Respecting Voices

Let’s start with a story.

When I was young my best friend was Jim. He lived next door. During our rebellious teen years he struggled with his mother, as many of us did. He would come over and be all angry, and he very often said, “my mom is a fat bitch.” It was nearly a catchphrase he said it so often. Later on I was hanging out with him and my friend Richard, and we were talking about Jim’s mother, and I said, “well, your mother is a fat bitch.” He got all mad with me, and Richard was, like, “not cool, man.” I didn’t get it. He called her that all the time, but got mad when I said it.

Jump forward in time, and I was reading a piece by an author, and she was writing a modern sci-fi story in which the missing and murdered Indigenous women were not actually murdered, but were abducted by aliens. I cautioned her against it, as it almost made light of a very serious and racially motivated situation. She responded by telling me that she had shown it to an Elder and they liked the idea. Now, the joke there is that everyone has a Native friend who doesn’t find (insert racial joke or stereotype here) offensive. I didn’t believe her, and in the end I think she just hated me for saying anything.

Your voice is your voice. You can write whatever you want, certainly, but it doesn’t mean you should. Some stories are meant to be told by certain people, and in some cases that certain person may not be you. I know it’s a strange concept for some, but there is an overriding idea here that many people don’t get.

Words change meaning depending on who says them.

And we come to the N-word. I don’t say it. I know that some people of African origin have reclaimed the word as their own, but when they say it, it has a different meaning than when I say it. I’m Caucasian (although that word comes from racist origins as well) and although my family comes from poverty and the Irish suffered their own brand of racism, I still come from a place of privilege, so if I were to say the word it would be like I saw myself as superior. The same is true with the word Indian. Many Indigenous people still use the term, but again, it’s different when they use it than when I might use it. Which I don’t.

Does that mean that I am only going to write about middle-aged straight white males, because that’s what I am? Of course not! I’m going to populate my stories with as many different cultures and genders as I can, represent a full spectrum of people. I’m going to choose main characters that are different than I am in so many aspects, from skin colours to cultures to genders to sexual orientation to political beliefs to religions and on and on. It would be awful if I were restricted to simply writing about the experience of a white male. I think the white male experience is pretty well represented in literature.

But it’s all about respecting voices. I can write an Indigenous person into a piece without falling to stereotypes. I’m not going to use stylized language or racial bias, but try to break through them. I’m going to use my writing empathy to try and understand characters, and I’m not going to take their stories and claim them as my own. I show my work to others to get feedback well before I send them off to publishers or self-publish, so I get feedback from as many different people as I can. Maybe I’ll look back in twenty years and realize I had a bias that I was unaware of, as I’m part of this culture and there is definitely systemic racism in it, but I’m going to do my best to represent people authentically and thoughtfully.

Write about people. Represent people who are not of your culture or of your gender. Fill your world with a rich variety of people, but always, show respect to your characters.

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