Whose story is it? A question of ethnicity and authorship

Ethnic(ity) is such a loaded word.  It conjures batik long shirts or hijabs or spices that did not originate in England.  It conjures otherness in a romanticized way.  Here, I mean it more inclusively and pragmatically.  But I hope you’ll forgive me for not spending time to define beyond that.

I’d always intended a follow-up to my post What Race Has to Do with Writing.  I am, frankly, stuck.

I read an article on Strange Horizons on the same topic and realize that I have the wrong vantage point for what I want to do with my follow-up post.  I’d intended to encourage us all to be open to writing other races, ethnicities, or cultures.  Yet I have never done this.  I merely have the intent.  And I also have a deep respect for those who say “don’t”.

When I came across an article on this topic, it mentioned RaceFail, which refers to –in a very loose definition – use of another’s culture in a shallow or desultory way.  The conversation sketched in the link to RaceFail and the experiences and reflections in the author’s article helped me realize I don’t want to tell you about writing outside one’s culture.  I am not an authority, have no experience, and am really more spectator than participant at this point.  What I want to do is really much simpler:

I want to invite you into the conversation—you might even call it an argument, but I prefer conversation.  I want to invite you into the conversation about race in writing, and share the information so you can come to your own understanding and decision.

I’m directing you to sci/fi sites but that’s because sci/fi writers have had the…luxury, perhaps…of shallowly borrowing pieces from real cultures because it’s all supposed to be taken as, well, fantasy.  So the argument is alive and heated in the sci/fi community.  But the problems in this way of presenting culture, and the question at hand goes beyond fantasy and sci/fi.  The question underlying it all is who has the authority and the right to write certain kinds of stories or characters.

My invitation and question to you:  Should author’s write characters who are outside of the author’s own culture?  Would you?

Please don’t answer until you have read more about it.  Here are two perspectives:

“So what do you think of my story where I made use of another person’s culture” by Rochita Leonen-Ruiz

Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl

Please come back and share your thoughts in the comments.


8 thoughts on “Whose story is it? A question of ethnicity and authorship

  1. What an interesting question! I think it is one I never would have considered before, simply because of how I have had to navigate my own space. As a black woman in the US, my history is filled with Otherness; I grew up near the beach of southern New Jersey where segregation existed but not in the same way as it did for people I know who grew up in the middle of say, North Carolina, during the same time period. When it comes to the voice of my characters, I would say they are distinctly Western. I rarely write from a specific racial context, relying instead on the strength (I hope!) of the situation to trump the individual in a way. It matters not to me the race/ethnicity of the character in my creature feature, unless some aspect of that race/culture will prevent him/her from being eaten… However, my Camp NaNo novella is quite clear on the racial background of the primary characters because of the socioeconomic factors inherent in the location of the story (American rust belt) as well as some general descriptions and linguistic turns…

    • I really was first introduced to this question when I stumbled across Nisi Shawl & partners writings and workshops on Writing the Other. It got me thinking about how a person of European heritage who is the third generation to grow up in Hawaii wanting to write a character who is European heritage growing up in Massachusetts would not meet the resistance and scrutiny — internally or externally–that a European heritage person growing up in Phoenix would face writing about an African-American heritage person growing up in Phoenix. They are each such different cultural and racial situations, but the scrutiny changes with changes in race. (Don’t misunderstand — I’m not saying there shouldn’t be that scrutiny. Just mulling on the differences in scrutiny.) But it doesn’t alway have to be about race. It’s what I love about stories – they are so varied and the same plot / characters will tell different stories in the hands of different writers. Of course, when running from creatures I don’t imagine any person whatsoever would be doing more than thinking “oh my god, how do I get away!” Unless the person were a xenobiologist….

  2. I think if you know that culture/race well, then it’s alright to write about it, but otherwise it probably isn’t a good idea.

    • What did you think of Nisi Shawl & partner’s (I can’t remember her name just know) argument that we can learn about a new race / culture, that we can come to know it well to write about it well?

  3. I love stories that describe characters without benefit of race. At first, I’m eager to discover this tidbit. Then, I realize it doesn’t matter. It makes no difference! I picture the character as I want, knowing others will do the same. It has helped me understand that writer’s truth that we need to leave some to the reader’s imagination.

    • Jacqui, I’ve been similar in my reading. But my reading about this topic has changed that – a bit. The fact is that unless a specific race has been mentioned, the default — regardless of race/culture of reader, as long as that reader grew up reading Western novels — the default is that the characters are white. As I said in an earlier reply, not everything is about race. But the default to white causes complications in publication and representation. It just makes me more aware of my choices as a writer — just because I don’t think I am not writing using race and culture doesn’t mean I am not.

  4. At the very least, we must acknowledge that we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world. Our stories should include the people we encounter. It may be unjust to write a story that only includes people of our own race, religion, ethnicity. That’s not the world we live in. I may not be entitled to voice for someone of another race but I can and do attempt to be fair, respectful, and open minded when I try. Fiction by definition is a venture into characters and circumstances that we imagine. The truth of anything we create is only there if someone else confirms it. You raise interesting arguments, Jessica, and I hope the discussion continues.

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