Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part II
In her last guest entry, Mary Anne Mohanraj introduced herself and began speaking about race and science fiction and fantasy, concentrating specifically on points useful to everyone. Today, she’s talking on points useful to writers.
MARY ANNE MOHANRAJ:
Part II: For Writers
- You get to write whatever you want, including CoC (characters of color).
- You may worry about being criticized for your handling of race.
- PoC don’t have an obligation to teach you how to write CoC well and avoid criticism.
- Nonetheless, here are some suggestions on how to write CoC well.
- You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.
When I was a little girl, my father brought me fairy tales from the library. I devoured those stories of little blonde princesses, wishing the whole time that my hair was long, and blonde, and bone-straight. It eventually grew long, but without a lot of expensive chemical help, it’s never going to be blonde and straight. But I pretended it would, that some day I would wake up with flowing blonde locks. Because what choice did I have? When I was a little girl, princesses were blonde. That was just the way it was. For a long time, that’s all I had.
Then I found Star Trek. Classic Trek is an early attempt at fictional diversity, with its black female communications officer, its Asian navigator, its Russian pilot, and its Scottish engineer. It’s easy to critique Star Trek now for clumsy tokenism that was pretty far from a reflection of real society, relying as it did on stereotypes and caricatures. But in truth, Star Trek was a ground-breaking forerunner, ahead of its time in many ways. Kirk and Uhura’s kiss was the first interracial kiss on television, and Whoopi Goldberg tells a wonderful story about watching Star Trek as a young girl and running into the kitchen yelling, “Mommy, mommy! There’s a black woman on television and she isn’t a maid!”
Much as I liked Uhura, Spock was the one I truly loved, the character I identified with. Yes, he was male, and green-blooded, and alien. But he was like me — caught between two worlds, never quite at home in either. As a child, there were so few characters in the genre I loved that weren’t white, that I latched on to anyone I had a hope of identifying with.
Is it important to have diverse characters in your fiction? I say yes. For the sake of your readers, of any color, who want to occasionally take a break from the straight white male protagonists of so many many books. So often we’re offered a generic version of that protagonist too — just vaguely a white guy, instead of being a Polish-American second-generation teenage boy whose restaurant-owning father died in the Nazi camps and who now works as a line cook in a grimy diner on the north side of Chicago. It is the specificity, the detail of our lives that makes our characters live and breathe, creating the illusion that the people we write about are real. We live in a complex world of varied and specific identities; if literature is meant to expose the truths of the human heart, we should portray humanity is all its diverse glory.
Sometimes writers worry that if they start explicitly noting characters’ races in their stories, then the stories will become about race, which isn’t what they want to write. Personally, I find stories about race fascinating, and wish people would write more of them, which is what the Carl Brandon Kindred Award was designed to encourage, but that’s really a side note. Because letting one of your characters be black doesn’t immediately make the story be about blackness.
A classic example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, which I absolutely love. I found those books as a child, and I’m not sure I noticed then that the main characters are brown-skinned. It’s possible I skipped right over that, because I was so caught up in her incredible story. But as an adult, re-reading these much beloved books, I was so pleased to realized that these people were brown. (Ged is actually red-brown; his friend Vetch is black.) The books aren’t about race at all, but they handle race beautifully. And when they finally made a tv miniseries about these books, I was so excited — and then utterly crushed when I found out they’d made all the brown characters white. It made me want to cry. Le Guin wasn’t happy about it either.
Another common argument writers put forward for not including race in their science fiction is the idea that ‘in the future, race won’t exist anymore.’ There are two big problems with that idea. One is a simple plausibility issue. If you’re writing near-future SF/F, set in, say, the next two hundred years, then the idea that all of the current Earth-based racial divisions will just disappear is just implausible. It’s not going to happen that fast, if it happens at all. (And in fact, when two or more groups mix, quite often, new groups arise out of that mixture, sometimes more individual groups than you started with. This is where the ‘mosaic, not melting pot’ analogy comes in.)
If you really want to write a future without ethnic division, I’d argue that you have to earn it. You can’t just wish for it or assume it. Figure out how it happens, and convince us. Is a homogeneous world really what you believe in, or are you just being lazy? And what makes you so sure a homogeneous world is desirable?
The other problem is that even if everyone intermarries like crazy in the next few generations and creates little beige babies (like I did), I’d be surprised if race disappears — it’s so deeply tied to culture, and people have incredibly strong emotional ties to their cultural heritage. My daughter Kavya can easily ‘pass’ for white. But I’m going to be exposing her to her Sri Lankan heritage too — I’ll take her there, if the damn war ever ends. Ask her if she wants to learn bharata natyam dance, like her aunt does so beautifully. I hope she’ll decide to learn Tamil, which is a beautiful language with an incredibly rich two thousand year literary history. It’s a language that I can barely speak, and I deeply regret that loss. (I’m working on learning it again. Hard.) I’d also like her to travel to Scotland (her father’s middle name is McLeod). Maybe she’ll adopt the clan tartan, or develop a taste for haggis. These cultural details add so much richness to life (infinite diversity in infinite combination) that I would be very surprised and saddened if they’re all gone, a few hundred years down the line.
As an editor, I value diversity for another reason — because it provides variety of reading experience. When I’m putting together a magazine or an anthology, I’m usually looking for variety in story length, in mood, in subject matter — and definitely variety in character and setting. It becomes monotonous to only read about one particular group of people, over and over and over again — especially if they’re portrayed as being very similar. In real life, even in a small, close-knit community, there are always many different types of people. I want the books and magazines I edit to reflect that, simply to keep my readers entertained and engaged. So I’m always excited when a writer sends me a story that steps outside the typical boundaries.
People criticize Classic Trek for its clumsy tokenism, but sometimes clumsy tokenism is a necessary first step on the road to diversity. If you haven’t tried writing about diverse characters before, a simple first step is to just change one aspect of a character’s identity to be other. Common types of diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, disability, and age; you could vary any one of those elements — or more than one — to start creating a more varied palette of characters in your prose.
1. You get to write whatever you want, including CoC (characters of color).
Let me start by saying that writing characters of color is entirely optional. Really it is. If you want to write about Quakers in space, and can do so as brilliantly and beautifully as Molly Gloss does in her novel, The Dazzle of Day (the entire novel is essentially one long Quaker meeting on a generation starship, and it’s totally gripping), then more power to you. (Okay, now that I’ve used this example, I can’t actually remember if all the Quakers in her book were ethnically white. Just in case they’re not, please feel free to substitute in some other great book that only has beautifully-drawn and fully-realized white characters. There are many.) If you want to write primarily about white people, all I ask is that you do it well.
Ethnic today is often used as a code-word for people of color — or, to be even more specific, brown-skinned, yellow-skinned, black-skinned people. Not white. As if white people didn’t possess their own complex ethnic and cultural heritages. It’s a strange blind spot in the cultural dialogue, and it’s misleading and damaging to erase white peoples’ ethnic background. When you do that, it makes it a lot easier to see ethnic issues as people of color issues, something white folks don’t have to pay as much attention to. It leaves the challenge (and delight) of being aware of and engaging with ethnicity on the people of color, when really, that challenge belongs to every human being.
When I’m editing an anthology, I’m always startled by how many characters in submitted stories are generic white. The generic part is important there — they’re not just white, but some vague version of white that lends no interest to the character or the story. As a first stage in creating more vivid characters, I ask simply that you give your white characters some specificity in their whiteness. They could be immigrants from Ireland, or third-generation Polish-American, or in this country so long that they’re not sure exactly what all of their ethnicities are, but they do know that their great-grandmother left Germany when Hitler came to power, because she didn’t approve of his politics. And she took a few Jewish friends with her, and eventually married one of them. That’s a lot more interesting and more specific a character than the generic white one. Whatever the color of your own skin, you as a writer can take on the job of giving your white characters an ethnic background — or more than one.
So the first step is to make your white characters as real and specific as you can. The second step, if it interests you as a writer and/or you feel that it’s important to the field, is to include some explicitly non-white characters.
But wait — I hear many readers say — I don’t notice ethnicity in my fiction. When I read a story, I get caught up in the story, and I don’t care what the characters’ race is. They could be brown or black or red. I’d argue, gently, that that’s a misleading position to take. If the characters could be any color — they default to white.
Samuel Delany, a brilliant SF/F writer, one of my favorites, who has also written wonderfully about race in the genre, talks about the ‘unmarked state.’ Audre Lorde referred to this as the ‘mythical norm.’ If you open a book and start reading, and the main character has no markings of gender, of race, of ethnicity, of sexual orientation, then the default picture (however sketchy) in the readers’ mind is likely to be straight white male. (This sometimes get overridden if the reader knows what the author looks like, but not always even then.) Go on, test this. Pick up your favorite older science fiction and fantasy off the shelves, with those unmarked main characters, and re-read the first chapter — did you actually picture any of them as a bisexual Asian woman? I’d be very surprised.
So here are two (entirely optional) rules for you to test yourself on, from this point forward in your writing:
a) If you’re writing a white character, make sure they aren’t generic white. My partner Kevin is white; but specifically, he’s of mixed German/English/Scottish descent, whose ancestors came over many generations ago, and he was raised Episcopalian. Give your white characters an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do indicate it somehow — it’s not enough for you, the author, to know their history. Unless the reader gets an intimation of it as well, that character might as well be generic white. Names, clothes, hair, foods, diction, holidays, memories, can all signal ethnicity to the reader without a blinking neon sign over their heads saying “fifth-generation Irish-Croat”.
b) If you’re writing a white character, and if there’s no good reason for them to be white, change their ethnicity. This one’s harder than it looks, because it’s surprisingly easy to come up with reasons that seem good on the surface. But really poke at those reasons, and try to figure out if it’s possible to change the ethnicity without compromising the story you’re trying to tell. Who knows? It might make your story more complex, more interesting — it might make that story better.
2. You may worry about being criticized for your handling of race.
A lot of writers are hesitant to take race on — white writers are worried about writing people of color, and even people of color become hesitant about writing other people of color. I feel some of this too — in particular, I worry about writing black American characters. I worry about getting it wrong, being offensive, contributing to damaging cultural stereotypes, making people mad at me. I worry about this so much that I don’t think I’ve written a single black character yet. Coward. Yes.
Even within my own ethnic background, I worry — when I wrote Bodies in Motion, which starts in 1939 Sri Lanka, I was worried about how much I would get wrong, as someone born in 1971, raised almost entirely in America. I was worried that the locals would feel that I’d appropriated a culture I didn’t belong to — and worse, that I’d gotten it wrong, misrepresented them to the outside world. If I did, that would be not only bad politics, but bad art. I want my fiction to reflect the world and its people as they actually are.
If you start thinking about all the ways in which you can get things wrong, it’s easy to be paralyzed by that fear, to retreat back to only writing characters who are just like you, or so vague that they can’t possibly be mistaken for anyone real. But again — that makes for bad fiction. If you’re going to write well, you have to get past those fears. Your library of characters contains the whole human race, and you have both the right and the responsibility to portray any member of it in your work. You just do your best to get it right.
3. PoC don’t have an obligation to teach you how to write CoC well and avoid criticism.
Look, this one is really a practical issue more than anything else. Most PoC writers and fans I know are quite desperate to see well-written characters of color in the literature. They would love to be able to help you do a good job with this. But they just don’t have the energy or the time! Remember that ratio I talked about in the last essay? In fifteen years of working in SF/F, I have met less than thirty writers of color. I have met several hundred white writers. Imagine — if all of those white writers started writing characters of color (which would be fabulous!), and then turned to the nearest writer of color and asked politely for help with those characters — the PoC would just be besieged.
And the further along you get in your career, the less time you have for your own writing, much less helping other people with their writing — the business of writing takes over. (Not to mention, as we get older, many of us have more demanding day jobs, or partners, or children that need tending.) At this point in my life, I would love to be able to advise every writer who wanted me to look at their story and talk about how they did writing characters of color. But I just don’t have the time — so I reserve those conversations for close friends, and for my students, who have paid for a portion of my time. Most writers of color are in a similar position.
Even if PoC do happen to have time to help you, they may not be inclined to do so. Some people are natural critics, able to notice problems, but without any idea how to fix them. Or maybe they’ve just run into one particular thing that seems clearly racist to them, and so they call it out. Often the response from white folks is, “Tell me how to fix it!” It’s good to remind yourself that that’s not actually their job. Just repeat quietly to yourself: No one owes me help with my story. Well, unless you’re in a workshop. Maybe you should join a workshop?
If you’re not in a workshop, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck and have to flounder in this morass all on your own.
4. Here are some suggestions on how to write CoC well.
This is what I’d do, if I were writing, say, a Sri Lankan character from the 1960s. Some writers start with research, but I am a painfully lazy writer and research as little as possible. I’d draft the story first, doing my best to make that character as real and interesting and non-stereotyped as I could. I’d use my imagination, and my experience, and whatever empathy I could draw on to try to paint a whole person. I’d think about contemporary Sri Lankan-Americans I know, and try to remember what my grandparents were like, and do my best to extrapolate backwards. I’d write the story.
If you are less lazy than me, you can also do preliminary research — a lot of writers swear by it. Read books set in that locale, ideally written by local writers. Watch movies. If by some chance you can travel to where your story is set, do so! (We offer an $800 travel grant at the SLF specifically to help writers with that, mostly because when I was a poor grad student writing Bodies in Motion, I couldn’t afford to go to Sri Lanka to do research, and it drove me crazy. Not being able to go back also resulted in a few minor errors in the book, despite all my research and cross-checking, which I am still quite bitter about.)
If your story has black folks, and you don’t know any — well, go out and make some friends. It’s easier than it used to be, now that we have the internet. There really are a lot of fans of color out there, and while they shouldn’t feel obliged to read your story and give you feedback (sadly, no one feels obliged to do that for writers), if they become friends, they might well be willing.
You may also want to check out Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s book, Writing the Other. It’s a good starting point for practice incorporating the other into your writing. Some argue that it doesn’t go far enough, and Deepad’s wonderful essay, I didn’t dream of dragons should also be required reading on this subject.
Once I finished drafting my story, I’d take a deep breath, and send it out. I know some writers prefer to keep their work close to their chests — me, I want as much feedback as possible before something goes into print. So I have a readers’ list, which is pretty much anyone who has ever said they might be willing to look at my work and give me feedback. Over time, that’s grown to be a pretty diverse bunch of people. I send the story out, sometimes asking for specific feedback on an issue — i.e., I might say, “Hey, so if anyone here can check whether my Sri Lankan 1960s guy seems realistic and plausible, that’d be a huge help.” Or, “Folks, there’s a gay male sex scene in this story. Obviously, I have no idea if I got this right. Help!” (In that particular case, two gay men wrote back, and both of them said the scene was a little too ‘girly’. I put my head down and revised.) You draft, and get feedback, and revise, and send it out again. Repeat until you think you’ve got it right. Then submit the work, and hopefully someone will buy it and publish it.
5. You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.
After all this — after your research and honest effort and cross-checking and passing the story by members of the community — odds are, you’ll still get it wrong. That’s okay.
Sure, it sucks when someone points out that that some minor character of yours feeds directly into a massive racial stereotype. God, that stings. Maybe you just weren’t aware of that stereotype at all, so it’s pure ignorance on your part. More likely, you were familiar with it on some deep unconscious level, inherited from the sea of racism we’re all swimming in, and it shaped your character-building without your even realizing it. Ouch.
But when this happens, and it will, the key is in how you respond to it. It’s not helpful to immediately go into denial mode. If you honestly don’t understand the criticism, ask for clarification. If, after careful consideration, you disagree with the criticism, that’s fine too. Say so, if you want, and move on. Or, better yet, don’t say so — it’s often better when authors don’t try to defend their work, although sometimes I have a hard time remembering that. Maybe your reader is just having a personal, idiosyncratic response to your story — you can’t define ‘getting it right’ as ‘satisfying every single person of that ethnicity / skin color / affiliation with that identity’. Sometimes you just need to let them have their response to your story, and not take it too much to heart.
If you, on reflection, agree with the criticism, then it’s good to note that publicly. Apologize, if you feel the need, although I’m often not sure that’s actually necessary. I’ve found that it’s generally enough to say, “Wow, I totally didn’t see that. Thanks for pointing it out.” And then move on, resolving to do better next time. You will almost certainly get better at creating character of color, with practice. You will mess up less often. (Or perhaps you will simply make different mistakes, and that’s all right too. Writing is in large part about the journey, not the destination.) Sometimes, if you work hard, with the grace of whatever gods help poor writers and fools (in Hinduism, I think that’s Ganesha), you may get everything exactly, perfectly, right.
One final note. Let’s say you, the white writer, are now deeply interested in Sri Lanka and would like to incorporate Sri Lankan characters into your fiction. I think that’s great, and give you full permission to go ahead and do so. (Not that you need my permission. You don’t!) You write some Sri Lankan characters, and do a great job, and everyone pats you on the back for doing it so well. There’s still one small problem.
I’ve encouraged white writers here to write about other cultures, other ethnicities. But sometimes we run into the problem that most, or all, the representations of a culture are coming from outside the culture. It’s so much easier for you or I to get published in America than it is for local Sri Lankan writers to get published, I can’t tell you. The difference of scale between the American publishing industry and Sri Lankan publishing is enormous. There’s only one major Sri Lankan press that I know of, and when they applied for the rights to publish my book in Sri Lanka, they couldn’t afford the $600 HarperCollins asked, because that translated to effectively $6000 in Sri Lanka, which would have destroyed their annual budget. If I’d realized that was the issue at the time (I didn’t figure this all out until much later), I would have paid the damn $600 myself. But that’s a side issue.
The point is, given this discrepancy, I feel that it behooves me, as an American author who benefits from Sri Lankan material, to do everything I can to promote Sri Lankan authors. Primarily, that means buying and reading their books, posting reviews, spreading the word. I also try to help bring the good ones to America to give readings, and put them in touch with my agent, in the hopes that it might help them get published here.
I wouldn’t say that any writer has to do any of this. As a writer, your main obligation is to write your truth, as honestly and well as you can. If you’ve fallen in love with another culture and want to write about it, please do. But if, in addition, you can do something to help writers from within the culture get their voices heard — well, I think that’s a good thing. And I thank you.
I want to acknowledge the very helpful comments I received on both this piece and the previous one from Kate Bachus, Jed Hartman, Nalo Hopkinson, David Moles, Debbie Notkin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Ben Rosenbaum. I didn’t agree with or take all of their suggestions, and the final version is entirely my own, but both of these pieces are far better for their thoughts and insights.