As painful as the discussion is at times, we must persevere
I knew when I wrote last week’s post that not everybody would agree. However, what I had not anticipated was the level of antipathy, hatred even, that I faced. Within an hour of publishing the post I was facing my very first “shit storm” on Twitter. Not just for the unfortunate mix-up of two words in the heading (for which I am still awfully sorry and horrified) but for the views expressed in my post. It got so bad that for a couple of days, I was afraid to check my Twitter feed. I’m not used to so much hatred.
I had no idea that the concept of writing about humanity was so controversial, and that some people feel so strongly about who should be allowed to write about whom. To avoid further controversy and having people put words in my mouth, let me try and be as careful as I can be. Naturally, I respect everybody’s conviction and views. Given. And I listened, and I gather (feel free to add more arguments at the end of this post) that most of those who feel that only members of any minority should be allowed to write about said minority argue mainly according to these lines:
- Publishing space is limited, and “our” (this could be any minority) voices are drowned out by the voices of the “others”, the majority. We need to make sure that more of our own voices are heard, not more “other” voices.
- “We” are different, and “you” have no idea what it means to be “us”. Only “we” could ever write our own stories accurately.
Let me look at both arguments, one by one.
Publishing of minority voices
I have the utmost respect for the publishing argument. As an author who has never been published by the “big five” in any country, I know how difficult it is to get a publishing deal. And I understand that it is more difficult for minority voices to be interesting to a publisher. Even if we discount racism, misogyny, trans- or homophobia. Merely from an economic point of view, it must be more interesting to publish a book that reaches a wider audience. Sadly, today the large publishers are not in the business of the arts. They’re in the business of shareholder value, and that means to maximize the return on investment with the publishing budgets they have. No excuse (and please don’t shoot the messenger, again), just an explanation.
However, and this is where this argument becomes flawed in my opinion: publishing today is not what it was even ten years ago, much less three years ago. It changes all the time and the entire publishing industry is in a state of flux. To claim that the publishing space is limited though is simply not true. With the tools of self- & indie publishing available to almost anyone, minority voices have more and better opportunities to be heard than ever before. And a look at the number of books published shows just how much the industry has changed in recent years.
Are there no more hinders? No, of course not. I am fully aware that literacy, access to the Internet etc. are still big hurdles for many. Even more importantly, “finding” great literature that tells “our” stories is very difficult. As a writer and reader of gay fiction, I know how hard it is to find great books in the sea of M/M romance. I also acknowledge that it is challenging for many readers to find paperbacks that are self-published, and that most book stores specialize in selling books along the same lines as the big publishers publish, i.e. to make money, not to serve a minority.
While some book stores do an amazing job, I could mention a queer bookstore in New York, which does a great job servicing the LGBTQIA+ community. But again, only one city, in one country, and even they face the tough demands of the economy. While I was welcome to a reading there once, I was never welcomed back, on account that my books didn’t sell. Such is life.
I feel that the Internet provides amazing opportunities to help out on this front, to create portals for minority fiction, places where enthusiasts can gather information and resources about great fiction, focusing specifically on a specific topic and or group of people.
Only “we” understand what it means to be “us”
This second argument is much more difficult to argue about. Because, in my humble opinion, it’s a question of faith to a degree, but also a question of how we view ourselves, our human siblings and humanity as a species. I was once on the side of the argument that only gay people could really write about gay people. I no longer believe that. Why? Because I, as a gay man feel competent enough to write about non-gay people. If I can, why shouldn’t they?
Now before you get all heated and start calling me names again, please allow me to explain why I feel like I do. Being a minority is never “all” that we are. Being gay isn’t an all-encompassing part of my life. Neither is being gypsy (I use the word intentionally, as we were never able to ascertain the exact heritage of my grandmother. Roma or Sinti, we don’t know, hence I’m a quarter gypsy, something I have to live with, and I do so proudly), or atheist. I also wear glasses, have green eyes and mousey hair. All minority traits, viewed separately.
Racism, misogyny, trans- & homophobia are awful things, and it’s a given that we must all fight them. Authors must fight them using their tools, words. Now, if I, being who I am, privileged as I am to be able to write, use that power to help my own and other minorities, I think and I strongly believe that is a good thing. I add a voice to the choir. I add a story to the collection of stories about that minority. Because even writing about a wheel-chair bound white boy, I write about a minority.
This is where my empathy argument comes to bear. I am convinced, and nothing will ever convince me otherwise (so if you disagree, let’s politely agree to disagree here, and not resort to name calling), that being human is paramount, and that we all, no matter who (or what) we are, share so much more, than separates us. Even within a minority, stories differ, and a black man’s experiences are very different from a black woman’s experiences, and a rich black man’s experiences will be very different from a poor black man’s experiences. We are individuals, and there are almost ten billion individual stories out there.
Again, that doesn’t mean that being black doesn’t mean that most blacks suffer discrimination. Yet, being black in Nigeria is different from being black in America or say the Caribbean. So this is my strongest argument. Diversity means that I as an author look at the individual, and their plight in life. Some may suffer from the fact that the color of their skin makes them stand out, to some it may be a disability, or their gender or sexuality, or their age. As an empathic author, doing research, understanding the human aspect of it all, seeing what we share, and highlighting what troubles us, is what I do. I have no interest in writing clichés or stereotypes. That is bad literature, and I think we can all agree across the isles that bad literature is bad, period.
One argument I faced these past days was all about not being able (being “you” rather than “we” or “us”) to tell “our” story. This speaks to the very essence of literature, or, as we also call it, fiction. Yes, it’s fiction. It is not real life. The character an author brings to life must not ever be real life people, or else we write a biography, which is non-fiction. I write fiction. And the people I write about, as real and as alive as they may be in the depths of my mind, they are not living, breathing members of the species homo sapiens sapiens. They are derived from bits and pieces of people I’ve met through my life, but please, never ask me who and to what percentage. I couldn’t tell.
Therefore, how can anyone say that the character does not represent “what I am”? It’s not you. Now I understand that there are philosophical, political differences at play here, like I said Friday. I see us from an individual point of view, not from a group perspective, because while group membership explains some aspects of our lives, it will never explain it all. And the debate between socialism and liberalism has been fought fiercely since the 1700s, and we still have no definitive answer. We may never see one.
Like any good story, it has to be credible and plausible. Not real. We love Harry Potter because it’s credible and plausible. Yet the boy wizard was written by a woman, a muggle even. The anguish and despair of Italian Julia was written by a man, an English one at that, yet still, centuries later, we understand perfectly well, people of all ages, creeds, color, genders and sexualities, just how much in love and how desperate Julia is to drink the potion to join Romeo in death. Great literature captures the human essence, it transcends all that which is on the surface, not by making us all straight white Anglo-Saxon protestants, but highlighting that which brings us together as humans, not insisting on that which separates us.
Because I fear, that a consequence of the argument that we should only write about our own, we, as a human species are doomed to fail. If I can’t ever assume to understand what it is like to grow up poor, or blind, or Kenyan, or asexual, or gender queer, or, or or… Then neither will anyone else, and we are destined to remain all these separate groups, where whites discriminate against blacks, where Hispanics discriminate against the Indio, where men discriminate women, straight the LGBTQ community, etc. That is a view of humanity I refuse to subscribe to. While true today, are we really doomed to remain this way forever? And is it worth alienating our allies over it? All we achieve is further hardening the divide, rather than crossing it.
In closing, I understand fully that the discussion will continue, and that we most likely will not arrive at much common ground across the aisle. But let us do so without the name calling, because that, if anything, will only serve those who wish to preserve the status quo.
I look forward to hearing from you, preferably here, because Twitter is such an inadequate tool to debate, or Facebook, where last week’s post led to a very enlightening discussion with over eighty comments. Thanks everyone for weighing in. Who knows, we might even find a constructive way forward. I would also like to recommend you read my friend Amy Leibowitz’s very well crafted contributions to this topic, here.
Have a wonderful week. Greetings from my home town of St. Moritz where I spend a week with my dad.