Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Writing the Other:
a book that’s useful to all writers

I’ve been meaning to read it for ages. All it took was a blog post.

Specifically, this blog post was what prompted me:

I (and others) have said many times that when you write stereotypical or downright offensive minority/marginalized characters, it’s almost always due to bad writing

Good Writers, Coasting, and How You Can Avoid Joss Whedon’s Mistakes by Tempest (905 words).

Writing the Other is a practical guide to writing about, well, writing about anybody who isn’t like you.

I’m told it’s also a highly regarded writer’s workshop if you are so inclined.

It’s one of those books where you wish we lived in a world where everything it said was common sense. But we don’t. It’s a short book. I highly recommend it and it’s only £4.45 on Amazon.co.uk and $6.97 on Amazon.com.

What follows are some of the book’s highlights.

‘Writing the Other (Conversation Pieces)’ by Nisi Shawl, Cynthia Ward (26 764 words)

This passage made me think back to my undergraduate days (I did comparative literature, this was before I went wholesale into the digital thing).

We mentioned the unmarked state earlier, when talking about the differences each of us have from the dominant paradigm. This particular term, “the unmarked state,” is drawn from literary criticism. It denotes the state of possessing only those characteristics that are literally not remarkable. A character in the unmarked state has a certain transparency; he (and we use the pronoun advisedly) allows readers to read the action of the story without coloring it with his particularity. (16% in)

It’s a simple idea: there’s stuff that the reader considers normal that they will drag into the story to fill in any and all gaps.

E.g. unless you explicitly state that somebody is black or gay, then the reader will assume that they aren’t.

Each of these departures from the unmarked state allows readers to inflect the story with their own judgments, their own experiences and unfounded beliefs concerning people marked by whichever characteristics the author specifies. (18% in)

Don’t think you can escape from the unmarked just because you write non-fiction or blog. The unmarked state is an issue in all writing:

  • Business commentary that assumes everybody is male.
  • Technical or political commentary that assumes everybody lives with a developed infrastructure. (Hell, decades of right wing cutbacks mean that many of us in ‘The West’ don’t.)
  • Social commentary that assumes everybody is straight.

Journalists, columnists, commentators, and bloggers are all guilty of assuming that the world is of one kind and one colour and it harms their writing.

If you yourself are in most points congruent with the literary convention of the unmarked state—if, for example, you’re white and straight—your path through life will be smoothed in ways you can’t even see.

After all, you don’t notice the abuse you don’t experience. (18% in)

The book uses the term parallax for when there is a skew between the author’s assumptions and social reality as the reader knows it. The example they use is that of story where a Main lobsterman is best friends with a queer New Yorker, something that apparently would be seen as unlikely (though, not impossible) by people raised around Main lobstermen.

The Maine lobsterman’s parallax could have been established even more precisely with a single sentence. Cynthia’s incredulity as a reader would have been eliminated if the Maine lobsterman character had just once thought that it was strange that he got along better with a New York queer than with the guys he grew up with. (26% in)

Personally, I experience this sort parallax every single time I see or read a story that is set in a Nordic country but written by somebody non-Nordic. You’d be amazed at how many small details people get wrong and how readily they slip into clichéd stereotypes.

Oh, and don’t assume that everybody is the same:

Group membership does not inherently determine, predict, or predestine anything about any individual—or any character.

Various group memberships can influence behavior. But none of these categories’ traits need have a constant, overriding influence on your character.

Do you spend every waking moment thinking about your ROAARS traits? About your high blood pressure? About being a science fiction writer? About the town you grew up in?

No. And neither should your characters. (34% in)

This here was advice that had never crossed my mind, but it seems likely to work:

To help herself as an author connect emotionally to her own heroine and to increase her readers’ ability to empathize with her Nisi focused on some specific non-ROAARS characteristics she and her audience might have in common with Belle. She made her a picky eater. She described her as deeply in love—a condition not everyone is in all the time, but one potent enough to remain a vital memory long after the actual experience. But the main congruency Nisi established between Belle and her creator/consumers was the character’s intoxication with words. (38% in)

And this really is just common sense (or should be):

Generally, a secondary character has one main character trait. However, a secondary character shouldn’t be that one trait exclusively. Neither should all the secondary character’s few illustrated traits point to the same ROAARS category. That makes a stereotype of even the most minor of “bit players.” (40% in)

Basically: don’t use stereotypes; don’t use clichés.

And the following passage should be stapled to most journalist’s foreheads. Most of them really don’t understand that they are always telling a story that is several steps removed from the truth, even when they are sticking to the facts.

As we all know, there’s a difference between recounting the facts and telling the truth. Objectivity is problematic in journalism; and when it comes to fiction, it’s a moot point. Though someone may have said or done something that accords with your view of those of a different ROAARS classification, the act of selecting this event for representation in your work moves it from the realm of the objective to that of the subjective.

You noticed it. You decided it was important. You placed it in a certain context. You scripted your other characters’ reactions to it. You’re trying to imbue it with meaning, and there’s no escaping your responsibility for that, whether or not the attempt is successful.

Just because you’ve based what you’ve written on something that truly did occur doesn’t mean that what you’ve written is the truth. Your story will benefit from your examination of the implications of what you’ve written, from the feedback you receive on its impact, from your consideration of how typical it may be, and from your questioning of what other parts of the picture you may have missed. (53% in)

Another important point is that you often have to earn your way in.

During the same panel that inspired Goto’s poem, audience member Diantha Day Sprouse categorized those who borrow others’ cultural tropes as “Invaders,” “Tourists,” and “Guests.” Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.

Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal. (Sprouse, personal communication.)

A good deal of transcultural writing’s bad reputation is owing to authors and audiences who act like Invaders. (75% in)

And, finally, I loved this philosophy.

Many of my ideas on working artistically with another’s culture derive from my religion: specifically, from Ifa priest Luisah Teish’s thoughts on ancestor worship. In her classic Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals, she advocates broadening the concept of descent to include the enjoyment of all the benefits we derive from all the world’s cultures: “Is your dress made of Japanese silk? Yes? Then revere those ancestors. Having cornbread with dinner tonight? Recognize the work of the Native Americans.” (79% in)

That’s just a small fraction of the points and observations made in the book. Even though it’s geared for fiction writing, I think many of its lessons apply to all writers.

I loved it.

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