Monday, January 21, 2013

On writing what you don't know

If you are a regular reader on the Lantern, you will probably know that one of our major pet peeves with YA is the lack of diversity. Or, rather, the fact that diverse books don’t get nearly as lauded as their whiter, thinner, able-bodied, cis-gendered and heterosexual counterparts. Most often, those counterparts are also rather well off.

You’ve heard us complain. You’ve listened to our arguments again and again. And, I imagine, Dear Reader, you’re pretty sick of them right now. If you’re a YA author or an aspiring YA author or, hell, even a casual writer (after all, not everyone who writes necessarily does it to earn money), these criticisms can also make you very frustrated. As in: “Yeah, I get it, YA is not diverse enough! But I’m fairly/mostly/most definitely priviledged in relation to (minority), how am I supposed to write these characters well?”
We understand your frustrations, and yes, those are legit concerns. After all, token characters can be just as annoying to the reader as a complete lack of representation. So here are some suggestions about writing who and what you don’t know.

Tip #1: Yes, it can be done!

Don’t assume that just because you’re privileged, you can’t write characters that are not. It can be done, and to a great effect. Books like “Hold Still” and “If You Find Me” offer different takes on mental illness without making it feel overwrought, “The Mortal Engines” and “The Book Thief” are prime examples of male writers writing compelling female characters, and Antony John actually wrote a whole book from the POV of a disabled person.

So yes, writers, you are not given a pass on making your books more diverse because you have not experienced a particular disadvantage first hand. I feel that this is an important realisation to come to, because nowadays people are conditioned to always do right, and this actually makes them really anxious about screwing up. And while some awareness of one’s privilege is important, holding out because you’re afraid of failure can be worse.

In fact, here's Laura Goode's interview in case you want to hear someone explain it.

That said, you don’t have to force yourself to experience it, like one of those personal trainers gaining a whole lot of weight and then going on papers and talk shows to milk the experience for all it is worth. (In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t try to emulate them, those guys are assholes.) Which brings me to:

Tip #2: Do you f****ng homework!

And by that I mean read. Read a lot. Read far and wide and don’t shrink back from things you wouldn’t normally pick up. Fiction and non-fiction, biographies, scientific studies (you can skim over the complicated terms and focus on the conclusions to the sections if you feel like falling asleep). It won’t all be interesting, and some of it won’t even be good, but distinguishing between good and bad in other people’s writing will help you weed out the stereotypes from your own works.

Here's my interview with Antony John, if you want to see what kind of research he conducted for "Five Flavors of Dumb".

Also, it might be a good idea to start consuming some media geared towards the people you’re writing about. If you wrote a gamer character, you’d at least try playing WoW, so why not watch a few lesbian movies to gain some better understanding of your character. (Those lesbian movies don’t have to be pornographic, by the way, but in case you’re wondering, porn isn’t made exclusively for straight guys. Telling the good and the bad apart is, like everything, a matter or practice.)

Most importantly, go read a blog or twenty. The Internet is an endless source of information about nearly everything, and people often use their blogs to openly discuss and analyse their everyday experiences. For places to start, Ana Mardoll needs no introduction, and also Shakesville, Racialicious and MS Magazine. Also, I want to give a shout out to Foz Meadows' blog, and to Feminist Frequency, because they're just awesome. Many articles you read online are linked to other articles on other blogs, so finding information, and varied information at that, will be easy enough.

Also, as no two human beings are alike, you will soon discover that the people you perceived as a monolithic “minority” are just as diverse as the folks in the “majority”. Gay men can be misogynistic and feminists can be racist, and if that revelation doesn’t blow your mind, I’d like to give you another one.

Instead of a tip #3:

Knowledge => Understanding => Sympathy => Far lesser chances of you writing a sociological cliche

As you read those blogs and deconstructions, you will start to notice a strange thing: those “other” people? That minority group? They’re just like you. In fact, they are you. They have hopes and dreams and aspirations, they fuck up and make bad decisions, they are sweet and gentle and mean and unpleasant. They’re not aliens, and they’re not impossible to understand, and had it not been for the societal factor, accepting them and writing about them wouldn’t seem like such a monumental task for you.

It would be a stretch to say that ignorance is the only reason why discrimination exists, but it is definitely up there in the top three. It blows up a simple difference (whether a cultural, physiological or mental one) into a complete and total dehumanisation, which in turn makes it easier for hatred to exist. We are conditioned to split the world into camps, us versus them, and so when we hit a more grey area, we don’t know how to deal with this.

Imagine, if you will, a friend or a close family member saying something completely unfair and out of line. Say, you’re at the supermarket and they fat-shame some woman, while you yourself are a total advocate for respecting people’s decisions about what to do with their bodies. You’ve probably participated in hundreds of online discussions and argued against fat shaming, but you always saw your opponents as unenlightened jerks, not as people you would actually hang out with on a regular basis. Are you conflicted yet? Because let me tell you, it’s a pretty conflicting situation.

Humans are complicated, and we make things even more complicated by adding layer upon layer of cultural and sociological factors. That’s why writing disadvantaged characters like you would write a privileged one, but in a different body, is not enough - you need to understand the environment they operate in, and the different limits they face, both from the inside and the outside.

And then… well, it won’t magically turn you into an amazing author, but it will make things easier. Just a little bit.