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Write What You Know, Pt 2: Diversity Edition

  Posted by RC Lewis , 18 May 2012 · 109 views

Last month, I posted about writing what you know, or more specifically, knowing vs. experiencing and the necessary levels of each. With the situation I had in mind at the time, I have to believe it's possible to write authentically without experiencing firsthand. (If not, I've got problems.)

Today, I'm thinking about a different situation. In this case, I still think it's possible to write it well without firsthand experience, but the closer you can get to the source in your "research," the better.

The situation is writing from an ethnic or cultural perspective that is not your own.

Clearly it can't be necessary for us to share backgrounds with our protagonists. If it were, women could only write female protagonists. No one could write from the POV of anyone older than they were. Way too limiting, to the point of being ridiculous.

But how do we do the research to make sure our characters are culturally authentic?

As I mentioned in the other post, two of my novels have deaf characters. In the first, it's not the POV character, but the almost-as-important sister. Honestly, I didn't dare attempt a deaf POV at that point. I'd been teaching at a deaf school for three years at the time, but I didn't feel ready. (It turned out that I think my POV choice was the right one regardless, just with who the characters are and where the story needed to go, but that's another matter.)

For the second novel (which followers of the blog may notice has finally shown up among the tabs at the top), I got brave. My MC is hard-of-hearing, and there are a variety of deaf supporting characters. I felt like I was ready to take it on.

I'm not "in" Deaf culture, but I've been pretty well immersed in it for several years now. I've seen a lot of viewpoints within it, some of them completely contradictory to each other. I think witnessing and acknowledging the contradictions was the key.

No culture is homogenous any more than a society is homogenous. You can't say, "All Deaf people are like this," any more than you can say, "All Chinese people are like that."

That doesn't mean you can have a character say and do anything and have it be authentic, though.

Am I talking in circles yet? Feels like it.

Cultures are tricky things. Group history, personalities, individual experiences, family tradition, education ... all those things feed into the culture and influence how each person inside experiences it. Individual, unique, yet within certain bounds that offer sameness, that allow a person to say, "Yes, I belong."

Can you find that in a Google search?

Will you even know to look?

Be honest. How many of you are looking at me funny for capitalizing "Deaf" in some places? How many of you are getting question-mark-face at the way I'm discussing a physical disability alongside cultures like they're the same thing?

Surely anyone can write a deaf character. Just cut out the sound and add in sign language, right? I might have thought the same before I became acquainted with people on the inside, and learned that Deaf and deaf are two different things.

Do we fall into the same trap with other cultural identities? Do we assume we can write a character from a particular background, when really we haven't dug deep enough yet to see the nuance and variety within that culture? The push and pull that come from being part of a smaller culture (or more than one) within the larger culture of a particular society?

This is definitely a post where I don't have answers—just questions. And it's gone on long enough. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


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Very tricky questions, and as it is with all things, different perspectives driven by life experiences will always produce varied answers.

I have a hard time reading/watching about correctional officers and their portrayal in media. Why? I was a correctional officer at a men's max for four years. You can see this in my writing, for every fight scene is from real life experience. I also have a different perspective from anyone that has not worked in a prison.

But that doesn't mean those who write about it after researching the subject cannot write decently about the subject. They are just not going to fully understand the society within a prison, or the emotions experienced by the officers/prisoners.

Or if I were to attempt to write from the perspective of someone from the UK. My husband was bred, born and raised in London. I can ask him all the questions I like, and am able to speak intelligently about London culture. I still will not be able to actually tell you what it feels to be a Londoner.

Basically, you have spent a good portion of your time, your life, and have been influenced by those you work with. You should be able to write about the culture, as you have lived it. Your insights will come through more than those that have researched/interviewed.
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