Telling Someone Else’s Story

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Screenshot of J.K. Jemisin from YouTube – Found at Vox.com

Once again wandering around File 770’s Pixel Scroll, I came across item 5 “Writing About a Different Race.” I was ready to read and cringe, imagining how white, male authors were going to be targeted as racist, misogynistic, insensitive, and so on.

Fortunately the Vulture article Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story by Lila Shapiro wasn’t particularly cringe-worthy. The subtitle is “Ten authors on the most divisive question in fiction, and the times they wrote outside their own identities,” and one of them is triple Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin. She’s one of only two people (that I’m aware of) who has blocked me on twitter (the other is Rep. Steve Cohen who didn’t appreciate my saying he had a “fast food body” after he tweeted a photo of himself eating KFC chicken as a snub to Attorney General William Barr). Oh, I can log out of twitter and see their tweets fine, I just can’t tweet to them.

Anyway, Jemisin, who is a woman of color if you didn’t see her photo above, discussed her experiences in writing characters who are unlike her. She states in part:

You’re not going to be perfect. In “The Broken Kingdoms,” my protagonist was a blind woman, and she had a superpower associated with her blindness. As I now know, disability as a superpower is a trope. I didn’t read enough literature featuring blind people to really understand it’s a thing that gets done over and over again. Ehiru, a character from “The Killing Moon,” is asexual, and I don’t think I explored that well. If I were writing it now, I would have made him more clearly ace.

I guess she never heard of Daredevil.

However, what she wrote immediately afterward caught my attention:

I figured this out by reading Tumblr. I am on Tumblr quietly — I have a pseudonym, and nobody knows who I am. Because lots of young people hang out there and talk about identity and the way our society works, it’s basically a media-criticism lab. It’s an interesting place to talk about identity, and I did not understand until I saw these conversations that asexuality was an identity. I thought about it as a broken sexuality. My story reflected my lack of understanding of how that worked.

That begs the question of how an author, any author, can write about “the other,” that is, someone very different from them?

If I could only write stories about conservative, religious, white men in their 60s, it would get pretty boring fast. I mean, we live in a diverse world, and in science fiction and fantasy, a diverse universe or universes. How does someone like me write about women, people of color, lesbians, or transsexual men?

Oh, Jemisin did take a small shot at white male authors:

Fifty years ago in science fiction, if you got the math or physics wrong, your name was mud. Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities. Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.

I’d like to think there were some male author’s fifty years ago (that would be 1969) who could write female characters convincingly.

According to the article from which I’m quoting, a few years ago, an author named Ashima Saigal from Grand Rapids, Michigan, wanted to write about an incident she had witnessed on a bus where a group of African-American kids (I’m assuming teens) were being harassed by police officers. She found she couldn’t write from their point of view convincingly since she is Indian-American and didn’t have shared life experiences. Her solution was to take an online creative writing course called Writing the Other. They have all kinds of seminars, but right now, my meager budget won’t tolerate the cost. However, they have a book and it’s available on Kindle (but alas, not available through my local public library system).

Jennifer Weiner, author of “In Her Shoes” used a “sensitivity reader” when she wanted to write about an African-American character (she’s white and Jewish):

My last book was the first I’ve worked on with a sensitivity reader. Harold, an African-American character in “Mrs. Everything,” is one of my women’s happy endings, and so I wanted him to be a good guy, but not so ridiculously perfect that no one would ever believe him.

The sensitivity reader I worked with pushed me on the specifics: When my character’s in bed with him, what is his body like? What is his hair like? Because that’s going to be different than it is with a white guy. We’d talk about Harold’s family, and she’d tell me, “You use food and ritual to talk about your Jewish characters, and that tells us who they are, and you need to do the same thing with your African-American characters…

She also did a lot of online reading including “an oral history of black soldiers in Vietnam.”

Nell Freudenberger, who is white and wrote “The Newlyweds,”, based her tale of about a woman from Bangladesh who moves to Rochester, on someone she met on a plane and developed a lasting friendship with.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, who is African-American and author of “We Love You, Charlie Freeman,” had this to say:

My feelings have changed since I wrote my first book, which is partly in the voice of a racist Yankee heiress…

I was told by my readers, by my editor and my agent, that the letter wasn’t working, and at first I was like, ‘They just don’t get what the letter is supposed to be doing.’ But eventually, I realized they were right, because it didn’t read like an actual human wrote it. There wasn’t an emotional truth there. So in rewrites I had to go back. I wrote 40 or 50 pages of this woman’s backstory that never made it into the book.

Male, African-American author Victor LaValle who penned “The Changeling” wrote:

Up until my fourth book, The Devil in Silver, I’d only written protagonists who were black dudes. In that book, my protagonist was a white guy. I worried I was going to say he was a white guy, but everyone would read it and think he sounded just like all my other protagonists. I started by imagining a different body. The main character, Pepper, he’s six-four, 250 pounds — and I’m not that. I do have a best friend who’s six-four, and at the beginning, when I thought about Pepper, I was thinking about my buddy and what it’s like when he’s walking through a door, having to lower his head a little bit. I thought about the space Pepper would take up when he enters a room — how much that body communicates before he gets a chance to say anything — and that turned out to be my way into writing many different others. I can’t imagine how anyone’s interior life is not formed by the body they got born into.

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Victor LaValle – Photo: Teddy Wolff – found at Vulture.com

I’m not going to quote all ten authors. You can read the entire essay by clicking the link I provided above (and don’t forget to read the comments on the article, which are almost all very snarky relative to identity politics).

But this got me to thinking about the published short stories I’ve written. How are my characters different from me (or are they)?

Both my short SciFi tale “Joey,” which appears in World War Four and “The Dragon’s Family,” which is featured in Magical Reality have main characters who are men in their 60s. In fact, “Dragon’s” directly lifts the personalities of my son and (then six-year-old) grandson. “Joey” is also a little boy traveling with his Grandpa. No surprises there.

My missive “The Devil’s Regret” from the anthology 1929: A Zimbell House Anthology features a 16-year-old Irish-American kid growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City in the year 1929. Fortunately, on my blog, I’d approached Timothy’s story (originally set one year earlier) from a lot of different directions, so I was pretty familiar with him. Still, he’s basically a white kid, and I’ve been 16 before (apart from the difference in national background and my never having even visited New York, in 1929 or at any other time). So maybe the biggest challenge was getting the historical and geographical narrative right.

My wee piece of flash fiction “Growing Flowers”, which you can find in Flash Fiction Addiction: 101 Short Short Stories is my first rather weak attempt at something like Steampunk, but my character is a blind, elderly Mexican man. However, because the story really is short, it focuses on a sequence of remarkable events. The man could have been a different version of me.

My science fiction short story “The Recall” in Spring Into SciFi 2019 did have a protagonist who was a white male, apparently in his mid-30s, but he’s really an alien. I did have two significant female characters, another alien who must break up with her human lover of several decades to leave the Earth, and a rather sadistic FBI agent, but again, they’re both white and in their 50s and 40s respectively. I don’t really know where they came from except that I named the FBI agent after Nancy Pelosi using her unmarried last name. Again, I didn’t get too close to them being women, and so far no one has complained.

A couple of minor characters were people of color, both actually aliens, a homeless African-American man and a Korean-American bus driver. Since I was writing them as aliens, there was less emphasis on portraying them relative to color or ethnicity.

“The Switchman’s Lantern,” a story I donated to the Impossible Hope anthology, has a central character who is African-American, Christian, and is disabled. I probably could have done a better job, and in fact, I’m sure of it. I created the original version in response to an online writing challenge, and the fact that Josiah Bell is black just popped into my head. I based him loosely on an older African-American man I’d met once many years ago. He was working security in a hospital parking lot (I was visiting my then girlfriend who was having a procedure done) and we struck up a conversation. It was more like remembering the feeling of talking with him rather than what he said or his mannerisms.

My horror story “Retired,” which you can read in The Toilet Zone features an 87-year-old woman with dementia and her son in his 60s. I wrote it, in part, as an attempt to try to understand my own Mom who is a dementia sufferer. I also had to Google about cannibalism, including what people, dogs, and cats taste like. Ew. Yes, I reverted back to writing about my family (sort of).

“The Strangers,” published in John Green’s Tales of the Southwest was originally set at the end of the 19th century in the small town of Idaho City, Idaho, but at John’s request, I moved it to Cedar City, Utah. Except for the aliens, almost all of the townsfolk are white, including the young reporter and the older Sheriff. I did have two minor characters who where Chinese-Americans, but I didn’t treat them with much detail. I did base the Sheriff after two different actors, Billy Green Bush and Sam Elliot (Elliot for the appearance and Bush for the voice). I also based the judge on an actual juvenile court judge from a small town in Idaho I was acquainted with about 20 years ago. I think he’s the Mayor now.

The two main characters in “The Demon in the Mask”, available in Fall Into Fantasy 2019, were a Knight and a witch/demon, both vaguely European. Andre was sort of a cross between something out of pulp fiction and “The Three Musketters” and Princess Katia was every flamboyant female villain, witch, queen, I could conjure up out of my memory and imagination. She had a softer side, but not much of a one.

My drabble “Death Visits Mexico” from Unravel: A Crime Microfiction Anthology was set in the late 1940s. The protagonist is a Jewish private detective and the antagonist is a Nazi war criminal. But it was only exactly 100 words long, so no character development, or almost none.

As you can see, I’m not particularly diverse in my character creation, at least not my currently published stories. I’ve written an erotic horror story soon to be published, but while I have both male and female main characters, they’re either white Americans or vaguely European.

My two horror drabbles feature mostly white adults and kids (and Santa Claus and an elf), but at 100 words each, again, no real characterization.

My Mormon Steampunk short story features only white Americans and one British guy. True, it’s set in the Utah Territory in the mid 1850s, and it’s got a lot of LDS people in it, including one or two historical characters, but nothing too difficult to imagine. I based my cavalry officers on various westerns I watched as a kid and young man.

I have written a story set in the 1940s in San Francisco about a female private detective, and I really found myself digging deep to develop her background and her attitudes. Yes, she’s a “hard nosed private eye, so I suppose that’s very “male” of her, but a lot of that comes from growing up poor and running with a rough crowd, as well as the role she plays for the job she has. Actually, I mined memories of every “tough gal” from movies set in the 1930s and 40s, kind of like the old school version of Lois Lane, who’s as tough as nails.

Another “not accepted” story depicted mainly Japanese characters including a type of ghost found in Japanese folklore. It’s actually loosely based on Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.”

Going back over other unpublished tales, they’re usually populated by white men and women of various ages. I did have one SciFi/Horror story whose heroine is Columbian-American. I tried to include more diversity, including a British bad guy and an African-American good guy, but again, I didn’t get too deep into their backgrounds.

I have created a Mexican-American billionaire/inventor, a (sort of) Brazilian teenage girl who is wooed to joining a sort of “Hitler-youth” fascist group but who ends up being a hero and a spy for the good guys. I have a white, female climate scientist and her white (actually alien) husband, a female “computer” and her rocket scientist husband (both white), their story being set in the 1950s, and a spaceship full of American and Soviet astronauts, though some of them are also aliens.

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Rather than adhering to the standard Green Lantern look, “Far Sector” artist Jamal Campbell experimented with the style for protagonist Jo Mullein and the worlds that surround her. (DC Entertainment)

At the end of the day, all I want to do is tell a good, human story. Yes, I suppose my characters of color might lack authenticity to readers of color. On the other hand, I’ve got to write about someone, about real people, or as real as I can make them.

One last thing. While, based on my own background, I tend to write more toward the familiar than the unfamiliar, I think that’s what most authors do most of the time. Even the aforementioned N.K. Jemisin has been asked quite recently to write about a black, female comic book superhero version of Green Lantern.

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