Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Duty of a Writer

I once read an article (that I sadly do not have the link to anymore) that commented on how in George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, there's this whole dynamic of "who makes the best king/queen/ruler?"This whole question of leadership and what not is examined, but, no one questions the fact that there had to be a ruling monarch in Westeros. The characters don't question it, and the readers don't question it either. We assume that since it is in a quasi-Medieval setting, that there is supposed to a king or queen.

I was linked to this fabulous read, "We Have Always Fought:Challenging the Women, Cattle, and Slaves Narrative", about the standard tropes that female characters slot into. It led me to this article: PSA: Your default narrative is not apolitical, which is also an excellent read, again dealing with the unspoken accomplishments of historical women, or even contemporary women. I then read a response to this, The underserved population of readers where the author essentially challenges writers to do better than ethnic/racial/religious/gender/sexuality stereotypes, and speak to the underserved (not undeserved!) population, the ones who aren't white middle-class males.

As a caveat, this particularly applies to white, anglophone writers. I will try not to get sidetracked into a discussion of world literature, but I want to point out that not all narratives fall into the trap of lazy stereotypes.Writers of La Francophonie, aka former French colonies, offer diverse narratives and complex characters, even when they're talking about stereotypes like working on a sugar-cane plantation in the Caribbean or being a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (don't believe me? Watch Rebelle/War Witch). There's also what I suppose you can call immigrant literature ( though I feel really uncomfortable with that label because it's a box that sets up parameters that aren't justified), such as by author Khaled Hosseini, the writer of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. These are obviously just some examples of the multitudes. If you want to find it, it's out there.

So, there are a diversity of narratives out there that don't fall into in tired traps of stereotypes of non-white male individuals. This doesn't negate the point made previously, that the dominant mainstream narratives feature white, middle-class males who are able-bodied and probably not gay. So here's where my point comes in, about the duty of a writer.

A writer is meant to tell a story, hopefully with a good plot, great characters, fantastic dialogue, with excellent structure and pacing. It might bring you into reality, it might bring you out of reality, it may make you so angry you want to burn every single copy ever published (I'm looking at you, Waiting for Godot). I think that in general, mainstream writers of fiction fancy themselves to be outside of politics, to be behind some magic curtain that protects them from the dirty, nasty world outside. The truth is, we're not.

There was shock to some moviegoers when Rue from The Hunger Games turned out to be a little black girl. Apparently, when said moviegoers had been reading, they had glossed over the description of Rue and assumed that since she was innocent and cute and a little bit spunky, and since they became attached to her character, that Rue must be white, preferably blue-eyed and blonde-haired. Without getting carried away with this point, even if a writer is writing fantasy fiction that is set in someplace else, there are expectations about the characters.

If we write about white 20-something male going on adventures and getting the girl, we're buying into a majority narrative. We're valuing a particular kind of story, from a certain perspective. We're saying that it's okay that this is the mainstream that we know and trust. It's easy, so easy, to use tired stereotypes, and I'm as guilty as anyone else of it.

We can do so much better. If we consider how we are approaching characters of different genders, of different cultures, of different ethnic groups, of different abilities and ages, even if they're just minor characters, and ask ourselves if maybe we're playing into stereotypes, and if we are, change it.

I don't think that all writers should suddenly become political activists and only write characters who belong to a visible minority, who are living with only one leg and a speech impediment, who are transgender and living in poverty. That narrative is important, don't get me wrong, and it should be celebrated as a good story and character and embraced in the mainstream. Instead, I'm saying we should give equal weight to all characters, to our stories, and push outside boundaries of what does/does not make a good character, and a good story in the mainstream.

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