I just read a book that I want everyone in the world to read: WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.
During the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop attended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong—horribly, offensively wrong—and so it is better not even to try. This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual preference, and age differ significantly from their own. Nisi and Cynthia collaborated to develop a workshop that addresses these problems with the aim of both increasing writers’ skill and sensitivity in portraying difference in their fiction as well as allaying their anxieties about “getting it wrong.” Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is the manual that grew out of their workshop. It discusses basic aspects of characterization and offers elementary techniques, practical exercises, and examples for helping writers create richer and more accurate characters with “differences.”
These two ladies, with a whole lot of gentleness and humor, have written a book that doesn’t just give fantastic guidelines for writing characters outside the dominant paradigm, it shows us new ways to see, how to take another blinder off.
Race, Orientation, Religion, Age, Ability and Sex are all discussed. (I wish it had a more eye-grabby cover; it looks like a dry academic discourse, when it’s actually easy to read, fun and exciting.)
The love interest in my latest WiP is the daughter of a general in a dystopian setting, where a common enemy has made for more racial unity, but feminism has been set back. This girl is gorgeous, self confident, and she kicks ass; my MC doesn’t have a chance. She’s also Black.
Y’know that internet list that came out about white people getting described like food? Ugh.
I want to create a real person who can stand on her own, no matter who reads my book, not a piece of cardboard, cut out with a white person’s scissors. So I went looking online for some help. I found a lot of articles about whether I should in the first place: the Root has a great one, a few that made me feel spanked before I even set words down, and some blog posts where I learned more from the comments than the articles.
But Shawl and Ward’s book was the only one I could find that guides a writer beyond “the unmarked state” and gives examples of how to write a marginalized character, and even has exercises that open the brain into seeing and writing a bigger picture. There are two essays at the end that are fantastic, too, both by Nisi Shawl- Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere, and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.
And with what I’ve learned from Shawl and Ward’s book, and what has been clarified into usable and concrete advice, hopefully I’m a step closer to writing a more inclusive world.
I’m SO glad you wrote this and shared that book. I’m staring down the second book of my NA trilogy, researching, plotting, but terrified to start because the main character is African American. She was a secondary character in the first book, and I never intended to write her story, but it just sort of happened in my head as I wrote the first. I know it’s the story that makes sense to tell in this series, but I’ve been torn up about whether *I* can write it or even if I should. I really don’t want to get it wrong.
I’ll give this book a read and hopefully get my courage together to actually write the story!