I’ve been doing a series of interviews and posts on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction, beginning to look at the circumstances of and solutions for various groups of people not being well-represented in fiction based on race, ethnicity, age, sexual preference, gender, disability, neurology, social and economic class, and so on. So far in the series, I’ve posted two interviews and one additional item:
More interviews will appear here every Friday for some time to come.
For today’s post, I assembled responses from several Codex and SFWA members to a mini-interview I put together about concerns and obstacles to inclusivity in fiction. My main reason for doing this is that while there appears to be a lot of support for writing inclusively, there are sometimes real dangers involved, and these are sometimes dismissed as simple fear of making a mistake or looking bad. I think that there’s much more to it than that, and I was fortunate enough to get a variety of insightful and clear responses that explore the topic well.
Because there’s one respondent whom I didn’t explicitly make sure to get permission to mention by name as of publication time, I’ll use “Anonymous” for that author here. You can find out a little about some of the authors who responded at the end of this post.
LUC: What concerns or anxieties do you have when it comes to writing characters who are very different from you, for instance in terms of gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, physical ability or disability, mental or neurological condition, background, or age?
MATTHEW JOHNSON: Getting it right! When I write about a character who’s substantially different from me I do as much research as I can in an effort to get not just the details but, as much as possible, the inner experience right. One of my most gratifying experiences was getting a shout-out from a Nigerian blogger for my story “Lagos,” which is set in near-future Nigeria and has a Yoruba woman as a main character — definitely a bit outside of my own experience, so I was very relieved to get such positive feedback!
ANON: From most important to least important my concerns are:
- That I am fundamentally incapable of comprehending people from said group in a way profound enough to accurately represent them.
- I may spread inaccurate information to uninformed readers who are also not of said group.
- I may discourage a reader who is of said group from reading more of my work, or more of the genre, or prevent them from enjoying the story in question.
- That by trying to acquire the necessary information to present said group accurately, that I will appear ignorant, racist, insensitive, or otherwise bigoted to the person(s) of that group whom I’m interviewing (and thereby damage the personal or professional relationship I had with said person).
- That even if I accurately represent said group to some degree, that an individual from that group will have had a different experience and publicly decry my story telling abilities in a way that will impact the success of the story in question.
- That the actual content of the story may be overlooked or under-appreciated because some of my characters are of a particular group and some/most readers are prejudiced against said group.
- That an error or perceived error may damage my writing career.
STEVE BEIN: Being PC doesn’t concern me. Being authentic does. Politically speaking, I’m not overly concerned with this sort of thing, but I’ve taught a lot of ethics courses in my time (I’m a philosophy professor by day), and I always include feminism and critical race theory in those courses. The disability rights movement often comes up in my classes too, as does social and economic injustice. Coupled with all of that, I’ve done some academic writing on diversity, so I feel I’ve indirectly put a lot of thought into how to approach characters who are very different from me. That said, the primary problem for the writer is authenticity. No caricatures or stereotypes allowed; the character has to be a lot better than that. I feel I have to do a lot of research and pay very close attention to crafting the language.
ELIZABETH MOON: Very little. There’s a basic concern for getting things right, of course. But there’s no more concern or anxiety for “different from myself” on the axes you mentioned than I would have for accurate portrayal of a farmer, an auto mechanic, an investment banker, a soldier…the character has to feel real to the reader, someone who could emerge from the culture as shown, and become the person he or she is. One advantage of being older and from my background is a lot of experience with people very different from myself. So it comes naturally to include a variety (though certainly not every possible variation of every category–that would be a catalog, not a story.) There are cultures and occupations and backgrounds I’m more familiar with; the ones I’m less familiar with do require more research and care if they’re in the story. The advantage of writing SF and fantasy is that I’m not bound by existing cultures or existing situations and attitudes, and can move backward, forward, or sideways to change parameters and play the what-if game with more than technology. I don’t worry about “balance” according to any formula in any given book, because the books and stories are different, and overall I know there’s variety.
Presenting unexpected (to some readers) diversity often means they miss it entirely (not something I expected, starting out) and read characters as whatever that reader’s default is. I should have expected that; I did the same myself as a kid, automatically placing myself, a girl, in the heads of characters who were clearly boys or men. They did the interesting stuff. Since I myself could skate past the very clear signals that a book’s main character was male…I have quit worrying that my clear signals about skin color, age, background, etc. are not getting through to all readers. There’s only so much you can do without messing up the story.
M. BENNARDO: My feeling is that any fears or concerns I may have about writing characters who are different from me are really fears about appearing ignorant, or fears of being accused of ignorance. To a certain extent, those concerns are productive — I’ve certainly done a little extra research now and then in the hopes of looking less foolish.
But ultimately I have to accept that no amount of research will ever be “enough” and that I will always be exposing some amount of ignorance to people who are better informed than I am. (In this case, better informed about some set of life circumstances that I do not share.) My responsibility is to write the most compelling story I can today, and then to write an even better story tomorrow. Part of this is being informed and thoughtful, but another part of it is also taking the plunge and risking looking like a fool.
If I do get called a fool because of some act of ignorance or carelessness on my part — well, that just means I’ve become part of a conversation where I am not the smartest or most informed person around. I’d really be missing out if I let my fears get in the way of that.
LUC: Have these issues ever prevented you from writing something you otherwise would have pursued?
MATTHEW JOHNSON: No, but there have definitely been cases where I did a lot of research to make sure I got everything right. My story “The Face of the Waters” was probably the most nerve-wracking, but I can’t say why without spoiling the twist…
ANON: Yes, on more than one occasion.
STEVE BEIN: Not yet.
ELIZABETH MOON: No. But that’s largely because I wanted to write SF and fantasy, where I wasn’t constrained by current events. I wanted to change parameters and see what happened. Also, even when I realized some readers misread a character to their default…that’s their choice, or their problem, or their limitation. I give them the clues; they can use them or not. I have no control over that, any more than the authors of the books I read as a child could have stopped me from imagining myself into the male characters. There are, inevitably, some categories I’ve used less or even skipped–some I don’t know much about, others that–despite knowing something about–just aren’t that interesting to me in the story sense. Putting someone in just to be the poster child for his/her category, so I can claim more inclusivity is….in my view…a big fat fraud. The diversity that’s in the work is organic to the work. I didn’t write a book about an old woman to show off–but because that old woman, Ofelia, came into my head and pestered me. I didn’t write a book about an autistic man just because we have an autistic son, but because Lou showed up and said “I want to ask the questions.” (Having an autistic son, and having met other autists and parents along the way, certainly gave me plenty of background material–but the character snagged me.) The exploited children with various disabilities in the story “Combat Shopping” were there because the situation demanded them (and because Andi got into my head and said “Write me!”)
About Some of the Authors Above
Steve Bein is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author whose newest work, the Fated Blades series, comes out soon. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. A full interview with him on inclusiveness–the preferred word in his case might be “alterity”–will appear here next week.
M. Bennardo‘s work has appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other venues. He is co-editor of the 2010 anthology Machine of Death, and his Web site is http://www.mbennardo.com.
Photo by tomswift46