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Writing the Other by Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl

Writing the Other by Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl
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Book Name: Writing the Other
Author: Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl
Publisher(s): Aqueduct Press
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Writing Advice
Release Date: 2005

I’m a Filipino, and a geek, but I’m not used to feeling like an Other, like I’m not a part of the mainstream. I live in the Philippines, so I am, in fact, part of the majority. And my geekish pursuits tend toward reading books, watching anime, and playing video games, all of which are activities I can indulge in by myself.

But in the world of mass media, particularly genre media, my race ensures that I’m not part of the majority. I know what it feels like to read a story where my country is never mentioned, or watch a movie where the only character that is Filipino is a maid. While I’d wish it were otherwise, I don’t generally view stories created outside of my country to be the venue where I’m going to find plentiful and authentic representations of Filipinos and Philippine culture. As a Filipino writer, I think that’s one of my responsibilities.

But as I mentioned, in the Philippines, I am part of the dominant paradigm, the person of Unmarked State (we’ll get to that later). The Philippines is home to many indigenous communities that have often been marginalized by both our local media and popular culture. As a contrast, I live in Metro Manila, Imperial Manila as some of our southern brethren call it, and grew up pretending to be part of G.I. Joe or one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, instead of being a Tikbalang or the hero Lam-Ang. And yet, as often as I can, I try to tap into the rich intangible heritage of our indigenous mythologies when I write…and, while I do it out of love and in order to promote those myths, it often scares me out of my mind. When I recently put together an anthology of stories inspired by Philippine mythology, my greatest fear was that I would be engaging in a form of colonization or appropriation (especially since the anthology is in English). And yet, I know that there are stories that need to be told, even if I’m not a member of the Ifugao, or the Mangyan, or the Tausug.

Write what you know. That’s always the exhortation. But especially for someone who wants to write about characters, cultures, and perspectives decidedly beyond my experience, as a writer of fantasy and science fiction…what do I do?

Simple. You write what you don’t know…but you do it right (or exert every effort to do so). That’s where Writing the Other comes in. It’s a book that was released in 2005, but wasn’t widely distributed. Now that it’s been released as an ebook, and I wanted to take the time to extol its virtues as an essential textbook for every writer.

During the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop attended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong—horribly, offensively wrong—and so it is better not even to try.

This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual preference, and age differ significantly from their own.

Writing the Other is the book that grew out of a workshop that Shawl and Ward put together to help writers portray characters who are outside the dominant paradigm. As such, each section of the book (or, rather, the main body) is composed of two parts. The first is an extended essay where the authors discuss a topic, or a set of related topics, explaining terminology and the pitfalls that can ensnare writers attempting to write ‘marked’ characters, providing possible solutions along the way. The second part consists of writing exercises where the reader and prospective writer can attempt to apply the lessons learned from the essay.

The presence of the exercises-a holdover from the workshops-are a good indication that the book stays true to its subtitle, A Practical Approach, as most of the advice that is given is simple and concrete. (Note I didn’t say easy-invariably, research is involved as pointed out in Shawl’s essay, Beautiful Strangers.) This is particularly true in the aptly titled “Don’t Do This!” section, where the authors go through a series of missteps some writers make in their handling of marked characters, giving specific examples and counter-examples to reveal problematic assumptions and omissions. (Think, “the Dark Hordes attacked…”)

Even the more theoretical discussions can have an immediate and practical effect on readers (such as myself at the time) who are unused to the terminology-because certain words, once defined in the reader’s mind, cannot but cause a shift (big or small) in perspective. Terms such the Unmarked State (the default setting of a character not otherwise described – usually white, male, single, young, heterosexual, and without disability), Glory Syndrome (the story is about the problems of those marked by difference, but only insofar as they affect those who are unmarked), parallax (which involves being conscious of what a character with a particular history/context would consider to be “normal”), and resonance (a complex of ideas that reinforce and highlight one another) make visible issues in a text which may bother a reader, but which are very hard to identify if the author is not specifically on the lookout for them.

That need for writers to be aware of marked states and positions of privilege, and to be rigorous in our questioning of our own assumptions and presuppositions, is something that permeates the entire book. What you’ll come away with after reading Writing the Other is not only the conviction that it is possible to write characters of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation in a way that is authentic and believable, but also a desire to do just that. While the authors are blunt about what does and doesn’t work, they also manage to be encouraging to writers who (I’m sure they are aware) may be growing more and more nervous as they realize what a minefield this aspect of fiction can be. It’s always possible-in fact, it’s likely-that we’ll still get something wrong about the Other even after reading the book. But that’s okay, in the same way that we’ll never write the perfect story. The goal is worth striving for anyway.

Writing the Other is a slim volume, with the main text only 75 pages long. The remainder of the book is taken up by two of Nisi Shawl’s essays Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere and Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, and also an excerpt from her novel, The Blazing World. Nevertheless, it provides insight into an often-overlooked aspect of the writing process, one of special resonance to those who seek to write science fiction and fantasy, and does so in a clear and concise manner.

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One Comment

  1. Hm, I don’t think the hyperlinks were retained in the post. You can find a physical copy of “Writing the Other” at Amazon here: http://amzn.to/uffa57

    And you can find the newly released ebook version at Weightless Books: http://weightlessbooks.com/format/writing-the-other/

    And–while I didn’t include this one in the original document–for those interested in the anthology I mentioned, it’s called “Alternative Alamat”: http://amzn.to/AltAlamat

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