Made rebloggable by request:
Anonymous asked: Hi Foz, I was wondering if you have any advice (or links to advice) for writing characters that are coloured/trans*/otherwise oppressed in ways that you aren’t, without venturing into appropriation of experience or being otherwise insensitive? I’ve seen people on tumblr reblog commentaries saying that the thing to do is write oppressed characters to be interchangeable with privileged characters, but I feel like if I’m writing (for example) about POC living in a predominantly white area then they’ll necessarily have a different history and relationship with the area - And similarly, while I don’t want the stories to be about their colour/transness (I just want to write urban fantasy with diverse protagonists), I don’t want to minimise or erase the harassment and violence these groups suffer either.
Answer: I think some of the best advice I’ve read on this topic comes from this post here - you should read the whole thing, but in condensed form (I’ve edited out the para breaks and omitted relevant ellipses to highlight the core argument) what it says is this:
In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t,” I want to say: absolutely. You’re damned either way. If you don’t do it, you’re a racist. If you do do it and get it “wrong”, you’ll get reamed, and rightfully so. Further, if you do it and get it “right”, or rather, don’t get it wrong, you’ll still get reamed by members of that culture you’ve represented who rightfully resent a white writer’s success representing their culture. You’re a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it’s wrong. And that’s so unfair to you, isn’t it?
Welcome to a tiny taste of what it’s like to be a person of color.
In a nutshell: while it’s incredibly important to try and write oppressed/non-privileged characters respectfully, don’t start out from a cookie-seeking position. If you can’t stand the thought of being criticised for your efforts, then you’re missing the point of why you should try to begin with. (I’m not saying this is what you’re doing, BTW: I just thought it was important to mention.)
Good sources of advice include:
- Nisi Shawl on Writing the Other
- N. K. Jemisin on Describing Characters of Colour
- Cheryl Morgan’s Trans, Bodies and Art, and also her essay on Changing Images of Trans People in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature
- Malinda Lo on Writing From the Gut, Not Fear of Prejudice, and also her essay on Heteronormativity, Fantasy and Bitterblue: Part 1 and Part 2
- This post by pfdiva on describing black people without reference to white people
- Fatihah Iman on The Bechdel Paradise of a Muslim Woman’s Life
- The World SF Blog, which has a great archive of essays, rountables and interviews on non-western SFF writing
There are many more great resources out there, if you look: as a good rule of thumb, and while there are certainly some excellent essays written by privileged persons, they’re no substitute for the first-hand accounts, advice and opinions of non-privileged people for whom the issue is a personal rather than intellectual exercise.
Finally, and in response to the advice you’ve been given so far: as important as it is to acknowledge the oppression experienced by non-privileged groups in the real world and to incorporate that into your writing, it’s also important to write POC/QUILTBAG characters whose narrative arcs aren’t defined by the obstacles they face because of who they are. This doesn’t mean writing such characters to be interchangeable with privileged characters, as that’s just another form of erasure; rather, it means letting them have the same kind of adventures and primary focus as privileged characters, but without compromising or eliding their identities. At the same time, though, if you’re writing about POC characters in a secondary world, an alternate world or an SFnal future (for instance), then there’s no reason to replicate the prejudice of our current society - you can start from a blank slate and build a world where your POC characters don’t experience racism, or where there’s no culture of transphobia. That doesn’t elide the reality of oppression in the real world - it helps to reinforce the idea that such oppression is neither inevitable nor a societal default.
Anyway, hope that helps, and happy writing!
ETA: Have just noticed the asking anon refers to POC as coloured in the original question; that’s… not a good slip to make, or for me to have missed before. So make sure to keep an eye on language, too: even when certain terms sound alike, that doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable or equally benign.
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