Friday, January 20, 2006

Don't Ink and Drive: Writing and Responsibility

Still thinking -- which is probably dangerous -- about my previous post. Zoe commented that a writer who includes queer folks in the background runs the risk of seeming ham handed in their attempts at inclusion (or diversity or whatever you might want to call it.) This is a conversation I've had with other people (and on this blog, see below "The Whiteness of Space") about race/ethnicity, too.

There's a lot of validity in her concern. I grew up in the era of television "tokenism," where every show seemed to have to include the hero (white guy), the sidekick (black or other color guy), and the girlfriend (not guy). It was annoying, if only because the formula wherein the person of color was still stuck on the sidelines was never, ever violated.

On the flipside, I find TV shows (and movies and books) where there's a homogony of color (or gender or sexual preference) to be deeply, deeply frightening. It's the whole "Friends" phenomenon. How is it that these people who lived in New York City never seemed to know anyone of color? Or gay? And what does it say about them that they don't?

And does it matter?

Sure, people live like that. I would be forced to admit that ninety-percent of my close friends are white and straight. The "Friends" phenomenon is its own kind of truth, but I've always felt that a writer's responsibility is to see the whole picture – beyond the assumptions. Like, for instance, before I worked at the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center, I would have guessed that the majority of immigrants settling in Minnesota were Norwegian, and that Saint Paul’s (my home town) main settlers were Irish. Not true. Both of those are myths perpetrated by storytellers, like Garrison Keillor (and the later by our former governor Jesse Ventura.)

I'm not trying to imply that either of those men are racists, but my feeling is that sometimes by not going beyond what we *think* is true, we inadvertently paint a picture that's not complete.

So what? Fiction writing isn’t about the truth, is it?

I think it is.

I think, in particular, when writing about the future, we need to be awake and paying attention to our words on the page. Our silences -- the people we leave out -- speak volumes about what we think is true... and what we feel is valuable.

I say this as someone whose life was changed by reading science fiction. In 1953, Theodore Sturgeon wrote a short story called "The World Well Lost," and he taught me the power of thinking beyond our assumptions.


Zoe said...

Hmm, now you've got me thinking about my writing. Nearly all the people in my writing are white and straight. Part of it, I think, is that I live in a semi-rural part of New Hampshire, where nearly everyone is white. After a few years of living here, I've gotten used to almost everyone looking like me, so that's how I tend to see the environments in my stories. It's hard not to draw from the reality that surrounds you. As for gay people, I'm not sure why they don't show up. Partly, I'm just afraid I'll look like I'm trying to prove that I'm an open-minded person, like I talked about in my comment on the last post.

Anyway, it's definitely food for thought.

Elizabeth said...

And, persosn of color and gender and sexual orientation aside (because of course white straight males do not have those things :-P) how is it that all the people on Friends looked like Midwesterners? Or Yankees? Where are the trendy haircuts? The funktastic clothes?

Young people in NYC do not look so staid.