The “Other” Experience: Representing Diversity

I came across a now-deleted post on Reddit the other day, entitled simply, “The Trans Experience”. By the time I clicked on it, the original post had already been removed, but there was a reply that, I think, beautifully encapsulated the struggle some authors face when trying to include diverse perspectives and representations in their work, and what to do – and what not to do – when doing so. There’s a part of me that wishes the comment had been its own post, because it really made a lot of sense.

The comment was quite long, but in summary, it more or less posits the following: do include trans characters in your books; do not attempt to write the ‘trans experience’. Over the course of several paragraphs, the commenter, a stated trans man, quite eloquently points out that diversity and representation of trans people is sorely needed in literature, but when a cis-gendered person tries to write a novel about being trans, and the experience thereof, they are – even if inadvertently – causing more harm than good to trans authors and the trans community. There are elements of being trans that are difficult, if not impossible, for a cis person to truly comprehend, and therefore put across correctly in a story. Instead, the author points out that you should instead focus on aspects of their personalities that are universal – happiness, sadness, life and death – and have the fact that they are trans as more incidental.

Whilst this is a great perspective specific to the context of the trans community, it can easily be widened to incorporate writing about any community the author is not necessarily a part of. I think many authors are very much aware that there is a distinct lack of representation in literature, with what seems to be the vast majority of stories focusing on straight, white male protagonists, but the answer isn’t to try and overcome this by writing stories about the experience of those other groups. A white author might recognize the deficit of black characters, but trying to write a black character from the perspective of their struggles as a black person could go disastrously awry. No white person can ever truly know what it’s like to be black, and it would be incredibly difficult to come across as authentic and genuine.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I was heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings, which, for all its fame and importance, is hardly the most inclusive of novels. I also wanted to write characters my then-young son could identify with, so I chose – perhaps subconsciously, even – to make the main protagonists young white males (well, I don’t specify their skin color necessarily, but that’s what I had in mind). I even killed off the only important female character as a plot device to kick off the rest of the series. But as I continued writing, I realized that this didn’t have to be the limit of the characters, and I started introducing far more diverse characters, including stronger female characters, different ethnicities, and even ages.

Of course, The Redemption of Erâth is high fantasy, and there are arguably only the limits of my imagination when it comes to the characters that appear within it. When it comes to my young adult/contemporary fiction that I write under my real name, I found myself in a different boat altogether: my first novel deals with teenage depression from the perspective of a young woman, which is – as a man – a perspective I have limited experience with. In writing from a female perspective, it was tempting to try and shove in as many ‘female’-centric characteristics as possible: dealing with boys, dating, periods, etc. But I soon realized that this kind of writing came off as ‘man tries to write women, fails successfully’.

Instead, I found myself following the above Redditor’s advice years before I ever saw it, and focusing instead on the emotional and human characteristics that are universal to all people: depression, sadness, death and loss, and all the things that affect all humans equally. When I had several female friends beta-read it, I specifically wanted them to see if it felt authentic from a female perspective, and to my astonishment, they universally said ‘yes’.

I took this concept further with my second novel in this genre, featuring both gay and black characters; again, not because I’m trying to force diversity into my stories, but because that’s who these characters are – how they appeared to me, and what their personalities were crying out to me to be. And again, I found myself wanting to write forced passages on racism, sexism and misconstrued sexual identity, and I had to stop myself. I don’t know anything about those concepts, except perhaps as the subconscious perpetrator of racist and sexist ideologies (I don’t think of myself as racist, but I know I’ve definitely said and done racist things without realizing it), so I tried hard to focus on the aspects of being human that transcend sexuality, race, and gender.

I have yet to see how successful this approach is, as this second novel is yet to be published, but I think it’s allowed me to write a story that deals with tragedy, love and loss from the perspective of people, rather than ‘black’ or ‘white’ or any other kind of separator of humankind. And if it turns out successful (to be determined by my readers, of course), then I would like to think that this could be a valid way of writing representation overall.

I think the lesson here is that we can all do better at representing minorities and traditionally unrepresented communities in our writing, and it doesn’t have to be in a way that singles them out – in fact, it’s probably better to write in these characters in an inclusive manner, to make them a part of the story and therefore a part of the world, just as they are in real life. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, or black, or trans, but I do know that if I was, I would want the same acceptance that I already enjoy as a straight white male. It isn’t fair that there are entire groups of people who are ostracized and isolated because of some characteristic that they don’t even have control over, and I think the world – both in literature and in real life – needs more acceptance, rather than more divisiveness.

What are some of the best instances of minority representation you’ve seen from non-minority authors? Are there examples that make you grind your teeth at how stereotyped the characters are (Stephen King, I’m looking at you)? Let me know in the comments!

Idle the Hands

I’ve been in my house more in the past three months than I probably have been in the past year. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work from home and receive my normal salary, the lack of commute to and from work, and other general activities that take one out of the house, has left me with an inordinate amount of time on my hands.

You’d think I would’ve made good use of this extra time (well, not if you know me). And to some degree, I have – I’ve spent some time working on composing a new orchestral symphony, touching up a few things regarding my nu metal album, and played an excessive amount of Doom (2016). Yet I thought, leading into the COVID-19 isolation that is so important to maintain, that I would have ended up writing considerably more than I have. Not only have I not worked on a page of The Redemption of Erâth since before the new year, I haven’t even turned a thought to my next YA book, plotted anything, or – worst of all – posted on here.

Every so often I think to myself that I really ought to write some kind of blog post, just to remind people that I’m still alive, and then all enthusiasm deserts me and I lapse back into the idle activities of TV and video games that, whilst enjoyable entertainment, take all lustre for creativity and quell it like an ocean on a matchstick.

And of course, every so often I tell myself that I’ll return to blogging, and to writing, and that I’ll make a solid commitment to posting and writing regularly … and of course, I fail miserably at that, too.

So here we are again, writing for the first time in months, lying to myself that I’ll keep it up this time, and that I’ll finally reattain the early heights of my blogging career that saw thousands of visitors a month – but also dozens of posts a month, too.

We’ll see – perhaps I can maintain a steady trend for a few weeks, at least. It’s enjoyable to write, and to have people read my words. I just don’t know how long it’ll last this time.

Back into the fray, and idle the hands no more!

A World of Possibilities

When I’m not writing (which is most of the time), I have a job – a profession; a career, so to speak. I recently changed roles in my company, and although I’m really not looking for other jobs, I took the opportunity to make a few changes to my LinkedIn profile, update my status, etc.

It reminded me of a few years ago, when I started considering writing as a viable career option (I’m still not sure if it is, to be perfectly honest), and I was looking to create a LinkedIn profile for myself as an author. You see, whilst I do have a professional account for my ‘real’ job, I work for a reasonably high-profile company, and as such I have to be careful about what I say and do outside of work, in case it appears as representative of my company. Given that the job of ‘author’ is essentially about speaking my mind and telling the truth as I see it, this could potentially cause a conflict with my position at work, and that’s not something I’m willing to compromise.

The problem is this: LinkedIn have a very strict policy regarding multiple accounts. Although I could, yes, create a second, unrelated account for myself as a writer, if LinkedIn were able to connect the two accounts (via profile information, IP addresses, or whatever), not only could I lose both, but I could be banned from LinkedIn entirely. A LinkedIn profile, it seems, is directly tied to an individual person, and all the professional things that individual does.

With a world of possibilities, it seems society is still geared to catering to just one at a time.

The fundamental flaw in this setup is that it really caters to an outdated, linear view of career progression: that you move from job to job, company to company, and you don’t start one career until you’re done with another. This is fine if your career is your life, but I think that, for the majority of people, their passion in life lies often outside of what they do for a living. And whilst many of those people will never act on their passion, for those that do – for those who want to make a career out of passion, and not just skill – there’s very little opportunity to build a profile around your passion whilst still working a day job.

I’ll give you an example: let’s say you’ve worked for a globally-recognized coffee brand for fifteen years. You’ve worked your way up the corporate ladder, from employee to manager to district or maybe even regional director, and you aren’t really in a position to give that up. But on the side, you really, really love drawing political cartoons. Maybe you’ve sold a few – under a pseudonym – and it looks like a promising opportunity. But until you are able to match your $75K salary from drawing, you can’t quit your main job. And for as long as you work for a major brand, you can’t be seen to publicly affiliate with any one political view or another, for fear of representing the entire brand.

What do you do? With a world of possibilities, it seems society is still geared to catering to just one at a time. I can’t represent myself professionally as a writer and an employee, and so I’m forced to choose between one career or the other. Everything I do on one side has to be carefully and meticulously kept separate from the other. The corporate me, the writer me, and even the musician me, can’t really coexist.

Even within writing, I’ve chosen to keep two identities – because my fantasy work is so very different to my YA/literary work. And while I don’t really mind ‘cross-contamination’ – I’ll happily reference both sets of work on here or on – it’s another example of how society simply doesn’t expect an individual person to have multiple passions, careers, or possibilities. Imagine if Stephen King tried to sell and market a beach-bum romance novel; under his real name people would simply be confused, but by adopting a pseudonym (as he did with Richard Bachman, for example) he can publish genres that would typically be considered outside of his wheelhouse.

It does make life frustrating at times, however; I try to commit to writing under both Satis and C.M. North, but time is prohibitive, and managing two blogs is twice the effort of managing one. I have two Instagram accounts, two Twitter accounts … the list goes on.

In the end, I don’t want to sacrifice my passion or my vision to practicality – however tempting – and so I have little choice but to soldier on as both Satis and C.M. North, as well as a professional representative of a major corporation, and simply hope my paths remain parallel.

What are the limitations of your pursuits? What stops you from putting your all into one thing or another? Or are you able to combine your career with your passion, and get everything done in one go?