RK Recommends: “Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On December - 20 - 2011

I bought a physical copy of “Writing the Other” last year, but now that there’s an ebook edition out, I decided to write a review that will hopefully encourage more people to buy and read this very important writing. book. We Filipino authors especially should never forget that, as the book says, “difference is not monolithic.” You can find the review at Fantasy Faction, or just read on for the text:

I’m a Filipino, and a geek, but I’m not used to feeling like an Other, like I’m not a part of the mainstream. I live in the Philippines, so I am, in fact, part of the majority, and my geek-ish pursuits tend toward reading books, watching anime, and playing video games, all of which are activities I can indulge in by myself.

But in the world of mass media, particularly genre media, my race ensures that I’m not part of the majority. I know what it feels like to read a story where my country is never mentioned, or watching a movie when the only character that is Filipino is a maid. While I’d wish it were otherwise, I don’t generally view stories created outside of my country to be the venue where I’m going to find plentiful and authentic representations of Filipinos and Philippine culture. As a Filipino writer, I think that’s one of my responsibilities.

But as I mentioned, in the Philippines, I am part of the Dominant Paradigm, the person of Unmarked State (we’ll get to that later). The Philippines is home to many indigenous communities that have often been marginalized by both our local media and popular culture–as a contrast, I live in Metro Manila, “Imperial Manila” as some of our southern brethren call it, who grew up pretending to be part of G.I. Joe or one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, instead of being a Tikbalang or the hero Lam-Ang. And yet, as often as I can, I try to tap into the rich intangible heritage of our indigenous mythologies when I write… and, while I do it out of love and in order to promote those myths, it often scares me out of my mind. When I recently put together “Alternative Alamat“, my greatest fear was that I would be engaging in a form of colonization or appropriation (especially since the anthology is in English). And yet, I know that there are stories that need to be told, even if I’m not a member of the Ifugao, or the Mangyan, or the Tausug.

“Write what you know.” That’s always the exhortation. But especially for someone who wants to write about characters, cultures, and perspectives decidedly beyond my experience, as a writer of fantasy and science fiction… what do I do?

Simple. You write what you don’t know… but you do it right. (Or exert every effort to do so.) That’s where “Writing the Other” comes in. It’s a book that was released in 2005, but wasn’t widely distributed–but now that it’s been released as an ebook I wanted to take the time to extol its virtues as an essential textbook for every writer.

“During the 1992 Clarion West Writers Workshop attended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, one of the students expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong—horribly, offensively wrong—and so it is better not even to try.

This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual preference, and age differ significantly from their own.”

“Writing the Other” is the book that grew out of a workshop that Shawl and Ward put together to help writers portray characters who are outside the Dominant Paradigm. As such, each section of the book (or, rather, the main body) is composed of two parts: the first is an extended essay where the authors discuss a topic, or a set of related topics, explaining terminology and the pitfalls which can ensnare authors attempting to write “marked” characters, providing possible solutions along the way; the second part consists of writing exercises where the reader and prospective writer can attempt to apply the lessons learned from the essay.

The presence of the exercises–a holdover from the workshops–are a good indication that the book stays true to its subtitle (“A Practical Approach”) as most of the advice that is given is simple and concrete. (Note I didn’t say “easy”–invariably, research is involved as pointed out in Shawl’s essay, “Beautiful Strangers.”) This is particularly true in the aptly titles “Don’t Do This!” section, where the authors go through a series of missteps some authors make in their handling of marked characters, giving specific examples and counter-examples to reveal problematic assumptions and omissions. (Think, “the Dark Hordes attacked…”)

Even the more theoretical discussions can have an immediate and practical effect on readers (such as myself at the time) who are unused to the terminology–because certain words, once defined in the reader’s mind, cannot but cause a shift (big or small) in perspective. Terms such the Unmarked State (the default setting of a character not otherwise described – usually white, male, single, young, heterosexual, and without disability), Glory Syndrome (the story is about the problems of those marked by difference, but only insofar as they affect those who are unmarked), parallax (which involves being conscious of what a character with a particular history/context would consider to be “normal”), and resonance (a complex of ideas that reinforce and highlight one another) make visible issues in a text which may bother a reader, but which are very hard to identify if the author is not specifically on the lookout for them.

That need for writers to be aware of marked states and positions of privilege, and to be rigorous in our questioning of our own assumptions and presuppositions, is something that permeates the entire book. But in the main, what you’ll come away with after reading “Writing the Other” not only with the conviction that it is possible to write characters of a different race, or gender, or sexual orientation in a way that is authentic and believable, but you’ll come away with a desire to do just that. While the authors are blunt about what does and doesn’t work, they are also manage to be encouraging to authors who (I’m sure they are aware) may be growing more and more nervous as they realize what a minefield this aspect of fiction can be. It’s always possible–in fact, it’s likely–that we’ll still get something wrong about the Other even after reading the book, but that’s okay, in the same way that we’ll never write the perfect story. The goal is worth striving for anyway.

“Writing the Other” is a slim volume, with the main text only 75 pages long. (The remainder of the book is taken up by two of Nisi Shawl’s essays “Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere” and “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation”, and an excerpt from her novel, “The Blazing World”.) Nevertheless, it provides insight into an often overlooked aspect of the writing process, one of special resonance to those who seek to write science fiction and fantasy, and does so in a clear and concise manner.

2 Responses to “RK Recommends: “Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward”

  1. Kristel says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to this, Paolo. It’s something I’d really like to read.

    • Paolo Chikiamco says:

      You’re welcome Kristel :) I never reviewed it before because copies were so hard to come by, but now that it’s in ebook form I want more people to grab it :)

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.