Writing the Other: intensely practical advice for representing other cultures in fiction
For more than a decade, science fiction and fantasy writers have handed around Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's Writing the Other, an intensely practical and thoughtful guide to inclusive, representative writing that includes people of genders, ethnicities, races, and orientations other than the writer's.
Shawl and Ward's impetus came during their tenure at the Clarion West 1992 writing workshop, when one of their classmates, having taken lumps for poorly handling characters of racial backgrounds other than their own, announced that from now on, they'd stick to writing white people like themselves, rather than get it so wrong and risk giving offense and having to deal with outrage.
This is no solution. If all the writers who are sensitive enough to worry about getting this kind of thing right opt out of it altogether, then what remains in literature from the dominant culture will be stories told by people who don't care about getting it wrong.
Enter Writing the Other, a slim volume of exercises, theory and essays on how to be less wrong -- and even, now and again, right. As Shawl and Ward are at pains to point out, science fiction and fantasy is all about telling stories about people who are fundamentally unlike the writer and the reader -- aliens, magical beings, AIs... The authors set out a general theory of empathic consideration for people unlike you that constitutes both a political education and a very useful guide for writers who are trying to tell those stories.
In 66 short pages, Writing the Other breaks down the general failure modes of trying to imagine the lives of people unlike you, especially the lives of people who lack the subtle privileges that are easy to miss unless they're denied to you. Drawing from real-world examples of stories that got this right and wrong, the principle essay is interspersed with short, useful exercises to do alone or with a partner to get at the meat of the thing.
These exercises are very useful, because a lot of the theory here is Goldilocks advice: try hard, but not too hard; be careful, not not too careful; take chances, but only the wise ones. This is not unique to this subject matter: it's the heart of all writing instruction, which is why practice is so important alongside of theory.
After this tutorial comes two short essays by Shawl, both classics in their own right: Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere and Appropriate Cultural Appopriation and an excerpt from Shawl's novel "The Blazing World."
Though Writing the Other has been out for more than a decade, the issues it addresses are still very much alive, and recognition for them has only grown. As writers continue to wrestle with these issues, Writing the Other remains the foundational practical guide on the subject, and has spawned a series of workshops on the subject.
Shawl has another novel coming soon, Everfair, which Tor will publish this coming September. It looks amazing:
Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium's disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo's "owner," King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.
Nisi Shawl's speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.
Writing the Other [Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward/Aqueduct Press]
(Image: cover of Daniel Jose Elder's amazing Shadowshaper/my review)
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