Friday, November 28, 2014

More thoughts on the privilege and responsibility of being a writer

Because even in 1966, we knew representation was important. (Art by Makintosh, used with attribution )

I participate in blogging for a writer's collective called The Scriptors, and my most recent blogpost there was on the writer's privilege and responsibility to reflect the diversity of the world around them. Here is the beginning of the post and I invite you to read its entirety on The Scriptors site.

I was planning on writing an amusing post about the subjectivity of reviews and why you don’t ever want to be *that* writer. And then the Ferguson Grand Jury decision came out. My husband and I watched the live feed of the official statement, and then of the protests, the police response, and the violent aftermath.

I am heartsick.

We have so far to go to achieve a fair and just society and I am just one small voice; a writer with little platform and less power. What can I do to change what is so broken in our world?

I am under no illusion that I have the ability to persuade those who believe differently than I do. I vote in every election, but the reality is, our choices are often between less bad and more bad. If I gave away every dollar I had to fund social justice causes, I would be destitute and nothing would change.

And yet. . . and yet I cannot do nothing.

I know there is a lot of discussion and controversy around issues of diversity, especially with white writers writing about characters of color. Daniel Jose Older wrote a cogent piece on "12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other" that is a great starting point for all writers trying to get it right. I urge you to read it.

Another excellent resource is this blogpost by Jim C. Hines, complete with a list of links for further examination. In the post, this line jumped out at me"

"It’s the difference between “I want to include you in my stories” and “I want to tell your stories.”"
He's speaking about the distinction between diversity and appropriation, issues that writers with societal privilege and power need to grapple with in writing characters that reflect the cultural composition of the wider world we all inhabit.

I strongly believe in the philosophy behind the "We Need Diverse Books" campaign: that representation is important. It is crucial. We learn about the world through the characters we inhabit in our reading and viewing, especially when we are young. I remember wondering why none of the heroes in the SF books I devoured as a kid were girls. I wonder what other messages I absorbed while I was reading that I'm not so acutely aware of.

And as important is seeing oneself in fiction is for people in the minority, it is also important for people in the majority to see the 'other'. We know that reading enhances empathy. What messages get transmitted when either we see only one kind of person in our fiction, or see the 'other' as token, or stereotype, or fetish? I believe that these implicit messages are very powerful and shape our society in ways we haven't yet fully appreciated.

Look at the impact of the original Star Trek series. Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, talks about how she had been planning on leaving the show after the first season, until she met Martin Luther King, Jr, who told her how vital her role was in inspiring a generation. She recounts that he told her: "I [couldn't] leave the show. We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves."

Whoopie Goldberg also credits Nichols' Uhura with inspiring her to believe she could be anything she wanted to be. And astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African American astronaut to go into space credits seeing Nichols as Uhura as her inspiration. (Cool trivia: Jemison also appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

And this was due to a supporting role on a show that only saw three seasons on TV, yet went on to have an enormous cultural impact.

I am conscious, every time I sit at the computer to write, that what I write carries a message. Even if I set out to simply write entertaining stories about fantasy worlds or the future, everything has a message. If I people my universes only with reflections of myself and my life experiences, then I send a message that anything else is trivial.

That cannot be further from the truth.

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