As part of the creative writing course in my university, every week we’ll have a guest speaker come and talk about what they’ve published and how they’ve gotten to where they are now. One of these speakers, a cis-het white woman (and, yes, I need to point this out), wrote a book about the coming out of a cis white gay boy. I can’t remember if she mentioned anything about research or cross-referencing her work with people of the gay community. However, she did say—and I remember this moment vividly—that she was a tomboy growing up and had numerous cis-male (she didn’t call them cis but I knew right away that that was what she meant) friends, therefore she feels that she’s qualified to write about the life experiences of a gay boy.
A few points I want to mention before we get to the meat of things.
First of all, what?
Secondly, an acquaintance/friend of mine (who identifies as one of the acronyms in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, though I’m not entirely sure which) actually read the book and told me that it was one of the most homophobic and transphobic pile of garbage they’ve ever read. So there’s that.
And thirdly, this particular issue has been going round my head for a while now and so I want to pose this question:
‘To what extent are people allowed to write about characters who are unlike themselves?’
This question isn’t limited to white people writing about people of colour or straight people writing about characters who identify as one of the acronyms on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I’m referring to everyone who is looking to diversify their writing in any way possible, myself included.
A common argument that comes up when talking about representation goes along the line of “I have friends/hang around people who are [insert oppressed group here]. I can write about them.” Yes, but just because you spend a lot of time around said group doesn’t mean you should. I can see where people are coming from with this, but one thing that needs to be understood is that they’re benefitting from someone else’s experience. Their respective experiences are disparate to begin with because while they can sympathise with the oppressed group, they can never truly know or understand.
So part of me thinks we should leave the writing of these characters to the people who identify as such. After all, ‘write what you know.’ They ought to know best because they live that life, right?
I think that saying has become rather irrelevant, in a way, in this day and age. There’s no reason for us to think of things this way because we now have technology advanced enough for us to communicate with people all across the globe as well as access information at the touch of a screen.
But then there are times when even what you know may not always be true to others who are also, to an extent, like you. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m Indonesian, born and raised. I am of Chinese descent and was raised as a Catholic in a country where 88% of the population is Muslim. I went to an International school all my life. Growing up, I spoke mostly English and was constantly exposed to Western and Western-inspired media—most of which are American. I’ve never lived anywhere else until I left for the UK to pursue higher education.
These are the things I know best because that has been my lifestyle for as long as I can remember. My experience as an Indonesian will vastly differ from another Indonesian who’ve never had any of my privileges. Personal history, as well as cultural background, affects what a person does and how they behave, from small things such as what they eat to their views towards religion, politics, justice, death, and everything else in between.
So just as there is more than one kind of Indonesian, there is definitely more than one right way to write about them. This applies to every group of people you want to write about. Every experience will differ from one person to the next. You just need to pick a route and stick with it to make things a bit easier for yourself. One way you can go about this is to find common ground with these various experiences to tie everything together, something that most people can identify with no matter their background.
(In case you were wondering what the common ground is for Indonesians, it’s Indomie.)
Another argument I know of, which I strongly identify with, is fear. Fear of getting the facts wrong goes hand in hand with the fear of offending people and getting slammed for it. It’s affected how I behave around people both in real life and online. The world we live in is a fast-paced one. People hardly leave room for error or to learn and grow from your mistakes. One wrong move and you’re immediately labelled as ignorant and other rude and negative labels. If you have a Tumblr account, then you’d know how this is such an unfortunately common issue.
But this doesn’t mean you should abandon any interest in diversifying your writing and stay within your comfort zone. We’re fortunate enough to be living a world where information is available at the touch of our fingertips. Research will become your best friend when it comes to writing (and any other activity, really) because not only is it essential to get everything as accurate and authentic as possible, it’s also been proven that when you dedicated your time to it, it really does pay off.
Everyone is allowed to write about whatever they want. It could be something they already know or it could be about something completely new and different to them. We’re fortunate enough to be living in a world where storytelling is considered a limitless source of not only entertainment but also an effective method of spreading information. No matter what or who you decide to write about, research is always key. Read as much as you can, as diversely as you can. Leave your assumptions at the door, know your boundaries, and check your privilege. Explore every possibility but also consider the implication your story will have on others. There is no checklist or guideline on how to make sure people won’t get offended by your work, but just remember to always be mindful and respectful when discussing other cultures that aren’t your own.
If you made it this far into my post, then thank you for reading! Let me know what you think in the comments or if you have other advice on how people can write diversely, feel free to share them as well!
Until next time,
The DEVil herself 👹
(Side image taken from here)