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On Writing Diversity in SF&F

Olive Trees in Athens

On writing the other and writing diversity in speculative fiction:

Dear fellow SF&F authors who are conscious of social issues and diversity…

[Note: If you are a) not conscious of social issues and diversity; b) don’t care; c) only care about accurate representation of some people and not others; or d) are a Nazi, then this post is not intended for you, and it will make you growly and probably not do you or me any good.]

For the rest of us: I’d like to submit a few thoughts for our consideration.

When we are writing a novel that foregrounds marginalized people, and readers who are a member of that marginalized people reach out to us with upset at how they are being portrayed in the book, a helpful response is: “I am sorry; I didn’t realize it could have that impact. I’d like to understand this better.”

And it’s helpful if we’re sensitive to the fact that marginalized people are being asked constantly to explain (and justify or prove) their experiences, over and over and over again, and that by asking them to explain it yet once more, we’re asking for some emotional effort on their part (and their time).

It’s something we ask if we’re really genuinely serious about wanting to understand our fellow human beings better and about wanting to tell complex, riveting stories, rather than just peddle stereotypes (knowingly or unknowingly). We ask it because we want to learn. For the same reason that we ask astrophysicists and biologists and geologists all the questions we ask them, for the same reason we’re reading science updates all the time, so that we can get new ideas, challenge our current understanding of the universe in which we operate, and tell stories that do the same for our readers.

If we stop listening and learning, the stories we tell soon become flat and shriveled and empty and dead.

I really believe that.

We are storytellers because we are such avid listeners and learners that we are constantly bursting with wonder and we are driven to share the wonder with other people. We spin stories because the world is so damn cool and so damn tragic and so damn comic sometimes too, and we can’t hold it all in.

We want to tell stories that make the world bigger, not smaller.

That’s why, I hope, we wrote stories that included marginalized people in the first place, rather than just stories about straight white dudes traveling to other planets and sticking flags in the soil. That’s why we’ve wanted to “write the other.”

Now, as with any feedback we get, we will have to make our best judgment as to how to take that feedback, what weight to assign it, and how to learn from it for the future. People have different experiences, and we will get contradictory feedback. But it behooves us to listen openly first, and hear it.

I mean, if we can survive 591 rejection letters from editors, we can survive hearing a little feedback from people whose lives are impacted or influenced by the stories we tell, so that when we make our best judgment as storytellers, it’s a more informed best judgment than otherwise.

This is especially the case if you are hearing similar feedback from a LOT of people about the portrayal of their lives in your book. Just as if you received feedback from a whole bunch of astrophysicists who all agreed that your science was complete and total bunk, it’s worth paying attention if you’re hearing from lots of marginalized people that your work is tapping damaging stereotypes and misconceptions that you might not be aware of.

So, a helpful response is: “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it could have that impact. I want to learn more.”

Unhelpful responses include:

“I’m sorry that you’re upset.” (That’s not an apology. It’s a dismissal. It’s also a passive-aggressive invitation for matters to escalate swiftly.)

“Well, my one black [or gay, or trans, or Native] friend told me…” (Please, for the love of God, do not ever play the One Black Friend card. “One Black Friend” is not research, and going there makes you look like a shmuck. Even if your One Black Friend is Frederick Douglass back from the dead, don’t go there.)

“I am among the least racist/sexist/transphobic authors in the genre, just look at all my credentials, and I think you’ve taken it wrong.” (Not only will this make you sound like Donald J. Trump, which isn’t a good look, but it is defensive and silly and what it sounds like you are saying is: ‘I know more about your life experiences and the experience of being marginalized in the way that you’ve been marginalized than you do, and I have no need to learn anything more.’ So, whereas the One Black Friend card makes you look like a shmuck, the I Know More About Your Marginalization Than You Do card makes you look like a pretentious and arrogant shmuck.)

“I did my research. I know what I’m talking about.” (This isn’t helpful, because we’re always learning more, and because when someone says you’ve misrepresented them, that’s a learning opportunity. That is literally a new research opportunity. Don’t disrespect your readers by not taking advantage of the opportunity to listen.)

And, by the Hugos and the Nebulas and all sacred science-fictiony things, by all that you hold dear on this green earth, don’t elaborate on your “I know what I’m talking about” with: “I shared the idea for the story with all my friends [who look just like me] and they adored the idea!” That’s…not research. Really, it’s…it’s not. (And, stepping back for a moment, if your primary reaction to being challenged is a PR-focused reaction, then it’s worth pointing out that more research earlier in the process, before actually publishing the novel, might have proven helpful.)

The point is, even if you are an award-winning author, you are always learning. As storytellers, a certain humility and eagerness to listen is expected of us, by the nature of what we do. And if we aren’t interested in learning more and more about our universe and the people in it, we might be in the wrong line of work. I mean, if we’re just here to pontificate and be worshipped, we might want to try running for a position like President of the United States. It’s an easier job to get with lower entrance requirements and it pays better, too. On the other hand, if our work and craft is a matter of listening to as many stories as we can, learning as much as we can, and then passing on the stories we hear or weaving their materials into new stories, that’s hard work, and humbling work, and exciting work. Our stories have impact, because we understand our lives and our community and our world through our stories. We are the weavers of dreams, and dreams create the hopes or fears of a community. There’s no task I would rather be engaged in — but it’s also not a task to take lightly.

How I want to work: Learn, listen, then tell the best story I can. Then learn some more, listen some more, and tell an even better story.

I know of specific things I flubbed in earlier books of mine, and I don’t doubt there are some things I flubbed of which I’m currently unaware. You know what I do once I realize that’s the case? I listen, I learn as much as I can, and I try to WRITE ANOTHER, BETTER BOOK. And I will keep trying to write another, better book until I die.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!