The final session I attended at the Chuckanut Writer's Conference 2016 was called An Author's Bill of Rights by Stephanie Kallos.
The session began with a question:
Do you have the right to write about ______? What does a writer have the right to do? Do you have the right to write about a person or event or group you are not part of or did not experience?
She spoke about how writers are so often hesitant to write about things/people/events that they don't have personal identification or experience with. For example, does she, a middle aged white woman from the midwest with no immediate connection to the Jewish community, have a right to write about the Holocaust? Or to write about a child with autism? Or a transgender person?
To me, this is a super interesting question, and one that I do think the writing community needs to be having a conversation about. But I have very mixed and often negative feelings about the way the topic was handled in this session.
First, let's start with the positive. At the core, the message was to not be afraid to write what you have not directly experienced. In other words, scrap "Write what you know." I do think that this is valuable advice. It's easy to limit yourself from fear, but there is a value in overcoming that feeling and learning through writing.
However, this was not where she stopped. To set this up, you need an image of the room we were sitting in. The conference was predominantly while, middle to upper class people in their 50's. While there were younger people, they were in a minority, and there were very few under 35. The lack of people of color was distictly notable. So, we have a primarily homogenous and privladged group of people listening to this talk.
Now, here is the problem.
She essentially was telling this group of people that it is okay to write about cultures they are not part of and people they don't know and experiences they haven't had. If she had not been a woman of color, or in some other way not part of the privlidged majority, this would have felt very different. But the way she was saying this felt very wrong. She was saying "Don't let anyone stop you! You always have the right to write about anything!"
What she was missing was an element of respect. I agree that it is not only permissable but to some extent important to write about cultures you aren't part of. With the permission of the members of the group you're writing about. Can I, a white middle class 18 year old girl from Bellingham, WA write about what it is like to be a black transgender woman in Chicago? Maybe. But not without a shit ton of research and the blessing of members of those communities. I'm not telling my story, I'm telling their story. And if they don't like it, or if they want me to change it, or if they tell me to stop altogether, it is my responsibility to listen and respect their wishes. No matter what.
I am even questioning my own right to write this blog post. I am not part of nearly any minority groups. I am coming from a place of privlage. I have a friend and co-worker who I attended this conference with who I feel is in some ways more qualified and able to write about this topic than I am. And I certainly hope that he adds his voice to this discussion. But I also feel that it is also my right to give my thoughts and to share my concerns. I'm not writing this as the end all, be all of this discussion. I'm writing this with the hope of entering a conversation that I feel like I should perhaps be on the fringes of. This is my way of showing my support but also handing this topic over to those more qualified or more involved.
Yes. We as writers should not limit ourselves based on our direct life experience. I completely agree with this. We should use writing as a tool to learn more about the world and to educate others about what we have learned. But if we take on this undertaking, we take with it a huge amount of responsibility. It is our responsibility to do as much research as we possibly can. It is our responsibility to be as accurate as we know how to be. It is our responibility to understand that if we don't feel like we can portray things accurately, it is time to set that project aside. It is our responsibility to seek out and respect the perspectives of the people we are writing about. It is our responsibility, first and foremost, to respect their wishes and thoughts. If I am writing about the queer community and a member of that community tells me my writing makes them uncomfortable and asks me to stop, it is my responsibility to stop. If they ask me to make changes, it is my responsibility to make changes. I have the right to ask, but I do not have the right to insist. If I am asked to stop, it is my responsibility as a writer and as a human being to stop.
Don't be afraid to write. But use common sense and compassion, and know how you fit into the conversation you are joining.
That is your responsibility, not your right.