Mary Anne Mohanraj

An Ongoing, Erratic Diary

10 March 2009, 8:42 AM
  On Writing Identity, and the Need Thereof:

When I was teaching at Clarion last summer, I spent a good portion of my week trying to convince my students that they needed to start writing identity into their stories. Now, by 'writing identity' I don't mean just 'add a person of color' to the story. What I wanted them to get away from was the generic white character (who was still, so often, also automatically male, and straight). I wanted them to think about how every white person they know has a specific ethnic identity. Maybe they're first-generation Polish-American. Maybe their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Maybe they're some kind of European mongrel in descent -- a bit of Scottish, a bit of Irish, a whole lot of German, and a few other unidentified bits. My students, on the whole, were not so enthused about trying to work this into their stories, especially when they were also busy trying to get the hang of plot, and pov, and structure, and theme. But I think it's essential, and so I pushed them, and some of them did manage it during my week, and a few others have actually e-mailed me post-Clarion and said that these identity ideas have started working their way into their stories, and thanks.

I would argue that it is, in fact, essential for writers (genre or not) to consider identity in their writing. For two reasons:

  1. Not writing identity makes for bad fiction.

  2. Not writing identity contributes to real world political problems.

1. Not writing identity makes for bad fiction.

This one seems self-evident to me, and yet the more I read (especially work by my students, or work off slush piles), the more it becomes clear that many writers haven't figured this out yet. Fiction is a reflection of the real world. (Often, in the case of sf/f, a deliberately wildly distorted mirror, but still.) If you have human beings (or human analogues) in your stories, and they don't reflect the identity realities of people in the real world, then as a reader, that breaks the fictive illusion for me. I just re-read some Heinlein, and while I still have a terrible fondness for the old man, his women are so painfully unrealistic, so lacking in identity, that I can't read them as real people. Which means I can't care about them, which means that on a deep and profound level, the story has failed.

Heinlein's is a case of writing a particular gender identity badly. Certainly, when we try to write any identity we don't know well, there is a chance that we will fail. Knowing that we may be subject to critique may lead writers to hesitate, to try to write only what they think will be safe, what they know. But how can you populate an entire story with characters who look exactly like you? You have to at least try to step outside that knowledge. So you do research, and you use your imagination, and you talk to people, and you show drafts to your workshop, and maybe you even seek out a few people from various identity groups and say -- "Hey, do you have a moment to look at this?" And still, sometimes, you will get it wrong. And it will sting when someone calls you on it. But even a slightly cloudy mirror reflecting reality is better than no mirror at all. You learn from the attempt, and you do better next time.

I was thinking about my recent story sale, "Jump Space," to Thoughtcrime Experiments. I'm not sure when they're planning to go live -- soon, I hope. I'm very excited about this story -- in part, because I think it may be the first science fiction story I've published, after an entire lifetime of loving the genre. Also because it features a queer poly situation, and a family with small children, all of which I see so rarely in literature. One of the characters is of South Asian descent, and her ethnic background is important to her and the story; she's also from an academic family, so presumably upper-middle-class. One character is alien in a variety of ways. So far, so good. But I realized, in thinking about this whole debate, that the other two characters are, once again, generic white -- one male, one female. No discernible ethnic background. No class background. And I didn't notice that while I was writing the story. Damn.

I'm going to write more about these people, so hopefully more of their particular backgrounds will emerge as I write other stories. I think the woman may be from a working class background. The man is still a mystery to me, but perhaps as I write more, with all of this in mind, more will emerge. I'm frustrated to realize that they're all reasonably able-bodied -- I still haven't had the nerve to take on writing a character with physical or mental disabilities. I'm scared of getting it wrong. I'm scared that writing that disability into the story will then take over the story. Which is flat-out idiotic and wrong. Bujold does this brilliantly -- her protagonists are almost always living with some kind of disability, and rather than interfering with the story, those disabilities become key elements of the story. They make it better. And yet she does it subtly enough that it took me ten years of reading and loving her work before I even noticed.

That's the standard I want to aim for as a writer, to reflect the real world in all its glorious complexity, to create a brilliant, glittering reflection that illuminates these sharp particulars of human experience, human hearts. That's what I want from my students, and from every single work of fiction I read. I don't think that's too much to ask.

2. Not writing identity contributes to real world political problems.

This one didn't come fully clear to me until I'd read, oh, a couple hundred of the RaceFail '09 posts. In one of them, and I wish I could remember which, someone pointed out that when you write generic white characters into your stories, when that's all you write -- you are writing race. You may think you're avoiding the issue, not dealing with it, but it is, in fact, impossible to not engage the issue as a writer.

One way or another, whatever you write, when published, contributes to the larger body of available fiction. And if you write generic white characters (or straight characters, or generic men), then you are adding to the massive weight of such characters in literature. They already populate the literary world in far greater degree than they do the real world -- when you add to their number, you contribute to the problem that leaves readers of color (women, queers, people with disabilities, old people, young people, etc. and so on) wondering if they are actually welcome in the genre (in the world).

The only way to truly avoid these issues is to sit on your hands and not write at all. And that would be a great loss to us all, so I hope you don't take that option.


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