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 Tor.com 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, and hopefully published. 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.

Since then, I’ve included plenty of Asian characters in my fiction, and drawn on my knowledge of Asian history and folklore here and there. 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 about the experience of living through the Hong Kong protests from the point of view of a Hong Kong native. There are other people who could write those stories way better than I could. On the other hand, I include Asian characters in my fiction pretty often—for example, 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.

That’s where I decided to draw the line for myself, but everybody has to figure this out themselves. Hiromi Goto’s WisCon guest-of-honor speech includes a 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.

 

Admit it! You’re JT LeRoy!

A short while after I decided to give up on writing my Asian epic fantasy, I started reading the work of a trans author named JT LeRoy, aka “Terminator.” In the early 2000s, LeRoy was a literary sensation: this formerly homeless trans sex worker was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, and his autobiographical novel Sarah was a sensation, praised by every major literary figure of the time. Famous authors even listened in on hours of LeRoy’s therapy sessions.

LeRoy was exactly what people wanted from a trans author at the time: young, pretty, pixie-like. He remained a reclusive mystery, even after he became a superstar. And he was a truck-stop sex worker from a messed-up family, whose history of abuse clearly had something to do with his being trans. LeRoy was always on the edge of transitioning from male to female, and frequently talked about getting bottom surgery, but also expressed endless ambivalence—which made him non-threatening to people who were still uncomfortable with trans folk.

And then one day, this random dude chased me around a bookstore and demanded my autograph, because he was convinced I was JT LeRoy.

Backing up slightly… JT LeRoy would never actually show up and read his own work in bookstores, because “reclusive mystery.” Instead, he got other authors to read his work at book events—and there were always rumors that he’d be somewhere lurking in the audience. At a book launch for LeRoy’s short story collection, this one older White man spotted me in the audience, and zeroed in on me, declaring that he’d found me. He’d found JT LeRoy! I told him I wasn’t JT, and asked him nicely to leave me alone, but he kept following me, insisting that I must be lying. At last, he cornered me in the cookbook section, and forced me to sign his book. I did the only thing I could think of: I signed his book “TJ Hooker.”

JT LeRoy got wind of this incident and mailed me a raccoon penis bone, which at the time was considered a huge honor. I think I still have it somewhere.

Being mistaken for JT LeRoy in public only confirmed for me what I already believed: JT had opened a door, and maybe I could walk through it. JT had carved out a whole new space in the mainstream publishing world for experimental, semi-autobiographical trans literary fiction, and this was going to help the rest of us. I started to query lots of publishers and agents with the surreal, off-kilter, super-personal trans fiction I was writing at the time, and… crickets. We already had one JT LeRoy, and we didn’t need another one.

You might already know how this story ends: JT LeRoy was a fake.

The real JT was a middle-aged white cis woman named Laura Albert, aided by her boyfriend Geoffrey and his sister Savannah. I’ve met Laura a couple of times, and I really don’t think she intended to cause as much harm as she did. But. For years, JT LeRoy was the only famous trans fiction author, and it’s still rare to see a trans person achieving anywhere near that level of notoriety in mainstream literary culture.

Of course, most people really believed JT was trans. But as I stewed about this over the years, I couldn’t help thinking of JT’s success as another example of what I’d seen in my bookstore job: people from the dominant group wanted someone to make them feel “safe” visiting an “exotic” realm. A tour guide, basically. Even if people didn’t know that JT was cis, in retrospect I felt as if JT was consciously performing that “guide” role, by giving people exactly what they expected and couching everything in terms that made cis people feel comfortable. And of course, every other successful novel about trans people at the time was also by cis authors, like Trans-Sister Radio.

And I still can’t help wondering occasionally—if JT LeRoy had never come along and tried to represent the trans experience to “mainstream” readers, would there have been an opportunity for an actual trans person?

 

Representation without appropriation

So whenever I think about the ongoing (and constantly shifting) debates over cultural appropriation, I think about that “tour guide” thing that I first noticed as a frustrated bookseller. 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. And historically, books have been published with one exactly type of target reader in mind.

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.

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, there’s a conundrum, or maybe a balancing act. All fiction, including fiction by people from the dominant group, needs to represent the diversity of the real world. 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.

In other words, we need to strive for representation without appropriation.

That’s 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.

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. And whatever cultures or identities you might be writing about, you’re bound to find plenty of research sources, from books to YouTube videos to actual living people whom you can pay to talk to you.

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 found 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. 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.

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.

And this is where the balancing act gets trickier.

On the one hand, I work hard to avoid writing a story that’s entirely about someone else’s unique experience or cultural heritage, like that Asian fantasy novel I was trying to write back in the day. I always have in the back of my mind that someone else could be scratching at the door of publishing, hoping to write about their own lived experience, the way I was back when JT LeRoy was a superstar. On the other hand, you can’t represent the diversity of the real world, if you leave out any of the joys and challenges that are shared by members of marginalized groups.

For example, I’ve learned the hard way that when writing BIPOC characters, I can’t be afraid to show them facing structural racism, or to portray their connections to their own communities. As bad as it is to write a stereotype, it’s also utterly heinous when a writer from the dominant group writes a self-portrait, but then slaps some marginalized labels on that character.

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.

Which is why I’m so freaking 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.

(Full disclosure: I ran this essay past a number of folks including Nisi Shawl, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun, Claire Light, and Annalee Newitz, and a couple of people asked to be compensated in the form of donations to the Carl Brandon Society.)

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. (I’ve searched and searched for a video or transcript of that panel. If you ever find one, please let me know.)

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—that’s how we got JT LeRoy.

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.

[Editor’s note: Nisi Shawl, of Writing the Other and The History of Black Science Fiction column, will be continuing the conversation with a response to this essay, which should appear later this month.]

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 Tor.com, 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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