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

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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.

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Two Minds

we are of two minds,

you and I

vessels pitched toward

names left shapeless:

light to hold

by the comatose

mewling of silhouettes

as if breezes

no land here

only digital connections

between separate hearts

hoping to download a soul

Two Minds

Sun in your Eyes

My humble contribution to World Poetry Day…

 

20170313_145157Contrary to popular belief

the sun rises and falls on all the land

in its time: the advantages of

a globe not being flat.

 

Meteorologists smile as they chirp

prayers to Celestia in asphalt temples

doused in snow, and aborted fields

left flat as spiritualists in the dust.

 

Sunlight looks different mirrored in clouds

than hazed by the shutters of a cardboard box

but it is still there, lapping at the waves

which sing it to sleep each night.

 

Bugs answer to the sun.

They revel in the eroticism of its

muggy kisses on the water, or when it cries

through grey-streaked embraces.

 

There is no mountain on which it does not smile

balanced like a ballerina, poised

for an insistent flight above the tree line

out of the shadows memories cast.

 

It burns with its desires for men

warming their small, dark rock

in the hopes that they will look

yet cursed to see the blindness

 

in their eyes, the meager shades

which cultivate absences in history:

they speak in whispers of the sun

like to each it is their own dark secret.

Yesterday, I Walked

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From the Women’s March on Lansing, Michigan

Yesterday I walked along

what I expected to be a lonely road.

The fog was thick, the dawn was grey

and everywhere the voices, distant

ringing from a moon-blanched land

where winter gripped the roots.

 

Yet not a snowflake fell.

The ground was naked where I walked

stripped bare by the marching feet of folk—

men, women, the breaths of all those

cast aside by category and by creed,

a tremulous cadence striding by ones and twos

into a mass where silence could not reach.

 

I stood a while, by and by,

listening to the notes that misery had stirred,

and in the notes I hear the tearing cries

of history’s ebb and flow,

which built upon a thought suppressed

by years of doubt and faith.

 

No longer.

The dam has broken,

stripped away the vast edged lips that said

“Look at all the Other Things that you could do

Listen to the stillness and know that you are one

In an endless sea.”

 

Well they were right, weren’t they?

But the vastness does not belong to them,

it is a gathered voice, built of tears and edged

by staggered breaths no longer afraid to roar:

we have clothed ourselves for winter

and found that we have stamped it into spring.

 

Let it be true, let the world open its dreams

to you and I, the various, the beautiful, the bold

no longer alone, but crying out

not for the world they know but a world demanded

from the ignorant and the certain empowered

by an army built on hope.

 

Come away, come away from the lash of false praise

they dig out to divert; come away, come away

from the salt they sprinkle to tire and divide;

come away, come away with diligence,

listen to the voices of the sea, to the sirens singing

each to each, and know:

you are not alone.

(Yesterday, I walked with the thousands who converged for the Women’s March on Lansing, a part of the international Women’s March movement–something that turned out to be the largest protest in the history of the United States. But the actions cannot stop there. It is a beginning. But one that should demonstrate to all those who could make it and all those who watched that they are not alone. It showed millions how to forge connections beyond the bubbles we so often throw up, and learn how to effect real change: together.)

Endurance

(Frankly, our world has too much hate. Let this be an echoing, reverberating TO HELL WITH YOU to anyone who spends their life in hatred of others, who builds themselves up through destruction. This world was meant for us to grow together, not to tear each other down.)

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Picture by Stanley Dai; Poetry by Chris Galford

 

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