Promoting the “Other” When You Don’t Fit the Bill

nong-vang-577609-unsplash
Photo by Nong Vang

Storytelling is one of the most fundamental, universal aspects of the human species. We tell stories to learn what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. The notion that you can’t tell someone else’s story is ludicrous, and so is the idea that you can’t learn someone else’s tales. Will you tell it the same as they could? Almost assuredly not. Does that make you any less genuine in intent or depiction? No. Does it make the story any less important? Hell no.

The key is consideration versus appropriation. Empathy is critical.

Example: a character should not be included simply because they are black, or trans, or bipolar. These are aspects, not the sum. A scene should not unfold where a character enters and we are left to think, “and here is the gay character.” It’s an aspect of who they are. It may be completely unimportant to the story you are trying to tell. Yet they are there, and they should be there, with stories to engage. That story should not begin and end with their gayness, blackness, mental illness, disability, etc., but hell if each of these traits don’t affect a person’s life to varying degrees. They are important. They matter.

We’re all human. We have love lives, yes. But we also have passions. Doubts. Fears. We have quirks and faults.

It is the sum of our capabilities and failures and deeds—not the prominence or lack of any one—which makes us who we are.

It is unfathomably tricky to write outside of who you are with the care it requires, but I also fully believe that those with the power and stage to write should, as well as working to open the doors to equal voices throughout, in the meantime, speak for those who can’t. To do so, they must work as hard as possible to be authentic. One of the main points of writing is, after all, to tell the stories of people we may not recognize, so we might better understand everyone.

The story is not about you, but it can be about people, as much as ideas and events.

The word of the day is nuance, and it should accompany any scribbles. Yet it is especially important when including the traditionally underrepresented – particularly if you aren’t one of them. I dare say it’s more important now than ever, as the world slides into an age of illiberalism and authoritarianism, lashing out at one and all seen as “the other.”

There are some out there who do take umbrage with people who write outside their element. Whether it is an extension of the belief that writing is experience and nothing more, or  addressing things beyond your own experience is disingenuous, or even using the idea as a convenient way to stifle inclusion, the fact is the uncertainty shows one important thing: it’s not easy. As such, if you’re not a member of the community you’re writing about, you must be amazingly respectful.

Note I don’t say “should.” I say “must.” Treat your subjects as any less than human for an instant, any sense of caricature, and that’s it. You’re done. That’s all she wrote. Pack up the bags and head home, because you just undid everything you were trying to do.

To those who say don’t do it, I say: as long as you recognize your space, your power, and your limitations, approach it from that. Be open to feedback, be prepared to accept criticism, but most importantly, work hard to do it right and open a space and opportunity for the voiceless to come forward.

To those who fear appropriation, I certainly can’t blame them, but I urge just as much caution. After all, to silence ourselves entirely for fear of facing appropriation anywhere, we lose chances left, right and center to learn about the myriad identities which make up our world. More people should be able to write and engage with who they are and what that means—but people should also be able to think and opine outside of who they are. Fiction lets us do that, and sometimes it does it wrong, horribly wrong, but the best writer acknowledges this when it happens and uses it as an opportunity for serious discussion.

So what it all comes down to is this: nuance is good. Engagement is good. One needs to do it without being insincere, but they do need to do it. All of us have a responsibility as creators and influencers to do better.

It is our responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.

Advertisements

Their Eyes Watch Childhood Blossom

ray-hennessy-118046-unsplash

Spring has a way of resurrecting memories.

I found the fox on the far side of the river. At first, I took it for a kitten—it was young, too young and slight to mistake it for a dog. With all the leaves about it, colored to its shade by the passing touch of winter, I probably never should have seen it, but some motion caught my eye. A twitch of the ears or a flexing of the bushy tail.

Either way, it was already dying by the time I got across.

A child’s thought: someone hit it, someone left it to die. My first dog, a chocolate lab named Rufus, had been not long in the ground by then—a passing memory of love that ran until his hips gave out, disease rattled his bones, and it would have been crueler to let him live than to let him die. I had not come to terms with that yet, and there, then, another animal lay before me on its side, curled into its haggard self.

Leaving it was not an option. Though the words of others rattled my head like wind in the trees—“If it’s wild, don’t go near it; it might have rabies, it might be angry, it might…”—they were about as effective, and I hunched over it and pressed my hands into its fur. What I realized then was that there was no blood, no open wound—just a child in the grass. It stirred at my touch. A little thing—its paws moved, like my dog’s used to; like it was dreaming of a hunt time denied. Nightmares maybe, dampened with earthen sweat.

High noon beat down on us, teased the frost away from the rot. The fox’s eyes looked at me, little gold slits leaking liquid light. I started, sat back on my heels. There were many things I might have done. I had my backpack, and he was small enough to fit inside. Still, I hesitated—my mother, I thought, would know.

Instead, I gathered a pile of leaves and sticks, made a bundled pillow of the earth that I could balance between my outstretched arms. I do not know what I thought to do with it. Mother loved animals—by that logic, she could help him. She would know what to do, by needle and thread or a doctor’s hand. Wildness mattered nothing. Its body still held the warmth that endears life to a child.

Lethargy benefited no one. I slipped both arms under it, careful to come between its sagging claws as I lifted the fox off the ground. Our world thrummed with the passing thunder of a car on the roadway, maybe a few dozen feet over and away—worlds separated by a hill and some trees. It was enough to waken me to the coolness that slicked from the lipless breaths. Water, I said. Frost and dew and whatever else condensation wrought.

Blood, by the stain, leaking from the pointed, open teeth—teeth as small as mine had been, for the tooth fairy’s gifts.

It took a moment to sink deeper than my skin. The head could not remain risen into the crook of me—it flopped against the side of my arm, drooping down as if to reclaim the lost soil.

A haze of freedom carried us forward, past one tree and another. Another car brought the wind through the trees and I realized for the first time that afternoon, truly realized, that I was alone. Shade clung to the leaves still drooping from the canopies above our heads, silent as statues and every bit as cold. Even this close, the cars were muted, lessened for what stalked the trees. One might have believed themselves in a different world, with their toes in this heady soil.

It was dead in my arms. Slowly, I came into that reality. I think the shadows had moved by the time I set it down again, laid it at the foot of an ancient oak overlooking the river, where time and erosion might one day wash both into the rest of something else. Something bigger. I had nothing with me. Nothing that meant anything. So I buried it in leaves that crumbled in my hands, weighted them down with sticks someone might use for a bonfire.

Yet I dared not touch its eyes. Instead, I closed my own as I sat beside the river and began to wash my arms. It took a long time.