Writing the other vs. writing others
A few weeks ago there was story in the news about a home chef who was attacked by a journalist and woman of colour for the crime of writing a book on Asian cuisine. The journalist in question (a feminist, no less) ripped into the author, incensed that a white woman had the audacity to ‘write a cookbook about dumplings and noodles’. The woke attack backfired and a torrent of hate mail was unleashed upon the poor journalist, who felt it necessary after the event to go public and beg her readers to fund the therapy she needed to recover from the psychological damage the hate mail had inflicted upon her. In my opinion, much of the flak she took was well-deserved. Whether her attack on the author was the result of a stunt to grab reactionary liberal readers to her blog or simply a gross error of judgement, such presumption deserved to be ripped apart. All that said, to err is to be human, and we hope she found the funds she needs for the $130-per-hour therapist in order to rebuild her delicate ego.
We’ve heard a lot about cultural appropriation in the last few years, the phenomenon just one thread of the huge and complex subject of identity politics, something which I’ll confess now to know very little about. What does interest me though, as a writer and creator, is the question: Where are the lines? Are there any, do they exist at all? Well, they most probably do on some level, so in order not to cross any, I’m going to limit my answer to my own sphere of experience, which is fiction. For me, it boils down to the following: As an artist, to what extent can I cross cultural (and, indeed, gender, sexual, class and social) boundaries in my art?
The answer to me is clear: Everything is permissible. With one simple caveat.
There are examples of bad writing in every genre: bad literary fiction, bad sci-fi, bad romance. Some writers are simply poor writers, and much of it comes down to throwing your work out there too soon or without putting in the requisite hours. Sure, some writers are gifted. Most are not. For many, it is simply about putting in the time. What is it they say? You need to do something for at least 10,000 hours before you even get close to mastery? Well, if that’s the case, it’s as true of writing as it is of anything else – do something enough, you’ll get pretty good at it eventually. Speaking from experience, I was so eager after I’d finished writing my first novel that I couldn’t wait to get it out there. Ignoring that it was trash, I hadn’t even the patience to edit it properly before I was sending it off to agents. Yeah, it pays to wait.
The problem with writing the other and writing it badly, however, is not simply a question of the craft. It is a matter of empathy. As an artist, you are entitled to write from within any culture you choose, be it a novel about a Latina immigrant from Honduras or a peasant tea-picker in North Korea, a poor traveller kid from a Dublin slum or an embattled queer activist in Uganda. As an artist, it is entirely your right to explore the human condition from whatever angle you see fit. The caveat, though, is that you write as a human. As long as you are a human being capable of feeling empathy for others, then you can write who you like. Anyone, anywhere. And don’t be misled by the word ‘empathy’; writing with empathy does not mean that you write only about compassion and love and sadness and warmth, but about rage, hatred, jealousy and madness, if they are pertinent to your work. You can’t shy away from tackling the more unpalatable aspects of existence simply because they’re challenging. It’s your duty and right as an artist to wade in, even if it means getting lost.
I’ve been writing for just over four years and have written male and female characters of all stripes. Do I always nail it? Almost certainly not, but I’m entitled to give it a shot. To err is to be human. I’m alright with getting it a bit wrong, because failure is an essential part of our condition. But so is perseverance. So if I fail this time, I’ll try again, and maybe next time I’ll be closer to the mark. And what can my failure do but deepen my own sense of humanity?