Being a writer means leaving the fields we know, and transcending direct personal experience to tell a story. But what if the realms beyond these fields are already populated? What are the boundaries when writing about experiences that are not your own? This week I attended another Emerging Writers Festival panel to hear Roj Amedi, Michelle Law and Wendy Chen discuss the reponsibilities of writers who represent others, and ways to do so more mindfully. As someone who writes characters from diverse range of cultural backgrounds, I was eager to learn from this session and I was not disappointed. While not doing justice to the wide-ranging discussion, I wanted to capture in this post some of the points I found most helpful.
One of the panel’s messages was that there’s no ‘right answer’ when it comes to writing across cultural boundaries. While, as Roj pointed out, this is not licence for toxic language or ill thought out ideas, it is important for writers to take risks and, if called out, to reflect and learn from it. ‘Bite the bullet, be brave, it’s okay to be wrong,’ as Michelle put it.
The panelists talked about using fear as a force for ‘good’ in writing. ‘Fear can be powerful,’ Wendy said, ‘because it reminds you to listen to others.’ She quoted Chinese-American writer Gene Luen Yang:
This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities. After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage readers to do the same.
(I loved this quote so much I chased Wendy after the session to make sure I got it right!). Wendy added that there’s a difference between fear of being criticised and fear of hurting others. She said, ‘the latter can be useful because you’re recognising the power of fiction, and if you recognise that, then you are also aware of how meaningful it is when people do see themselves represented.’ On the other hand, fear of criticism ‘is counterproductive because you’ll always be criticised.’
All three panelists emphasised the importance of meticulous research in developing a nuanced understanding of cultures that are not the writer’s own. They also suggested finding respectful sparring partners — on Twitter or IRL (in real life) — people who don’t share your ideas and force you to justify your own beliefs. As in actual sparring, Roj said, the aim is to build trust: ‘you’re not supposed to get bruised!’ Building networks among the people you aim to represent is also important, though you need to acknowledge their ’emotional labour’ as cultural informants.
Another take-home message — something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately — is the importance of humbling yourself, recognising that the dominant view is a ‘clouded lens’ that can obscure the lived reality of experiences outside our own. For those of us fortunate to appear on panels from time to time, this means sometimes passing the microphone to someone better qualified to speak on the topic at hand.
Wendy reminded us that ‘there’s a huge range of experiences within one community and/or identity’. Roj noted that ‘tokenism can be a problem if you’re writing from a politically removed position. If you can imagine a person of that [character’s] background cringing when they read, it’s probably tokenism.’ Michelle said, ‘I don’t like tokenism, but I think it’s better than nothing because it starts a conversation.’ All the same, she urged us to ‘write well-rounded characters, not foils.’
Thanks to Roj, Michelle and Wendy for a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion. I hope you won’t mind it if you find yourselves being quoted in my PhD…