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  • Writer's pictureMelinda

Writing "the Other" and How Sci-Fi Will Save Humanity

Why (in my opinion) we should ABSOLUTELY write from any and every POV

I may get some flack for this post and that's ok. Because arguments raised will only help me grow as a writer. Walk with me through this scenario I recently experienced.

A few weeks ago, a story came to me. If you're a fellow writer of fiction, you'll understand when I say I didn't write the story. It just was. And when these things happen, we, as writers, feel almost like translators of an already existing story. We must write it out but we are not creating it. So the story happened to be from the perspective of Simon, a high schooler and person of color. Simon is in the middle of discovering who he is. He uses 'he' for now but doesn't strongly identify as male or female. He has a crush on a boy. Cue record scratch sound.

"Oh, hey, Melinda, over there in your cis white privilege corner. What business do you have writing from the perspective of a person 1. of color, 2. identifying as non-binary?"

You'd be right. How could I begin to know anything about what it's like to be a black high school kid or a person assigned male at birth, whether non-binary or not? Well, I don't know the first thing. And I understand why some are against people like me writing people like Simon. It is tricky and has been done poorly. I run the risk of ignorantly writing dangerous stereotypes or writing only about Simon's gender, sexuality, and skin color.

This is dangerous territory.

But you know what I think is more dangerous? Never writing in anyone else's voice. If we wait until only LGBTQ+ writers write characters, we're going to run into scenarios in which there is no representation in the literature for groups of people that aren't cis white. The writing industry is dominated by cis, white authors. According to one 2015 survey, 80% of the industry was cis/white. If they all wrote only cis/white characters, we'd have no diversity in our books. This is not ok.

Look at the opposite scenario: am I going to tell a male writer he can never write a female character because some guy did it wrong? Hell, I've read female authors who botched female voices. We are going to write bad characters whether they're like us or not. So let's get some diversity into our books, not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because THAT'S THE WORLD WE LIVE IN.

Now, it should go without saying that if you are going to do this, do it right. Consume books, magazines, movies, music that is made by people of the group you are wanting to write. Read articles about writing the other. There are many with very specific focuses, like "how to write black characters if you're white," etc. Do your research. Why? Because this research will not only teach you about what it is like to be from the group you are writing, but it will alert you to common pitfalls and highlight mistakes you should avoid.

Diversity in books matters. I am a cis white female scientist. You know how boring my stories would be if every POV character was like me? I'll answer for you: extremely. Our books need male characters, children, people of color, people of every sexuality and race and religion and background. Because our world is composed this way, and fiction is the greatest medium for telling deep human truths.

And now for science fiction. "But science fiction is a genre!" you'll say. "What does this have to do with writing the other? Shouldn't this pertain to every genre?"

Yes, yes, of course, but per a mind-blowing conversation I recently had, science fiction can help us learn the importance of writing the other. After all, the genre that tells the future can surely offer us some guidance.

I had my mind totally blown recently by two insanely brilliant and well-read women in my family (I have many, but these two in particular in this instance). My mother in law, Ginny, said that sci-fi should be required reading in every high school. I was surprised. Sure, I love sci-fi, too, but it's not for everyone, right? Wrong.

She brought up Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, a book with a lot of gender-fluidity. She said that after reading this book 30 years ago, she had already been introduced to the idea of non-gender-conforming. So now, while the rest of the world struggles to wrap their minds around what non-binary means, those who have read The Left Hand of Darkness have already had that idea in their minds. Then, my amazing sister-in-law, Kate, brought up Star Trek. Their handling of race in a utopian-style future features people of all kinds of backgrounds interacting peacefully. It gives her hope for what our world could be.

And that's it, really, isn't it? Hope for what we can all be? I, for one, hope we can have representation in literature for every group possible. I want a little girl to pick up a book and say, oh, hey, I can be a superhero or scientist, too. And I want a kid who doesn't feel like they fit into male or female genders to read about Simon and identify with him.

One of my favorite quotes about this subject matter comes from author Mary Robinette Kowal. On Twitter, she wrote, "It's not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it's about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism."

Now, I'll admit, I'm still in the early stages of my writing journey, so I have not yet done all the research I will need to do. But I will always keep trying. I will make mistakes (and I hope none too large or offensive) but I would rather try than shrink away. I promise the following:

1. I will do my research to the best of my abilities first

2. I will approach every character and subject matter with the utmost respect

3. I will do my best to avoid writing about the entirety of any group, but rather I will write each character as one person

4. I will engage sensitivity readers from the group my character identifies with

5. I will accept responsibility for any errors I make in my writing

What are your thoughts? Let me have it! Leave a comment below. Thanks for making it this far. Check out some links below!

Some resources:

Writing the Other, a book by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

Washington Post article that I highly recommend

Article about mistakes white authors can make (yikes)

Podcast Writing Excuses has a handfull of episodes geared toward writing the other

(This list is nowhere near exhaustive. I suggest a google search aimed more closely towards your specific writing goals. There is a lot of information out there!)

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David B Marshall

Very well articulated Melinda. You've a great conversational writing style! I'm in agreement of what you've written. Furthermore, even if we identify with a particular gender and race, we are different. I think our emotional base and potential as people exists for everyone to ponder; it is a matter of listening and contemplating what is on the other side ... and there are many sides.

You've describe some cool situations to explore. Good luck!

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