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bear by san

March 2017

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criminal minds prentiss text

whatever you're doing, you're probably wrong.

So I was thinking this morning about what I said about having a problem with the lack of female characters (other than the redheaded assassin) in kenscholes' book, and that got me thinking again about an ongoing problem in all writing (and most art), which is, of course, Writing The Other without being a dick.

I still hold by the unpopular theory that it's actually pretty simple. (Simple, in this case, still does not mean "easy.") That in the long run, we are all people, and the basic similarities in the Venn diagram are more prevalent than the differences.

Please note, as a fantasy and science fiction writer, I spend a lot of my time writing things that are really Other--intelligent wolves and giant talking stag-headed ponies, for example. Also angels (fallen and otherwise), hyperintelligent supercolloids, virtual winged dinosaurs, and other stuff. So I keep thinking, well, if I can write something that doesn't even have the same senses I do, how hard can it be to write a Jewish former Army Captain from St. Louis?

Well, the problem is, I'm much more likely to run into a Jewish former Army Captain from St. Louis. And she'll tell me I'm getting it wrong. The talking stag-headed flying ponies don't have much of a lobby here on our planet.

But here's the thing. Unless I'm going to write people just like me, I'm going to have to write The Other. And there's gotta be a limited market for EBear self-insertion novels. Especially if it starts looking like that scene in Being John Malkovitch, where all the Malkovitches are walking around going Malkovitch Malkovitch.

You know. Like you do.

And besides, then I'd just be like, the butch girly version of Tom Clancy, and--well, that doesn't bear thinking about.

So I'm going to have to write people who are not like me. Okay, cool.

How do I do that?

Well, I think the first step is to stop thinking about those people as The Other. Because they're not. I mean, okay, they may not be a lot like you? But they're also people, and if you can question your own cultural assumptions about what people ought to be like, and also the stereotypes you've probably assimilated without knowing it, you can hopefully write people who are not just like you.

They're not Those People. They're people. People are us.

You may not be able to do it with the kind of deep immersion somebody who grew up in that culture can--one of the real joys about leahbobet coming on board for Shadow Unit is how much easier it's getting to make Falkner properly Jewish--but you can at least try not to make a dog's breakfast or a blaxsploitation film out of it.

You probably know some people who are not like you, and not like mainstream culture either. One thing to do is ask.

I am not Jewish. I am not Catholic. When I write Jewish or Catholic characters, I try to get a couple of friends who are Jewish or Catholic to read those stories and tell me where I blew it. I'm also not middle-class, black, latina, Muslim, Canadian, white American (in the sense that yes, I am fairly amelanistic and chiefly though not entirely of European descent, but my cultural upbringing has very little in common with that of your average WASP)...

...I'm really not anything at all. I've rejected the subculture I grew up in and was acculturated to. I'm totally out of touch with what it's become in the intervening fifteen years.`

So if I'm going to write anybody, really, I have to find somebody to ask. 

When I wrote "Sonny Liston Takes The Fall," I threw myself on the mercy of a lot of friends with heritage through the African diaspora, because it was important to me to get it right.

Not writing the story was not an option: it was in me and it wanted out, in the way that art has. And I still honestly think it's my best work, and I really hope I did it justice.

But when I write, I am very aware, always, that if I am writing a character who has a personal background that is not bog-standard, there is going to be some twelve year old kid out there who is going to find that character, and it's going to be the only character like them they have ever seen, and if I screw it up then I am, essentially, tossing sand in the eyes of that kid.

I knew that when I was writing Lily in Whiskey and Water. I knew it when I was writing Jenny Casey.

Actually, now that I think about it, I suspect the thing that all of my characters have in common is that they are somebody's Other. Because, having been the Other all my life, it's what I know how to write.

And because of that experience, I desperately do not want to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the normalization. I want to work against the idea of The Other in any way I can. I do not wish to contribute to tokenism, or stereotyping, or kicking sand in the eyes of that twelve-year old kid.

I've been that twelve-year-old kid, and I've seen my story exploited (cheaply, commonly, because some of the things that contribute to my own status as Other are things that are hot-button issues for a lot of readers, and easy for the writer to install and then push, push, push) and you know what?

It feels awful, and I'm going to try very hard not to do it to anybody else. I will probably fail, because people do fail, but I'm going to try.

So, okay, I said it's simple but not easy. How do I do it?

1) For one thing, stop thinking about this person you're writing as The Other. Think of them as human, an individual. Not A Man. Not A Woman. Not A Chinese Person or A Handicapped Person or A Person With Cancer or a Queer Person. A person. Stop trying to make them universal, and make them unique.

1a) Do not use Otherness as a basis for pointing out how Wrongheaded Those People Are. Or, conversely, How Enlightened And Noble. They're not. They're people. Sure, you can pick the subculture you like and line 'em up and knock them down, and some are easier targets than others. But out there, somewhere, is a 12-year-old kid just beginning to tentatively explore her sexuality as a furry, and do you want to be the one who makes her feel even more ashamed and awful than she already does?

If you are going to write about people, try to be humane about it. Please do not use queerness, whiteness, blackness, obesity, or any such thing as a shorthand for Ebil. (I have a special hate in my heart for Teh Ebil Albino. One of my best friends is albino. I will give you a Very Disappointed Look if I find you bandying about Teh Ebil Albino. Guy Gavriel Kay, I'm LOOKING AT YOU.)

Also, do not use it for a shorthand for Good. If all your good people are carnivorous and polyamorous, and all the bad ones are vegan celibates, we're going to catch on. You're either overcompensating, or you really hate vegans.

(One of the editorial comments on Carnival was that the New Amazonians should be culturally lesbian. I said no for several reasons. One: I believe straight people exist. I even know a few. Two: I was not going to have that subtext in my book, thanks.)

2) If you do not know a great deal about people who share experiences with the person you are trying to write, research. Find some people whose lives were informed by similar experiences and talk to them. Read primary sources.

ETA: per nojojojo's comment below, do the research before you corner your friends. Possibly even do the research, write the story, and then ask them to read it for dumb mistakes. if your friends are writers, so much the better. Also, do not assume that the experience of your friends is Universal, because they are also unique individuals, and real live cultures and subcultures resist being simplified into An Experience. (The Gay Experience. The Black Experience. The White Experience. The Rich White Guy Experience. The Jimi Hendrix Experience... okay, that last one is valid.)

Also, if you actually understand what you are writing about, it's much less likely to come across as exploitative or hurtful.

3) Listen. And try to listen with openness and without assuming you understand. In anthropology, we talk about ethnocentrism, and the idea that cultural preconceptions color everything we perceive. Try to alienate yourself a little from your own tribal programming. Try to set aside your gut reaction to things that may seem horrifying or inexplicable or ignorant, and accept that your tribal programming is just that, tribal programming, and this other person's life is as valid an experiential path as your own.

When you create, try to reflect that, rather than using it as window dressing.

ETA: 3a) When you create your alien races, please please please try to make them something other than thinly disguised Japanese people. It's racist, and we will notice. No, really. We will.

4) Diversify. If you have one woman, one person of color, one queer, one whatever in the universe you're creating, chances are that they will be perceived as a token, and anything you do to them will become fraught with symbolic freight. If you only have one female character, and her major contribution to the plot is to get raped and then marry the hero and have babies, I don't care what you intended to say about her strength and recovery from trauma, I'm going to see a writer who brings a woman on stage just to have her get raped and let Hero Protagonist show a little sensitivity. If you only have one character of color, and she's there to teach the protagonist earthy wisdom, mentor him, and then get snuffed, I'm going to roll my eyes.

5) Be wary of patterns. If all your characters who are not like American Culture Base White Middle Class Protestant Male Able default seem to have the same sorts of things happening to them, people will catch on. (Frank Miller, I'm looking at you.)

6) Accept that no matter what you're doing, some people are going to think you're getting it wrong.

And that's okay.

Quite probably, for them, you are, but you can't make everybody happy. It's physically impossible. And at least you'll be doing the best that you can.

Comments

I agree with most of the points you've made, but I would like to point out that when you say something like
I'm also not middle-class, black, latina, Muslim, Canadian, white American (in the sense that yes, I am fairly amelanistic and chiefly though not entirely of European descent, but my cultural upbringing has very little in common with that of your average WASP)
it carries the implication that all differences are equal, or that in other words, a writer's responsibility to treat each character as a Special and Unique Snowflake is analogous to the writer's own individuality.
I mean, whether you choose to identify yourself as a WASP or not, (and not knowing your background, its certainly not a label I wish to give to or withdraw from you), I am not sure how you can reject being called a White American--regardless of your differences from what might be the mean or average experience of that demographic.
I can't reject being called it. People are going to assume what they're going to assume.

But I lack the acculturation, and I don't identify.

As for WASP--White, yes, mostly. Anglo-Saxon, um... about as much as I am Cherokee. Protestant? Not at all. Raised Pagan, grandparents who professed no religion that I was ever exposed to.

Working-class background, grew up in pink-collar poverty in racially mixed neighborhoods, divorced parents (back when that was still A Stigma), Lesbian mother, Assyrian step parent.

My exposure to Middle American culture is through television and friends. *g*

(But this isn't about me,
I'm not sure if your comment got cut off in the middle?

I can understand that you wouldn't want to identify as WASP, and that you do not consider yourself as part of mainstream White culture. But there is an embodied (problematic and socially constructed as it is) racial identity beyond culture, and I'm trying to understand how you would define yourself in that respect.

Perhaps I haven't made my point clear--what I'm trying to say is that feeling alienated from a culture and expecting writers to do justice to each character's individuality is not analogous to being the Other and looking for writing that does justice to characters from a culture that has been textually ignored or misrepresented.
The rest of the comment was, "This isn't about me, or my racial identity: it's about the fact that for me, white middle class people are far more a foreign country than people of color or queer people, because those are the people I grew up with."

I'm speaking here strictly in the context of art, from the point of view of the artist, not trying to claim any special racial status. If I want to write a middle-class Caucasian protagonist whose ancestors were in the US long enough to become mainstream, I have to figure out what life is like for them as an outsider, because I don't have that cultural perspective.

When I talk about having some experience with being othered--being raised queer and pagan and being a survivor of child abuse are all things that make me a person who sees people like her treated as aliens--ignored and misrepresented--in fiction. Growing up in a gay household in the eighties wasn't the mainstream experience that having two mommies is now, to the extent that it's a mainstream experience.

When I talk about rejecting the culture of my upbringing, what I mean is radical lesbian separatism and Dianic Wicca, not mainstream white America. I've had to learn about mainstream white America from the outside, and I'm still pretty sure that I don't have it right.

Does that better explain what I'm getting at?
What makes you think that radical lesbian separatism and Dianic Wicca are all that radically "Other" to white America? They both come from white America.
Dianis Wicca, at least, is an offshoot of white middle-class America, even.

OTOH, my experience of lesbian separatism as a child was that it was about the most multicultural thing I have ever seen.

But othering and marginalization come from the outside, don't they? It's somebody else looking at you as less than human.
Oh, I just realized--how I define myself racially? I never answered that.

Swedish, Ukrainian, Hutzul, Irish, German, Scottish, English, and Cherokee, in more or less descending order of percentage. (Possibly a little African, because the one grandmother who was not an immigrant or the child of immigrants is Southern, and as I understand the genetic lottery, it's pretty likely, but that's just playing the odds.)

I check the "Caucasian" box on forms. I have the luxury (and I *do* realize it's a luxury) of being white enough that people in corporate culture often don't realize I'm an outsider until I get past the interview process.

It's only later on that my codeswitching fails and they start edging away from me. 0.0

(I do understand what you're saying, at least I think I do.

And I am not denying the existence of white privilege, or that I benefit from it. One of the tenets of the radical culture I grew up in was that women of color were to be honored above white women, because they were more oppressed under the Patriarchy and closer to the Goddess and so forth. Which is a kind of prejudice and othering in itself, and one I'm still working on.

And I have some prejudices of my own--my Swedish grandfather's wrath descended upon the Italians, and it took me years to get my head around that prejudice, and I still detect weird little scraps of anti-Italian bias in my psyche. Likewise, if I don't watch myself, I'll tend to take the opinions and friendships of people of color (especially women) more seriously than those of whites, because of this idea inculcated in me early that brown people were better than pale ones. Also, I tend to dismiss older or aggressive men out of hand, and defend my space from them vigorously.

So yes, I'm a bigot. And I benefit from cultural biases. Absolutely. I acknowledge those things.)
Being part of outsider culture, not being middle class, not being WASPy, etc. etc. doesn't mean you aren't white.

It's certainly complicated when one's internal sense of racial identity doesn't match up with external sense of identity. But I think it's important for anti-racist white people to acknowledge their whiteness. Saying "I'm not white, my ancestry is [insert list of mostly European countries" is ducking the issue.
i don't get the impression that's what she's saying at all. i do get the impression that you're not actually reading what she's saying just to score anti-racist points. she's not denying anything. enough, already, okay?

Please see discussion above. What I mean by that, in this context, is that mainstream white culture is as Other to me as anything else, and something I have to research to write it. I don't mean that white privilege has somehow passed me by.
It sounds to me like you are talking about one set of issues, from the standpoint of a person living in this messed-up society, while Bear is talking about a different set of issues, from the standpoint of a writer who wants to realistically portray individual people in a made-up, but realistically complex world, in a way that will be enjoyable and not hurt-provoking, and hopefully healthy and thought-provoking, to her many and (hopefully) very varied readers in the real world.

Both sets of issues arise from the same complex mess America calls by names like "race relations", and they are therefore related issues, but they aren't the same issues.

From the standpoint of what she looks like, and how people will treat her before they know who she is an individual, of course she's white, which she admits. But you can't make her feel white if she doesn't, any more than you can make a depressed person feel happy because you think they should be happy.

But more important is that her statements are within the context of her goals as a writer. After all, most people will experience her stories when she (and her skin color, and for that matter her ethnic/subcultural upbringing) are not there to be seen.

As a writer I have to say that internal experiences and understandings are very pertinent to the creation, maintenance, and portrayal of fictional people.

And as a reader, it's the story I care about. When I fell in love with Octavia Butler's writing, I had no idea of her racial or ethnic background--and I didn't care. No more than I had an idea of Andre Norton's race or gender when I first discovered her books, or CJ Cherryh, or any number of others.

A good story with unique and interesting characters is its own justification. Reading about the mental calisthenics authors use to produce good story after good story after good story is, to me, inherently interesting, and hopefully instructional.

And distinct from comments intended as social commentary. IMHO, anyway.
Thank you for the clarification; it helped.
Glad to be of service.
Swedish, Ukrainian, Hutzul, Irish, German, Scottish, English

These are nationalities and/or ethnicities, not races.

I think you're being overly, and insensitively relativistic when comparing oppressions. There are some aspects of being a child abuse survivor, a woman, and growing up in a queer household which are comparable to being a person of colour, but experiencing those things doesn't add up to an equivalent of being less privileged by racism as a white person.

I think this is part of the issue with your piece. While 'otherness' might be a technical problem for writers, it's also a manifestly social problem for people who are othered. And you treating it as a technical problem has tended to be relativistic when it comes to the real, material inequalities that people experience, which leads to the cultural marginalisation that causes othering. Some cultural marginalisation results from oppression, some doesn't. And it looks like you've extended your conflation of the two in how you speak about your own identity.
And by 'relativistic' I mean it trivialises the impact of oppressive othering by comparing it to non-oppressive lifestyle choices, communities and identities.