Writing from marginalized people’s POV

I get nervous about the notion of writing “from the viewpoint of marginalized people.”

Jaquandor informed me:

There’s a lot of discussion in the writing world about the extent to which white people should attempt to write from the viewpoints of marginalized people. Do you have a view on this? Should a white person write, say, a fictional memoir of a slave in Mississippi?

I was unaware of the debate, and I’m rather pleased by it, though diversity should be more than a marketing trend, but a way to get more voices in the marketplace.

This answered is colored (pun intended) by the fact that I lost a friend in 2016 because, in discussions on Facebook and elsewhere, I thought I had understood the specific isolation that someone of a different culture – not white – was experiencing. I was severely upbraided for assuming facts apparently not in evidence. That I was not the only one so rejected was small comfort.

To your question, you COULD write a story about a poor, gay youth in Florida. But it seems to me that someone who had actual knowledge and interest in the topic would be better served to put out something like that.

I do admire the notion that white people recognize sharing the stories that do not get told, such as Rebecca Skloot writing about Henrietta Lacks, is important. Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving is HER perspective on race in America, not an assumption of someone else’s experience.

But I get nervous about the notion of writing “from the viewpoint of marginalized people.” This is because I think it is difficult to “get inside in the skin” of another. It’s not that I think it’s a bad idea to write about another culture, in the abstract; it’s that I’m afraid it would not have a good outcome. It could be seen as elitist by minorities, and if it were a hit, it would likely be seen as successful BECAUSE of the white face involved. If it were lousy, it would be considered insulting.

In Mary C. Moore’s blog, she writes Diversity vs Marginalized: Writing In Tune With Current Voices:

Part of what makes a great writer, whatever background they have and whatever genre they are writing in, is the ability to capture and reflect on truths in society. To dive beneath the surface of the collective and draw it out in your story. These are the stories that resonate and connect with readers… But an unfortunate result is that “diverse books” is becoming something of a catch phrase. And when something becomes a catch phrase, it loses some of its meaning and the truth we are seeking becomes muddled…

Non-marginalized writers may have the urge to say, “but I want to be a part of this, I want to support and represent diversity.” That is a great attitude to have, but do so with awareness and modesty, not because you are seeking pats-on-the-back. The first step? Know the difference between writing diversity and writing from a marginalized point of view.

For that fictional memoir of a slave in Mississippi, is the writer going to use patois? THAT could be interesting for a white writer using “dese” and “dem” from the mouths of others.

I thought the maxim was to write about what you know. Not that canvas can’t get wider. I could write, not just as a black man, but as a father after 50, or someone with vitiligo, a male librarian in what had been a traditionally female profession, or a reformed comic book reader, or a daily blogger, or progressive Christian, or whatever. One can find diversity in many ways.

You couldn’t relate to the Beatles 10 years ago, but you could now write about being a relative novice in Beatlemania. Or any of the adventures/struggles that are specific to your experience, yet universal in our understanding.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

5 thoughts on “Writing from marginalized people’s POV”

  1. I would imagine that a world in which only white people could write about white characters, black about black, men about men, women about women etc would make for very dull works of fiction.

  2. I think what matters is authenticity of the characters. Not every writer is or has any experience in whatever it is they’re writing about, and research can fill in the gaps. The important thing, I think, is when creating a character unlike oneself in any way, the author makes a good-faith effort to learn what they don’t know and let the character lead. A writer—or actor, painter, sculptor, whatever—can portray and capture the essence of people completely different from themselves as long as they do so with integrity and and let the creation exist with authenticity. In my opinion.

  3. There is tremendous value in writing about the experiences of someone who is much different from you, an outside viewpoint can see things the insider can’t and that writing can serve as a bridge between people. But to do so one has to work hard to overcome learned assumptions about that person. It’s very hard to do which is why it is so rarely done.

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