Recently at a writer’s conference I spoke about Social Justice and Diversity in writing for YA. Considering that I was addressing a room full of individuals, mostly white, mostly straight, and I’d venture to guess mostly cisgender, it was only natural that the question of writing outside of one’s own experience would come up.
I’m cisgender, meaning that the way I experience gender is congruent with my birth sex assignment. My protagonist in Freakboy is Gender Fluid, meaning an individual who may identify as male, female, or any non-binary identity at different times and under different circumstances. My protagonist in Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity is Transgender, meaning an individual whose gender identity is not congruent with their birth sex assignment.
There has been a long-overdue call for diverse books lately. There has also been a long-overdue call for people of diverse backgrounds to tell their own stories in their own words. The two are not the same thing, though the concepts are often conflated. Identity politics is in a tender place at the moment. One must tread lightly and (it goes without saying) respectfully.
I believe it is important to hold space for people to tell their own stories about themselves, and still, even as I hand sell books about gender-queer characters written by non-binary gender individuals, talking them up every chance I get, I have a story to tell as well.
Below are five tips for writing responsibly outside of one’s own cisgender experience:
First of all – Have a brutally honest conversation with yourself. Sit yourself down and ask you why you want to tell this story, and why you feel that you are the one to do so. What makes you want to add your voice to the voices already out there? Are you working out something in your own life? Are you hoping to make the world a better place? Are you jumping on a bandwagon? I don’t need to tell you the third is a terrible idea – and the first two reasons should be examined closely. Bad representation won’t make the world a better place, and sometimes the best venue for working out something in your own life is in your therapist’s office. On the other hand, is this a story that started out by tugging on your sleeve asking to be told, then started waking you up at night insisting that you tell it, until finally it grabbed you in a chokehold demanding that you tell it, depriving you of sleep or energy for much else until you had no choice but to acquiesce?
Second – Research, research, research. Certainly there is bad representation out there. Don’t add to it through ignorance. Research, and then research some more. Freakboy was inspired by my daughter – but it’s not my daughter’s story. It’s the story I wanted to write after spending years reading and watching everything about the subject that I could get my hands on, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the story I needed to tell after talking to many trans individuals besides my daughter. And yes, it’s the story I was compelled to tell after living with my daughter as she struggled with many of the same questions that my protagonist eventually did. The story had me in a chokehold.
Do I believe you have to be closely related to someone of the group you’re writing about? No. But I would say that if you don’t know anyone from inside that group, you need to ask yourself (again) if you are really the best person to tell this particular story.
Third – Empathy not Exploitation. When writing outside your own experience, empathy is one of the most powerful tools in your kit. (I was going to continue the metaphor with terms like ball peen hammer and rechargeable drill, but realized I don’t know enough about carpentry to really make that work. I’ll stick to what I do know.) Empathy shouldn’t be confused with sympathy, which is a feeling of concern for someone, and a wish to see them better off. Nor should empathy be confused with compassion’s less helpful sibling, pity, which often has condescension thrown into the mix. Empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of someone not you, to feel what they are feeling in each different situation they encounter. The things that trigger our love, hate, fear, bravery, sorrow and joy may be different than what triggers those things in the person you’re writing about – but the emotions themselves feel the same. Tap into the heart and emotions of your characters and you’re more than halfway there. Connecting readers to characters on a human level makes for a more successful story anyway, because in the end, that’s who your readers are – humans.
Fourth – Have it vetted. Get sensitivity readers. Hire several if possible. Listen to what they say. If there’s someone in your life you’re close to who also happens to be trans, and it’s appropriate in your relationship, you can certainly ask them to take a look, but don’t burden them with the expectation they’ll provide you with either permission or absolution. No one person can be expected to speak for an entire group. Understand as well that no single person experiences gender in the same way. Don’t assume it’s possible to write a trans character whose experience will speak to all trans individuals. Also understand that what doesn’t bother your beta readers may be problematic for someone else. (This can be the case no matter the identity of the writer.)
Fifth – Be at peace. Understand that there will inevitably be someone who doesn’t like what you’ve done. I would venture to guess that there will inevitably be people who love what you’ve done too. But guess what? Neither of them are the boss of you, or of anyone else when it comes to the subject. As Virginia Woolf said “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.” Remember, you are writing fiction not memoir. If you’ve approached your story with respect and sensitivity, done your research, and your beta/sensitivity readers have gone through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, you will know you’ve done the best you can do. Hand wringing at this stage is useless, and worse, will leave you with sweaty hands.
In the end the best thing you can do when writing outside your own experience is to be the most respectful writer you can be, and to tell the best damn story you can tell.