On Writing Identity, and…

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.

12 thoughts on “On Writing Identity, and…”

  1. Interesting. I would think that it’s up to each author in each story to decide which elements of identity (race, class, personality) are relevant and which aren’t.

    I think entering a story requires a certain level of acceptance on the reader’s part; a willingness to hear what’s given and assume that it’s plausible. One of the standard crits is whether we believe someone’s lifestyle matches their income, or that an uneducated kid from the Bronx is quoting Shakespeare. And then you decide that either there’s some rational explanation, like the kid saw Shakespeare in the park or the kids from Friends have one of those rent-controlled apartments or it’s a point of view issue, that the narrator is telling you the limits of what they perceive, or it’s literary convention – the kid wouldn’t know Shakespeare, but *wink* the author knows you do.

    Am I making too many excuses for authors?

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Well, but I think you’re tripping up on the question of ‘relevant.’ I’d argue that focusing on what’s supposedly relevant to the particular story you’re telling is an overly-narrow way to handle characterization — in fact, it leads to a different kind of bad fiction, in which every detail is a pointed one, chosen to support some overarching plot or theme. Whereas what I’d like to see is fiction full of characters that are thick and rich and full of completely non-relevant-to-the-story-but-important-to-who-they-are details.

    On the plausibility note, yes, I think you’re making too many excuses for authors. The Friends thing, for example, is clearly an after-the-fact attempt to deal with a big hole in characterization/plausibility/class issues. It’s a painful patch on some initial bad writing.

  3. As I said elsewhere, I like this. I’m really enjoying your posts on these various topics, and your links. I’ve been writing a number of stories recently about real cultures that are not my own and feeling uneasy about doing this, but compelled to do it. Why am I doing it? I’m not sure, except the cultures are there. Actually, the cultures are here. I’m writing about nonwhite cultures in Michigan, Minnesota and the Dakotas. My homeland…

    It’s easier to write stories set in the future, which are populated by people of various colors and backgrounds. I’ve done this a bit. But the dominant culture of these stories tends to be the American SF idea of the future, which is Euro-American. If you pop black or brown characters into that kind of culture, in what sense is your story really multicultural?

    I can’t see a good way to change this situation, except to increase the kinds of people writing science fiction.

    And of course everyone writing can pay more attention to identity, to who their characters are.

  4. Thank you for this. The biggest stumbling block in dealing with one’s own privilege is realizing it’s there, I think. One sure way to crack that glass bubble is to make identity explicit, actually to state what normally (for us privileged ones) goes undefined.

    That’s the problem, it seems to me: “White” isn’t included in most baseline assumptions about race, in the dominant culture in the US. That is, the issue doesn’t even arise until we’re talking about something other than Caucasian.

    It isn’t until I start looking at a list of the major characters I’ve written next to a column headed “Race?” and see nothing but “white” that I begin to understand what “color-blind” actually means. And once I’ve done that, I can’t ignore it any more, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Eleanor, I agree that popping black or brown characters into set-in-future sf isn’t really multicultural, not in the same way as writing contemporary fiction — but I’d still argue that it’s less racially problematic than just populating the future with default white folk. My American contemporary reality is very mixed race already — I expect my future to be far more so, just extrapolating logically.

    It’s a tougher question, I think, figuring out how much of contemporary ethnicity/culture will remain in a hundred years. But ‘whitening’ the future isn’t the answer — and neither is creating a supposedly idealistic medium beige as the result of lots of interracial marriages — because you may have shifted the skin color a little darker, but if the culture you’re writing is still essentially generic white, then you’ve essentially erased all the people of color from your story, and your future.

    Which, not to get all dramatic or anything, seems perilously close to literary genocide for my tastes. Oh, all those brown and red and yellow cultures are so difficult to deal with! But in the future, we’ll all just be happy beige, and so we won’t have to worry about it anymore!

    (Not accusing you of this, btw; just trying to counter an idea I see all too often in SF circles, that soon we’ll be living in a happy post-racial future.)

  6. I’m trying. It’s certainly not a strength of mine, but you have challenged me and it’s something I’ve been wrestling with in my writing – another area of improvement to be aware of. And for that, I thank you.

  7. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    And Rez, that’s a great, simple test to use. When I first started writing, out of about twenty stories in the first year, only two (!) had *any* non-white characters. That’s shocking to me in retrospect, but I totally didn’t even notice it at the time…

  8. Thank you for this post. I’m in the midst of writing a story where the couple is an African American woman and Korean male. It is a struggle because I don’t want to over- or under-write their character.

    As a Black woman, I feel that it’s important to write identity as a way to connect to the characters. It gives them depth, which makes for a good story.

  9. I basically agree with your main point, but I’m not so sure that Heinlein is the relevant author to illustrate it.

    First, he sometimes quite deliberately wrote fictions, even as large as The Number of the Beast in which many characters ARE himself, and archetypes. One may enjoy the artitic intention or not, but it’s definitely not a case where “Not writing identity makes for bad fiction”.

    Moreover, while I am myself a man, the question appears often enough for me to have asked to a number of female friends whether or not they had had any trouble indentifying
    (and caring for) Heinlein’s women. It seems that the answer mostly depends on their education : most women with a scientific of technical training at or above the graduate level say they never had no trouble at all, even when they were twins. Most women with a strictly literary training say they have.

    So : is this “bad fiction”, or fiction aimed at a specific public (and a very large one too, as the huge success of Heinlein’s story demonstrates enough) ?

    More generally, I suspect that a similar analysis could be performed on many parameters  While, obviously, gender and race are key parameters of identity, there are not the only ones, and no author can draw on them all for a given parameter (except maybe Proust, who ends up with a saga without a plot..).

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