Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Writing Differences.

Differences are cool and make the world interesting. Similarities are cool and make us comfortable. Of course it's not that simple. Life is complex.

A series of questions I get asked often about my novel relate to diversity and differences:

How was I able to write about/create characters who are not like me, in terms of ethnicity, class, whatever? How do people react when they see me, a black guy, and know that I've created some Mexican American characters? Do I think it's possible to write about characters who are not like me?

Of course most of the questioners are asking about ethnicity, which is what most of us immediately think about when it comes to diversity and differences. And it's okay. Though diversity is more than just ethncity.

My responses:
1) I am able to create characters who are not like me because I'd like to think I'm creative, have an appreciation for people and an open mind, believe fiction should reflect the way we live and the people around us, and that I like writing about communties not often reflected in the mainstream of fiction.

2) People usually are happily shocked. They're like, "I can't believe you knew about (blah blah blah)" when it comes to a certain aspect of the novel that resonates with them... one that they assume has nothing to do with me. It's interesting the assumptions people make.

3) Now the third question... is a tricky one. I do think it's possible for writers to write about people who are not like them. I mean, it's physically and creatively possible. However... I think this area should be approached realistically and respectfully. And this is where I'll digress, and explain further...

What I mean is that in order to present realistic characters, who may or may not be different than the writer (but let's focus on writing those that might be different than the writer), I think it's important to know about whom you write. To me, that means being genuine in the learning process. Wanting to learn about people you consider different is not only about the food, fashions, and fiestas of a particular group. It means getting to understand the history of a group, and how that history shapes a perspective. It means getting to understand what isn't spoken, what isn't on the surface. It means going beyond a web search, getting a few pop culture facts, and then presenting a character as authentic. It means understanding communication norms. It might mean getting into a dis-comfort zone, an immersion, with the intention of truly understanding.

At the same time, it doesn't mean that the study of a group means that everyone in that group thinks alike. Or that there is a uniform way of speaking, thinking, and being for every member of a particular population or group. Sure, there are some shared histories and experiences that some may or may not acknowledge in their personal experiences. But there is diversity within groups, but that sometimes gets sidetracked with the whole "tell us about the ______ experience" syndrome, that I know my students often get bombarded with in their classes. (On a side note, it gets annoying to be asked to speak for your group/population ALL the time. Please ask because you really want to know, not because you need a quick, pat answer to satisfy what you think you already know.)

Respectfully writing about people who may be different from you is another important aspect to look at. Stereotypes abound. Most we learn not from personal experience, but from what we see in movies, television, books, news, government, or hear in song, but we somehow make them personal. Because there is diversity within groups, there may be folks whose lives mirror stereotypes and there are also those whose lives do not reflect stereotypes. There is good and bad in all communities. And, to me, it is okay to write about those perceptions of good and bad... as long as... there is a genuine respect and balance presented.

What's not cool is having someone write as if they are "all knowing" about a group of people who are different than the writer. Or writing in a condescing way/manner about a group of people who are different than the writer. Or only presenting stereotypes, because the writer sees those as "the __________ experience." Or writing in a "I'm cool with ______ people because I studied/lived with/dated/worked with ______ people."

I don't know. I'm sure there are numerous perspectives on writing about people you perceive to be different than you. And in no way am I presenting myself as an expert on writing, differences, or human behavior. I'm just one person. One person who had a novel published.

However, the one common denominator we all have. We're human beings.

And we have many of the same desires, dreams, wants, and needs. The approach and the road to achieve those desires, dreams, wants, and needs may or may not be different. But... we all are human. And that simple factor makes us the same in many respects.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

I wonder if this is the reason why certain tv shows don't show much diversity. Are the writers simply not interested in exploring people different than themselves?

In the ad biz I kinda hated being the "voice of the black people" everytime The agency wanted to target the African American market. I told them that's what focus groups are for. Do your own homework.

Kevin C

~^^~Elsie~^^~ said...

Love the post: One statement I can say: Differences unite us!

I understand where you are coming from in response to characters; I'd rather present realistic characters as well and complex characters. I write what i know and I do too, do research in teh form of immersion - great help.

I observe and absorb what is around me and write about it.