And secretly too, you hope you don’t sound like a dork.
I appreciate the interviewer, TJ McIntyre, and the work he put into the questions. Thank you.
There have been many controversies over the years relating to writing the “Other” or writing with a voice outside of one’s own natural experience. “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall” is written from the point of view of a modern Asian-American female. Did this create a challenge for you? What steps, if any, did you take to verify the authenticity of your voice in this piece? What tips do you have for other writers out there working on pieces where they are writing from the perspective of the “Other?”
Hmmm . . . This is a hard question for me because I think every character you write about is an “Other.” I do understand the argument, that writing something completely different from you is more challenging. But unless you are writing memoir, the characters have completely different childhoods, desires, relationships — all the characters, not just the POV one. So they all take a lot of work to understand and “get right,” so to speak.
But if someone wants to write a character which is “other” I wouldn’t stop them. Instead, I would encourage them to stretch themselves. I certainly don’t immediately identify with, or always find accurate to my experiences, the white, rural, college-educated, religious gay male characters I find. And I don’t always want to write that character. I would hate to stop someone else from writing them though.
So I think that’s my first tip: Feel free to be whoever you need to be for the story, without holding yourself hostage to criteria. Criteria can turn into stereotype. I remember once writing a poem about Theodore Roosevelt surviving the Amazon River. A fellow writer said that I had no albino catfish in the poem and that it was a weakness. If I didn’t mention them, I would be called on the authenticity of place. Even worse may be the authenticity of race or gender or sexual orientation — since we are multi-faceted people. I go back to my first statement: Everyone in your story that isn’t yourself is an “Other” . . . and you are required to be careful with all of them.
Saying that, though, I think writing a nasty, mean, selfish gay character might be an accurate representation of one particular person, and might make a funny character, but I would trust that character more in the hands of a gay man who knows the consequences of pushing a bad stereotype in a culture that seems to want to believe the stereotype, than in someone else’s hands. I tried hard to be sympathetic to both Matsui and Yumi equally — showing their flaws, their desires, and hopefully helping a reader side with both at different times.
So, not that you have to always treat your Other characters with kid gloves, but that you make everyone understandable and as authentic as a human being as you possibly can through research, and through infusing them with your own flaws/desires. I infused Yumi with some of my own doubts about my relevancy/impact on the world, my own relationship experiences, the sometimes clash of cultures I find with people older than me. The story doesn’t have my exact experiences, but the shades of feelings are right, the tone is right, the need to be loved and validated is right, I think.
Run the draft through a close set of writerly friends to check for bias. I did run this through Clarion 2007 in San Diego, past a rigorous group of fellow writers, half of them women, who had some questions about the way I wrote Yumi, and I followed their advice. Not that a character can’t make bad decisions, or have perceptible flaws, only that they should be unique, individually motivated and free from OBVIOUS bias.
Be open to learning what it’s like to be someone other than you. It’s really difficult to shed Jerome in order to take on Yumi or Matsui, but I try. Like an actor taking a role.
I think if we only wrote within our experience we’d really limit our stories, and ourselves. I remember once writing from the perspective of my brother, and I learned a lot about what it felt like to have to make some of his decisions. The story moved radically away from my brother’s actual deeds, but the writing process allowed me to feel empathy and understanding for him in a way I had never felt before writing about him.
The process allows a writer to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” and that’s good, both for the writer — who learns something outside him/herself — and the reader — who doesn’t have to put up with a bunch of main characters who are sci-fi movie buffs. Viva l’Other!