Science, Fiction, Life

The Dilemma of Writing “the Other”

One of my favorite sites on the internet is the Medieval People of Color tumblr. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the great stuff that is posted over there, but what I do read is inevitably fascinating: there’s so much history out there that isn’t taught in school, and it’s great inspiration for writing (I’ve been terrible about putting that inspiration to good use lately, but that’s a topic for a different post…).

Today I came across a link on the Medieval POC site pointing toward this article by Daniel José Older: 12 Fundamentals of Writing “the Other” (and the Self). It strikes at the heart of something I try to take very seriously: How can I, someone who has basically every privilege it is possible to have (white, male, cis, educated, financially secure, American, able-bodied, etc.), hope to respectfully write fiction about someone from a drastically different background? Do I even have the right to write their story?

This is particularly relevant because my current work in-very-slow-progress is essentially a retelling of the Spanish conquest of the Inca. It is set in a fictional world, permitting me some leeway in terms of accuracy, and the details of the cultures involved are changed, but my main characters are a teenaged boy and girl from the native culture and the story follows them as they end up on both sides of the conflict with the white invaders.

Reading the 12 Fundamentals that Older discusses in his article, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. I have absolutely no right to write about the European destruction of the Inca culture. My story involves multiple scenes with religious ceremonies. Am I violating point 7 (Ritual is not Spectacle)? What about if I find Christian rituals to be no more or less weird than Inca ones? I don’t doubt that people believe in their faiths deeply, but I’m not religious. And yet, a major component of my story is, of course, the conflict between the religion of the conquistadors and the natives. How can I do that justice? Neither religions in my book are identical to their real world counterparts: is that better or worse? Does it just reveal my ignorance about real religions, or does it provide a safe cushion from reality?

Point 12 is the most discouraging for me. “Why do you feel it falls to you to write someone else’s story? Why do you have the right to take on another’s voice? And should you do this? ” I’m not even sure how to answer these questions. I’m not trying to take someone else’s voice, and I don’t think “it falls to me” as if I have been ordained from on high to tell the saga of the Inca conquest. Is “because I find it fascinating” an acceptable answer? I find the early colonial era really interesting because it was a time when vastly different cultures came into contact, and the aftershocks of that contact are still felt today. I’m also interested in telling this story because I recognize that fiction is sorely lacking protagonists who aren’t white males, and frankly, I don’t want to read or write a story about someone like me. My life, and the life of people like me, is easy, and therefore it’s boring. I am drawn to speculative fiction and historical fiction because it’s a way to experience something different from my everyday life.

So here’s the dilemma: I could write about people like me, but not only would I find this boring, it would add yet another white male protagonist to a world that desperately needs more diversity in its fiction. On the other hand, if I write a story from the point of view of two Inca teenagers, I’m virtually guaranteed to get it wrong and offend someone. Not only that, but even if I get it right, will my telling of this story “occupy this space” and crowd out a voice that needs to be heard?

I don’t know. I think point 10 on this list is the one I need to focus on (emphasis added):

“You will jack it up. You’ll probably jack it up epically. I know I have. This doesn’t mean don’t do it. It means challenge yourself to do it better and better every time, to learn from your mistakes instead of letting them cower you into a defensive crouch. The net result is you become a better writer.”

That’s all I can really ask for right? To become a better writer? To do better next time? I have to hope that just being aware of the points in this list will help me avoid them. I have plenty of other reasons that I have yet to share my writing with anyone, I don’t need to use this as one more excuse.  I need to do the writing and learn from my mistakes. Just as that applies to crafting a compelling plot or a convincing protagonist, it applies to the points mentioned here.

1 Comment

  1. katherine

    Anthropologists grapple with these dilemmas every day. Or, well, every day that we get some writing done. There are several decent books by anthropologists dedicated to writing about “the other”– a classic is _Writing Culture_, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus. It’s fairly interdisciplinary and humanistic, and might provide some insights into the question for fiction writing as well.

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