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Writing the Other

Snoopy

Last weekend, I moderated a panel on “Writing the Other,” whether that Other meant someone of another race, another gender, another sexual orientation, or another species entirely.  The panel description asked “Can a man write from a woman’s viewpoint?  A woman from a man’s? Should they try?”

The consensus among panelists and audience was that these were very silly questions, and we weren’t going to waste time on them.  Given the size and general wackiness of the Internet, I suspect that someone out there is probably trying to say that white writers shouldn’t be allowed to write nonwhite characters, that straight writers shouldn’t try to write LGBT characters, and so on.

There are also people on the Internet saying they’re actually Na’vi (from Avatar), or that the world ended a while back and our ghosts just haven’t noticed yet, or that Publish America is a really good publisher.  As it turns out, saying something doesn’t make it true.

Most of the time though, when I hear “We’re not allowed to write _____ characters,” it’s an author talking.  Upon investigation, it usually turns out that nobody told our author friend that he or she wasn’t allowed to write these characters; instead, someone criticized him for doing it badly.

Well … yeah.  If you write flat, unrealistic, or just plain bad characters, you’re going to get called on that.  If all your women exist only to swoon and get naked for your hero (*cough* Heinlein *cough*), then people might complain.  They’re not saying you aren’t allowed to write women characters.  They’re saying please stop sucking at it.

The panel mainly focused on how to do that.  Things like making your characters well-rounded human beings instead of “The Black Character” and “The Gay Character” and “The Christian Character” and so on.  Like learning to listen.  Like going beyond a single token “other”.

As an author, I do believe I need to be careful about issues of cultural appropriation.  Nisi Shawl has written about this far better than I could, and I recommend reading her piece.  But I think there’s a huge difference between “Authors should be aware of cultural appropriation issues” and “Authors aren’t allowed to write characters from other cultures.”

Discussion welcome, as always.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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Comments

( 119 comments — Leave a comment )
jaylake
Mar. 29th, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
Given the size and general wackiness of the Internet, I suspect that someone out there is probably trying to say that white writers shouldn’t be allowed to write nonwhite characters,

You did notice RaceFail last year, didn't you? I got raked over the coals hard over this precise issue.
jimhines
Mar. 29th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
I did notice. Can you clarify, please? Were you coal-raked because someone was saying you weren't allowed to write non-white characters, or am I misreading?
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silk_noir
Mar. 29th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
Well said.
mrissa
Mar. 29th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
There are certainly problematic aspects of Heinlein women, but I don't think your characterization of them is even second cousins with fair. Heinlein seemed to like all his characters hypercompetent--so that means the sex-obsessed, parenting-obsessed women in his books were more likely to solve the equations, fix the spaceship, cook the meal, and still have time to swoon and get naked than to just swoon and get naked.
jimhines
Mar. 29th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
Fair enough. It's true that not *all* of Heinlein's books read like a teenage boy's sex fantasies.
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jimvanpelt
Mar. 29th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC)
I sat in on a panel like Jim described at grad school a while back. The moderator opened the proceedings with this comment: "If you are white, male and straight in America, you are also, automatically racist, sexist and homophobic."

Since I'm a white, straight male, I was taken aback by this. The argument said that the society is racist, sexist and homophobic, and whether you think you are those things or not, because you benefit from the society that is that way, you are that way.

Ouch.

In all discussions of this sort, I go to what happens in fiction workshops whenever a character that is the "other" is critiqued, whether it is a female character from a male writer, a child, a person of a different ethnicity, whatever, someone in the group will inevitably say, "A ______ wouldn't have that feeling [or act that way, or say that, etc.]."

The commments always seem to me to reveal more prejudice and stereotyping from the critiquer's point of view than any failing in the character. The critiquer wants to tie characters of a certain "type" to a set of attitudes and behavior. It bugs me.

The only test a character needs to pass is whether the character seems believable within her/himself. Children vary in precociousness. Gay people vary in their attitude and thoughtfulness about their sexuality, and their sexuality doesn't always define them. People inhabit their ethnicity to greater or lesser degree. People can be lumped within a group, but the group can contain a lot of different kind of people.

So, can a writer write about the other? Certainly. Is there a possiblity of getting the character wrong? Certainly. But the failure would be in the writer's attempt to craft a believable person, not in whether the writer has the right to write about someone different from her/himself.
mtlawson
Mar. 29th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
Since I'm a white, straight male, I was taken aback by this. The argument said that the society is racist, sexist and homophobic, and whether you think you are those things or not, because you benefit from the society that is that way, you are that way.

Of course, even if the moderator's statement were true, it does not logically follow that the because someone isn't a white, straight male that they aren't racist, sexist or homophobic, either.
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mtlawson
Mar. 29th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
If all your women exist only to swoon and get naked for your hero (*cough* Heinlein *cough*), then people might complain.

::snort:: Perhaps a more realistic reaction would be to point and laugh instead.

Was this panel at Millenicon?
jimhines
Mar. 29th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
Yep.
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celestineangel
Mar. 29th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)
I'm giving up on thanking you for writing meaningful and relevant posts. There are just too many of them. From now on, just assume I've said "Thank you for this!"
(Anonymous)
Mar. 29th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
writing "Other" characters
I suppose the most obvious example of failure to properly depict "other" character would be Mary Shelley and her book Frankenstein. She was not a monster, or a male. I wonder if this is why her book didn't do well, and is not widely known in today's society. Yes I am being facitious. If writers, movie makers, and those of us who seek truth in art listened intently to the social rules of our critics, then the world of literature would really be in trouble. I'm sure the ice of the artic is never happy when an ice-breaker plows through.

I'm a white woman, non-military who has 6 WWII books published about men who served in the war. Write well with your heart.

Cynthia Faryon

sixteenbynine
Mar. 29th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
Re: writing "Other" characters
::applause::

I think I'm going to save this example for future reference.
sixteenbynine
Mar. 29th, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
More directly on the topic: I've written a few books now set in Japan, both in the modern day and in the recent past. I don't pretend I know how to write about such characters better than anyone else, but one thing I found is that making them identifiably human and interesting is the most important thing.

And if I make a boo-boo, then I'll be happy to fix it. So far I haven't fallen totally on my face, but that doesn't mean I never will.
nightwolfwriter
Mar. 29th, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
Indeed.

In my first attempt at writing comics, I was writing about a supernatural team of detectives. One was a Navaho, one was a Gypsy from Eastern Europe, one had been raised in Japan and the first opponents they ran against were based on Arab mythology.

What was the first thing I did before I started writing . . . research! I studied Navaho history, I went through a number of books about Gypsies in real life as well as their mythology. I'd just finished studying Arabic with native speakers for two years in Monterey and I buried myself in Japanese mythology as well as the Celtic mythologies already in my library.

I believe when I write about another culture, it's important to "get it as close to right" as possible. No, there's no way to be 100%, but I did get compliments because it was obvious I took the time to not go for the easy stereotypes.

Maybe it's the historian in me, but research is second-nature.
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barry_king
Mar. 29th, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
This is a problem I've had to think long and hard about, also being a white euro-descended male raised largely in third-world post-colonial cultures. When I draw on what I really, truly know, from childhood experience and the human process of "growing up", nearly everything is racially out of sync at first blush. Luckily, I haven't had much of my work attacked as cultural appropriation. But the day will probably come, and I'm trying to think how to deal with it.

I've found that overt, histrionic anger at, or offence taken at, cultural appropriation is usually couched in terms of racism. "How can you write about XXXX when you've never been XXXX". It is a sort of freezing in place of cultural lines, a preservation in formaldehyde, if you will, of cultures as if they were ever untouched, never blended with history or waves of others appearing dissolving, incorporating into the whole fabric of a people's history. It may be grounded in an anti-colonial struggle for freedom from the threat of cultural annihilation, but it is a self-defeating view; one that drains the life of itself to preserve itself.

These assertions are as false as the orientalisms, the paternalistic colonial attitudes, or even the well-wishing scribbles of the Mr. Gibbons who tried to bring the ancient past to life for the enrichment of their art. They exist as action and reaction to an angry wound in the past.

I believe that behind all cultures are a set of truths that cannot really be captured, only set into a setting of words, like an precious stone. We can use the trappings of culture to bind them, but we can only make that attempt properly if we think first of the truth, not the trappings.

That, I think, separates the offensive personal-branding of cultural appropriation from the use of the other to bring home human truths that would be obscured by cultural baggage if told from the author's strict cultural millieu.
sixteenbynine
Mar. 29th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
I agree that the reaction seems to be one of an intense sense of self-preservation. They feel personally threatened by this, and I think the reason they strike back as much as they do is because they also believe we can't feel anything that keenly. Certainly not in the same way.

I'm of Turkish descent. I was born there, but I've lived in the U.S. (specifically, New York) all my life, and I feel that's my home. I don't drag out my Turkishness and tote it around whenever I want to score points, because a) I'm not in the habit of doing things like that generally and b) that's a cheap thing to do when I'm not all that connected to my Turkishness to begin with. It's just not that a big thing to me.

And yet if someone says "Turks suck" or makes jokes about Turkish jails or whatnot, I get just as livid as someone who probably does have more of a connection. I get angry because I'm being at least indirectly laughed at, and I also get angry because people deserve better than to think such garbage. Seeing someone masticate and gag back up such swill makes me depressed. People's minds were built for better things than just pointing and laughing.

But we do a lot of that -- separating into self and other -- partly as a survival instinct. It's not wrong to draw dividing lines in life when there are indeed people who want you dead on general principles and you need them to not kill you. It's another thing entirely to go out of your way to build a fence around someone just so you can point and sneer because you missed the buss that morning.

The last graf of your post brings to mind an analogy: "That, I think, separates the offensive personal-branding of cultural appropriation from the use of the other to bring home human truths that would be obscured by cultural baggage if told from the author's strict cultural millieu."

The analogy that cam to mind was, "The latter is James Michener. The former is James Clavell."
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jennielf
Mar. 29th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
I was actually thinking about this weekend. I recently finished The Stepsister Scheme and another book Raider's Ransom by Emily Diamand. Each were written by the opposite gender than the most interesting protagonist. (There are two protags in Raider's Ransom (boy and girl both about 13ish))
I had not read Stepsister before this because a male wrote it (and how could a male write decent female point of view or adventure story?) I was amazingly surprised at the quality of the story and the characterizations within the story. So that theory was nullified in my opinion.
In Ransom, the main male protag is much more interesting, I think, than the female. Hers is a fairly straightforward quest story, and all of her motivations are fairly straightforward as well - her village was wronged, she has to go save the hostage, granny was killed, etc. The male though, he is so multilayered and seems to not understand his motivation much of the time either. He grew up in a very Viking-esque culture, but shows quite a bit of kindness toward the hostage etc. but can be a total ass too.

And further, in the real world....if we cannot try to understand the perspective of the Other, how can we understand our neighbor or enemy? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/us/politics/28seder.html

Edited at 2010-03-29 04:41 pm (UTC)
sixteenbynine
Mar. 29th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
I know some people whose standard comeback to such things is "We don't need to know them; that's why they're the Other."

Circular logic at its finest!
barbarienne
Mar. 29th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
There is also the question of defining the Other. Who decides?

When I watch shows like Sex in the City, Seinfeld, or Friends, my primary reaction is "Who the hell are these people? This is not a realistic depiction of the life of overeducated white yuppies in New York."

I am a white, overeducated yuppie from New York. Can I declare those shows invalid? (Can I declare them invalid while still finding them entertaining?)
jimhines
Mar. 29th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
"There is also the question of defining the Other. Who decides?"

Me!

Okay, that was only half tongue-in-cheek. In the end, I'm responsible for my writing. Which means I need to decide what research to do, what feedback to listen to. You know as well as I do that not all feedback is equal.

So answering as a writer, I'm the one who has to listen to the response, and to decide for myself, "Is this person making a valid point? Did I fail to make this a complete and believable character?"

"Can I declare them invalid while still finding them entertaining?"

Yes. So sez me.
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jongibbs
Mar. 29th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
You mean that guy isn't really Na'vi?

Well, that's him off my LJ friends list :(
mtlawson
Mar. 29th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
The next thing you'll be telling me that Jedi isn't a real religion!

(Yes, I'm aware of the shenanigans in the 2000 census.)
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lkrobinson
Mar. 29th, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC)
As an avid and very critical reader, I do not take into consideration the author's gender, race or sexual orientation when reading. If they come through enough to break me out of the story I consider it the author's failure as a writer. Authors should be striving for realistic, believable characters. Race, gender and sexual orientation are features of characters, but they are really not usually the most interesting. I want to know the characters motives, hopes, dreams... these might be influenced by those other factors but that should not be all there is.
jjschwabach
Mar. 29th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
Speaking as a person born with a mobility-related disability, I can say that the situation into which you were born (early formative experiences) does impact your world-view. Characters with disabilities are rarely, alas, done well by non-disabled characters. It's a complex issue, because there are three different categories to consider:
- The person born with a disability
- The person who is born non-disabled, and through accident or illness, becomes disabled
- The (exceedingly rare!) person who has a disability and then becomes non-disabled.

Alas, in fiction, the third category seems to be the largest. So your character is blind, or has one hand, or cannot walk. Don't "fix" them, people! Make the story work with the character as s/he is.

This is, of course, aside from the difficulty of thinking in terms how how different disabilities effect people, and how culture plays a role in a person's reaction to disability. What if your culture believes that when a person no longer resembles the Deity in question, they are an abomination...? What if they believe the opposite, that having a disability makes you one of the Deity's Chosen...?
jimhines
Mar. 29th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
Do you have any examples of characters with disabilities done well? One I've heard cited a lot is Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois McMaster Bujold.

Also, after reading your comment, I find myself wanting to write several new stories...
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otterdance
Mar. 29th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
This is a timely conversation for me. I have an idea for a book set in a culture based *loosely* on the social structure of the floating world of Japan. And I'm frozen in place and scared to death because of arguments like Ms. Shawls. I wouldn't be setting it in actual Japan, which apparently makes it even worse. And I'm not saying I disagree with her. I think her post is one of the best reasoned ones I've read, and it does give me pause. but it raises a lot of questions, too.

When I research and synthesize Western cultural elements, who cares? Well, because I'm part of the Oppressor Culture, obviously. But aside from that, because it's my birthright? I'm White and American and no more culturally 14th century medieval Western European than my dog. That's why I have to do research, and that's why what I write, given that it's fantasy, is nothing but a synthesis of someone else's culture and reality, the creation of a world that never existed. But if I do exactly the same thing with Japanese history and culture, it's apparently quite different. Or is it? Japan has appropriated a tremendous amount from my culture, my actual, modern, American culture. We invented cars, televisions, blue jeans, iPods, electricity, etc. Japan either buys them or makes their own based on our inventions. Is that appropriation? One example that reaches beyond American culture is the appropriation of elements of Christianity in anime and manga. From what I've seen, they take the interesting shiny bits, like angels, symbols, and clothing, and use them with no understanding of their actual significance. Clearly appropriation. They come up with some interesting melanges, and I understand that they are not aiming for veracity. And they happily sell their culture to us. Did we enslave sushi chefs and drag them over here? Do we force them at gunpoint to set up Toyota dealerships? We share the culture of commerce and capitalism, if nothing else.

So should I worry about 'stealing' Japanese cultural inspirations, or is it a trade?

Edited at 2010-03-29 07:27 pm (UTC)
jimhines
Mar. 29th, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
I can speak to what I did, and hope that might be helpful. I ran into this writing Red Hood's Revenge, which is set in a middle eastern nation. (Much like the first two fairy tale books are set in pseudo-Europe.) I didn't worry about those first two books, but number three gave me pause. Was I just picking and stealing elements from various Arabic cultures?

What I ended up doing was a fair amount of reading, trying to understand the reasoning behind the culture. Why did various attitudes and traditions evolve this way. Some of the trappings are the same, because it's a similar physical environment, but hopefully the underlying logic of the society is also there to make it feel like a real culture as opposed to just swiping the shiny bits, if that makes sense?

I can't say how I did, since the book isn't out yet and my own judgment is hardly objective. But in talking and listening to others, a lot seems to come down to doing the research and trying to write as honestly and truthfully as possible.

Yeah, I still don't know if any of that makes sense or is helpful. I don't believe there's any reason you can't write about Japanese culture, or take inspiration from Japan's history. Just do it *well*, you know? (Not that you wouldn't. I can't imagine you doing a lazily-written book.)
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dsgood
Mar. 29th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)
#1 This might have been said here already: Try to have at least one person who's a member of that group read what you've written, to see if you've goofed up anything.

#2 If your character belongs to the same group you do, but is part of another subgroup (from a different part of your state or your city; American Baptist rather than Southern Baptist, etc.), have someone from that background read what you've written. Also if the character is even a few years younger than you -- the Alltime Great Music you listened to in high school might not be what teens listen to now, for example.

#3 If your character speaks a different dialect, belongs to a profession you don't, discusses politics in words associated with a political stance different from yours -- ask someone from the relevant group where you've gotten it wrong. (And yes, I mean WHERE, not IF.)

#4 If your character belongs to a neurological minority, begin by reading what experts say. Continue by reading what such people say. This will reduce the chances of you assuming that multiple personality is the same thing as schizophrenia (once a common mistake among sf writers,) or synesthesia is the replacement of one sense by another.
jimhines
Mar. 29th, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC)
I've got an undergrad. in psych, and my wife is a practicing counselor. One day we're going to go on a crazy punching spree, punishing everyone who still believes schizophrenia = multiple personalities.
cofax7
Mar. 29th, 2010 09:03 pm (UTC)
But I think there’s a huge difference between “Authors should be aware of cultural appropriation issues” and “Authors aren’t allowed to write characters from other cultures.”

I have almost never anyone make that second claim. Even during the height of RaceFail, even the most aggrieved individuals were saying: "If you're going to do it, try to do it right. But recognize that there is no way to do it perfectly, so you're going to fail in some way, and you're going to take your lumps. The same way you'll take your lumps if you get the physics or the history wrong. Learn from this, and then go on."

Or, more pithily: FAIL BETTER.

And sure, there are some people who overstate their case, but gee whiz, I wonder why that could be? Possibly because they're so tired of seeing themselves represented as offensive stereotypes that they'd rather not see themselves at all. God knows I begin to think that way about the representations of women in genre television and movies...
realmjit
Mar. 30th, 2010 12:39 am (UTC)
Icon love. Kick-A$$ paste-up job.
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spiziks
Mar. 30th, 2010 01:05 am (UTC)
There's only one correct response to any remark about how you wrote anything:

"Did you buy my book? Yes? Cool!"
apricot_tree
Mar. 30th, 2010 05:20 am (UTC)
Is it wrong that I (as a female) really enjoyed almost all of Heinlein's books? Even the ones towards the end where he went completely mental? Granted, I was about 15 when I first read them. I barely had any idea what my female ideas were for myself, let alone the rest of the world.
jimhines
Mar. 30th, 2010 11:44 am (UTC)
That's up to you. I'm not even going to try to tell you what you can or can't enjoy.

FWIW, I enjoyed Heinlein as well. I haven't read him in a while, but I suspect a lot about his work would still make for a fun read. They're fun stories, lots of action, good page-turners ... the fact that I tend to find his women characters highly problematic doesn't change the fact that his writing has a lot going for it.
(no subject) - apricot_tree - Mar. 30th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - chipmunk_planet - Apr. 1st, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
oneminutemonkey
Mar. 31st, 2010 08:21 pm (UTC)
I certainly can't speak for other writers, but I'm not afraid to try and expand my boundaries, and write about people with different defining characteristics. I just know that there are a lot of qualities to a character that might require research, consideration, and care if addressing them.

In theory, this means that I don't feel locked into, or out of, any specific group/ethnicity/sexuality/etc... as long as I do it with respect.

In actuality, all this means is that so far, no one's objected to me writing from the viewpoint of mythological figures, cats, and lesbians. I do have a story under submission where the POV is from a non-white character, and it's always bugged me a little that, in my mind, my way of indicating it is somewhere between subtle and clumsy, mainly because the character himself doesn't consider it highly relevant to the story he's telling. If the story bounces, I'll probably work on that some more. Another story I have in the works has a gay protagonist, because that's what the character wanted to be, and I listen to the characters.

As always, the more I see on these subjects, the more I want to know, the more I want to expand my comfort zone, and the more I want to do things -right-. But time will tell.

( 119 comments — Leave a comment )

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