Not being a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, I haven’t received a copy of its member publication, Write, so have not had the chance to read the essays of the Indigenous writers featured in the Spring issue, or the contentious opinions of the former editor of that issue. The question however of how writers approach characters whose identities are not reflective of their own is one I have some thoughts about which I write about here.
I was once of the opinion that anyone should write any character they wanted to and could imagine, including writing from that character’s perspective. Later in life, I came to the opinion that writing from the point of view of any character not reflective of my identity and from a historically oppressed group was a bad idea. There are a number of reasons for this but the one that I stand by most is that people who have been oppressed should be acknowledged as the experts of their experience, and offered the space to exercise and share that expertise.
How does a writer from a historically oppressive group take away from the acknowledgement of the expertise of a writer from an oppressed group if they write from the perspective of a character from the oppressed group?
Some would say they don’t. Some would say that depending on how they write the character they may be contributing to cultural understanding and appreciation of diversity.
I guess my view on this is influenced by my experience of my own identity. I identify as a Mad, mix-raced and now middle-aged woman. In the area of mental health care there are many representations of people who are considered mentally ill. There are case studies, and things I think of as pathological profiles with checklists of symptoms; I admit to cringing every time I hear a so-called expert– a psychiatrist for example– speak about that experience as if they know what it’s like –because, by definition, they stand on the other side of the divide, unless they have experienced madness for themselves.
It is not wrong for psychiatrists to try to cross that divide by imagining and empathizing with my experience. But if i am sitting right there, why would they do that, unless they value hearing their own voice over hearing mine, and over what my actual experience is?
Airspace is valuable and limited, and so is publishing space– column space, and space in fiction publishers’ annual dockets. I don’t think a psychiatrist should be given airtime about my experience over me, and I don’t think a writer from a historically oppressive group writing from the point of view of a character from an oppressed group should be given airtime over a writer who has had first hand experience of belonging to that group.
What I’m really arguing for is my instinct that people need to be supported to tell their own stories if we really want a world that’s different than the one we live in now. Fiction is powerful. That power belongs in the hands of the people who it’s about. “Nothing about us, without us” as the disability rights movement first said.
And thank you Jesse Wente for saying this.