This, maybe, is the most difficult part. Like the vast majority of young writers, I started writing as some form of identity mathematics: add a sword and a messed-up backstory for coolness, subtract your real flaws and the memories you want to forget. I wrote stories about lesbians losing their sons to illness and stories, selfish dragons struggling with low-paying fast-food jobs, disabled superheroes fighting soda corporations – wait. That last one’s actually still running, morphed from an idea of a confused blind kid teleporting through bath-tubs to a full-fledged 20-page comic-book script, one I hope to someday make into the actual thing.
As a story with few people in it who look, believe, or behave like me, that story – not published, not slated anytime soon for publication, with no awards or credits or offers to its name – that story has been one of the ones I’ve worked hardest on, revised most completely, time and time again, because it is also the story I’ve written that most thoroughly does not belong to me.
Identity politics in writing are real, and they’re terrible, and they’re terribly necessary given all of the relevant evils of the world. The cultural obsession with Gone Girl only highlighted one of the myriad problems; the issue that in the course of all literary history, a truly, coldly violent female villain has very rarely been explored. “Gone Girl is the first film in recent memory, and, arguably, one of the few films, period, to offer a female villain who isn’t just the token henchwoman to the true nemesis,” writes Laura Bogart. Men need to keep in mind – and believe, and respect, and take steps to address – the perpetual everyday difficulties associated with being a woman, just as women need to keep in mind the pitfalls and complications of a pervasive and enforced toxic masculinity.
Writing was conceived for the purpose of transporting information. Ever since the first hunched-over caveman or woman scratched a crude buffalo on a rock with a burnt-down stick, people have been trying to leave records of their lives and experiences – and often as not, those experiences have been flat-out ignored, if not disrespected. Not all experiences, of course. Nobody really cares about arguing with a Sorbonne wall over how many red berries Ugg Tugg really ate in the course of February, but show anybody the narrative of a woman or a black person or, God forbid, Sherman Alexie writing about the systematic failures of a nation to address their people? There will be riots in the street. In fact, I’m pretty sure there already have been.
By the way, this isn’t about Jackie. This is about Gods & Kings, Gone With The Wind, the fact that Harry Potter just had to have the existence of a Jewish wizard confirmed – and that that wizard was named Anthony Goldstein, which is about as stereotypical as naming your one Asian character Cho Chang, emphasizing her high-strung nature, and relegating her to the house meant for smart people. Oh, wait.
These are aspects of our everyday lives that we don’t often recognize and don’t guard against. Whether we like it or not, fiction reflects the way we view and value people, meaning that a persistent lack of POC characters teaches us that white people, like it or not, are always the hero. A persistent model of effortless male genius compared to tireless female effort – something I call the Hermione Effect – has had measurable effect on what fields women are likely to enter, research from a philosophy professor at my university has recently found.
Identity politics isn’t just playing up the ratio of black men to Asian women, and it isn’t just peppering the story with lesbians. It’s including complex characters who function outside of their racial stereotypes but still react to them, as anyone who has grown up in a minority group will attest. I may be a die-hard feminist, I may cut my hair short and die it red and participate in die-ins and talk about rights to anyone who will listen, but last year when a black man walked towards me on the street I grabbed my purse closer to my chest – and yes, it disgusted me, but I still did it and a part of my writing is always going to have to be acknowledging that I did that. A part of my writing is always going to be that I apologize to doors when I walk into them and stay silent when I want to speak up because as a woman, I have been trained that way.
And a part of my writing is going to be advocating in any way that I can for a better world, and a hell of a lot of my writing is going to be research – exhaustive research – about the stories that do not belong to me. About how people who are not me live. How they go about their day, what history and the present have taught them versus what my classroom, different in shape and size and scope, have drilled into me. Because in the first draft of the comic book I’d written I had Tommy, who is blind, react to a character’s appearance. And as someone who can see, I need to remember to think about that.