easy to confuse female voices. My apologies for any mistaken attribution.]
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 12.
[Piper] This is Writing Excuses, Writing the Other – Being an Ally.
[Tempest] 15 minutes long.
[Dongwon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Erin] And we’re not that smart.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Piper] We’ve been joined by our special guest, Erin Roberts. Erin, could you please give us some background on yourself?
[Erin] Sure. I’m a black speculative fiction writer. I mostly write short fiction. I do a little bit of fantasy, a little bit of science fiction, a little horror. I think the thing that I’m proudest of in my career so far is that my story, Sour Milk Girls, was in both The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror.
[Erin] So [garbled – we’ll have to get] around that.
[Piper] Yeah. All right. So I’m excited because I love these takeovers. Particularly this topic is about being an ally. So I’m going to kick it off and ask all of you, what are some things that people have done that you view as having demonstrated that they are good, positive allies?
[Tempest] Well, around this topic in particular, the writing the other, being an ally, one of the most important things that I have seen is when people who are… Say they’ve written a book, in which there’s marginalized characters that are not that writer’s identity, they not only talk about their book in the promotion of it, but they also say, like, “I have read so much great fiction by people who actually do come from this identity. These are the people that I went to.” Or “These are the books that I read for research.” As many people would tell you, one of the most important things for writers is to have people like boosting your work, right? Like, to have people saying, “Yay, I love this,” and just like letting their audience know. So, if you’re, just for example, say a white person who is writing a book in which you have a black protagonist, you’re going to have a whole bunch of people looking upon you, all of a sudden, on your twitter or whatever, and for you to then boost up black authors writing black protagonists is a really good thing to do.
[Dongwon] Yeah, I think being a good ally is so much about centering the voices that you’re trying to support, right? The mistake that I see so often, not to talk about the negative sides of this too much, but the mistake I see is that somebody’s trying to be an ally, and what they’re doing is, “Hey, look at me, I’m doing a great job at promoting this other person.” But if you’re doing that, then you’re really talking about yourself. It really is about taking the other person and making sure the spotlight is on them, they’re the center of the conversation. Not to flatter our group too much, but I think the Writing Excuses group is doing a great job. They put the four of us on this podcast to talk about these issues. They’re not looking for us to give them accolades, even though that’s what I’m doing right now. It’s really about promoting voices from people who come from other communities, who can speak on the topics that they want us to speak on.
[Erin] I also think that what’s… What I really love is when people care about you beyond how you can inform their story. So something that you sometimes see is somebody will come up to you and say, “Well, I am writing this book with a black protagonist. Tell me about the black things.” You’re like, “Okay. That’s lovely.” But I like if that person has a relationship with you, that somebody cares about the parts of you that don’t just inform your identity, but you as a whole person. Because identity is just a part of who you are. It shapes who you are, but isn’t all of who you are.
[Piper] Awesome. I guess this may be a little belated, but for people who might be unfamiliar with the topic or the point of discussion, what’s your quick, clearest pitch or definition for what is an ally? If someone were to just come up and ask you, “No, really, what’s an ally?”
[Tempest] Well, an ally is a person who not only wants to… Who not only likes says, “I really want to support you and make it so that like the spaces that you come into and the communities that I belong to are safe for you or safer for you,” but actually like does that work, and actually is, like… I get in our communities, say, will you ride or die for me? Like, allies will ride or die for you, but they will ride or die for you on your terms. Not on their terms, but they’re like, “What do you need? Do you need me to step forward or to step back? Do you need me to be the loud voice talking about these things or do you just need me to be the quiet voice stepping up and going yes.” Because it’s going to change, it’s going to be different, depending on the situation. But allies, real allies, always look for their cues from the people they’re being allies to.
[Erin] Yeah. I always believe that empathy is at the core of ally-ship. It’s empathy writ large. So, looking to the other person, and how they’re feeling and what they want from you and realizing the power that you have, the power that they do or don’t, and then, trying to do what’s best for the other person. I think sometimes where ally-ship can go a little bit awry is when you make it about yourself and your reaction. I want to show I’m a good person by being an ally as opposed to I want to make the person I’m allying with their life better or make the situation better for them.
[Dongwon] I think about it sometimes in terms of like online gaming, like raid group makeups, right, like…
[Dongwon] Sometimes you need an ally who’s the tank, right? They’re going to draw [agro?] from whatever’s happening out there. They’re going to get in front of the issue and say, “Hey, pay attention to me right now.” So that other people have time to figure out how they want to respond and what they want to do. Especially in a dangerous situation, or in an online dog pile kind of situation, right? Then there’s other people who are out there trying to make safe space for people. Make sure that there is a place to have a conversation, a place to sit and recharge, a place to kind of do the work behind the scenes that needs to be done sometimes to sort of figure out, okay, how are we going to move this conversation forward, how are we going to make improvements in the communities that we’re part of, right? So there’s lots of different roles that allies can play out there, and thinking about how you get into it, what kind of skill sets you have, and what kind of presence you have can be a really great way to figure out how to be a great ally, and how to support the communities and the marginalized identities that you’re trying to work with.
[Piper] So I guess one of the things is that occasionally someone who really wants to be an ally pulls a Leeroy Jenkins…
[Piper] And all of us are just standing there like, “Don’t…”
[Dongwon] But come back… Oh boy.
[Tempest] For those of you who aren’t aware of this… I wasn’t aware until like criminally recently, this is a reference to a video of like a group of people, like, they’re getting ready to go raid something, and then one guy just breaks off, and he’s like, “Leeroy Jenkins!” He runs into the fray. They’re all like, “No! We have a plan…”
[Piper] They all had to go in after him and they all died.
[Tempest] They all perished.
[Dongwon] Somebody add…
[Piper] A quick line on fried chicken. But anyway. So, in any case, yeah. Say Leeroy Jenkins as you…
[Tempest] Let’s be real.
[Piper] What’s one of the most… The experience that stands out most in your mind of someone who tried to be an ally and just overshot? Missed the mark? Anybody?
[Dongwon] So there was this event that was for people of color in publishing. It wasn’t officially with the group, POC In Publishing, but it was an event that was intended for POC in a certain community to come together and sort of celebrate and talk about the issues that we’re facing and an ally decided to take the mic and talk about what a great job that they had done to support everybody while… And were literally taking upstage time and presence away from the actual POC in the room who might have had something to say. That was a frustrating moment.
[Tempest] Yeah. I would say, for me, I’ve had quite a few instances where someone tried to demonstrate being an ally by stepping up and speaking for me. I have to say, one of the things that I really appreciate about my partner, about some friends who’ve known me for a long time is I don’t need help being loud. But I am usually the tank that needs to heal. Right? So having someone stand at my shoulder and give me agency has often been what I prefer personally. So, the times when it’s missed the mark for me is when someone literally has stepped in front of me to say words that would not necessarily have come out of me and took away my agency for how to handle the situation.
[Dongwon] To generalize a little bit, the place I see that most… We kind of hit this note a couple of times, but when I see that happening in a variety of circumstances, it’s usually because an ally is saying, “I want credit for what I did.” But there’s no cookies for being a good ally. You don’t get a prize at the end. The prize is you do the work, because the work needs to be done. It’s important, and it’s hard, and it’s uncomfortable, but no one’s going to say, “Good job,” and give you a trophy at the end of it, right? So if that’s why you’re doing it, I need you to sit back and reconsider. What is my role in this community? How is that being an ally to somebody, if I’m trying to get a benefit out of it? Right?
[Dongwon] Those are things I need people to think about as they’re approaching these communities and as they’re trying to be helpful. But sometimes somebody trying to help, as we’re kind of hinting at here, can do more harm than good.
[Piper] I’m going to pause us for the book of the week. I think, Dongwon, you have that.
[Dongwon] I do have that, yes. Thank you for reminding me that I have that. The book I want to talk about is Paul Krueger’s Steel Crow Saga. It is a secondary world fantasy that takes a lot from East Asian cultures. It has sort of analogues for a bunch of Southeast Asian and East Asian cultures. It takes place in the aftermath of a period of colonization and empire, where three of the nations have come together to throw off the fourth imperial power. So, it takes… It follows four characters, one from each of the different countries, who are all trying to figure out what to do in the aftermath of this big war. How do you make peace? How do you rebuild a world that’s more equitable? How do you keep other powers from swallowing your country when maybe your country is smaller and has less military might than some of the others. Just because you won the war doesn’t mean peace is easy to achieve and that people’s desire for empire and control and power stop. This is also a book that I talk about as postcolonial Pokémon. So it’s got a great magic system, there’s lots of anime nonsense. If you like Fullmetal Alchemist, if you like those kinds of things, you’re going to love this book.
[Piper] Awesome. All right, so I’m going to slightly switch gears for us in the fact that I’m going to ask for real experiences again, or memories that stand out to you, but instead, I’m going to ask for an example of a moment when someone steps to your side and really was an ally without blocking your own voice. Thoughts?
[Erin] I have an example that has nothing to do with writing whatsoever, but it was a very sort of real moment for me. So, I am a big karaoke enthusiast, as my friends and family all know. One of the issues that you sometimes have an karaoke is that you’ll have a white person go up to the stage, they’ll sing a rap song, the N-word comes up, and they decide that this is the moment to say it out loud. It’s not, for the record, ever. So, I was at a karaoke bar and that happened. I was in a bar where I think I was like one of the only black people there. All of the white people in the room when the woman did it like gasped and like sham… They like sent shame stares at her. The woman stopped doing it. I loved it because this is something that really bothers me, but it has nothing to do with their lives. But their like visceral reaction really made me feel like, “Okay. Other people care about the things that are part of my identity experience, even though it’s not part of their’s.”
[Tempest] Yeah, I… I’ve been talking a lot recently about the value of community, and the value of, like, small, teeny-tiny communities as well as big ones, and just, like, encouraging especially my artist friends, and like artists include writers, to not only like find their place in large communities but their fun micro communities, groups of like five, six people maybe, that you can have like a group chat with, whether… Whatever you use to have group chats. So that you can get the support you need without necessarily having to expose all of your stuff to everybody in the group, and everybody in the group is just like, “We don’t know how to help.” But, like, you expose some sensitive stuff to like five really close friends, it’s a different experience. So I have… I’m very lucky to have a lot of these little micro communities, micro groups. That is where I find most of the expressions of awesome ally-ship. Because I will come in and I will be like, “Oh, my God, this is happening.” Or, “Did you see?” Or, “Let me tell you…” The best thing that they can do is they can just say like, “What is it you need me to do?” I’m like, “I just need you to sit here and just listen to me go off about those white people over there who did that thing that made me sad, right?” They’re like, “Cool.” Then they do. Or, I’m like, “I really need you to like boost this thing that’s going on on Twitter.” And like…
Or very publicly be like, “Shut up, people. Like, Tempest is awesome.” Or whatever it is. They’re like, “Okay. I can do that.” I do that for them, too. Not all the people in these group chats are necessarily people who are outside of my identity group. Like, some of them are and some of them aren’t. But, like, regardless of what they are, what I am, what the situation is, these are people that have my back. I just think it’s really important to have people that have your back, in general. But then, like, that is where sometimes some people begin to understand what good ally-ship is. You don’t necessarily have to have a close relationship with a person to be able to do that. To ask those questions, to be like, “Is there anything that you need me to do, like, what do you need me to do in this moment to be a good ally?” Sometimes, it’s to run out on Twitter and start like yelling. Or sometimes it’s just to listen. But, yeah, like that’s the biggest thing with ally-ship is that you have to learn how to listen to what people need you to do and need you to not do.
[Piper] I can say I attend a lot of different conferences, both having to do with writing and the writing sphere and also having to do with my day job and my career in a corporate world. Especially, in my corporate position, I am often the only Asian American in the room. Sometimes it’s really hard to walk into a really big place. For example, before I came to the Writing Excuses Cruise and Retreat 2019, I was at a summit of 1700 people. Often times, I was one of maybe two or three Asian American people in the room of 1700. One of the biggest things that really helped me be able to walk in and be confident and be a part of everything was the fact that a couple of my colleagues recognized me with a smile, made room for me at a table, were like, “Hey, we’re going out.” Acknowledged me, acknowledged my existence. Even if you don’t know someone, the openness and welcome you can give by giving them a smile and seeing them… Or, if they’re sitting by themselves, saying, “Hey. Are you eating alone? Do you want to be alone, or would you like to join us?” Just being open to that, and not being upset if your kindness is not taken well. Because they could be under stress. But just having it there, leaving it out there, and then stepping back, is an amazingly valuable thing in any kind of conferencing situation, any kind of public situation. I would say those are some of my best memories.
[Erin] Yeah. Another thing, specific to writing the other, one way that one can be a good ally is to do all the things that we have said on this podcast, I have said in other places, etc. That… To make sure that you’re going to your sensitivity readers and listening to your sensitivity readers when it comes to the stuff that you’re writing. To make sure that, like, the stuff that you’re going to be putting out isn’t going to be doing harm to the community. Do no harm is sort of like the philosophy that I try to instill in people with this. That is like one of the best ways to be a good ally as a person who is like trying to write other identities, is to make sure you listen to the people from those groups that you are trying to represent when they say, “This is harmful, let’s change it.”
[Tempest] Yeah. Don’t just look for permission. Oh, I’m sorry.
[Piper] No, that’s okay. I also really think that a lot of times… I think diversity is very important, but I also think equity is really important, and that in writing… So you don’t necessarily… It’s always good to have a diverse cast, but also, thinking about the systems that have created inequity and challenging those in your writing I think is also a great way to be an ally. Maybe you’re not at a point where you’re like, “I can actually successfully write the other.” Like, “I tried it. It was a bad idea.” Like, “I’m not there in my craft.” But maybe I can challenge the way that justice works in my system. Maybe I can challenge the way that’s sort of racial essentialism works in my world. By doing that, you put new ideas out into the world that I think also help to promote equity and change the way that we think about the world.
[Tempest] Yeah. One of the best examples of this that I’ve seen, and I’m pretty sure that we’ve talked about this on the podcast before is Justine Larbalestier. She’s a YA writer, and the first several novels that she wrote, she always had a protagonist who was mixed race, POC in some way, they were all different. She did that at first, just with her first book, she just did it because that’s what fit the character. Then she realized, like, how important it was for kids to be able to see themselves more. So she’s like, “Oh, okay. It’s cool. Now I’ll just make this happen.” But then, at some point, she realized that actually, because she was doing this, then the publishers are like, “We already have a book with a black protagonist, we don’t need to buy one from a black person.” She’s like, “Wait. Oh, no. That is not what I wanted. That’s not why I was doing this.” So then she shifted, and she decided that like in any book that she wrote where she had one protagonist, like one POV character, that that protagonist would be white. But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t going to include people of color and people of other marginalized identities in the work. It’s just that they wouldn’t be the protagonist. Because the protagonist is the one that like publishers tend to focus on, people tend to focus on. Right? But she did that so that she could… That was her way of being a good ally, it was her way of making a space, and saying, “I am no longer going to be the one taking up this space. They can’t use me as an excuse not to buy your book.”
[Dongwon] One thing I want to point out is we’ve been talking about a lot of sort of POC oriented issues. We’re talking about race and those kinds of elements, but there’s a lot of different kinds of ally-ship out there, right? Disability, queer, there’s a lot of marginalizations that people experience, and even within POC communities, there can be a lot of tension between different racial groups, right? So, one thing is just because you’re marginalized in one way… This kind of plays into the conversation about intersectionality… You have to remember that just because you’re marginalized here doesn’t mean you get to be a bad ally over here. Right? We all need to be looking out for each other, and looking out for other people’s communities and paying attention to different vectors of marginalization and trying to make sure you’re supporting voices and respecting other people’s identities. Because, even if you have an own voices project, you’re only one or maybe two of those identities represented in the book. Ideally, you’ve got a bigger range of that in your project, right? So you have to make sure, even if you are a marginalized person and coming from that background, that there are other things you need to be really attentive to and make sure you’re not stepping on those things. The work isn’t done just because you’re own voices, is really what I’m saying.
[Piper] All right. So we’re going to have to wrap this up with homework.
[Piper] Did anyone think of homework?
[Erin] Oh, yeah. I have the homework.
[Piper] Oh, you have the homework. Whoo!
[Erin] I’m ready with the homework. Here is your homework. I want you to find the most recent short story’s, book, any piece of literature, novella, whatever that you have consumed recently that you liked. Then, I want you to do two of the following five things at least. But you can do all five. You can… I want you to leave a review on Amazon and on Goodreads. Even though they’re kind of the same thing, they’re kind of not. Leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Tweet about it and say why did you love this book. Facebook about it, because Twitter’s not Facebook and Facebook has a longer reach sometimes. Tell other writers. Explicitly be like, “Do you need my copy? Let me just put this in your hands. Please read this, please look at this.” The fifth thing has gone out of my head, so I’m going to say… Instagram?
[Erin] Pull a Instagram, take a picture, take a selfie with the book. Everybody loves a selfie. Take a picture with the book, and be like, “Read this book, it’s great.” But do that. Because that’s a way of being an ally. Just putting out your love for that author and their story or their book or whatever it is.
[Dongwon] Can I suggest a number five?
[Dongwon] Tell a bookseller or a librarian.
[Erin] Yes! That was what flew out of my head. This is why we have Dongwon. Yes. Tell them. Because then they can be like, “Oh, really. We’ll get more of that in.”
[Erin] That’s your homework.
[Piper] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.