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How to Write What You Don't Know

YA author Kayla Ancrum founded the blog Kaylapocalypse - peoplewhowrite

Kayla Ancrum

I recently came across author Kayla Ancrum‘s tumblr KAYLAPOCALYPSE via a piece entitled “How to Write Women of Color and Men of Color if You Are White“. The blog post is one of a host that advises writers on how to write “‘the other’ (and the self)”, as Buzzfeed’s Daniel José Older put it. With the publishing industry’s gatekeepers and writers overwhelmingly white, male, and Eurocentric, it’s important to keep discussing and debating this topic as people who are not white, male, and European/American still find themselves either absent from texts that are celebrated as seminal and distributed accordingly, or imagined as a number of two-dimensional stereotypes from “magical” to pathological, noble (but savage) to best friend/sidekick. In other words, a supporting character who only exists to advance the white hero’s agenda.

Because so much of the publishing business rests on agents’ and editors’ highly subjective connection to the material, writers of color find it difficult to break through with more authentic accounts. Meanwhile, agents, editors, and publishers struggle to achieve balance for fear of alienating the market which has become accustomed to certain kinds of narratives. It’s a vicious, punishing cycle that ultimately disservices the reader. If book lovers in Europe or America want multi-layered stories that reflect our incredibly diverse world–according to 2014 population numbers, 4.4 billion of the 7 billion that populate the globe hail from Asia, with Africans coming in second at 1 billion–it will cost them in either travel to the countries in question or exorbitant shipping costs. That is if they can find the books. Few are available online for consumption on Kindle, iPad, Kobo, or other tablets that more and more readers prefer as e-books offer a lower cost alternative to hardcover and paperback editions.

But the question of how to write a character whose race you don’t share is equally valid across all experiences. The most common writing cliche is “write what you know”, but because our world is full of all kinds of people with multivalent backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, writers who seek to reflect the world authentically will have to confront what they don’t personally know and write about it.

Kaylapocalypse’s advice, though focused on race, is also valid for straight writers attempting to craft LGBTQIA characters, an atheist/agnostic whose hero or anti-hero is a devout disciple, a man writing about a woman, or a childless person writing about childbirth/parenting:

1. Research.
Even if you have sisters/brothers or friends who are black/gay/straight/pregnant/born-again/in foster care/etc, Kayla writes, “It is important to start by trying your hardest to forget anything you think you know… In order to start from scratch, I would first spend some time reading literature written by [the group your character identifies with] for [the group your character identifies with]. Learning the way [members of the group] have discourse among each other is the first step to understanding their perspective AND emulating their voice.” Then, she adds, “I would delve into ‘complaints'” members of the group have about their portrayal in dominant culture.

2. Persist.
Kayla acknowledges, “While doing your research you may come across perspectives and narratives that hurt your feelings, overwhelm you with ‘white guilt’, or which offend you to the point of anger and frustration.” Push through these feelings, examining and interrogating them along the way, as you continue to research.

3. Make some decisions–and own them.
Kayla advises, “After you have read all the stuff you can possibly force in your gorgeous noggin, you now have a decision to make: Should you write the character as ‘white acting’ or should you make a whole lot of effort to showcase racial stuff? This is a really sticky choice and really has to do a lot with your character’s personal identity and their position within your story.” She notes that, whatever your character’s personal feelings and decisions about race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. may be, as the writer we must be aware that they will still be perceived as other by members of the dominant group and this must be dealt with subliminally or overtly depending on your story. In other words, carefully and personally consider the experiences and perspectives of the identity group member(s) you are trying to authentically represent in your work. Then decide how they would react to the situations you write them into, based on who they are.

If you are in the minority/marginalized group, you are more likely to understand the experience of the dominant group simply because you are constantly being exposed to multiple, varied expressions of that experience. But even still, it’s easy for any writer to lose the humanity of a character if you are focused only on the character’s identity affiliation(s). At the end of the day, it’s about arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible, then treating your characters as human beings entitled to the same respect and empathy you desire.

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