Writing Excuses Cruise – Writing the Other – Pt 1

Like yesterday, I’m going to rely on my notes from the cruise to put this post together.  K. Tempest Bradford taught this course and she did a fantastic job.  I’m going to weave my thoughts in with the notes, and I’m going to make a couple of admissions.

The first admission: I was afraid to meet Tempest in person.

I knew her name from this article she wrote a few years ago.  In it, she talked about how she was having difficulty reading short stories until she excluded one demographic: straight white men.  Once she did that, she found that she really enjoyed what she was reading.  Her challenge to her readers: stop reading fiction by straight white men for one year.

Begin a straight white man that really wants other people to read what he writes, I had a difficult time with this message.  From the article, it looks like she asserted that fiction written by straight white men is terrible.  That isn’t an assertion I can agree with.

I only read the article one time several years ago, but it stayed in my mind and I remembered her name because of it.  I was afraid meeting her would be uncomfortable.

As it turns out, I really liked meeting Tempest and I thought she had a lot of great things to say and teach on the subject of writing about characters that aren’t straight and white.  The crux of her article wasn’t so much that straight white males are bad writers.  The problem with the stories she was reading was that there was a lack of representation and diversity.  Or, when straight white male writers did try to include non-white characters in their stories, many of them relied on stereotypes or cliches.

She’s not wrong and I’m glad I didn’t let my fear keep me from being open to what she has to say.

 

Second admission: I still have a lot of work to do on the subject of writing inclusive fiction.

I don’t have any other perspective other than my own.  I can try to imagine the point of view of others, and I try to be loving and open and listen with empathy.  The truth is, I have never had to experience the racial profiling that so many men and women have had to suffer.  I don’t have to be afraid to walk across a dark parking lot at night.  I’ve never been forced to feel ashamed of my sexuality or gender, and I’ve never felt compelled to try and hide my sexual orientation.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t write characters that live with those experiences.  It just means that when I go there, I need to be respectful and authentic, and I may need to rely on the input of my friends with marginalized backgrounds to make sure that I’m not turning what they’ve gone through into something offensive or stereotypical.

I have two novels finished and a complete draft for a third.  The first novel is about a young man from southern Louisiana.  He’s had frequent trouble with the law, and he starts off the story living at or below the poverty line.  He goes by Mel, but his first name is actually Melchizedek.  Statistically speaking, he could be a young black man, and I wanted to keep that as a possibility.  On top of this, there isn’t a single descriptor in the entire novel describing the color of his skin.

Much to the chagrin of my friend Tim, I wrote him that way intentionally.  The main reason is that I want anyone that picks up the story to be able to project themselves into Mel’s story.  Imagine for a moment a bathroom sign.  The little man depicted there has no race, and being as plain as he is, he’s able to be representative of all men.  I gave Mel some strong personality traits, but I was very spare with his physical descriptions so that he could to be anyone, just like the bathroom sign man.

A secondary reason, and perhaps this is my third admission: I’ve always been a little bit afraid of writing a main character that isn’t white.  I don’t want to do the literary version of running around in black face.

 

That’s probably enough for initial thoughts and admissions.  Let’s get to my notes.  The first class was titled: Description, Language, and Writing Inclusive Fiction

 

Describing the "other"

State what is there for everyone.

Don't reach for what's easy.

Resource: Writing with Colour

Watch out for:
  • Received language
  • Cliches ex: almond eyes
Does your viewpoint character think their appearance is the default?

How would they describe themselves?

How do they think about and describe how other people look?

Do your other characters remind them of someone?

What does your character notice?


Hammer it home

 

Much of these notes are fairly straight forward.  A lot of this has to do with being fair in your treatment of race.  If you’re going to describe a black character as black, why wouldn’t you also describe a white character in the same scene as being white?

The latter part of the notes deal with thinking from the perspective of your characters and really getting into their head.  We have a tendency to mark out the ways in which other people are different from us as well as the ways we are the same.  This goes for age, gender, skin color, hair style, clothing style, social status, distinguishing physical features, health and physical able-ness, and any other obvious ways mark people as different or the same.  If I’m going to write a character that is different from me, then I need to think in the ways that they are different from me.  I need to look at the world they’re living in through their eyes.

Something I remember that I failed to capture in my notes: avoid food comparisons when describing characters.

Another one of the points in this session: don’t be lazy.

The last note, “Hammer it home,” is about being brave and forthright.  Describe characters fully and honestly.  If you’re respectful and avoiding food metaphors and cliches, you can describe any character, regardless of race.  And if you’re like me and you want to write about and read about a world full of diversity, you have to describe the characters fully so that the reader can see what makes them diverse.

 

I have many more notes from the second class so I’m going to stop here and mark this as part 1.  I didn’t expect to split this topic into two parts, so if you find this topic as interesting as I do, please let me know so I can move part 2 up in the schedule.

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