Sunday, September 25, 2011

Writing the other

Writing the Other
Because of my interests as a writer (and an occasional critical scholar) I oftentimes find myself in a tricky subject position--as someone who wants to write about the other, without actually being an other. While I suppose that I am marginalized in the sense of being female, the rest of my experiences typify white, middle-class America. So I start to feel uncomfortable, or insensitive, when I write stories with characters whose place in the world is less secure than my own (either because of their geographic location, race, religion, sexual orientation, or class). I feel like a fraud, a phoney. I worry that I am objectifying and exoticizing someone who is historically disempowered or that I am embarrassingly ignorant regarding experiences that are different than my own. As a writer, I struggle with my desire to tell important stories, but I also want tell stories authentically. How can I do both of these things? How can I write about a culture or group of people to which I don't belong?

Publishers Weekly recently posted an
article about the intentional exclusion of gay characters in YA Literature, and a friend of mine responded to this article on Facebook. She wrote: "I've always wanted to write a gay character, but because I'm not gay, I feel that I don't have the authority." Apparently I'm not alone. It seems that certain stories are exclusive. We think that they can only be told by certain authors, and those authors must belong to the group they are trying to represent. Otherwise the work is crude or inaccurate.

To give another example, while perusing the Internet for publications that might be interested in my work, I noticed that Jersey Devil Press offers a
behind the scenes take on the editor's preferences. One of Monica's "justifiable grounds for homicide" is men who write as female narrators. To be fair, Monica qualifies that statement, writing that the reason for her disdain is the number of offensive submissions her press receives, stories in which male writers rely on chauvinist cliches or sexist stereotypes. Still, I somehow feel that by making certain subjects exclusive, we're promoting the same problematic boundaries.

I'm interested in this question of who "owns" the right to marginalized content because I am currently at work writing my thesis, a collection of short stories centered around the 2007-8 election crisis in Kenya. I'm not Kenyan, nor am I of African ancestry, and as I work through this project, I've begun to question my right to tell this story. I wasn't there. As I said, I'm not African, and I don't have much (any) experience with political unrest. Part of me wants to stop writing about Kenya, for all of these reasons that make me feel small and somewhat ignorant, but I also think that it's wrong for Literature to have exclusive subjects, for it to have boundaries, or limits.

I don't really have an answer to the question of whether or not it's okay to write about the other, but because it's been bothering me, I thought I would put my thoughts out there.



  1. I tried to remove the weird spacing in this post, and Blogspot wouldn't let me. Sorry! Marilyn

  2. Marilyn, I just stumbled upon this post (perusing the journal's wonderful site), and I think it's a very interesting question. It's something I've been wondering myself. I wrote about it in a blog post, which I'm going to link to mostly because of the insightful comments left by a few readers (some of them fellow writers), who seemingly came to the conclusion that without those authors who take risks in attempting to cover ground that is not familiar territory -- even when it comes to identity -- the world might be missing out on a lot of great literature. The post and comments are here if you're interested:

    Though I still worry about the possibility of an audience reading unintended generalizations into a piece simply because of the identity dynamic (between author and subject). Then again, that's a risk regardless of subject, I suppose.

  3. Thanks for the advice Rochelle. Navigating this controversial territory has really been a challenge for me. I'll check out your blog post!