The last decade has seen a significant push for an increase in representation in the media. From the BBC’s decision in 2014 to no longer have all-male panel shows, to the boycotting of the 2016 Oscars after two consecutive years of no non-white nominees, entertainment has been moving towards portraying, and celebrating, a wider range of experiences than that of the straight, white, able-bodied male.
The same can be said for literature, with the most notable strides being taken with children’s literature through the We Need Diverse Books movement. However, a topic that has been of interest to many writers is how they should approach writing diverse characters, or even if they should avoid the subject altogether.
The question is a valid one. Authors writing about an experience that is not their own can result in negative stereotyping or falling into harmful tropes such as that of the white saviour or the death of a marginalised individual. For a writer without those experiences, the pitfalls can be difficult to avoid. The truth is writers are not required to write marginalized experiences. Plenty of writers have avoided doing so altogether and have received no criticism for it. However, writing exclusively what you know can be creatively limiting, and is not reflective of the colourful and complex world we live in.
I am not here to argue for the need for diverse books. Instead I am here to argue that writing about experiences that are not your own can and should be done.
Why these stories are needed:
At his 2018 event in London with fellow author Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera spoke about the significance that LGBT+ stories written by people outside of that community had had in his life: “My first time reading about a book that had a gay character in it was Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones […] that was what propelled me into finding more queer characters and to see that queer characters could be in books in the first place. That is huge. That is [written by] a straight woman.” In an article for Kirkus, Silvera wrote about how pivotal reading Clare’s books was for him, writing “It impacted me so much I came out later that year.” It showed him that stories like his own were ones that deserved to be told.
It took me 20 years to see a character like myself in literature, and that too was thanks to someone writing from outside of that experience. Alice Oseman’s novel I Was Born for This was the first time I saw a British-Iranian character on page. In my review of the book, I wrote that despite the protagonist’s culture not being central to the story, the smallest words felt hugely significant to me. I cannot begin to express how validating it was to read about a character raised in England but with the cultural influences of her family still present in her life. It led me to discover books such as A Very Large Expanse of Sea and Darius the Great is Not Okay – both by authors writing about being Iranian-American based on personal experiences. All it took was one book to prove to me that stories like my own were out there.
Telling diverse stories matters to people. The world needs more of these narratives out there so people can see they are not alone.
The problems with telling these stories without personal experience:
Of course, there are still things to consider when approaching these stories. Writing marginalised experiences requires research. It is not good enough to attach a one-word descriptor to a character and consider it a job well done. People’s experiences of the world are not the same. They have different cultural influences and different ways of connecting with the world. All of which are perfectly valid. All of which require adequate research in order to do those narratives justice. Even if you are writing from personal experience, research is still vital. One individual does not represent a whole experience, and other perspectives need to be considered.
There is also the issue of who we celebrate for telling these kinds of stories. This is most notable in film, where heterosexual and cisgender actors are often praised for their bravery when attempting LGBT+ roles, whilst the individuals with those experiences have fewer opportunities to tell those stories for themselves.
So, who gets to tell these stories?
People need diverse stories. Marginalised people need to see themselves represented, and people without those experiences need them to understand and appreciate others. Diverse stories are necessary and deserve to be told, and I think that with a lot of research, non-marginalised individuals should be allowed to write them. The more stories out there, the more people they will reach, and the more people will begin to see one another more complexly.
However, you need to consider if the story you want to write is yours to tell. Write diversity, but above all, champion books written by marginalised individuals. As consumers and creators of art, we need to be uplifting own-voices stories. Those are the stories that need to be heard, and they are the ones that need to be celebrated.