“Writing the Other”: review of book and discussion of practice

In my twitter wanderings I stumbled across a recommendation for a book called Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Since I had just embarked on a story that set itself naturally within a post-apocalyptic aboriginal community I bought the ebook and sat down to read it while rocking the Baby Who Thinks Sleep is for the Weak. I have read quite a few articles recently about representations of the Other in speculative fiction (not just Others in terms of race, but also sexual orientation and identification, ableness, age, etc). I noticed there is a distinct lack of racial diversity in my writing due to writing what I know (and I’m actually surrounded by whiteness here in my little suburban pocket of Brissie). I’ve decided to make more of an effort to include diverse characters, not because of tokenism, but because as a woman I always hated feeling excluded by all-or-mostly-male stories, and one question I read was “where are all the characters of different races? Different ages and abilities?” My world is not just populated by white, straight, able-bodied men and women. And I am going to make an effort to acknowledge that in my writing.

This is a tricky subject area, and writing as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied person I clearly need to remain aware of my privilege and try to not speak for the minority groups that I do want to include in my works. Nisi and Cynthia write that we will never be perfect in our representations of Otherness, but that is no excuse not to try. If the majority of writers of spec fic (who ARE white) don’t try, then spec fic will remain largely white. Personally I want to see more works by writers who are non-Western, have ambiguous sexuality or gender, have disabilities… basically people who see the world differently from me (but whose perspectives I haven’t read before).

In terms of the book, Writing the Other… I found it a valuable read and will incorporate the techniques described (and the self-critique) in my drafting process. It still feels daunting, and I can understand why writers (especially new and emerging writers) often play it safe and stick to the perspective that they know. But I want to challenge myself, and stretch my writing to include more.

This is timely for me as I (mentioned above) have written a story for The Included Middle (tbp) that features several characters who are indigenous Australians. I suffered a lot of anxiety over my portrayal of them and the culture, and over my decision to make the main character white in descent. I rewrote some scenes, thinking they might be presumptuous, and changed some details after doing some additional research. When I finally hit post I will be open to feedback if I got it terribly wrong. If you liked it, let me know too. I’ll post here when it’s up (tentatively scheduled for Monday… Lloyd still has to work his audio mojo).

I’d love some thoughts on this: do you actively try to represent diversity in your works? Do you find it hard to write other perspectives (even along gender lines?) Do you worry about “doing it wrong”, or falling into stereotypical thinking?

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