Open Thread: Writing about oppression

So after working on my responses to some of the comments in my “Kingdom” post, I once again stumbled upon a Tumblr post which I feel is relevant to the discussion of Gargoyles and its issues with representation.

From the tumblr more of a lark than a dove (I believe):

i really like the advice “write marginalized characters but don’t write about marginalization unless you experience it”

absolutely i think cis people should expand their horizons and write trans characters, but they shouldn’t write stories about being trans. likewise i think allistic / NT authors should write about autistic characters! but not stories about being autistic. 

represent us. absolutely. but don’t tell our stories. let us do that.

Now, I’m fairly certain I disagree, largely because it feels fundamentally at odds with what fiction is supposed to be.  Secondly, it opens the question of where exactly works like Gargoyles and the X-Men lie, particularly since these sorts of works tend to be most effective precisely when they most mirror the experiences of real peoples and groups.

On the other hand, when I read about how Sense8, a series ostensibly about people from all over the world, cannot achieve its global vision as long as the creative forces driving it are exclusively white, exclusively western and almost exclusively male, I can’t help but nod. I look at episodes like “Heritage” and its complete failure to tell a story about the Haida people, and I start thinking it’s not such bad advice at all.  And so, therefore, I’m left pondering, and then pondering some more.

What do y’all think?

P.S.: Watch Sense8.

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4 Responses to Open Thread: Writing about oppression

  1. Loudo says:

    I think it’s definitely an interesting and thought-provoking tumblr, but I will have to disagree as well if we take it literally.

    First of all, I have to question whether writing a (for example) trans character with the explicit intent of not writing about their story is really representative and is really doing anyone any favor.
    People are their story. How is a gay character supposed to represent me in any way if you gloss over his homosexuality because you are not comfortable or knowledgeable enough to write about it?
    In fact, if we take everything the author of this tumblr says to its logical consequences, we must conclude representation can be achieved even if both the characters and the writers of a certain minority are completely marginalized.

    Now, I think the rule that writers should write about what they know is very true. But this should only mean that if a writer wants to write a story about something they don’t know they should *document* on it.
    In fact if we were to believe that first-hand experience is the only thing that matters, the only thing that enables you to “experience” something, then what is even the purpose of writing, of literature? It becomes merely a tool at the service of the writer, not the reader.

    I think both the trans writer and cis writer writing about a trans character have a value (provided of course that the latter has a clue about what’s they’re writing about, and they are not merely using “trans” as a label to write about a “neutral” cis character).
    The trans writer’s contribution is irreplaceable, but the cis writer who treats their job with the passion it deserves can help fill the gap between the minority and the mainstream community.

  2. Ian says:

    Yeah, that all makes sense. That’s partly why I think the idea is fundamentally incompatible with writing fiction, which is all about writing about something other than experiences. Thank you for your input. : )

    Still, part of the issue, I feel, is that products by the non-marginalized people tend to, almost by definition, have an easier time reaching the limelight than those by actual marginalized people. Often, those become *the* narratives, eclipsing works by those who have actually been marginalized, kinda like how something like 50 Shades of Gray has come define the mainstream’s understanding of BDSM–or, for a real-life example, the way the mainstream understanding of the history of black people is largely shaped by narratives written by white people.

    That said, I also feel that just because a work will be problematic–as all works are–that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.

  3. Supermorff says:

    I saw that tumblr a while ago and I agree with it a lot more than you seem to. Reading your dislike of it actually made me a little upset for no logical reason (please don’t take this as a whine or a criticism, just a statement of fact).

    I am not as articulate as you all, but I kinda feel it’s important to stand up for this idea.

    I never read the idea as an absolute injunction. In order to write trans characters or autistic characters, or any kind of marginalised characters at all, writers NEED to do the research and they really should be as faithful to the stories of the real-life marginalised communities as they can.

    BUT writers can still be faithful to the stories of marginalised people without creating their own stories for what they imagine marginalisation is like. That’s the line as I see it.

  4. Ian says:

    Thank you for the pushback, Supermorff. 🙂

    I’m not sure if it’s coming across clearly, but I feel part of my issue here is with the absoluteness of the original statement, which sets lines which are at once very defined (“don’t write about marginalization”) while also being undefined to the point of undercutting its usefulness as advice.

    For example, one of the many stories I’ve attempted to write features my own version of the TMNT character Radical, who in my version of the 2003 universe starts out as homeless. She has a friend–let’s call him Marcus–who is a trans man, also homeless, who has found that he is pregnant and wants to go to Planned Parenthood to explore his options. At what point does the inclusion of such details become “writing about marginalization”?

    (Relevant note: Marcus would not be the only Trans man I’ve conceived for my stories; the other is the director of a covert black ops group made out of various super-types.)

    I get why one shouldn’t just make up what oppression is like, and understand the risks of having more privileged “allies” drown out what the marginalized are actually saying; my problem here is mostly with wording.

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