mocon9The topic of writing the other has been on my heart a lot lately.  Obviously a topic near and dear to me going back to the days of RaceFail ’09.  As writers, we constantly face the challenge of writing the other.  And we have a certain amount of trepidation because we don’t want to get it wrong.  Maybe it’s just me.  Whenever I’m writing outside of me—which basically means this blog—I’m writing the other.

I was born in London, England and moved to (Franklin and then) Indianapolis, Indiana.  My accent alone put me on the outside, much less the fact that a desegregation program of my school had me on a track where I was the only black student in most of my classes.  So despite my father being U.S. born African American, my mother being Jamaican, I always felt cultural lost, and on the outside.  Probably the reason why the quest for identity plays such a prominent theme in many of my stories.  When I approach the blank page, however, I consider myself an invited outsider.

Every time I have to do the work of a writer:

-avoid clichés

-create well-rounded characters with fully formed histories

-take into account their worldview

-realize how they are perceived, be mindful of the power imbalance between cultures

-get the dialogue right

 

All of this comes with the acknowledgement that I will probably screw things up.  In my urban fantasy series, The Knights of Breton Court, I worried about being a poverty pimp.  I re-tell the legend of King Arthur though the eyes of homeless teens, drug dealers, and gang members.  I could be criticized for such a portrayal of black people, as if that’s the only story black people have to offer.  While that was the story I wanted to tell, I don’t want to add to the cultural depiction of my people.  It’s probably one of the reasons my next stories involved high level Jamaican political intrigue (“Steppin’ Razor”) and middle class citizens struggling against a corrupt system (“Pimp My Airship”).*  My goal:  fail better the next time.

Of course, I wonder if we will allow each other the grace to make mistakes and forgiveness during the course of the conversations that WILL come.  Otherwise writers may be paralyzed by the possibility of making a mistake and the Internet falling on their heads.  Wanting to write beyond “what they know,” who they are as well as their “tribe”; but stretching for inclusivity while not wanting to appropriate, not wanting to marginalize, not wanting to cause more harm in their wake.

Conversations swirl about the desire for greater diversity continue to occur.  We want to encourage it among our editors (although, reaching out to writers you want to work with to create diverse anthologies isn’t exactly rocket science) and how to do it well (Nisi Shawl/Cynthia Ward and Mary Anne Mohanraj have some good thoughts).

On the flip side, I also say “be fearless.”  Writing is risk, defying conventions, speaking truth to power, challenging thought, is part of the role of the artist.  Take chances, do your job as writers, and when we screw up, next time fail better.

 

*Plus I got tired of editors asking me to write stories for their anthologies doing “that urban thing you do”