Never Say You Can’t Survive

Never Say You Can’t Survive: When Is It Okay To Write About Someone Else’s Culture or Experience?

Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.

Below is the twentieth chapter, “When Is It Okay To Write About Someone Else’s Culture or Experience?” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!


Section IV
What We Write About When We Write About Spaceships

Chapter 5
When Is It Okay To Write About Someone Else’s Culture or Experience?


I still remember when I was scratching at the door of science fiction and fantasy, desperately trying to get noticed. I racked up piles and piles of rejections, but I just kept scribbling in obscurity (and Starbucks). And then I came up with a book idea that was absolutely guaranteed to put me on the map.

I was going to write an Asian-inspired epic fantasy novel.

I felt pretty qualified to write such a book. I’d been an Asian Studies major in college, and had become fluent in both Mandarin and Japanese. I’d lived all over Asia, working as a journalist in Hong Kong and studying at Beijing University. And I had a pretty fantastic idea, based on the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, two foundational texts in Japanese culture that are just bursting with fantastic story seeds. I was getting that thing I keep talking about in these essays, where I was falling in story-love and having tiny epiphanies every time my hands touched a keyboard. It felt like magic.

At the time, science fiction conventions were full of panels advising us White writers to go ahead and write about other cultural traditions. There had been a few too many fantasy novels based on the same Western European traditions, and everybody was hungry for something new and different. And just look—there was this amazing wealth of stories and traditions just waiting, outside of our own cultural heritage.

So I had very high hopes that my Japanese-influenced fantasy novel would finally get me in the door of mainstream genre publishing. I worked steadily on it, doing tons of research on the latest archeological discoveries about ancient Japan—what people wore, what they ate, how they lived.

And then… I started getting that three A.M. stomachache. You know the one. The little anxiety spike in the wee hours that usually tells me that I’m trying to do something I’m going to regret, possibly for a very long time.

Here’s the thing: I had seen firsthand how much my Asian friends were hurt by the flood of books by White people appropriating Asian cultures in the 1990s and early 2000s. We’d all rolled our eyes over Memoirs of a Geisha, but there were literally dozens of other books. Europeans were obsessed with Asian culture, but we kept coming back to the dream/pastiche of Asian culture that we’d made for ourselves, ever since The Mikado and Ezra Pound’s laughable “translations” of Asian poetry. The turn of the millennium was full of Asian culture without Asian people, as everyone copied anime series and Tsui Hark movies, without bringing along actual Asians.

Plus, after college, I had spent a few months working at a doomed Asian-interest bookstore near Harvard Square. I’d always tried to steer my White customers to books about Asia by actual Asian authors, without much success. These customers seemed to crave the comfort of a White author who could hold their hand, and lead them through an unfamiliar culture. Even—especially!—when the book was from the POV of an Asian character. I got sick of ringing up stacks of Asia-focused books by European authors, most of which were cheesy or worse, and I started to dread going to work.

So I wrestled with my conscience for a while. I tried to convince myself that my Asian-fantasy project would be different. I was going to be careful! I knew what I was doing!

And then… I reluctantly decided to put that novel draft in a drawer. And then light the drawer on fire. I loved Asian culture too much to do this.

A short while after I put away my Asian fantasy novel, I started to write fiction and personal essays about my own experiences as a trans woman. There was a whole scene of trans and genderqueer and gender-nonconforming creators, all of us writing about our experiences of becoming our brightest truest selves and dealing with harassment and setbacks. We gathered in coffee shops and bars and bookstores, reading stories and poems and excerpts from novels, and it felt like we were inventing a whole new language to talk about our changing bodies and hearts.

And I found the same thing, from the opposite side: there were plenty of stories being published and filmed about trans experiences, but they were being created by cis people. Books like Trans-Sister Radio and movies like Transamerica were educating cis people about our lives—and I’m sure they did a lot of good and helped make people more comfortable with trans people’s existence—but trans creators were shut out. Especially when it came to fictional portrayals of trans people.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed as though this was another example of what I’d seen in my bookstore job: cis people wanted cis creators to make them feel “safe” visiting the “exotic” realm of transness. They wanted a tour guide.


Representation without appropriation

So whenever I think about the ongoing (and constantly shifting) debates over cultural appropriation, I think about that “tour guide” thing. People from the dominant group will always seek out a non-challenging version of any marginalized group’s experience, and it’s easier to get that from authors who come from that same dominant group.

Privileged people can become conditioned to expect only one type of story about a marginalized group, to the point where they won’t accept any other stories, no matter how real.

So I’ve tried to strike a balance in my own work, when I write about marginalized people whose experiences are different than my own. I aim for representation without appropriation.

For example, even though I threw away that Asian-influenced fantasy novel, I’ve still included plenty of Asian characters in my fiction, including some pretty major characters. And I’ve definitely drawn on my knowledge of Asian history and folklore here and there. If I was writing about an alien invasion, some of the heroes fighting off the slime-flyers would probably be of Asian descent. And I’d do my best to give them the same inner life that I try to imbue all my characters with—including all the weight of culture, history, and lived experience.

But I’ve never tried to write stories that center uniquely Asian cultures or experiences. Like, I wouldn’t try to write a story that’s all about what it means to grow up in a Taiwanese family. Or a story about the experience of living through the Hong Kong protests from the point of view of a Hong Kong native. Or a deep dive into Chinese history. There are other people who could write those stories way better than I could.

That’s where I decided to draw the line for myself, but everybody has to figure this out themselves. (And Hiromi Goto’s WisCon guest-of-honor speech includes a very helpful checklist of questions to ask yourself before writing a story about a culture outside your own.) But I feel like this is always going to be messy, and ever-shifting, and contain exactly no straight lines, because we’re talking about human beings, and the complexities of history. You never get to be done trying to figure this stuff out.

The book world is slowly getting more inclusive—too slowly—but we still have a long, long ways to go. And as long as the writing and publishing scene continues to reflect the huge power imbalances in the wider world, those of us with privilege need to stay mindful, and refuse to take on that “tour guide” role, ever.

It’s also on us to do whatever we can to promote marginalized authors, and help them to tell their stories about their lived experience and their heritage.

But at the same time, all fiction, including fiction by people from the dominant group, needs to represent the diversity of the real world. It’s essential for White authors, in particular, to include BIPOC characters in our work and to make them as recognizable and believable as any other characters. We all need to populate our worlds with people from many backgrounds, genders, sexualities, and disability statuses, without trying to tell the stories that aren’t ours to tell.

Representation without appropriation is not an end-state, but rather an ongoing process. Like many aspects of writing, it’s a ton of work, a process that never becomes easy or clear-cut—but the work pays off, in richer characters and smarter storytelling. When I write someone who comes from a very different place than me, in terms of culture or marginalization, I feel a huge responsibility to get it right, but I also feel like this story is going to sparkle more, in the end.


Research research research

The good news is, there are tons of resources out there to help us to strike that balance. The award-winning badass Nisi Shawl co-wrote a fantastic book called Writing the Other (with Cynthia Ward) and is now running online workshops about writing about other cultures and experiences, with K. Tempest Bradford and a host of other teachers. There are also a ton of great resources on anti-racism and decolonizing science fiction.

When I set out to write somebody whose life is radically different than my own, I do tons of extra research—especially if this is a major character in the story. I’ll get tons of books from the library or the local bookstore, and do a deep dive into both history and sociology. I’ll watch a ton of videos on YouTube, plus movies and TV shows on Netflix. And I’ll interview actual living people about their life experiences—and I will pay them for their time, either in money or in donations to the non-profit of their choice.

Even if my work touches on ancient history or folklore, I know that it connects directly to the people who are alive today. When you write about the future, you’re really writing about the present—and I believe the same is true when you write about the past. So even if you’re touching on ancient Chinese history, you need to understand how Chinese people in the 21st century think about their own heritage, and what it means to them. The past is always alive in the present, and the stories we tell about it matter.

I’ve talked before in these essays about how difficult it is to create characters who feel like real people, rather than stick figures or plot devices. I’ve learned the hard way that this becomes way more difficult when I’m writing about people whose experiences are radically different than my own. I’m not just talking about writing stereotypes—though, yes, I’ve written plenty of stereotypical characters. (And I’ve been lucky that people have mostly called me on them before those stories saw print.) But it’s a more global problem than that.

I have a general tendency to write flat, lifeless characters, and yet trick myself into thinking I’ve written living, breathing individuals. And the more different those characters are from myself, the worse this issue seems to become. Simply put, I have a harder time getting into the head of someone whose life is very different from mine, which means I have to work harder, but also be constantly aware of this problem.

You don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s hard to realize when you’re missing something important.

And it’s not enough for me to give a character an Asian name, and then pat myself on the back for representing Asian people in my fiction. The best fictional characters have a lived-in quality. This means they’re shaped by everything that they’ve been through, and that includes all of the experiences that come out of their own identities. So even though I don’t want to tell a story that would be better told by an Asian person, I’m always aware that I can’t truly represent people from a marginalized group if I leave out the joys and challenges they share.

For example, I’ve learned the hard way that when writing BIPOC characters, I can’t be afraid to show them facing structural barriers, or to portray their connections to their own communities. I won’t shy away from depicting the garbage they’ve had to deal with as part of their marginalization, hopefully without descending into misery porn. In the case of my story “Clover,” I found that when writing about a gay Egyptian man in North Carolina, I had to show how homophobia and Islamophobia had affected him, otherwise he wouldn’t feel like a real person. And that meant talking to plenty of my friends whose experiences could help me illuminate those things for myself.

I screw up constantly, and the only thing I can do is try to do better and to be aware of my own shortcomings as an author—and all the ways that my privilege makes me worse at writing other perspectives.

And that’s why I’m so utterly grateful for sensitivity readers. For years, I was asking my BIPOC and disabled friends to read my fiction and give me a gut-check on how I was handling characters who were closer to their experience than to mine. When I first learned about sensitivity readers, I was overjoyed that there was a phrase to describe the thing I’d been asking people to do (and in some cases, that I had been doing for others), but I was also embarrassed that I hadn’t been paying people for that work.

And you don’t even have to wait until our books are finished and polished to get some helpful input. As I mentioned, you can start talking to people early on, as part of your research. But you can also hire a developmental editor, who will work with you on your story and your characters earlier in the process, to make sure you’re not going in a direction that you’ll end up regretting.

Even when I’ve written White trans characters, I’ve made a huge effort to show those stories to other trans people, just to make sure I’m not inadvertently reproducing hurtful stereotypes or ideas about my own community. My own trans identity does not guarantee that I’ll know what might prove hurtful to other trans folk—and in fact, this has sometimes happened, especially in the stuff I wrote early on in my career.

So where is the line between representation and appropriation? It’s never an easy question, nor should it be. But I’ve found that a lot of soul-searching, and a willingness to listen, are key parts of reaching the former without straying into the latter.

A few years ago, I attended a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival where Nelson George and Jeff Chang talked about cultural appropriation in music, which helped shape my views on appropriation in fiction. In a nutshell, they said musicians who acknowledge where they’ve gotten their sound from, and who make sure the originators of that sound get paid, are less likely to be appropriating.

In the book world, too, it’s important to think about those two things: respect and money. Who’s getting them, and who deserves more of them? In other words, support marginalized authors, especially BIPOC authors. Promote their work, celebrate them, help them—and most of all, pay them. There is no substitute for actual inclusion of marginalized voices, at every level. And never fall into the trap of thinking there should only be one token author or voice representing a whole community.

Stories only matter because they’re connected to people. There’s nothing more tragic than when someone’s story is present, but the person who actually lived that story is still locked outside.

[Note: This essay has been substantively revised and streamlined for inclusion in the upcoming book, and the revised version is presented here.]

[Update: Nisi Shawl, of Writing the Other and The History of Black Science Fiction column, continues the conversation with a response to this essay, which you can now read here.]

Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in, Boston ReviewTin HouseConjunctionsThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionWired magazine, SlateAsimov’s Science FictionLightspeed, ZYZZYVACatamaran Literary ReviewMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.


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