Writing The Other and Cultural (Mis)Appropriation
I am a member of the human race. If I can track it down and understand it, it belongs to me just as much as it belongs to anyone else. If I can take something with gentle hands, with respect, without bigotry or ignorance, and try and give it life - even while acknowledging that the butterfly I am hatching is not coming out of its original chrysalis - I believe a writer has a right to do this. By all means be senseitive, and be thorough, and have the requisite amount of respect - but we simply cannot be confined to writing only and absolutely what we have ourselves experienced or most of the writers writing today might as well hang up the "closed" sign right now. And besides, let's put it this way - if it's okay to write about a world not yet born, a world wholly and completely invented, why is it not okay to write about the world that exists? And if a native practitioner of something you're writing about is moved by reading your work (whether positively or negatively!) to sit up and produce a better, truer, more authentic version of that thing - then the balance only swings to the positive, doesn't it?
Let me put it this way. I have written about a secret language of women, which existed once in long-ago China. I have wriiten a novel based on a historical period in CHina which was full of turmoil and drama. I was not there in medieval China to learn about the women's language first-hand; I did not experience the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution on my own skin - but the power of this world we are all living in today is that it is possible to find out about these things from people who DID experience them themselves. And "write about what you know" becomes "write about you can know".
Again, one word, and it's an important word: RESPECT. Do not deal with anyone's dreams with deliberate ignorance or malice aforethought. Beyond that, we are all human. It all belongs to all of us.
It IS possible to understand something you have no real experience of. It is, I know it is, for I have proved it. I submitted a story for a competition once - it had to be in the first person, and it had to be about blindness. I had a story about a blind guy, written in third person, with a main protagonist who was sighted - but I tweaked it, retold it from the point of view of the blind guy, and sent it in. ANd it got placed second. ANd I got an email which I still treasure: "Would you please settle an argument between my friend and me? We would like to know if you are in fact, or have ever been, blind."
To me, that meant I had nailed that character, the sense of being sightless. And all without spending one day in the true dark. *It is possible*. We, as writers, put on characters as masks - we may not think or react the same way as any one given character that we have written, but that doesn't mean that those characters are bad or wrong - I've known true-blue hetero writers write about gay relationships with a breathtaking sensitivity without EVER having an ounce of attraction for the same sex themselves. *It is possible*.
You may not, however, wish to share your attempts at "writing the other" with the reading public until you yourself are certain that you have done the best you can with it. And if you don't feel you can do something justice, then perhaps not ever. But *it is possible*.
Genre As Shield And All That Jazz
I tend to come down on the side of matociquala on this one - she said, somewhere, that she didn't think a story was worth writing unless it had that edge to it, the edge that opens minds and gives hearts a squeeze and wakes up sleeping souls. Somewhere in every single one of my stories there is an awakening of sorts. There is a central pain, because without that pain the characters are living happily ever after and "happily ever after" isn't a story, it's the ending of a story.
The book I always bring up as the ultimate diamond inthis kind of discussion is Guy Gavriel Kay's "Tigana". I still cannot get over how sharp that pain is, every time I read that book; how unerring the aim of his story dagger, which lodges straight in the tender core of me and hurts, hurts *HURTS*, drops of bright heart's blood coming from where it stabbed. And this, from a man who cannot possibly understand what it feels like to lose a country. But he understands pain, and he can convey it, and make his reader feel it and share it - and that story is luminous with it, transfigured with it.
I think we all have our own pain. I think that a story which seems innocuous to some may be a dagger of the soul to others. I firmly believe that it is our job, as writers, to try and understand where that pain comes from. If we get through to that ONE reader, the reader who understands with an instinct, with tears, with a response to some naked emotional truth - that will be a story well written.
True pain is tough. Writing about it is tougher still. But if you can lift up a hand and show a scar, and make your reader feel the heat of the fire that burned you, you've done a great and wonderful thing.
How not to deal with them. Vintage stuff. I can't put it better than this
I have this story. It's a good story. It's one of the few short stories that I've ever, kind of, you know, DONE - I don't generally write short, mainly because I run away with myself a lot and wind up with 180 000 word doorstops - even the second YA book, with me holding on to the reins every step of the way, eventually weighed in at a first-draft length of 108 000 - which, although not as and of itself LONG, *is* long in YA land. (We won't talk about HP here - and even Rowlings didn't dare put out real doorstops until book 4 or 5 in the series. You have to earn the right.) But back to that short story - look, I write in the genre. I READ in the genre. It's a good story.
Can I find a home for it? Not so far, honey. Not for lack of trying. So far I have uniformly got back responses of the "beautifully written BUT" variety. One of the "buts" was that it was not "upbeat enough" for that particular magazine's audience - well, hello, I am not the world's most optimistic spreader of sunshine, and yes, the story was a tad dark... but are they telling me we're into a publishing era where only a happy ending will do? (If so, I'm dead in the water...) In other words, I may disagree with the rejection - but spewing vitriol at the rejecter makes absolutely certain that I cannot look at that market again (because they will DAMN WELL REMEMBER ME!) and the market is shrinking fast enough without my adding to the problem. So, then. How to deal with rejection? Pack it up again. Send it somewhere different. Rinse and repeat, for as many options as you got. And when you run out of options, start something new.
It's good if you got 'em.
Even the bad ones.
That's all I'll say on that.
When The Novel Starts Talking Back
Kate Elliot writes over at the Deepgenre blog about this particular phenomenon - about a fellow who asked her what to do when his novel suddenly started growing and changing and generally misbehaving on him as he started to find out more and more about it, its world, its characters. And she said "This Is A Great And Wonderful Thing", and I second that, in spades. Because, as I keep on telling people, my name is Alma and I hear voices. ALl the time.
Good books, good stories, are like children - they are born out of our minds and our spirits, our thoughts and feelings and experiences, and in the beginning they are us and only us - how can they be anything other? They have never touched the world until they are released through the words a writer pours out onto a blank page. But liek most children good stories learn from their experiences. Their characters, given a bit of time to flex their muscles (as it were) learn things about themselves that even their creators never knew. ANd such stuff can change a story from the fundament.
It is a great and wondrous thing to experience this for the first time, let me tell you. "Number Five is Alive!" - and yes, it's off and running, and sometimes it NEEDS to be off and running. If you're only just starting out and you have a very strict idea about what your story is supposed to be about, it can be a scary thing to watch it careen out of control, as it were, and wander off at various tangents into parts of your mental map marked "Here Be Dragons". But follow the story, and meet the dragons, and have a bit of fire breathed on the tale, and you've got... something new. SOmething different. SOmething that isn't what you meant it to be, perhaps, but maybe something BETTER. And you can probably measure your own development as a writer from the day you first become aware that you have done this, let the story take its course, and not been paralysed by the prospect of where it might be going.
If you are a writer of any description, a New Year's Resolution which covers a lot of ground is simply this: Commit Words. Write.
Get on the road... and then go where it takes you.