The Voices of Others: Genders, Sexualities and Beyond

Nikos Kessanlis, The Crowd, 1965

There are some very divergent schools of thought when it comes to the subject of writing in a gender or a sexual orientation other than your own.  Let me paint out the arguments:

1) Don’t do it. Follow the old advice: “write what you know”.

2) Heck, you’re a writer. You can write whatever you feel like.

3) Don’t appropriate the voices of others.  Let them speak for themselves.

4) If you are going to do this, do it with respect and a lot of research.

I’m going to discount the first one. If we only ever ‘wrote what we knew’, there’d never be any SF, fantasy, paranormal, horror, etc. I don’t know about you, but my life is pretty staid and it that’s all I wrote about, it would bore people to death.

The second argument has value from an anti-censorship perspective, but doesn’t address issues of quality in writing or social justice. Of course you can write whatever you want: it just may not be any good.

The third argument is a complicated one and deserves some explanation.  With the rise of critical theory in the late 70s, smart people started asking whether it wasn’t just another form of oppression to appropriate the voices of social and cultural minorities for intellectual gratification.

Feminists argued that men had put words into women’s mouths for far to long already, and should stop it. They pointed to canonical texts: Dickens, Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc. in which women and their motivations were represented in very flawed manners because these people weren’t women – they had no real understanding of what it meant to be a woman or experience the world through a woman’s eyes.

Similarly, the Post-Colonialists pointed to writers like Kipling – white Englishmen – who put words into the mouths of other members of cultures and races while having little or no understanding of what it means to live under colonial rule. Intellectuals like Edward Said argued that the West had sexualized and fetishized ‘The Orient’, using non-European characters as stereotyped puppets with which to play out their own unrealistic fantasies of a life unfettered by Christian guilt.

Many Queer scholars felt similarly: for far too long, straight writers had stereotyped, misrepresented and even defamed gay, lesbian or bisexual characters to perpetuate mainstream prejudices against homosexuality. Or simply used them as a vehicle with which to dishonestly explore their own repressed same-sex leanings.

This third argument has some real meat. Women, gays and lesbians, and people of other races and religions HAVE been horribly misrepresented in a lot of fiction in the past. I would argue that it’s still happening, especially in film and television.

But at the core of this argument against ‘appropriating’ voices is the belief that we, as humans, do not have the flexibility of mind to adequately imagine what it must be like to be the opposite sex, the other sexual orientation, or wear another’s skin. It says: we cannot walk in each other’s shoes enough to write the voices of ‘others’ convincingly and fairly.

This is why, ultimately, I come down on the side of argument number four.  As a writer, I have to believe that, with enough intimate knowledge, research and respect, I CAN know what it is like to see through the eyes of another, to feel through their skin.. because, if I can’t, then all the fiction I write that is not autobiographical is illegitimate.

I cannot write with the voice of, say, an African American gay man without considerable effort. I can’t rely on gut instincts or assumptions about what it might be like to grow up as black and gay. I have to enter this territory with an initial acknowledgement that I lack  fundamental experience of what that life is like. But I can find out. I can ask. I can research and explore and learn and use that learning to write something approaching legitimacy.

My argument stems from the fact that it is not safe to assume I know what any other straight, white female’s life is like, either.  Some of our experiences might have commonalities, but there will be a tremendous amount of divergence between the lives of ANY two people.

And so, my advice is really very simple: never write ‘types’.  Never start your story with, for instance, a character that is ‘a lesbian woman in her early 30s’. Base your characters on individuals you have known and known well. Look at their personalities as a whole – not just their ‘Queerness’, their ‘Islamicness’ or their ‘Maleness’. People are more than just their gender or race or sexuality. In fact, it may be that the part of them that makes them different from you plays a surprisingly small part in the way they define themselves.

This is the basic advice that is given for character development for any kind of fiction, but when it comes to writing the other, we often forget it. We rely on generalizations, classifications, and information chunking when we venture into the unfamiliar. It’s a basic human instinct to do it and, on a daily basis, it makes life navigable.

But when you write in the voice of the ‘other’, more is expected of you. The ‘other’ should never really be the ‘other’; they should be an individual first, with a name, a body and a fully fleshed identity, before their ‘otherness’ even begins to play a part in your understanding of the character.

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