Writing the Other

In the constant fight to improve representation of minorities in fiction, performance, and other media, the concept of writing the other often comes up; the media are dominated by people who have certain social advantages, and they’re the ones writing the representations, for the most part. Which means that one way to increase representations is to encourage them to write about experiences other than the ones they’ve personally lived. Ideally, increasing the representation of minorities among the creators of media should be the first priority, of course.

There’s also an active desire on the part of many writers to write the other, to include people with different experiences and backgrounds in their work. I don’t want to write an endless parade of pieces about white disabled genderqueer people; I want to write about women and men, about people of colour, about nondisabled people and people with disabilities different from my own. I want to write about human beings in all their myriad presentations, which means that I want to spend some time, like many writers, writing the other. Because I like to tell stories, and stories aren’t just about me.

Many people express a deep fear of writing the other, especially when encouraged to do so. Socially conscious content creators say they’re afraid; they’re worried of getting it wrong, of offending or insulting readers with their attempts. Hearing these kinds of protests when it comes to writing the other always gives me room for pause, because I wonder about the root of that fear, whether the origins are genuine or have more to do with the writer’s emotions than fears about the audience.

I wonder, in other words, if people worry about writing the other because they might get it wrong, or because they fear someone might tell them about it. Because these are two distinctly different things, and they must be picked apart when people start talking about the way they research and prepare for characters who have backgrounds that differ from their own—because writers are researching and preparing, right?

Nisi Shawl, author of Writing the Other with Cynthia Ward, wrote a great starting guide to transracial writing for the sincere, discussing the importance of doing research, and doing more research, and getting to know the people and communities you are writing about. She concludes:

So welcome the Beautiful Strangers. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes with them. Do your best, and you’ll avoid the biggest mistake of all: exclusion.

And this is wise advice for writers that cuts to the heart of this expressed fear of writing the other, because the fact is that you will make mistakes, even with all the careful research in the world. If you spend a long time reading works produced by people in the group you’re depicting, actively talking to individuals, asking for second readers and beta readers who can specifically review your text for accuracy and emotional authenticity, you will still make mistakes.

Because ‘the other’ is not a uniform hivemind, and ‘the other’ doesn’t respond to things in the same way. Not everyone will see themselves in your text, and some people will be actively offended or upset by it. To pretend otherwise, to act like you can produce some kind of magically perfect media that will please everyone, is ridiculous. You can’t do it. You have to stop approaching ‘the other’ that way and start thinking about writing characters who are true to their communities and themselves, while recognising that they are also individuals.

And some critics will see that, and say that while they don’t identify with the characters, they know people like them and they see their community reflected in them. Other critics won’t see that, and they will want to talk about it, and you would be well-advised to listen to them; unless, of course, you are more afraid of being told you did it wrong than the actual doing it wrong part. Hearing from people who don’t identify with your characters, particularly those who feel like they reinforce harmful stereotypes or reiterate dangerous attitudes, provides you with valuable information you can use in the future.

Critique of this nature can be easy to find, and it’s worth hunting up examples for authors you enjoy; if you see a depiction you really like that seems to be generally praised, actively seek out contradictory discussions. Find critics who view the depiction differently and find out why they don’t like it, and take lessons away from it, notes on things you may want to avoid, or things you may want to acknowledge and be aware of. You may end up with such a wealth of information that some of it starts to conflict, and this, too, is okay; but it’s important to know this information and to be able to speak to it.

Search your fears when you feel hesitant about writing the other, because writing what you know gets boring, and writing outside your own experiences can be wildly uncomfortable but also deeply magical and amazing, unless you get so consumed by fear that you throw up your hands and walk away, or don’t do any research at all.

Remember, when writing the other, that all members of a community you don’t belong to are not the same. Not all people with disabilities think and act like me, let alone think about disability in the same way I do; if a nondisabled person wrote a disabled character based solely on reading my work, that character would be one dimensional and boring, not an accurate reflection of the tremendous diversity in the disabled community. If that person read work by hundreds of disabled people, the writer would be aware of a greater range of the spectrum, and could write a character who is more true to the community, more richly embodied, more realistic and alive, rather than one who is simply convenient.

And still wouldn’t get it right.

But would provide a lot of great material for discussion.