Fantasy Magazine Interviews Me: Writing the Other

DSC_0360_255Fantasy Magazine, which published my short story,  “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall,” did a companion interview, which I thought was incredibly thoughtful.  When you write a story, you always hope for questions like this–that someone will ask what you meant when a character said this or that, or ask how you go about writing the story.  

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.  



An excerpt

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!


Read the whole interview on the Fantasy Magazine Website here.

Sarah Palin’s Death Panels


[Pardon me for veering away from science fiction for a moment,but the following has a bit of writing and fiction involved in it.  I don’t usually get political, but I thought it was interesting.]

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  Sarah Palin, by herself, created the “Death Panels” as a work of fiction.  Constantly associating them with Obama is bad authorship.  Obama would be plagiarizing if he stole the idea from Palin, who is the creator.  

Anyone who can take what was meant to be a clause that provided End of Life Counseling and turn it into some sort of tribunal is a fiction writer with nefarious purposes (unlike those of us who have no nefarious purposes).  

End of Life counseling would be nice.  Not many of us look ahead towards our deaths.  I remember how calm my parents were when they came to us and showed us the shiny bullet-like urns they had bought for their cremation.  Or how they asked us to draw up a list of things we wanted from them in their will.  Or as they prepare to retire and don’t have a house to call their own (as a minister, my father was housed in a parsonage provided by each church).  As they approach death, they are thinking through all these things.  Did they have help?  Yes, they did.  A pastor-friend who talked to them about wills and cremation.  But it’s good to talk about the end of life and what you want that to look like.

Who wants their last days controlled by a hospital, or by people who don’t have your best interests in mind, or who, by not having a will or any written statement, just don’t know what you want in your last days?  

The clause in the Healthcare makes it VOLUNTARY, but also gives the doctors compensation for this counseling.  It’s only fair and it’s better to discuss what YOU want at the end of your life, rather than what someone else forces you to have.  Hospitals can keep us alive, nearly indefinitely…now we get to choose HOW we are treated at the end of our lives.

I urge the media to stop referring to these as Obama’s Death Panels, and start referring them to their proper author, Sarah Palin.  If she wants to talk about them, let her wear the albatross that they are.  If she wants to deny folks the right to talk about their own treatment, then let her be treated with the kind of hatred she is stirring up towards the President.  

It’s her Fiction.  Let’s give her the credit.

[update: NYT article says we’ve been here before.  Which means Palin plagiarized.  Wow.]