27 January 2006

Other Identities

I've been writing and rewriting this post, abandoning it again and again, sometimes thinking that I have nothing to say, sometimes thinking what I have to say is entirely self-contradictory, sometimes thinking I'm the wrong person to be trying to say any of it, but there's a chance I'll write a Strange Horizons column from some of this, if I can get to more coherent thoughts, and if I'm going to fall flat on my face I might as well do it here rather than there. So here goes.

A few things keep swirling around in my head, occasionally seeming related, sometimes seeming completely unrelated. They are:First, we have the concept of "the other", particularly the racial other, and the problem of writing beyond our own particular experience. Just about every writer faces this problem, at least if they write anything other than autobiographical monologues, because to some extent or another anything beyond our own brain and body is an other. Some things feel ... well, more other than others.

The others that most writers are willing to write about, often unconsciously, are ones they don't think will cause anybody to question whether the writer knows what she or he is doing. Race and sexual identity, because they are fraught with political and social tension, tend to be others that writers avoid, and partly this is because they think they can, and that nobody will notice or care; indeed, that were they to write about such an other, then there would be controversy and castigation.

Back in 1990, Pulphouse published a collection of stories and poems by James Patrick Kelly called Heroines (part of the Author's Choice Monthly series of chapbooks): four stories told from women's points of view. In the introduction, Jim wrote:
I used to be a regular at the Sycamore Hill Writers' Workshop. Sycamore Hill was a great excuse for professional writers to sit around for a week critiquing fiction and schmoozing. At the 1987 workshop we saw a run of stories about women and men and what they do to each other. I remember six or eight of us were having a late night bull session when the question came up: what do men talk about when they're with other men? What do women talk about only with women? For a while we had some ribald fun with this, until one of the women asked how many of the men in the room had ever written a scene in which two women were alone talking. Embarrassed silence. I knew I had done some (not enough) but I couldn't think of any offhand. The other men were similarly nonplussed. The women, however, had no trouble citing scenes they had written in which men spoke only to men. Leaving aside the literary quality of these efforts (probably high, considering the company), the fact remains that women writers routinely try to recreate all-male conversations, scenes they could not possibly have witnessed. No similar stretch of the imagination is expected of men. ...

As it turns out, three of these stories were published before that night in 1987. Problem was, I had forgotten they were from a woman's point of view. I thought I was the protagonist.
I'm entirely in favor of encouraging writers to include a broad array of characters in their work, and have said before that I wish, for instance, more straight writers would include gay characters in their stories. Every time I've said this, somebody has written to me or posted in their blogs that that is all well and good, but few writers are willing to risk being told they're perpetuating stereotypes or somehow being heterosexist.

I can sympathize with that fear, and it's certainly better than saying gay characters don't exist in your fiction because gay people are such a tiny minority they don't really matter, but we've got to overcome these fears, because they perpetuate themselves. The fewer writers who include minority characters in their fiction, the more "normal" it seems for there to be no minority characters in fiction, and, similarly, the more "weird" it seems for a writer to write about people different from themselves. But only the most narrow fiction is about people who are not different from the writer. And whether our characters are interesting, the situations not stereotypical, has far more to do with skill and talent than it does with identifying with any particular group. Gay people write stupid, stereotypical gay stories all the time. They also often disagree about what is or isn't stereotypical or offensive. There's no formula for success other than the willingness to try to imagine what it feels like to live in a different way from your own.

Which brings us to the last things I listed above. The fake writers who used the sympathy for a particular kind of identity to publish memoirs that sold well and brought a lot of attention to those writers. I'm conflicted about this. Had the writers published their books as fiction and been honest about who they are in reality, I'd probably be celebrating them (I don't know; haven't read anything published under either byline). What these, and similar, incidents show is the bizarre hunger for TRUTH from readers, and how that hunger can be manipulated. The books are not the scandal here, the obsessive culture of celebrity around them is.

I tend to read memoirs as fiction. What do I care if the story is true or not -- I'm not likely to meet the writer, not likely to become part of their life, so the truth or falsity of what they write doesn't matter in the least to me. If the writing is engaging, the story interesting, the characters vivid, the ideas thought-provoking, I'm happy.

Memoirs sell better than fiction. I've heard of numerous writers who have been asked by agents or editors if their novel is autobiographical, and if so, if it can be tweaked to be sold as a memoir. Readers want to believe what they are reading is True, and the suspension of disbelief, the willingness to enter into collaborative imagining -- the basic requirements of fiction -- are seen as somehow difficult or maybe even dirty, escapist, shameful. The fake writers created their hoaxes to sell books, and though we might be tempted to chastise them for being so greedy, plenty of writers these days scheme, grandstand, grovel, and demean themselves to try to get their work noticed. When they exploit sympathy for a minority group, though, something has gone too far -- what is that something, though, and how do we draw a line?

There are things that are true. Oppression and prejudice exist. The sympathy and rights won by some groups are fragile and can easily be injured. I'm angry toward the people who perpetuated the Nasdijj and JT Leroy hoaxes because what they did may create more cynicism toward claims of oppression by actual American Indians and transgendered people. Or maybe not -- maybe these hoaxes will make people want to know more about the real people in the real situations, the way movies about historical events often lead some people to research the actual history of those events. (I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of this.)

Fiction is the place where we get to imagine our way into other lives. It takes honesty: we must admit who we are first, and then move out from ourselves. Unlike elaborate hoax identities constructed to sell books, fiction about others doesn't require writers to lie about who they are; indeed, truth is, paradoxically, one of the goals. Empathy, too, because writers who honestly take the risk of imagining otherness make it less and less risky for more people to do so.

What we need are memoirs that are not fiction and fiction that is not memoir.


  1. JT Leroy's books were published as fiction. It's only a slight difference though, as realism is supposed to mine the author's experience, and "Leroy" certainly played up that aspect of thit's narrative.

  2. Several characters in my stories have been non-Caucasian and, especially in the SF stories, no one notices or comments on it one way or the other. I think that's because in a far future SF stories especially there isn't, nor should there necessarily be, any of the cultural "baggage"/issues/inhabited stereotypes or whatever you want to call it that come from being a minority in our current world. I don't know if that's a cheat or not, but...

    I liked Pam's article/essay a lot.


  3. You're right, Nick -- Leroy's books were marketed as fiction. I knew that originally, I think, but his identity and story became so inextricably bound to them that it seemed often people were reading them as if they were memoirs, or I just assumed they were, or something. I wonder if this is a widespread assumption or if I'm just particularly oblivious.

  4. hey matt

    this converation did a pass on a few screenwriters blogs, which you can pick the links out of here: http://benpeek.livejournal.com/399754.html

    i've done a lot of work on race representation, writing, since it forms a part of my phd, and i'm just interested in it, really. there's a lot of interesting work out there. richard dyer's WHITE is good for the first half, and toni morrison's PLAYING IN THE DARK, is pretty neat all the way thru. (morrison's book is quite slimmer than dyer's and talks about representations of whiteness and blackness in literature, so might be more your thing.)

    part the problem, i think, for authors is that they often find themselves, when writing about non-whites, gays, and other minorities, taking the position of speaking for these groups. it is maybe an unconscious move, and which is why people worry about it, because when they see a minority on tv, or in a book, they have that token aspect, or they are speaking for a whole community. after all, you can put a black man on tv to speak for 'the black community' in the states, but you can't put a white man on tv to speak for 'the white community' if you follow.

  5. Often when people say "race" they really mean "class" or "culture" -- that is, "ethnic" becomes another way to say "he is poor" or "he doesn't talk like I do, doesn't share my religion/culture".

    So when you want to write characters with a particular "ethnic identity", forget about skin color and think:

    "What does this person believe in? How was he raised? What's his income level?"

    These are much more concrete, substantial things than nebulous and misleading notions of "racial identity".

  6. My son was flummoxed by a question from his English teacher recently on something similar - should 'able-bodied' (or voiced) people assume to write from POV of the disabled? (the text he is studying is Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time).
    It is a similar discussion I think, and one where Haddon's book is a shining example of how to do it seamlessly. So go forth, writers, go forth.