I dread being controversial or political online, but I want honest and sincere thoughts on this, with as few in the way of flame wars as possible. My question is more or less: if you’re not a member of a certain minority, do you get to write about it? Since I’m a novelist, I’m thinking in terms more of fiction here than nonfiction or journalism.
On the “no” side, the argument is basically (I’ll just quote this blog post here), “It is not the place of a cis straight person to represent the LGBTA community in order to claim progressive thinking on their part. … By all means we should be allies and make all efforts to be diverse in our work, but we should not seek to take their stories from them when there are so many creators from the LGBTA community who go ignored in favor of mainstream medium, and who would give a far more accurate account and portrayal of their stories. The same goes for race. In that instance, write what you know is applicable.”*
Fair enough. But on the “yes” side, which I admit is the side I’ve been working from all these years, the argument is: assuming the portrayal is done with as much taste, compassion, and realistic accuracy as the author can scrounge up (as opposed to using stereotypes or playing the characters’ culture/orientation/etc. for laughs), then surely it’s better to have more types of characters in more books, no matter what background the author comes from.
Even though I’m white and heterosexual and middle-class and American and therefore boringly generic and privileged in most ways, I recognize the problem of ethnic minorities and LGBTQ characters being underrepresented in entertainment. Plus I’m honestly into some of the stories that could be told with such characters (I’ve long squealed in delight over slash fiction, as nearly all of you know), so I want to write about them. I have this perhaps naïve hope that if someone reads a book that gets them (the readers) thinking more kindly about types of people they didn’t think about very much before, and gets them seeing more types of people as fellow humans with equal status to themselves, then hurray! The book has done something worthwhile! And it doesn’t really matter who the author is, in that case.
In fact, I’m the self-effacing type of author who doesn’t want you to think about ME; I want you to notice just my stories, my characters. It isn’t about me. This becomes a problem when it’s time to get out there and market my work in person with bright smiles, which is a task that sucks the life force out of me, but I digress.
So am I wrong? Should I be respectfully backing off and allowing “those groups” to tell their own stories? I certainly encourage anyone to do so who wants to, and I don’t want those stories to be ignored in favor of mine just because I’m white and privileged and stuff (though given my superbly modest sales figures, I really don’t think anyone’s favoring my work over others, so honestly I doubt this is currently a problem).
In my Greek myth series, I have some gay or bi characters, and others I picture as black or mixed-race. I don’t make A Big Thing of it for the most part; they’re just character details, mentioned alongside what color clothes they wear or what kind of salads they prefer or whether they like loud parties. (As an introvert, I found it WAY easier to write the gay or bi aspects of characters than to write Tabitha’s extroversion--she’s the reincarnated Dionysos, and loves organizing and attending parties, and drinking and being loud. I can’t comprehend being like that. But love and crushes, sure, I get those.)
I do try to avoid stereotypes. I’d rather a book didn’t include any gay characters than have it include one who lisped and called everyone “sweetie” and wore glasses with pink glittery frames. Same goes for all the ethnic-group issues you could run up against. I imagine, if anything, I err on the side of my black characters being too much like the white ones, such that you might not even know they’re black. But then, I also went that route because for the purposes of this story, it doesn’t exactly matter what their genetic makeup is. Also, a friendly mix of races and cultures is part of the new global civilization, and I feel like we do get to be casual about it, as long as we’re compassionate to everyone.
The one “minority” I belong to is that of women, and I’ll go on record as saying I have nothing at all against male authors who write in depth about female characters. In fact, I think more of them should, as long as they follow the guidelines discussed above: avoid stereotypes, view everyone as a human with equal rights and personal subtleties, be as fair and realistic as you can.
Anyway. The more I ramble about this, the more I realize it could be an entire doctoral thesis (and I’m sure it has been for lots of people), so I’ll leave it at that. But I welcome anyone’s thoughts! If you’re gay or trans, does it bother you if straight/cis people write LGBTQ characters? If you’re black or Latino or Asian (or fill in the blank), does it bother you if generic white people write about your ethnic group?
Further good reading on the topic: Why I Am Scared to Write About Diversity, by Cait at Paper Fury
* I do love this quote from that same post, though:
“ 'You should only ever write what you know.'— Whenever I read advice like this I can’t help but feel like Mary Shelley had some fucking weird anatomy classes I never got at school, and that I’d like to try whatever Tolkien was having." Ha! Quite so.