Responsible Fiction: Toe to Toe with Difference

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriters have to get outside their own skin. But sometimes I get overeager to inhabit differences. And I write about characters I have no chance of understanding.

So I just finished revisions on a short story about an Ethiopian immigrant who runs into his past. At the grocery store, he comes across a woman who witnessed an atrocity he committed during the civil war 30 years ago. I gave the story to my readers. And then I asked my mentor Bob to have a look.

He did.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

So at the café where we regularly write, I pulled up a chair next to him.

I’d set myself a nearly impossible task, he said. It took him over 25 years to be able to write from a female point of view. And here I was, novice that I am, trying to tackle not only gender but race, nationality, age, and social class, too.

I saw his point:

Whoa there, Bessy.

Truth is, I told him, I find other people so much more interesting than myself. I’ve just spent nine months and hundreds of pages working on memoir. Why would I ever want to base anything on myself again?

But as soon as I said that, I knew. It’s just not a good enough reason.

There are responsible and irresponsible ways for writers to sketch members of disadvantaged groups in their fiction.

And the first question a responsible writer should ask is: Why am I invested in this story? This character? Why do I need to tell this? What can I bring to this story?

It got me thinking again about what Mattie Brice said at GaymerX back in August.

She said that society needs people with privilege to tell stories. But their stories are about their own awakening to privilege and difference and power structures.

After a final run-through, I’ll probably scrap this story. It was a good learning exercise. But it’s time to head back to the novel, which grounds me in a perspective I can feel my way through with my eyes closed: the naïve little white girl who just wants everyone to be happy.

How does that kid wake up?

How does that person meet difference out on the street—and begin to understand the world for what it is?

Now there’s a story I can bring some serious chops to.

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