I just read a book that I want everyone in the world to read: WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. These two ladies, with a whole lot of gentleness and humor, have written a book that doesn’t just give fantastic guidelines for writing characters outside the dominant paradigm, it shows us new ways to see, how to take another blinder off. Race, Orientation, Religion, Age, Ability and Sex are all discussed. (I wish it had a more eye-grabby cover; it looks like a dry academic discourse, when it’s actually easy to read, fun and exciting.)
The love interest in my latest WiP is the daughter of a general, in a dystopian setting, where a common enemy has made for more racial unity, but feminism has been set back. This girl is gorgeous, self confident, and she kicks ass; my MC doesn’t have a chance. She’s also black.
Y’know that internet list that came out about white people getting described like food? Ugh.
I want to get it right.
I want to create a real person who can stand on her own, no matter who reads my book, not a piece of cardboard cut out with a white person’s scissors. So I went looking online for some help on how to write a transracial character. I found a lot of articles about whether I should in the first place: the Root has a great one, a few that made me feel spanked before I even set words down, and some blog posts where I learned more from the comments than the articles.
But Shawl and Ward’s book was the only one I could find that guides a writer beyond “the unmarked state” and gives examples of how to write a minority character, and even has exercises that open the brain into seeing and writing a bigger picture. There are two essays at the end that are fantastic, too, both by Nisi Shawl- Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere, and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.
About two hours after I finished WRITING THE OTHER, a colleague posted a piece on Beyonce’s feminism. It’s a terrific article that made my brain turn inside out; while I don’t have the experiences of an African-American woman, I’m incredibly passionate about the universals Dr. Bianca Spriggs writes of: female identity and sexuality, independence, self-expression and creativity.
Have you met Bianca? She’s an artist, a poet, an activist, an actress, and I get to work with her every few years where we have these amazing conversations about art and writing and feminism and creativity and sci-fi and, and, and, that seem to pick up right where they left off the previous time we met. However, when our conversations turn to race and discrimination and social imbalances, I rarely have anything to offer other than naive questions; I don’t have the knowledge to “go there.”
So why am I writing a woman of color?
Because there is an embarrassing lack of diversity in popular literature nowadays, and I want to be a part of the remedy, not the problem.
Because the story takes place in a post-modern urban setting where white people aren’t the only survivors.
Because she’s an awesome character, and I love her.
And with what I’ve learned from Shawl and Ward’s book, and what has been clarified into usable and concrete advice, I feel like I’m a whole lot closer to getting her right.