Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 2, part 2

Malinda Lo, photo: Kevin S Moul

Malinda Lo, photo: Kevin S Moul

One of my most anticipated sessions at Desert Nights, Rising Stars was with YA writer Malinda Lo on Writing Diversity: How To & Why Not. Malinda began by explaining that she’d proposed the topic as a way of addressing questions she is constantly being asked about who has permission to write what, how to write diversity well, and how to avoid criticism. She started by noting that ‘diversity’ is an imperfect word, ‘shorthand’ for people of colour, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and disabled people, ‘in other words, everyone who is not the white, straight, cisgender, abled norm’. She then answered the question of who has the right to write diverse characters very directly, saying, ‘Every writer has the right to write whatever they want, but every reader has the right to read what they want.’ (For Malinda, this means choosing not to read white men writing on Chinese women). She added that writers not only have rights but also responsibilities, and that to write diversity well means doing the work — there are no shortcuts.

In terms of the ‘why/why not’, Malinda’s first point was to ask ‘Why do you want to write it?’ If your intention comes from guilt, however well-meaning, this will colour your story and is unlikely to result in good writing. Better to appease your white guilt by buying books written by people of colour. Loving another culture – or more commonly, a single aspect of another culture – is also seldom grounds enough to write about it, often resulting in the fetishisation of that culture. ‘Allow your love to take you a little deeper,’ Malinda advised. Her second question to ask was ‘What privileges do you have?’ Unless you are made aware of your privilege, she said, your writing is likely to lead to oversights and biases. She directed us to resources on her website (click on ‘blog’) that address privilege. Her third question was, ‘What power differentials are involved?’ Here she highlighted the self-doubt that results from growing up, not seeing yourself reflected in anything (books, movies, etc). She noted that white writers risk oversimplifying matters because we have not had this experience.

Photo: Kevin S Moul

Photo: Kevin S Moul

In terms of ‘How to’, Malinda’s take home message was: ‘Do you research with humility and respect — there are no shortcuts.’ Step 1 is ‘Approach with Humility’. Do not mistake your hobbies for expertise. Respect the culture that you’re writing about. Step 2 is ‘Avoid cultural misappropriation’. Cultural misappropriation, Malinda said, ‘occurs when a more powerful culture cheerypicks aspects of a subordinate culture and uses those cultural artefacts in a way that is completely divorced from its original context or intention.’ It ‘is not the same as cultural exchange or cultural appreciation’. It is fine and natural to be inspired by another culture, but you need to be aware of context to avoid stripping away meaning. Research is an important part of this, and it means ‘moving beyond Wikipaedia’ to Step 3, ‘Do your research. There are no shortcuts.’ Effective and thorough research involves reflection, reading a lot and asking a lot of questions. Paying ‘sensitivity readers’, better called ‘cultural experts’, is also recommended, though Malinda noted that as a writer, you don’t have to take all their advice. She added that there is no way of doing research that avoids making mistakes altogether; and that criticism is ‘not the end of the world’ but rather an opportunity to learn. Two novels recommended as effective examples of authors writing across cultural boundaries are: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olin Butler, and The Boat by Nam Le (that last one was my suggestion).

Prior to Malinda’s session, in an effort to step outside my usual comfort zone, I attended a panel called Where do we go from here? – After the Apocalypse with Matt Bell, Benjamin Percy and Paolo Bacigalupi. This fascinating panel took in differences between dystopian (‘the world got broke’) and post-Apocalyptic (‘the world is falling apart and we slowly have to put it back together’) literature, how post-apocalyptic literature reflects the anxiety of the age, and the ethics of writing violence. Matt Bell and Benjamin Percy try to avoid writing violence that is enjoyable, less it spills into what Benjamin called ‘gore-nography’. Paolo felt that imposing moral judgments on what should and shouldn’t be writing closes off avenues of creative exploration. Any violence, he suggested, should align with the values of the overall story. There was also discussion about how to avoid didacticism in post-apocalyptic fiction – or how to be political without being polemical. One suggestion was to avoid giving good people good values and bad people bad values. Another was to think beyond simplistic concepts – such as the ‘strong man’ structure (good vs evil) at the heart of novels like The Hunger Games – in favour of more complex models. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood were among the authors recommended for their non-didactic fiction.

For my final session of the day, I had the great privilege of being a late ring-in for a panel called Writing borderlands: Geographic and personal boundaries with Acoma Pueblo Nation poet and author Simon Ortiz and author Benjamin Alire Sáenz. I mostly listened to my fellow panellists as they talked about their experiences of marginalisation – ‘growing up as Americans even if we don’t feel American’, as Simon put it – and the importance of resistance. Benjamin, who grew up in the ‘liminal space’ of the US-Mexico border, argued that ‘borders are false’. In a blistering critique, he said that ‘borders are to keep poor people out. Rich people can go anywhere – there are no borders for them.’ He added that Americans ‘are not taught to break down borders, we’re taught to build walls.’ My own small contribution was to challenge the idea that Australia was a land without borders, with reference to the AIATSIS map of Indigenous languages that shows the boundaries that existed prior to white invasion, and to talk a little about being a white writer aware of this legacy. (I added that I would not have been on such a panel had there been an Indigeous Australian in the room). I had a couple of participants tell me later that the AIATSIS map was a real eye-opener for them.

After a faculty dinner (‘faculty’ being the collective noun for conference guests/teaching staff) at ASU, a few of us kicked on at Casey Moore’s Oyster Bar, stopping for last drinks at the Gringo Star in Tempe, where we talked about the value (or not) of social media to writers. Upshot: it don’t sell books, it takes up a lot of time, it connects you to your readers (maybe) and also to trolls. Merry-go-round and swings, really. An intense, inspiring day.



About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the 2011 Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria.
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9 Responses to Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 2, part 2

  1. What fascinating sessions, Angela! And thank you for sharing Malinda’s advice. It’s very helpful as writers reflect on what they want to write, and why they want to write it. This really sounds like a very rich conference.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was a great pleasure to meet you at the conference this weekend. Thanks for your presentations and helpful insight on other sessions. Have fun with the rest of your Arizona travels!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Haydn Savage says:

    You are certainly enjoying the conference.An intense experience!


  4. julietwohig says:

    Love all these tantalising tidbits from the conference, Angela. Thanks so much for sharing – especially the post-conference chat over drinks about the value (or not) of social media. Interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another great write up Angela. I particularly liked Malinda Lo’s session. This is an issue I’ve discussed on my blog. Theoretically, I agree that anyhow should be able to write anything but those of us in the majority culture do need to be sensitive to things like the power differential and tread very carefully. I’ve come to realise that it’s a bit of a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If a writer ignores other in their novels they can be excused of continuing to make other invisible, but as soon as they include “other” in their work they have to have a voice for that other and can get into trouble for getting that voice wrong. My conclusion – which is easily said since I’m not the writer, though I guess I am affected when I try to review books by or about other – is exactly what she said, i.e. that “there is no way of doing research that avoids making mistakes altogether; and that criticism is ‘not the end of the world’ but rather an opportunity to learn”. In other words, we should not ignore, but we ready to be picked up and when we are have humility and listen.

    I enjoyed your report of the next session and that challenge of being political without being polemical. And good point you made about borders in Australia. So little is known about us, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sue. I found Malinda’s session particularly helpful in terms of my own writing practice, and I thought she was very gracious and generous in conducting the session in the first place. I must admit, I’ve become a fan girl.

      Our fear of criticism, at least in Australia, seems to me tied up in the lost art of debate. I would love to see more considered debate of the issues, and thoughtful critical discussion of works by authors who write across the cultural divide. Criticism can only be a learning opportunity if if opens up rather than shuts down a conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, good point Angela. Good, articulate, analytical criticism not emotion is what we need. BUT I understand that it’s hard when we have the history we have. It will take time but hopefully we’ll get there.


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