I think about writing a lot. Not just about stories as they unfold, or what my characters are up to, or the mechanics of putting words together in the right way, but about the political and cultural issues around writing itself. No matter what people say, there is no such thing as ‘just a story’. Every story carries the beliefs and biases of the writer, and goes along with, or resists, the society that the writer comes from – often without them even realising it. Last weekend, two things happened that made me have Big Deep Thoughts about the politics of writing, particularly my own.
Firstly, I went to a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival. Malorie Blackman, the current Children’s Laureate, and Shami Chakrabarti, director of the organisation Liberty, were discussing human rights and children’s literature. Both of these women have been a huge inspiration to me. Shami Chakrabarti’s work against censorship, torture and other human rights abuses has become more and more relevant in recent years. Malorie Blackman’s novels got me into studying children’s literature, and I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on her Noughts and Crosses series. This in turn led on to my postgraduate research, looking at racial stereotyping and counter-stereotypical writing in young adult fantasy novels (or, to put it more succinctly, ‘The Twilight series – just, no’).
The conversation between the two women was fascinating, and there was one point that particularly struck me. Malorie Blackman has always written novels with black protagonists, because, when she was growing up, there were almost no such novels. Initially, she avoided writing about racism, because the few novels that did have black protagonists were always about racism and racial violence. Malorie Blackman has said that she wanted to write the stories she wished she’d been able to read as a child; stories that featured black children as whole, flawed, nuanced people with a huge variety of interests, not just as a single-issue Very Important Lesson that the (white) reader had to learn. Representation was a big part of her motivation.
Her success as a writer, though, led her on to consider this issue of representation further. During the talk, Malorie Blackman mentioned a workshop that she’d done recently, where a disabled reader had asked if she was going to write a story with a disabled protagonist. Malorie Blackman’s response was along the lines of “Maybe, if the idea comes along – but in the meantime, why don’t you write that story yourself?” As Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman has been pushing for more diversity in children’s literature, and particularly for authors from a wide variety of social groups – people of colour, disabled people, LGBT people – to have their stories and their voices heard.
A couple of days after this talk, a friend and I went to see Only Lovers Left Alive (an absolutely fantastic film, and I’m not just saying that because of my incorrigible Hiddleston fangirling – it really is brilliant). Before the film, we were having a drink and talking about stories, and I mentioned Sigyn, the queer Norse gods story that I’m currently writing.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned my research – specifically, I’m looking at the sorts of problems that can come up when non-Native authors write about Native Americans. My friend knows about this research, and asked me “If it can be a problem when a non-Native person writes about Native Americans, surely it could be a problem when a straight, cis person like you writes about LGBT people?”
It was a good question. It made me stop and think for a long while. I’d thought about something similar before, while I was writing Spider Circus, and it was a legitimate concern while writing Sigyn. As a white writer, what were the potential problems of me writing about a black heroine? As a straight writer, how many mistakes would I make while writing gay and bisexual characters? As a cis writer, could I really be expected to write a convincing and nuanced trans (specifically genderfluid) character? Should I even be writing them at all?
It’s a very grey and contentious area, and my personal feelings on the subject shift a lot depending on what I’ve read recently and the debates I’ve seen or been party to. Personally, I do feel that I should write my characters the way they are – because, otherwise, I am making a deliberate decision to exclude people of colour and LGBT characters from my books, something I absolutely do not want to do. While I do this, though, I have to remember that I am inevitably going to make a lot of mistakes. I was able to draw on some of my own experience while writing Lizzie – the experience of growing up as a nerdy girl in a small village. But I have no experience of growing up as a black girl in a predominately white village. This is part of Lizzie’s identity – not the only part, not a part that should define her more than anything else about her, but an important part nonetheless – and I’m certain that I’ve got some of it wrong. I have tried to avoid making mistakes – by talking to people of colour and LGBT people, by reading as much writing by people from these groups as possible, and by asking good friends if they would mind checking my work. I’m still going to have made some errors. Nothing is a substitute for lived experience.
The way I see it, there are two ways I could react to these mistakes being pointed out to me. I could get defensive, and rage and sneer, and imply that these people should be grateful that I’m deigning to even mention them in the first place. I could style myself as an expert on other people’s experiences, and point out that my intentions were good, and therefore I am beyond reproach. If I had a large enough platform, I could hint to my fans that they should kick up a fuss and drown out any dissenting voices, and to hell with the consequences for the people who dared to criticise my good work.
Or I could take a different road. I could do what I was taught as a very young child, when I was learning to negotiate the world around me. I could stop, look, listen, and think.
This road is harder for the writer. It means admitting that you were wrong, or insensitive, or that, despite being so sure that you wrote something wonderful, you actually just rehashed some tired, old, but very hurtful stereotypes. And it means correcting this, which can be a lot of work – after all, stereotypes exist because they’re easy, and because we don’t need to think about them too much. Nonetheless, it’s a road worth taking. Writers should write for themselves, but be mindful of the readers – all of the readers, not just the ones that look and live like the writer does. And when some of those readers become writers themselves, then instead of hogging the spotlight, the writer should shift up and make a little space.
Write the stories that come to you. Love them, live them, make them part of yourself. But never make the mistake of thinking that they, or you, are above criticism. And never stop listening to the stories of others.
Disability in Kidlit (an excellent blog on representations of disability in children’s literature – seriously, read it all)