Stealing Pain: Writing the Other

downloadI made a Facebook post recently, admitting that I have come to feel unable to incorporate People of Colour into my fiction the way I used to; that I no longer feel safe doing so.  It got some upset reactions from other writers who called me a coward  – not an inappropriate reaction in the least – but the platform I chose to make the statement on was also probably not optimal, so I wanted to expand my thoughts on this here.

It is both the happy reality and the sad limitation that we can never fully know the mind of another. In a way, all writers are thieves. We don’t pull characters out of the ether, they’re usually based at least partially on people we know, or an amalgamation of a few of them. We mix and match. We try, hopefully, to be faithful to that new, fictional person. If you’re a plot-driven writer, there’s more latitude. But if you’re a character-driven writer, like me, the crafting of the characters – with all their complexity – comes first, and that complexity itself will begin to show you where the plot needs to go.

But, for me, part of the writing process was a process of discovery. In writing, the character revealed more and more of themselves to me. Part of the process was essentially subliminal. I might have a rough plan of how I thought the story would go, but often, as I got to know the character better, I’d realize – no, now I know this character better, I can’t force the story it this direction – it would be a betrayal of the character.

But of course, that process of discovery is the process of discovering an essentially fictional character. If there’s no possibility of knowing a living human being completely, it’s even dicier when it comes to a fictional one. It will never be perfect.

Living in Southeast Asia, I wanted to write about Southeast Asia. The people I lived around were the fabric of my life, and I wanted to take them into my writing, to give them a place and a voice. At the same time, I’d read Edward Said’s Orientalism and Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s essay Can the Subaltern Speak?  before I wrote my first character of Colour, I knew where the ethical minefield was. I knew that especially in the erotica genre, writers have used ‘the other’ as an object of sexual desire while denying them agency, voice, full beingness.

But I also knew that at the core of erotic writing, we are always walking the line by the very real way our desire makes an object of what we desire, reduces it to a projected fantasy. I didn’t want to write aspirational, ideal stories of well-behaved desire. I wanted to write about the way desire really happens, in the real world. At its most complex, erotic desire is always a state of flux – that desired person is both subject and object – like the particle/wave duality of light. Sometimes the desired other is so much a subject, it’s impossible to take them in, and the next minute, they’re a cock, or a thrust, they’re a taste on your tongue, a groan, a scent of musk, the curve of a buttock or a breast.

When I was a younger writer, I wrote stories like River Mother that were all about that intensity of subjectivity. I wrote stories like Motorcycle Hug, that examined the lure of the exotic on both sides. When I wrote Karaoke Night (Him), I wanted to explore, in the first part of the story, the very real phenomena of  how desire’s otherness becomes unintelligible and frightening, and we rush back to more familiar ones, out of cowardice. I wanted to be faithful to what I saw, what I felt, and what I knew.

I’m not an activist, I’m a writer. I don’t feel driven to portray erotic desire the way I wish it played out between people, but the way I saw that it does play out. It isn’t that the social me doesn’t wish we were better behaved, more ethical, kinder, intersubjective in our desires. But the writer me knows we’re not. And, perhaps, the writer me believes that we’ll never stop being the way we are with each other until we really understand what it is that drives us to reduce the person we desire to something less than a fully actualized human. Writing is the way I examine those mechanisms and the way I try to understand them.

But writing is also play – serious play, but play. And when I included an ‘unnamed native informant’ in The Waiting Room, I did it very purposefully. The novel is about two foreigners traveling through Cambodia, who see nothing but each other, believing their experiences to be the only reality that matters – the curious bubble of it. Because I’ve been there and watched foreigners do it. In the grip of that eroticism, everyone else becomes, at best, a prop in their erotic diorama.

In Gaijin, I will admit I probably took on too much all at once. I wanted to get under the hood of old bodice-buster trope of the Sheik of Araby. I’ve always been puzzled about why some women find the fantasy of being captured and used sexually by some culturally unintelligible other so compellingly erotic. What does that fantasy afford, what does it serve? But I also set out to examine how we romanticize, indeed pornographize, other cultures for our own consumption. Finally, I wanted to explore dream myths and the ways in which, for all their power, we can’t always follow in the footsteps of those more powerful women of our dreams. In retrospect, I was trying to go too many places in too short a piece.

Gaijin earned me a lot of flak. For eroticizing rape – which I freely admit I did, being interested in the narrative mechanisms behind why 40% of women have fantasies of non-consensual sex. But it also earned me the accusation of being a racist – because the antagonist is Japanese, and the protagonist is white. The fact that the man who saves her is also Japanese didn’t seem to mitigate the situation for the accuser.

But when it comes to misrepresenting the other, I would like to note that historically and globally, Japan doesn’t really top the list of oppressed minorities. Yes, they were treated terribly in the US during WWII, interned in camps, stripped of their rights and their possessions. But they gave as good as they got in Nanking and in Korea. They’ve their own history with racism and oppression of minorities.

Is it a mark of my racism that this one criticism, more than any other, bothered me so deeply? Maybe my over-defensiveness to that accusation reveals the fact that the ‘lady doth protest too much’. I’m willing to entertain that notion. None of us is completely free of prejudice.

But it did make me shy about writing characters of other cultures, other races, other ethnicities. I didn’t stop, but I began to notice that I felt uneasy about ever making someone non-white the antagonist. And that is an artificiality. That’s a product of self-censorship.

When the case of Rachel Dolezal came up, I was in the middle of writing a story I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It’s based on the story of someone I know very well. A man who was one of the Vietnamese ‘orphan’ babies flown out on a jumbo jet, as Saigon fell to the North. He was adopted into a very white, very wasp family. As he grew older, the need to seek out his roots became almost unbearable for him. So at the age of 30, he came back to Vietnam to try and find his birth family. The results were… ambiguous, fraught with desire and pain and disappointment and guilt. I was interested in amplifying all those things, fictionally.

And the spectre of appropriation has come back to haunt me with a vengeance. I’ve got a good story and I’m paralyzed by the fear that I will tell it wrong. That I’m stealing someone else’s pain, that I’ll be accused of being a racist again because this story is twisted and strange and perverse. It’s literally Oedipal, it’s about a driven need to be absorbed by the place that made you, the people you come from, and the perverse fictions we craft to live with the gap between what we wish and what can be. It’s a good story. A strong story. I know it is. But there is agonizing jouissance in this story. It’s dark and deeply profane.

If the only risk I ran was having the story culturally critiqued, of being told that I did not write the characters with enough singularity to overcome the gulf of culture, or convincingly enough, that I haven’t constructed the underlying conflicts convincingly enough, I’d be comfortable with that. But to face the accusation that I’d appropriated a racial anguish that I had no business writing about because it wasn’t my own? That I’d exploited it, fetishized it? No. That’s an accusation I don’t want to face.

Let me be absolutely clear – it’s not criticism I fear, it’s the form it now takes. I look at social media today and I know that, if someone with a platform takes umbrage with this story, it won’t be a negative critique I’ll get – I’ll have not only my writing persona ripped up, but my integrity as a human also, publicly, virally demolished. And I just don’t know if it’s worth the risk to do it.

Most likely not.





19 Thoughts on “Stealing Pain: Writing the Other

  1. i hope that you are able to write this story, because i would love to read it…but i understand why you are not able to, and that makes me sad…

    • Oh, I will probably get over it, or things will settle down somewhat on the net, and I won’t have the spectre of a possible pillorying hanging over me. One day I will write it, because it’s a dark and perverse tale of the intersection between desire and identity

  2. Calumvs on June 17, 2015 at 6:14 am said:

    I do hope you write it, even if you need to do so as the anonymous, untraceable Gremittance Whirl (that one’s on me).

  3. As writers we’re supposed to be bold enough to brave all of these issues and rise above the inevitable furore. But, as humans, we know that such furores can be ruinous.

    I can’t wait to read the story when it’s written. I know it will be damned good.

    • At least in the old days, you could get charged with obscenity and cogently make your case in court. Now, there’s just no way to defend yourself against the barrage that might come from all sides.

  4. I feel your pain (although – as I am not actually you, I cannot actually ‘feel’ it – as you point out). If we did a genetic test, we might find out that we have differing racial elements (back to the nth generation) so of course I cannot feel YOUR pain. We have both been to Asia, but have probably had different experiences (countries, cities, villages) so we cannot really share those influences on our individual pain. My job is also probably significantly different to yours (or just with different colleagues); so we cannot share that cultural experience either. We may also have different sexual orientations – or if we have the same, we might have different adolescent or pre-adolescent, or even post-adolescent experiences, so, no, sadly we cannot share that pain either. Hmm… this empathy thing is getting different – who CAN we empathise with…?

    It’s also a problem with the people I work next to. Some are from Africa, the Middle East or Asia and even if they are the same colour as I am (or perhaps spell color divergently) – then I cannot feel their precise individual pain because I haven’t had their exact identical life experiences. Even if I had a twin, can I really feel their identical ‘pain’, or only what I imagine what their pain is like?

    Yes, I know I’m ad absurdium-ing, but this is a subject that bugs me. I was once told that “you cannot understand the skin unless you wear it” – which seems to make sense but is actually just sophistry. Nobody really understands anyone else.

    As counterpoint – my friend xxx from Mexico with indigenous genetics (as far as that makes sense for any human population since the neanderthals) shares pretty much all my cultural interests and preferences and is the person most ‘like’ me that I have ever met. Certainly orders of magnitude more than yyy who doesn’t read, doesn’t share my interests or opinions but looks like they share my genetics, ‘race’ and ostensibly – culture.

    If we start to preclude people from exploring their empathy or intellectual modelling of the ‘other’ then that is simply irrational. Should George Elliot have been precluded from writing male characters? Should a gay black women only be allowed to have gay black women characters – no men, no straight women, no asian characters? It’s stupid (I won’t even start on writing about places, people and genders that don’t exist).

    Should an author publish/register their genome before they are allowed to write about someone who may be ‘significantly’ different from them? For many people with ‘other’ ancestry – they might not ‘look’ the part, they might not even know what they ‘are’ without a test. I didn’t know that I’m not-who-I-thought-I-was until I had a genetic test (for fun) and discovered that – yes I’m a bastard – and quite distinct from my known family in terms of ‘racial’ markers.

    Race is a social construct, it has no quantifiable basis in biology or genetics, there is NO threshold, no black or white – just shades of grey. Sorry to burst that lay-bubble – I did it once before and got extreme FB-abuse from ‘Mr Texas religion’ – so I genuinely do understand how reason and logic does not protect you from attacks from stupid or ‘entrenched’ or ‘entitled’ people. But conforming to a stupid concept just because it has popular support is ummm.. stupid.

    Sometimes social ‘race’ depends on who your family is even if you appear to be one thing but ‘are’ another; sometimes you may look or act in another ‘classification’ (this applies for sexuality too – mine is often misjudged from body language and looks). But, yes, beware the media (including social media) because it thrives on controversy, righteousness and hate.

    We must also remember that people are a product of their environment – as a last thought empathy experiment – would erotica differ if it was written with socially ambiguous people in mind: Obama, Ghandi, Mandela.. (or even their husbands 🙂 . Hmmm… ageism… another taboo – best write erotica for your specific age group or risk criticism.. 🙂

    Don’t give in, it’s impossible not to transgress the empathy border for anyone or anything – except possibly writing about masturbation (today – not for an older sort younger me because ‘I’ will change).

    I (YMMV) hereby endow, entitle, encourage you (YMMV) with permission (consent?) to write about my (YMMV) personal gender, sexuality and race (what were they now?) – I’m sure you’ll do a better job than any of the haters could.

  5. To not write this does a disservice to the art, to readers who are not small-minded, hate-filled trolls, but mostly to yourself. We have become this risk aversion, inward-looking culture of ignorance, where the only valid choices are choices the *I* makes. All authors are being herded into the holding pen of self-censorship amid the triggers of sensitive sensibilities. Are we all to be forced into the underground once more, hiding from the social media police, the religious right and the political machinations of a corporate culture built on the lowest of lowest common denominators?

    I write M/M literary fiction. I am not gay, nor am I male, yet gay male readers tell me I got it right. Truth does not reside in universalities but rather in the particulars of what it means to be human and that transcends, oddly enough, those very particulars we are being asked to shy away from because we lack experiential legitimacy. And on that mouthful…

    It’s easy enough for the observer to say “go team transgressive” and quite another to be the one at risk. I get that, I really do. And whatever you decide, it must be best for you and not for anyone else.

    But I hate that we all now face this kind of decision. And I despair.

  6. When I order a burrito dinner at a restaurant, I dont worry the heritage of who prepared the dish. Is it authentic Mexican cuisine? Maybe, maybe not, but good food is good food. Your writing is about human nature, and the experience within, the outer physical layers are mere appearances. No matter the race or gender, people are people, despite the nuances of culture.

    How was it phrased?…. ‘Publish and be damned!’

  7. For me, writing the other is what I do. I am a woman who writes almost exclusively male characters, Irish, while those characters are mainly Japanese . . .and I do not worry about it at all. Writing the other is what writers DO. How boring would it be if it were otherwise, we would be drowning in books featuring white male privileged characters. There will always be critics and haters, no matter what race, sex or subject you choose to explore, they are a fact of life. Writing erotica brings them out in droves. Apparently I am already condemned to eternal damnation (good thing I don’t worry about such things), so I have nothing more to lose 😉 Write the stories that call to you as well as you can, that is all any of us can accomplish. Readers are free to accept or reject it, but they should never shape your writing through fear of their reaction.

  8. I get your reluctance but I have always seen you as someone who is fearless.

    “Gaijin earned me a lot of flak. For eroticizing rape – which I freely admit I did, being interested in the narrative mechanisms behind why 40% of women have fantasies of non-consensual sex. But it also earned me the accusation of being a racist – because the antagonist is Japanese, and the protagonist is white. The fact that the man who saves her is also Japanese didn’t seem to mitigate the situation for the accuser.”

    Gaijin was a powerful story. You might have received less flack if it had been released by a mainstream publisher. It wasn’t Shogun but did capture the cultural underpinnings of the antagonist quite succinctly. The fact that it made us flinch is tribute to your abilities as a storyteller.

    I don’t understand the non-consensual sex fantasy either. ( I was hoping you did), but it is fantasy. Human beings are perfectly capable of holding mutually exclusive values.

    • Hi Spencer,
      It’s interesting, but I find myself perfectly capable of defending my right, as a woman, to write into that particular issue. The race one, not so much.

  9. Tamai Kobayashi on June 18, 2015 at 3:55 am said:

    So the Japanese in Japan are the same as the Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians who were interned? That is the same reasoning for the internment – many American and Canadian citizens of Japanese origin – who could never be ‘real’ citizens because of their racial origins.. “Gave as good as they got” … so the very idea of justice is irrelevant. Wow, what incredibly insensitive and sloppy reasoning.

    • Not at all, and I think perhaps I did not express my point about the singularity of a character in a story well enough if you felt that I was lumping all Japanese together. I was addressing two issues: the country, historically; because there was considerable pressure to allow something close to colonization by Western powers in the 19th Century and the Japanese actively colonized others. Meanwhile I think I pointed out very clearly that Japanese have themselves been victims of oppression in other countries – and I mention the WWII internment camps specifically.

      But I’m glad you left your comment and read my essay assuming my bad intentions, because essentially, you’ve made my point for me. I’m sorry you feel my reasoning was sloppy or that I was insensitive. I suspect that is the danger in writing the other, unless we artificially ensure that we never write anything in the least bit ambiguous (and even then, there is always the looming accusation of tokenism). And since that would truly be a betrayal of the craft of writing, perhaps its just safer to limit our scope – as I stated in my conclusion.

  10. I read ‘Digging to America’ by Anne Tyler, about two families, Iranian and American, who adopt Chinese babies. There’s a lot about race in there. Anne Tyler’s family is Quaker, Wikipedia tells me.

    Now, I’m neither Iranian or Chinese but I thought it was a warm and wonderful story and I’m glad she wrote it. I suppose it helps to be writing warm and wonderful, rather than transgressive.

    But there’s a lot of complaint about underrepresentation of people of colour in stories. And I always think, well where are the writers and film makers of colour? Are they telling their stories? Because if white people are expected to, it seems inevitable they’ll slip up. Can we have it bother ways?

  11. I have always applauded your courage and your ability to craft a good story from the perspective of others. That said, I totally understand why you are not in a rush to deal with those who feel that you have no right to do so.

    Arguing with those who are involved in using censorship as a tool from their box is time-consuming.

    Until you write the story, will keep my eyes busy with the many other stories you have crafted.

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