Problems Writing “The Other”

29 Aug

I take issue with the phrase “writing the other”. I write author Elizabeth Bear a probationary pass for using it because she is a sci-fi/fantasy writer who, for all intents and purposes, really does write the “other”–other galaxies, other dimensions. other kinds of creatures, real otherness. I bring her up because she caught some flack a few months back when, arguably, the characters of color in one of her stories (she’s white) could be said to feed into racial stereotypes, at least in terms literature. But Mandingos and Tragic Mulattos aside, I personally find that it really can be difficult to write characters of another race; and especially to do so with dignity, sensitivity, and credibility.

I don’t write this as a chastisement of authors who have either actually or by accusation, dropped the ball while “writing the other”. I have never even read Elizabeth Bear and take no position at all on the credibility of her characters of color. But hers was an interesting and timely dilemma that prompted me to write a study into my own difficulties writing characters of other races. I recently finished a short story (no small feat for me) and I absolutely love every word. It’s no Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Sweat’ but it was fun to write and it’s fun to read and the words on the paper serve the purpose that I intended for them to serve. Here’s where things get tricky: One of my main characters is Chinese.

Big deal you say. And you’re right. You will remember me saying (in fact, the first line of this post was) I take issue with the phrase “writing the other”. Mostly because, the phrase infers that someone outside of your race is “other” than you; as if you’re the default and they’re another kind of being altogether. The simple solution would be to write characters that are of a different race the same way you write characters of your own race–like people. Fact. BUT in writing a character of a different race,  you have second-hand, limited or no knowledge about these “others'” personal or cultural experiences and are therefore out of bounds if you try to personify them employing said knowledge limitations. Right? Well, yes and no.

See, I love my Chinese character. She actually steals the show from my main character. She’s cute and funny. She’s not a foil for my protag, she’s a very important part of the story. It wouldn’t even matter that she was Chinese except that it’s kind of the whole point. The story is called “How I Learned Chinese” and the main character is taught Chinese by another character who happens to be Chinese. Sounds simple enough, right? But here’s where it gets trickier.

My Chinese character doesn’t speak great English. And when I went back and read the story, I felt like a bit of a jerk. I knew there would be people who would not be able to read between the lines. These people would not understand my intentions or feel tenderly about the bond that is formed between the two women despite a language barrier. They would instead, read a story where the author is making fun of Chinese people or showing ignorance about Chinese Americans through the broken English of a Chinese character. And while I know in my heart of hearts that the story was written with the best of intentions, I can’t help but think about how I cringe when I read stories that are padded with Black stock characters: the Mandingo, the tragic mulatto, the hustler, the mammy: used by authors, sometimes even Black ones because it’s all they know or care to portray about the Black experience.

 And so, I wonder, while literature would be an awfully boring and segregated place if no one race could write about the other, what precautions must an author take to ensure that no one is hurt or offended by the words they have written to describe another person and that person’s culture and heritage. Can it even be done? Thoughts?

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5 Responses to “Problems Writing “The Other””

  1. Erica 1 Sep 2009 at 12:06 am #

    Maybe this is why an ethical writer writes as part of an ethical writing community? I, for one, am learning the very painful lesson of how not to disregard peer reviews of my work and to take them seriously, especially when my writing has the unintended effect of offending or overlooking other people’s important work or experiences. I think it can be done.

    • ktfleming 1 Sep 2009 at 2:03 am #

      I’m pretty sure you’re right. I think it can be done. I’ve just been confronted with the issue for the first time so I’m at the “how” stage of things. Going forward, soliciting feedback from fellow members of an “ethical writing community” will prove to be an important factor for me in crossing that threshold from how do I this into I’m doing this and I’m doing it right. Thanks for your input girlie! I definitely respect your opinion and experiences.

  2. panhistoria 1 Sep 2009 at 3:03 am #

    Sensitivity to other cultures is essential in creating believable characters that people want to read and relate to, but it applies equally across gender lines as well and we would never suggest that a writer shouldn’t write the opposite gender, or a poor person if they happen to be rich, or a Southerner if they are a Northerner.

    • ktfleming 1 Sep 2009 at 5:38 pm #

      Great point.

  3. Shelia G 20 Feb 2010 at 3:10 am #

    Life is so diverse so I feel if you write from the heart, it’ll come across. I have test readers from various backgrounds and they give me input when sometimes I may be off just a little bit…not just with race but with things that concerns age. I write young adult books as well as women’s fiction and teens act and speak totally different than when I remembered.

    I think as long as we’re open to listen to others, we’ll be able to write multi-cultural characters.

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