Questions to ask before writing about other cultures

Bookmarked How to Unlearn Everything by Alexander Chee (Vulture)

“Do you have any advice for writing about people who do not look like you?” … Given all the excellent writing about the challenges of rendering otherness, someone who asks this question in 2019 probably has not done the reading. But the question is a Trojan horse, posing as reasonable artistic discourse when, in fact, many writers are not really asking for advice — they are asking if it is okay to find a way to continue as they have. They don’t want an answer; they want permission. Which is why all that excellent writing advice has failed to stop the question thus far.

In general, the beginner fiction that writers produce is what they think a story looks like. Those stories are often not really stories — they are ways of performing their relationship to power.

  • Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?
  • Do you read writers from this community currently?
  • Why do you want to tell this story?

So when I meet with those beginner students to discuss their first stories, I ask them to think of stories only they can write. Stories they know but have never read anywhere. Stories they always tell but never write down.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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