I'm going to take a brief break on the "mega list of Feminist links" today to discuss something that came up over the weekend on an Armadillocon panel. The panel was titled How to Write What You Don't Know. Basically, it was about writing diversely and inclusively. It was a great discussion, expertly moderated by the fabulous Tex Thompson. I want to emphasize this. It was a great discussion and a great panel. I've seen topics go horrible -- off the rails bad. That is not how that went down. Every person on that panel: Nicky Drayden, Wesley Chu, Marshall Maresca, Kirk Lynn, and Tex Thompson did a brilliant job. Every one. I'm only bringing this up because there's a point I feel I could've made better. And hey, all of this discussion is about refining one's ability to communicate, and thus, help resolve the problems humanity faces. I blame Wes Chu. By arguing in an intelligent, thoughtful way on this one point, he made me defend my position. Wes made me think. I can't tell you how much I value that in a friend. It's amazing.
The point has to do with whether or not it's okay for a writer to say, "Fuck it. I'm not a member of this group. But I'm going to write about it anyway." There was much discussion about how writers need to at least try to write what they don't know. This is how inclusiveness happens. And it IS. It was stated that research was necessary as was respect. Yes. I absolutely agreed. Hell, yes! And I added that writers need to remember that you can approach a subject with respect and do all the research in the world, including interviewing those who have the experiences which you're writing AND YOU WILL STILL MAKE MISTAKES. There is no fool proof method to writing about other cultures. None. This will always be a risk. Always. But do not let that stop you. Writing at all is a risk, people. Fiction writers work with their subconscious. All artists do. Thus, you're baring your subconscious to the world. In print. There's no taking that back once it's out there. Period. It's there. In indelible ink. (If you're lucky.) In addition, I said that there are exceptions to the "it's okay to write about whatever group interests you even if you aren't a member" rule. (Because there is.) I mentioned that there are minority groups that have asked particular authors (that have come to them seeking research interviews) not to write about their group. Specifically, Native American groups. I said, "Sometimes the answer is no. And that's okay. You have to accept no as the answer. Sometimes we don't have permission to do whatever we want. You have to look at the possible harm you're doing." I went into detail as to why this was particularly problematic.
Wes said I was basically full of shit. Which was great. Wes respects me as an author and a person. We know one another. He gets me. He merely disagreed with me. This made this discussion a discussion and not a lecture. It made it far more entertaining for the audience too. It was obvious that he said what they were thinking. That was cool. But there were clusters of white people in the hallway afterward loudly complaining about how I was being 'too PC' and well...insert the usual bullshit excuses for not seriously thinking about racism. That, bats and ghouls, is NOT COOL. VERY NOT COOL.
But back to what Wes said...
Specifically, he said that there is no legal spokesperson for minority groups. Largely, he's correct. However, he's incorrect when it comes to indigenous peoples of North America. Quite a few tribes have leaders. They're small enough groups that the leader in question can speak for the group. If you go to a tribal representative, and that representative gives you an answer, they're speaking for the group. It's their legal role. So, if you go to them, and they tell you no. The answer is no. I said that fiction writers should respect that answer. The room fell apart. Someone asked, "But what can you do after that?" I said, "Write something else. Story ideas are a dime a dozen. There's plenty of space in which to play creatively. Be creative! Do something else. Do what you will, but do no harm." Wes said I was being ridiculous, and it was obvious that the room felt the same. I knew I wasn't, but I didn't have the words to explain why. It didn't come to me until later.
If you go to someone to ask permission--and if you're writing about a specific American Indian tribe, you should--you must allow for the possibility that the answer is no and accept that no means no. If you go in already knowing that you'll only accept a yes you're not asking permission nor are you treating the subject with respect. There's a name for what you're doing. It also begins with the letter 'I' but it isn't inclusivity. It's imperialism. Creativity is an invasive, intrusive, and sometimes destructive force. For that reason consent is important. Context is the thing. Indian tribes are the exception to the rule. Understand that. There's always an exception. More importantly, always allow for the possibility that the story you're telling isn't yours to tell. Always be aware that the group about which you are writing isn't yours. You are an outsider. You cannot maintain a respectful attitude without that awareness. The moment you claim it for your own and that you alone define what it is (beware of the expert), you're in serious trouble. That's cultural appropriation.
I look at it the same way that I do about sex: consent matters. Are you, as a fiction writer asking Asian Americans permission to include them in your story? No. You can't. That's stupid. Wes was right, largely. There is no one person that speaks for everyone--particularly among that set of Americans. Go forth. Research. Tackle the project. Have fun. Take the risk of inclusion. You'll make mistakes. But in order to keep the respect needed, I feel it's important to approach the subject matter as if you have to ask permission. For me, it keeps me out of trouble.
All in all, this is a complex issue. There are no easy answers. Don't look for them. If you're looking for easy, you're being lazy. Fiction writing isn't for the lazy. It's damned difficult work. Always remember that. One more thing: I've found that I'm more creative when I have a world with borders. I'm a problem-solver. It's how I think. I need constrictions with which to contend--just not too many. I've a feeling that that's pretty universal.
is a Science Fiction and Fantasy author living in Texas.