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Writing The Other

I wrote this post for a community forum and wanted to share it here as part of our ongoing effort to educate and bring awareness to minority issues in fandom:

Writing the Other.

Why does this matter? Why should white straight storytellers include characters who aren't like them when they can easily get away with not doing so, particularly in speculative fiction? Well they're certainly under no obligation to do so but I think lack of diversity is far less realistic than any space alien or dragon. The truth is that the world is not comprised of only people who look and think like you and if you think that those are the only people who count and matter, then that's a sad reflection on you not only as a myopic writer but as a human being and a pitiful excuse of one at that. After all those who are different (The Other) aren't looked at as equals and they tend to be treated as 3/5 of a person.



In my stories, diversity is not an obligation or a chore, it's a matter of fact non-issue. White heterosexual characters are not the default characters. In my stories, women are on equal footing with men, POCs are frequently in leading and vital roles and LGBTs are every bit of the hardcore badasses as their cis-gendered/heterosexual peers.

And if RaceFail (and the subsequent related fails thereof) has taught us one thing is that these issues aren't going away and it's in a writer's best interest to be knowledgeable of said issues as audiences are becoming more vocal (and rightfully so) about being limited to minor stereotypical boxed-in roles and denigrated entirely. To ignore them out of hubris could potentially be very detrimental to one's career as we've seen with countless authors during the RaceFail saga.

I've discussed at length in the past why I support exceptional minority media and why our stories are crucial to cultural and societial progress. But I also realize there are legions and legions of the clueless who don't get it. Which perplexes me, especially in fandom considering that one would think that with all of the stories about the struggle and the minority experience (X-Men anyone?), then surely fandom would be the last place you would see such rampant bigotry and classic examples of institutional oppression. But such is the irony that is Diversity Fail.

"Well I just won't write about The Other again, that'll show them." or "You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, so what's the point?"

Would you say the same if a woman explained to you why your female character is wrong? What if a Brit critiqued your piece and explained why certain aspects your story which is set in London were problematic? Would you vow never to write about Jolly Ole England again or would you take the feedback and try to get it right in the future. So the question isn't what's the point, but what is your real issue?

So for those of you who are still lost, allow me, a storyteller and a double minority, to give you a few pointers (among many) on writing The Other. Obviously there are many schools of thoughts and these aren't the end all be all directives but they're definitely a solid start.

1. Our Minority Is Not Our Entire Identity

Any self-respecting minority will tell you that we do not wrap our entire identity in our race, gender, orientation, etc. Yes, we are proud of who we are and yes, our culture and experiences contribute to our overall character (just as the same goes for straight white people). Yes I'm an LGBT and a POC and my experiences from both have contributed to the man I am today. But I'm also a Catholic, a liberal, an artist, a writer, and a comic book geek. I love music, my favorite genre is alternative rock. I'm left-handed. I've been a journalist and a college professor. Are you getting it? I'm a three-dimensional complex and complicated character who happens to be a minority not a minority whose whole identity is wrapped up in being a minority. Characters that have gotten this right for reference: Willow Rosenberg, Dr. Martha Jones, Xena, Thom Creed, Jack Harkness, to a name a few.

2. We Are Not A Monolithic People

We are not the Borg Collective. Just as white people come in all ranges, the same goes for women, POCs, LGBTs, etc. Just as you handle your heterosexual white protagonists with the utmost respectability when fleshing out their internal conflicts and character arcs that make them distinct, the same must be done with minority characters. Just as you bother giving white protagonists conflicts and character arcs, you have to do the same when writing the other.

3. Universal Appeal

For a character to truly resonate with an audience, they must possess attributes and qualities that the audience (no matter what demographic) can relate to. For instance Xena was not a badass because she was a woman. Xena was a badass because she chose to be. She was haunted by a dark past, stoic, and between her unparalleled fighting ability and uncanny knack to outwit her opponents with flawless cunning and strategy, she easily rivals Batman. She was all those things and happened to be a woman and an LGBT. She possessed universal traits that appealed to a cross-section of people. The fact that she was a beautiful woman made her 10 kinds of sexy and awesome. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Kendra and Firefly/Serenity's Zoe were two of my personal favorite characters. Spartan, no-nonsense and all business, they could've just as easily have worked as white characters (and those roles are usually reserved for white women) but they're captivating characters who happen to be black women. Which makes them 10 kinds of sexy and awesome as well. Are we getting it yet?

3. Research, Do You Some

If The Other's character is rooted in a distinct culture or environment, say they're a Hindu, or a samurai, or from the inner city, or a POC from the South, or an LGBT within the LGBT community, one would do research. Again we are not a monolithic people and our experiences vary. And no BET and MTV is not research when it comes to learning about black people. Nor is Will & Grace and Queer Eye research when it comes to learning about the gays. And you are not automatically an expert just because your token minority buddy blindly co-signed on whatever you scribbled down. Fuck what ya heard. Yes get honest feedback from other minorities but get multiple viewpoints. Sounds like too much work? Taking minority research out of the equation for a second, shouldn't you be doing this kind of prep work with your writing period?

4. It Can Be Done

There are white writers out there who have accurately captured the minority experience and have portrayed minority characters exceptionally. Joss Whedon has repeatedly received critical acclaim for showcasing strong complex ass-kicking women; Russell T. Davies (a white man) gave us an iconic and ass-kicking heroine in Dr. Martha Jones, who guess what, happens to be black. They also managed to handle her race brilliantly without falling into the traps of her being the black sidekick.

A friend of mine (a white woman) has a successful trilogy that features a biracial black woman as the heroine. Before starting any book, my friend does days (even weeks) of research upon research upon research with setting, time period, characters, etc. This heroine in my friend's series was inspired by a few close friends of hers who are black women. Needless to say, the character portrayal was exceptional. So much so I would've sworn my friend was a black woman if I didn't know her.

The television series, The Wire, which explored urban black culture was created and produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, two white men. Between the two of them, they have the experience of being former school teachers, reporters, and police officers. Their realistic portrayal of the urban black culture (from the drug dealers to the politicians to the police officers to the activists, to the teachers, to the citizens) was based on their experiences and their research. And as a black man, a former professor and an ex-reporter, I can say on all counts they're research and portrayal was on point.

The critically acclaimed No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which was later adapted to a miniseries for the BBC and HBO (which starred the brilliant Jill Scott), is the ongoing adventures of Motswana woman, Mma Precious Ramotswe. The series was penned by Alexander McCall Smith; a British white author.

Another friend has penned two pieces. One of them featured a black wizard (and yes he is literally a magical negro) as the main protagonist, and the other is a series featuring two characters, one of them being a gay man. She too got it right on both counts and I cheered. I was floored with how she she addressed racial themes in the former story respectfully and portrayed the black sorceror with the same care that authors would've portrayed a caucasian counterpart. The latter series kicked ass because it was nice to  to finally see the strong, dominant, assertive badass role go to the gay guy and the sweet sensitive clumsy role go the straight guy. The main reason she got them right is because she treated developed them as characters and didn't solely define them by their race or orientation.

It can be done. In short, there are no excuses.

5. You Will Be Critiqued

That's a reality. Depending on what you write, some may say you did it right, others may say you fucked up. Chances are you will make a mistake and chances are you will fuck up. Learn from it. Take all the criticisms. The ones that are valid will stand on their own merits, the others that aren't won't last. If you've never been a POC, you will never completely understand every facet of the POC experience. That doesn't make you a racist or a bad person, just some things you will not understand unless you experience it first hand. And no being a POC is not the same as being an LGBT which is different from being a woman. All are minorities, all will with legitimate struggles but each with different dynamics at play.

Most minorities WANT to see us portrayed in the media. We want to see our stories told too. We're happy to see white (and/or straight and/or male) writers go out there and tell our stories. When we critique, we critique out of love because we want those white writers to do better. Not all POCs will be in lockstep on every issue or opinion regarding our portrayal but for many of us, if we see a white storyteller making a good faith effort to showcase us in excellent roles and in extraordinary stories but makes a misstep, we can work with that and we will. If they're willing to learn, we're willing to teach.

6. The Minority Metaphor Is Not Enough

Speculative fiction has used the supernatural, aliens, mutants, vampires as metaphor for minorities for decades: True Blood, the 4400, X-Men, etc. But one thing RaceFail has taught us is that the metaphor is not enough, people still aren't getting the issue and are committing the very fails the antagonists commit in these tales. This is one more reason why we need the stories of POC, LGBTs and other minorities showcased so people can finally make the connection and we can be one step closer to dismantling institutional oppression.

7. We're Human First

Unless we're mutants, or vampires, or aliens but you get what I mean. And our humanity doesn't go away even when we're those things. Yes we have our cultural differences but the astute observer will notice that we have far more in common, being human like that. When you keep that in mind and portray us with the same care and respect that you would want you and yours to be portrayed, THAT'S how you successfully write The Other.


And after all of this if this seems like too much of a hassle or too much work or more trouble than it's worth, then I guess my question is why are you resistant to broadening your horizons and striving to better understand your fellow man? What's the real issue here?


Comments

( 100 comments — Leave a comment )
sailorlibra
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:15 pm (UTC)
Would you say the same if a woman explained to you why your female character is wrong?

I'm going to have to go with yes, they would, otherwise the only explanation for many comic book writers is that they've never met a woman.

Which is not to demean your paper in any way. I found it quite beautiful, though I have to admit that it's nothing I haven't heard before. (You're preaching to the choir, wo/man.)
neo_prodigy
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
Thank You
"I'm going to have to go with yes, they would, otherwise the only explanation for many comic book writers is that they've never met a woman. "

Excellent point.

"though I have to admit that it's nothing I haven't heard before. (You're preaching to the choir, wo/man.)"

I would agree but unfortunately for some people (even members of this community) this has to be pointed out and explained, especially when you have instances of the aforementioned comic book writers who don't seem to be able to get it.
homo_impetus
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:25 pm (UTC)
based on some of the things that have gone down here in the past and on the old s_d, I don't think there is any preaching to the choir going on as a whole.
A lot of the members here may not immediately understand these things and need it voiced the way it has been here.
homo_impetus
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
bit of critique
and LGBTs are every bit of the hardcore badasses as their heterosexual peers.

If you are going to include the T on the end of LGB do a favor to me and all other trans people and do not equate the T with sexuality.

Trans people can be gay, lesbian, bi or heterosexual. I am pretty sure you know that and just slipped up a little bit.

Please fix it.

Thanks




neo_prodigy
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
Re: bit of critique
"Trans people can be gay, lesbian, bi or heterosexual."

So very true and obviously that goes without saying.

Editing now.

Edited at 2009-10-21 11:35 pm (UTC)
homo_impetus
Oct. 22nd, 2009 02:26 am (UTC)
Re: bit of critique
Hey thanks.

lilacsigil
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC)
Would you say the same if a woman explained to you why your female character is wrong? What if a Brit critiqued your piece and explained why certain aspects your story which is set in London were problematic? Would you vow never to write about Jolly Ole England again

The answer is often yes, plus a big tantrum, which tends to lead directly to your final question! And your point about diversity of minority opinion is well made.

The series was penned by Alexander McCall Smith; a British white author.
There are a lot of criticisms of this series, too, especially from a post-colonialist perspective. There is more than a touch of the "dear, childlike Botswanans" in the books, even if some characters do get a more complex portrayal. The TV series is a different thing, because it, at the very least, has to involve actual black people.
underlankers
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
OK, fine, so let's take Nat Turner and make a novel about him. How would such a novel be received today? A reminder that not all blacks in slavery received it well, and that Christianization is always a risky thing, as you never expect Hong Xiuquan until he's slaughtering everyone in sight.

Or a novel about white Unionists in the Civil War during one of the battles USCT regiments were involved. Plenty of people would say that it must be an outright lie that not all Southerners marched in lockstep to support the Civil War, whether from Leftist reasons or the Rightist Lost Cause Cult.

And suppose someone writes a novel about one of the Classical World figures revered in modern times.....which points out that the Graeco-Roman era was not necessarily better than the Christian era that succeeded, its evils were merely transformed and altered, and the only innovation was repression of thought instead of behavior?

Or suppose someone writes the Revolutionary War from the vantage point of a Black Loyalist? All of these would produce outcries from people, even if the books are written and have disclaimers that use of contemporary racial epithets and reference to contemporary sexual mores does not reflect the views of the author.

Respecting the opinion is fine, but in modern times, people will find something to bitch about with regard to the most innocuous things.
lilacsigil
Oct. 22nd, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)
Sorry, did you mean to reply to my comment? Alexander McCall Smith is a living author writing in the present, not a historical author.
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underlankers
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:29 pm (UTC)
One reason I tend to prefer writing stories where race does not come into play as a method of hatred is because in today's climate, despite good intentions there's always somebody who can find something to cry about. And since I'm hard-of-hearing and both the Hearing and the Deaf can find something to bitch about how I do it, and HOH from other perspectives (like the late-deafened or the signing HOH) find equally much to bitch about......

I rather want to avoid that.

So most of my stories tend to center around alien societies and classism, as opposed to strict racism, as in part since so many of my stories involve different species, it's a lot easier to unite different cultures and race when there's another species to get a hate-on for.
underlankers
Oct. 21st, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC)
And I'm sure that people who see me as a Southern white middle-class male would think I have nothing to bitch about....until I take my hearing aid out of my ear and remind them that if you're 20 and born HOH, life ain't a Sunday stroll in the park in some ways. People expect a regular white man, then they find out you've a hearing loss and suddenly they are all condescending pricks who talk loudly and slowly and you're steaming at them.

Find me a good novel with a HOH (NOT DEAF) protagonist, and I'll agree with you.
xanykaos
Oct. 22nd, 2009 12:25 am (UTC)
And I'm sure that people who see me as a Southern white middle-class male would think I have nothing to bitch about....until I take my hearing aid out of my ear

Shameface-time. I had a similar experience with a college roommate who was blonde, popular, athletic and HOH, when I asked if she was "deaf or just rude" (college was one of my stupider times). I still hold that the answer remains "both" given her tendancy to sleep through an early, loud alarm for hours on weekends, and watch tv at a blaring volume into the wee hours of the morning, but...I could've handled the situation a hella better and learned a lesson. *shame*

What exactly is the difference between deaf and hard-of-hearing? I mean, aside from the obvious, but what qualifies the latter?
underlankers
Oct. 22nd, 2009 12:32 am (UTC)
The latter has some hearing, and as I've noted there are several categories. Those born that way (like moi, in which case it can be said I do not have hearing loss, as I never had perfect hearing to start with), the late-deafened (who are losing hearing altogether in middle age), those who lose their hearing through jobs/work, and those who are Oral Deaf (some of whom don't sign and don't bother to accommodate those other than themselves. >.<). All of these categories could find things to complain about the other with.

The rule of thumb I use is that the HOH can use a hearing aid, the deaf either choose the Deaf Culture or cochlear implants.
neo_prodigy
Oct. 22nd, 2009 12:33 am (UTC)
Being disabled is a minority but it is different from being a woman or an LGBT or a POC. All face legitimate challenges when it comes to institutional oppression, but there are different dynamics at play for each one which is why they can't be compared. Not saying one is more important than the other, but they're each different with different dynamics.

No one is saying being a white male automatically means you're free from any pain and hardship. However being something other than a heterosexual white male means that you've got a whole slew of challenges to face. And just because you're a minority in one respect doesn't mean that society won't grant you privileges in another. I'm a POC and an LGBT, however, I'm going to have advantages over my sisters (who are both women and POCs) in certain respects because I'm a male. Nothing I've done, nothing I want to happen, I try to fight for equality every opportunity I receive, but this is the reality that is institutional oppression. You've experienced this yourself by being HOH, and being a minority in that respect. So if anything you should be able to understand what I'm talking about.

Hell, the main protagonist from Up was a privileged white male, but the film reminded us that too often the elderly are treated as The Other and they get screwed over by society too.

"Respecting the opinion is fine, but in modern times, people will find something to bitch about with regard to the most innocuous things."

As previously stated, no group of people is monolithic. Everyone is going to have an opinion on something. That's not a race thing, it's not a gender or orientation thing, that's a human thing.

If it's valid, it will stand, if not, most reasonable people will dismiss it. That's not an excuse to not write about The Other. That's a cop out.

Academics have made careers over arguing over the portrayal of Gatsby. Some have slammed Fitzgerald's character. That hasn't stopped writers from writing about Midwesterners/New Yorkers/the Rich/or white people because someone may have gotten it wrong.

If your portrayal of The Other (whatever that minority is) is an honest and good-faith based portrayal, I promise you most people will appreciate it. Yes not everyone will agree (again we're not the Borg) but that shouldn't deter you from writing and portraying The Other.

And if you haven't found a good novel with a HOH, then I challenge you to write one. I mean that in all respect and all seriousness. Because based on what you've shared, it sounds like a story worth sharing because a lot of people need to be educated on these issues and they need to know what the HOH endure.

That's why Perry Moore wrote Hero. He got sick of seeing the way LGBTs are portrayed in comics.

That's why I've published my stories which feature POC and LGBTQ leads. And that's why I frequently speak out on these issues, to bring awareness to them.

An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Equality means we're all on the same footing, no matter race, creed, gender, orientation, etc.
underlankers
Oct. 22nd, 2009 12:40 am (UTC)
Yeah....tell that to the blacks I talk to who dismiss any idea that whitey can be the victim of anything at all, whether or not he can't hear well.

Since my novels usually feature Jewish female protagonists and have a lot of infusions from Jewish culture and my post-1908 novel has one of the primary supers an Australian Aborigine (a group I see represented almost never), I do tend to choose the Other as the primary protagonists more often than it might come across. I'm loath to publish it for fear that someone's going to try to attack it on a number of levels and get bogged down in Fundie outrage from how my interpretation of superpowers coming into play in the Jim Crow South goes down.

The reason I hesitate is my superhumans novel dealing with a POD in 1908 results in a lot of bloodshed and in colonized people who are supers fighting back against their oppressors, and I'm wary of unintentional racism on my part. I don't want to write what I think is a sensitive portrayal to find I'm fucking it up (says the American Indian history major).
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keeni84
Oct. 22nd, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
So if you're a black woman that's HOH can she override your point?
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moonspark
Oct. 22nd, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
I'm not trying to snark, but did you read point #6, "the minority metaphor is not enough" in the OP?

I also am not understanding why you feel the need to liken HOHness to race...
keeni84
Oct. 22nd, 2009 04:57 am (UTC)
I also am not understanding why you feel the need to liken HOHness to race

Thank you.
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underlankers
Oct. 22nd, 2009 11:05 am (UTC)
I'm not likening it to that. It's a different issue. One which often gets dismissed because it *doesn't* have an obvious sign like skin color. And when I get into economic inequality, that's an area even Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson seem unwilling to touch, because economic inequality never seems to be a civil rights issue to those two.
scottyquick
Oct. 22nd, 2009 03:45 am (UTC)
OMG, I AM SO IN LOVE WITH YOU RIGHT NOW IT'S NOT EVEN FUNNY
Thank you so, so, so much Neo! Do you want to know how much ass you kick? I CAN'T TELL YOU BECAUSE I LOST TRACK

Seriously though, this is my first time trying NaNoWriMo, and my main character is an Asian teen girl (who can steal time and is now caught up in a war and in LOVE WITH PEOPLE SHE CAN'T HAVE), and while I'm pretty sure I can handle queer identity, I had NO CLUE whatsoever where to even begin writing about a COC. It was stressing me out because I didn't just want to ignore her race, but I didn't even know where to begin to learn how to understand how to write a COC in North America. Thanks, this is a great starting point!
neo_prodigy
Oct. 22nd, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
Re: OMG, I AM SO IN LOVE WITH YOU RIGHT NOW IT'S NOT EVEN FUNNY
Thank you so much for the kind words. It felt like God was moving me to post this for a reason.
hurlingdervish
Oct. 22nd, 2009 03:50 am (UTC)
thanks for writing and posting this.
neo_prodigy
Oct. 22nd, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
thank you for reading it. ;D
greenmask
Oct. 22nd, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
Your posts are so interesting and inspiring!
neo_prodigy
Oct. 22nd, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
thank you.
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