As you may know, I also have a column, Doctor Darwin's Writing Tips, over at Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association. A version of this post first appeared there, but in an era when we've all become more sensitive to questions of cultural appropriate in the arts, it's relevant much more widely. Certainly if you want to build your story on people of another ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, class or perhaps just wildly different life-experience, there's work to be done compared to what you'd need if you stayed inside your own.
So the ideas and strategies I've suggested in this post are, mutatis mutandis, relevant to anyone who wants to write about - well - almost anything beyond their own edges. And before you snort with outrage at the idea of anyone telling you what you're "allowed" to write, or the idea that it's not possible to imagine beyond your own edges, I should explain something that I myself hadn't clearly realised until I started working on this piece. The processes that will help you to write ethically are the same as those that will help you to write better. And there isn't a reader of This Itch of Writing, I'm absolutely sure, who doesn't want to do that.
Dear Dr Darwin
I’m working on a script set in the past. The central character is a fictional young Black teen, and two major characters are actual historical figures: a young Native American warrior and a mixed-blood warrior; the true purpose of the script is to tell their fascinating story. I, however, am White. I am confident that I can tell the story well, and am empathetic as to the struggles both the Blacks and the Native Americans had to endure, and still endure. But there is a part of me that feels like I do not have the right to tell these people’s stories. On the other hand, I feel "why not?" Michael Blake wrote Dances With Wolves, Ezra Jack Keats’ characters were African Americans.
Are there multicultural boundaries we must not cross in historical fiction? And if so, what are they? Or turn the question around, how do we cross these multicultural boundaries without stepping on toes? Thanks for your time.
Most writers rage against any suggestion that they’re not “allowed” (by a nervous publisher or the mobs of social media) to write anything they like: how dare they tell us what to do? But most writers have also been enraged by slipshod, catchpenny or downright poisonous versions of things we have directly experienced, written by those who haven’t: how dare they tell us what it's like?
And this is not an abstract problem: all women and a good few men rage at how few scripts that actually get made pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test in a male-run Hollywood; on the other hand, a US editor I know of rejected a YA novel set in Spain on the grounds that the writer isn’t Spanish. So, can good, authentic, responsible and thrilling stories rooted in historically and currently disadvantaged groups only be told by writers of that same group?
This particular ethical minefield was sown first in Anthropology, by our modern, white, western and very well-founded guilt about cultural appropriation, and if any readers think this is only a 21st century problem, just look up the furore over William Styron’s Pulitzer-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. But it’s been rendered creatively toxic by the ‘calling-out’ culture which thrives on the undeniable fact that racism happens in small ways that support the big ones, and that everyday sexism is not "just a joke".
You can agree with all that, and still find it disastrously self-conscious-making to have a monitor for these things sitting on your shoulder during that first draft, and later. A parallel could be how many writers, specially those with dyslexia or similar difficulties, have a school-bred spelling-and-grammar monitor that hamstrings their first draft work. And yet you only have to spend half an hour on Twitter to have that calling-out voice in your ears, and even reading a responsible, nuanced article about these issues in the culture in general can frighten writers back inside their own edges for good.
You could create a fictional character who you do feel entitled to inhabit – presumably in your case, Tony, a white character – and show us that world, tell that story, through that character's consciousness. But that may make some storytelling impossible, if events would be radically changed or hopelessly inauthentic: Jane Austen, famously, wrote not a single all-male scene, and it's simply not possible to write an authentic and natural men’s locker-room scene by putting a woman in it. More fundamentally, it would become a completely different project, de-centering from what you want to centre it on, and arguably a worse act of cultural appropriation: it would betray your reasons for embarking on this project in the first place, which is to put the experience of these people front and centre.
So what do you do?
First, tattoo on your monitor is that it’s your book and your rules, and you can’t libel the dead, or the fictional. Then think about your true purpose, the heart of why you want to tell this story, and what it will take, creatively speaking, to fulfil your purpose responsibly – which is to say properly – without cowardice or sloppiness. Use that to guide you in working out your personal rule-book: what you feel comfortable with in fictionalising away from the recorded facts; how deep you let yourself go inside these imagined and real-historical heads; how strongly you want to evoke historically- and ethnically-inflected voices. If you're wondering about combining real and fictional characters at all, this post might help.
But that still leaves the question of how not to tread on toes. To think about general principles, let’s imagine that Earthling colonisers took over Saturn in a couple of centuries of genocidal, Martian-slave-importing fervour. Is a modern Earthling-descendant, arguably still benefitting from that historical dominance, entitled to write as if from inside the life of a fictional Martian, and about real-historical Saturnians and mixed-planet Martio-saturnians?
Unquestionably, the command to "Write what you know" is one route to authentic and creatively responsible writing, and it’s true that you can’t in that sense "know" the experience of being inside a different ethnicity. But we all have many identities, and anyway, neither ethnicity, nor sex, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, education, nationality, disability, language and even marital status are necessarily binary. You may not have ethnicity in common with your protagonists, but you will have many other things which are just as much part of their truth: look for the truths that you do know.
And don’t forget that, by definition, the story of a novel never actually happened, however close it is to the un-reclaimable historical events that did. So the only viable command for fictioneers is actually,"Write what you like, and make me believe that you know it." If a good writer can make dragons believable, or Thomas Cromwell sympathetic, then anything is possible, and who that writer is, is arguably beside the point.
But that doesn’t mean you can ignore the practical writerly dangers. For what it’s worth, when my Saturnian friends grumble about how badly Earthling writers write Saturnian history and people, the "badly" seems to come under broad headings:
- The Saturnian and Martio-saturnian characters are all the old, familiar stereotypes. By definition even neutral or positive stereotypes – that all Martio-saturnian miners on Saturn were wonderfully musical, hymn-singing Presbyterians – are off-the-peg characters and can’t come alive for us: there will be nothing individual, fresh or new about this second-hand package of characteristics. You must refuse to buy any character off-the-peg, but imagine them from the ground up, complete with nuance and newness.
- If the stereotypes are negative ones of a historically oppressed group they’re particularly likely to offend, and particularly important to watch for, and interrogate. Notice that I don’t say necessarily "to avoid". Historical accuracy or authenticity to the range of human nature may demand them: the fact that Earthling colonisers and their descendants consistently stereotyped Saturnians as tight-fisted or melancholic doesn’t mean that no Saturnian was ever such a thing.
- But if you can’t help having a character who conforms to an established negative stereotype, it’s worth trying to undercut it with something less stereotyped - a Martio-saturnian who is indifferent to music - and to balance them with others who run directly and convincingly counter to that: make some Saturnians open-handed and sanguine - and put in some some jazz-singing Roman Catholic miners there too, whether or not there are any in the recorded history. (Unless, obviously, there is an explicit law recorded that no Catholic could be a miner. Most writers would feel they'd have to conform to that part of the record.)
- The characters are just Saturnian in a superficial way, for modishness, or as a cheap bit of bolt-on characterisation. The easy, obvious name-checks, brand-names and cultural symbols have been plucked straight from Wikipedia and other pre-filtered sources, and the writer hasn't properly dug into the culture, and worked at the individuality and nuance of what being fully Saturnian – or Martio-saturnian – means for who they are and how they act.
- What the writer knows or has researched of Martians on Mars, or Martio-earthlings on Earth - perhaps because there are many more sources, or they're more easy to read - is imported directly and applied to Martio-saturnians on Saturn, despite the fact that there are two centuries of different experience behind them, a different legal context, and significantly different culture. It's like researching the culture of Jane Austen's Bath and using it to write a story set in the Moscow of War and Peace.
- Every single minute of every single scene among Saturnians and Martio-saturnians is about The Issues. Perhaps in an effort to make sure he/she takes the issues seriously, the writer has lost sight of the fact that sometimes Saturnians are just people having dinner or sex, or disembowelling enemies or sewing curtains. This is particular egregious if your scenes among Earthlings, on the other hand, are about all sorts of "just people" things, not particularly to do with The Issues of being an Earthling.
- Earthling characteristics and attitudes are the norm and default – which often means taken-for-granted and not evoked. Meanwhile the Saturnians and Martio-saturnians are all busily evoked as Other, even when the point-of-view is ostensibly Saturnian. It may be an attractive, exotic Other, but their voices, clothes, food, colouring, manners and attitudes are always commented-on, and dealt with in terms of their difference from that unremarked-on norm.
- All the Saturnians and Martio-saturnians are painted as angels. The writer’s motivation may be pure – or simply fearful of the Twitter mobs – but as well as being dull storytelling, it’s also offensive, it could be argued, not to grant Saturnians the full fictional-human right that you have granted your Earthlings to be villainous, stupid, awkward or just smelly.
The Too-Long-Didn't-Read version of all the above, of course, is that ethical writing and good writing involve the same processes of care, research, detailed imagining, and ruthless self-editing, just as unethical writing and bad writing are both caused by the writer being slipshod, lazy or unimaginative.
So, how might you avoid these traps, and write something which you feel ethically comfortable with, and so able to ignore the shrieks of calling-out from the loonier fringes of the Twitterverse?
- Be sure – I know you are, Tony – that you are telling this story for honest and responsible reasons, and because you respect the experience of those on whom you’re basing it.
- "Research till your eyes bleed", as writer Emily Gale, puts it, and that includes not only material facts, but the points of view, experience, voices and direct testimonies of Saturnians, Martians, Martio-saturnians... and Earthling-descendants, because the original sources and voices have nuance and complexity that the bulk cultural memory, and the websites, have sifted out. The wider the range of stories, responses and attitudes you can find, the more material you have to choose between, and the more nuance and individuality you’ll be able to draw on.
- Walk many miles in those shoes – or bare, calloused feet – imaginatively speaking. It’s not just responsible and respectful, it also helps you creatively. Again, good writing and ethical writing involve the same processes: pushing your imagination beyond the first idea, the necessary basics, the perfectly serviceable solution, to the things with fresh life and the sting of the first-hand and real.
- If you’re really worried, ignore the censor to let your first draft flow, and later double-check by finding someone who can read your work specifically for these issues. In other words:
- Seek out a sensitivity reader - and if the phrase spikes your blood-pressure, take a chill-pill. Any male writer with any sense, writing a childbirth scene from the point of view of any woman, let alone the one on the birthing-stool (no, in many cultures it's not a bed) would seek out a woman who's been there and pushed that, and ask for feedback. That's sensitivity reading: just another form of essential feedback. For example, the writer Courttia Newland, who is of Jamaican and Barbadian heritage, but mainly sets his fiction in the West London of his own origin, says that if he's writing West London characters with a heritage from other islands, he'll seek feedback from such people, as part of developing the nuances and subtleties of a complex interactions of communities and individual histories. In your case, Tony, you'd be looking for an experienced Saturnian or Martian reader or editor who will reflect back to you their experience of how that group is evoked in your novel.
- Remember that your sensitivity-reader does not have censorship rights (unless the book's under contract and your editor decides they do). It's your book and your rules, and besides, no one person can represent the whole of any group, especially not its history - no one can. You have to be the ultimate creative arbiter of what you do with any feedback, but this should open your eyes to what you, as an Earthling-descendant, just don’t know about being a Saturnian or Martio-saturnian, living on colonial or post-colonial Saturn. Even if you can only find some and not others to help you, it should still help to awaken you to your own Earthling defaults, and what specifics need more research.
- If you are anxious about being "called out" about fictionalising real people, then put an Historical Note at the end, to make clear where you’ve deviated from the record or imagined into its spaces.
And, finally, hold on to your confidence that fiction works by evocation, possibility and imaginative recreation, to tell a story that never (in the strictly literal sense) happened. Your job is not to represent the current arguments about history and ethnicity, or even the historical record of them, except to the extent that it serves your storytelling.
And, one last thought: when it comes to non-fiction arguments about fiction, you don’t have to listen to, let alone pander to, anyone who doesn’t understand the difference.