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!

Rewind: What Makes a Movie Re-Watchable?

My son hates the fact that I never want to watch new movies or TV shows. He’s almost seventeen, and just beginning to learn about the incredibly wide world of music and film that exists out there – and relishing in the exploration of that world. From nu metal to jazz, and old classic films to brand new TV shows like The Witcher, he’s a devourer of entertainment (and a creator, too, inspired by what he hears and sees). I love to see that in him, but for myself … I feel like I’m too old to learn new tricks. I don’t actually believe that to be the case, but there’s something about the comfort of rewatching a beloved movie or TV show that deeply appeals to me.

My wife is more in line with my son – always on the lookout for new shows and movies to watch. But every once in a while, even she will want to rewatch something (this is rare), and it makes me wonder – outside of my own personal experience, what actually makes a movie or show worth rewatching? After all, the novelty of the first experience won’t be there, so why watch it a second – or third, or fourth – time at all?

I think there are a few elements to explore here, so I’ll lay them out below.

Emotional Connection

I think – for me, at least – one of the strongest reasons to re-watch something is if there’s a deep emotional connection between the content and the viewer. This could be an empathetic connection, of course – you understand innately what the characters are going through – or it could be a feeling that the movie inspires in you, but emotion is one of the core reasons to consume entertainment at all, and if the media triggers an emotional response in you, then you’re likely to want to re-experience that same emotion again (assuming it wasn’t a deeply negative or triggering emotion).

I remember the first time(s) I watched what is perhaps my favorite single film of all time: The Crow. It’s cheesy, full of bad lines and bad acting, but at the same time there’s a rawness to the characters and the story that connected with me deeply at that time of my life, being as I was severely depressed. Many moments within the movie made me literally cry, and the ability to feel anything, never mind the ability to feel a deep sadness that was inspired from deep within me, was incredible. I probably watched that movie once a day for a month.

Another movie that connected with me at an important developmental time in my life is Donnie Darko; also a movie I could re-watch any time, I felt very connected to the main character’s confusion, nihilistic depression, and deepening instability as the movie progresses. Never mind that the movie is also deeply confusing in and of itself (an element I’ll address momentarily).

Re-watching these movies today allows me to revisit and relive those emotions from when I first watched them, and for me, at least – being as I am typically very emotionally reserved – that’s a good thing.

Complexity & World-Building

Sometimes you come across a movie or TV show (often based on a book, being more capable of winding complexity than film in general) that is so deep in its lore, world-building and complexity, that you simply can’t take it all in in one viewing. This could be anything from tiny references to much larger elements through to seemingly-innocuous plot elements that turn out to be incredibly important later on, but movies like this typically require multiple viewings to truly appreciate the depth of storytelling that went into them.

Perhaps the best example of deep lore and world-building I can think of is my old staple, The Lord of the Rings. If The Crow is my favorite single movie, The Lord of the Rings is hands-down my favorite trilogy, ever. Much of this has to do with the epic grandeur of both the scenery, the story, and Howard Shore’s incredible score, but a larger part of it has to do with Peter Jackson’s intense attention to detail, and faithfulness to Tolkien’s original books. From moments such as Théoden crying “Forth Eorlingas!” – a phrase that, without context, is unintelligible and meaningless – to the importance of pipe-weed threaded through the entire trilogy, there are references, nods and entire points lifted straight from the book that, to the average viewer, make little to no sense without having read the books in the first place.

Then there are movies that are complex and intricate in their plot, to the point where it is almost impossible to know what to pay attention to during the first viewing. Time travel movies are often my favorite example of this, and a great example of this genre that to this day I struggle to grasp in its entirely (I’ve actually only seen it once) is Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke. An absolutely bonkers tale of pre-empting crimes through a time-traveling police agency, it slowly unravels a mystery that includes insane paradoxes, whilst still somehow at the end of it all seeming to make sense (can someone be their own mother and father?). I really want to watch this movie again, just to see the hints and details that I would have missed the first time around.

Nostalgia & Comfort

Lastly (for tonight), there are movies whose merits are in nothing more than the comfort of a well-worn sweater, or a favorite stuffed animal: simple nostalgia, and the comfort of the familiar. These movies are not always high art, nor revered as great bouts of acting or storytelling, but hold a special place in our hearts as individuals, either because of the associations we make with when we first came across them, or even just because, for some reason, we find them deeply relatable.

One of my favorite movies to watch over and over again, to the point where I can probably reiterate almost every line in the film, is Wayne’s World. This Mike Myers vehicle is a virtually plot-less comedy romp through 90s alternative rock culture, and whilst the film has virtually no artistic merit whatsoever, I simply adore it. It no longer makes me laugh out loud (the comedy is too expected after the thousandth viewing), but still manages to draw a smile and Wayne and Garth’s overgrown childish antics. The appearance of an in-his-heyday Alice Cooper is merely an added bonus.

What are your favorite movies to watch again and again? Are you the kind of person who doesn’t like to watch something twice, or are there films or TV shows that you could watch endlessly without getting bored? Let me know in the comments!

Little Exhaustions

meh
/me,me,me/

INFORMAL

exclamation
expressing a lack of interest or enthusiasm.

Oxford Languages

The above is a great word to express an utter lack of greatness. A wonderful phrase, implying a complete absence of wonder. Perfect, in other words, for describing how I so often feel.

Do you ever feel like there are so many things to do in the world, if only you had the energy? Do you ever think to yourself that you might like to go for a hike, or write a song, only the draw of TV or a warm, comfortable bed is just too great? Or maybe you just feel like you need to get off the couch, but your cat won’t move off your lap.

I was talking to my therapist the other day, and of course at the start of each session she asks how I’m feeling. Every time I smile and say ‘fine’, even though it’s far from true (and she knows it). We do of course end up discussing how I’m really feeling, but to begin with there’s almost this sense of denial about that fact that, most days, I struggle to find the enthusiasm to simply get up. It’s strange, because if I was outright depressed I might be able to admit it, and if I was riding high on a bipolar manic phase I’d know it, but somehow the largely flat, emotionless in-between is much harder to admit – even to myself.

It feels like a constant struggle against little exhaustions, an endless stream of tiny efforts that, compounded one on top of the other, make life an overwhelming, unscalable mountain with no reward at the top. And yet you still get up in the morning, put your pants on one leg at a time, brush your teeth and go to work, even though you don’t know why you do it or what the point of all of it is. Like climbing that aforementioned mountain, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, minute after minute and day after day, without looking up because you don’t want to know how much further there is to go.

And what, really, is the point of it all? What happens when you get to the top of the mountain? Is is a false peak, another even higher summit to get to afterwards? Or is that just it – the end?

I was thinking the other day about this, and contemplating the idea that, if you knew when you were going to die, you might live your life differently. You might write that song, or take that hike, because each day that goes by wasted is another day closer to your end and you won’t ever get it back. The funny thing is that, even when you look at life this way – that every day gone by is a missed opportunity – it doesn’t seem to change how you feel. It doesn’t change the sense of exhaustion from all the little things that build up, pile up, collect in the dust, and end up never getting done.

I suppose, at the end of it all, you only have so much time in the world, and of course you’ll never really know when it’s all going to be over. And life itself is really just about getting through it, doing stuff, because otherwise you might as well just die now. And whether you write a song, go for a hike, or simply do the damn dishes, in the end, it’s really all the same. One day you’ll be long gone and forgotten, dust in the wind, and life isn’t about what you have to show for it at the end of it – it’s about what you experienced for yourself while you were alive.

And really, life is pretty ‘meh’. Most of it goes by in a blur, each day the same as the last, with no distinction between what was and what wasn’t wasted time. So maybe the way to feel better about it is to think not ‘what did I do’, but ‘how did I feel’. And even if you don’t have control over those feelings, the truth is that in a world of shit and lies, ‘meh’ isn’t really all that bad. It could be worse. And of course it could be better.

So if I felt ‘meh’ today, that’s fine. If I feel ‘meh’ on my last day on earth, I’m okay with that. I don’t have to be enthusiastic about everything – I can’t be. It’s exhausting. But I know I’m not going to be depressed all the time either, and that makes me feel better, too.

Meh.