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Writing Difference with Roxane Gay

Last week, I took a day off from security guards, sex demons and assassins (the WIP) and joined a group of undergraduate English majors, MFA students, and other writers on the University of Minnesota Mankato campus, where we had the pleasure of listening to the amazing Roxane Gay talk about writing difference.

Though Gay is both a fiction and non-fiction writer, my exposure to her work has primarily been through her eloquent, insightful essays (and her Twitter feed, @rgay), where she takes on race, gender, sexism, feminism, social class, sexual violence, homophobia, privilege, identity, corruption, and the intersectionality of these topics. While Gay’s non-fiction subject matter can feel fraught and political and scary and huge, the craft talk most emphatically was not—except for a comment about the need for publishers to be more inclusive about the writers they publish, and to expand the breadth of human experience published books present to the world. 

Ahem.

Nope, this was a one-hour craft talk about writing difference in an authentic way. And unlike institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and the patriarchy, character development is a writerly choice, something I fully control in my own work.

Note the simplicity of Gay’s phrasing: “Writing difference.” It’s as inclusive as it gets. It doesn’t value any difference over another. It excludes no one, and meets every writer where they’re at. It’s about me, the writer, writing characters who are different than me. Hell, I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, straight Caucasian woman who writes about vampires, sirens, werewolves and sex demons—whose ancestors are aliens—and the phrase still works.

Here are some quick hits from my notes from Roxane’s session. Any errors or misinterpretations are, of course, my own:

  • Writing difference is about authenticity, about reaching beyond stereotypes and “lazy, half-assed assumptions.” Don’t merely write “the sassy gay friend, the fiery Latina, or the wise black maid. Dig deeper.”
  • People who are different than you are people first, and different second.
  • When writing difference, start with universal emotions. There’s natural common ground here. 
  • “No one is any one thing, right?” No one is solely racist, or sexist, or disabled, or LGBT, or homophobic. We can’t assume that any person—any character—is part of any monolithic whole. People are multi-dimensional. Characters should be, too.
  • Research is important. READ difference. Read across genres. Expose yourself to others’ realities.   
  • As a writer, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to simply try. Even if you don’t quite hit the bulls-eye authenticity-wise, your attempt means you’re acknowledging that humanity isn’t a monolithic whole. Acknowledgment is a move in the right direction.
  • “Writers write what they’re called to write,” but authenticity is key. If your story needs a character of difference, write one—but it’s problematic, and inauthentic, and perhaps an issue of ethics, to write difference as a marketing ploy, or as a way to hop on a bandwagon, or to fetishize.

Though Gay writes both fiction and non-fiction, she says that fiction writing is her “happy place,” a way to “self-medicate.” Soft-spoken Gay clearly relishes the power she wields when writing fiction. “I control my characters. I create entire worlds.”

Yes. And by writing difference in an authentic way, we, as writers, help create the world we want to see—one character, one book, one difference at a time.

To get a taste of Roxane in action, here’s her “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” TED Talk from last year.  Bad Feminist is an awesome book, and I very much look forward to Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, coming in June 2016.

What are your thoughts about writing (or reading, or watching) difference? Can you recommend any authors who write difference well?   

-tammy

20 responses to “Writing Difference with Roxane Gay”

  1. >>People are multi-dimensional. Characters should be, too.

    Yes. This.
    It’s so important, but not easy to do. One great example that comes to mind is the show Homeland. Amazingly well developed and multi-dimensional characters.

    Thanks for a great post.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Ava, “Homeland” is one of the many shows in my Netflix queue, but from the reviews I’ve read, the show seems to handle the cultural complexities, and the depiction of Carrie as a woman who has bipolar disorder, with a fair level of authenticity.

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  2. Vivi Andrews says:

    Hear, hear! I especially loved this:

    “As a writer, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to simply try. Even if you don’t quite hit the bulls-eye authenticity-wise, your attempt means you’re acknowledging that humanity isn’t a monolithic whole. Acknowledgment is a move in the right direction.”

    I worry about authenticity a lot when I’m writing characters of other cultures. My family is multi-cultural, and I want to write about people of all different ethnicities because that is what love looks like, but I do worry about getting it right. I guess the way I think of it though is that I’m not trying to represent all Latina women or black men or Indian women – I’m trying to represent my character and every character should have a depth and dimension that is shaped by their culture and upbringing.

    Thanks for this post, Tammy!

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Vivi, one thing I really enjoyed about the craft discussion was that Roxane started things off easy by talking about writing from the point of view of gender–men writing female characters, and women writing from a male character’s POV. Easy, hah! 😉 As romance writers, we write from the hero’s POV all the time, and it can be so, so difficult to do with authenticity.

      But we try, try and try again!

      1+
  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    Really interesting and important post, Tammy! I’m eager to watch that TED talk after work today.

    To me, the very best things about both writing and reading is the way imaginative literature stretches us beyond our own limited selves to see the complicated humanity in other people. It’s makes us better and more compassionate people.

    It’s always scary to try to represent the consciousness of someone whose experience is radically different from your own, but that’s the essence of what writers are always doing, if they’re doing the job right–a combination of finding the commonalities we all share and compassionately imagining how other circumstances would shape the world differently.

    1+
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I love your last paragraph, Elisa. It IS scary to try to write difference – to try your best – and feel like you came up short. And I’ll say it – the denizens of Romancelandia can be as vicious as sharks on chum when they perceive those attempts come up short. But as Pink says, we gotta get up and try, and try, and try. 😉

      Roxane’s TED Talk is short as TED Talks go, about 11:30.

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  4. I love all the ideas expressed by Roxane Gay. Perhaps learning to write different starts with reading different. I’m judging the Rita Contest and one of the selections I was sent is a homosexual love story.

    I’m learning that the emotion is the same when two men fall in love in a romance novel as when a man and a woman fall in love. That doesn’t surprise me; it’s just I’d never read a book that expressed this so well.

    I’m suggesting that reading about characters who are different than you is a good place to start.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Yes, and yes, and yes! So much truth in your comment, Ursula. Especially this:

      –> That doesn’t surprise me; it’s just I’d never read a book that expressed this so well.

      Unfortunately, I think a lot of us who enjoy reading same-sex romance or erotica have seen too many books in which the lack of research, craft, and emotional depth is obvious. Where the book reads like the cynical money grab it probably is. I’m so glad you received a good one in your judging packet. 😉

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  5. “People who are different than you are people first, and different second.
    When writing difference, start with universal emotions. ”

    I’ll admit I’m still a baby writer, so maybe I’m hopelessly naive, but romance seems like the perfect place to include diversity in all its forms–the entire genre is crafted from one of the most basic, universal human emotions–love. I’m stuck with a spotty connection, but I wish I could look up who said “Write me the way you’d want to be written.” Start there and work outward, right?

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      –> “Write me the way you’d want to be written.”

      Janet, I’ve never heard this phrase before, but…yeah. Please let us know who said/wrote it if you find out!

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  6. What a powerful speaker and message.

    I love this line; “When writing difference, start with universal emotions. There’s natural common ground here.”

    It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come, the most powerful emotions are love and self-preservation. Start there and you can layer in as many differences as you want, and you’ll still have that connection with the reader.

    Love this post! Thank you for sharing, Tammy.

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  7. Rita Henuber says:

    Yessssssss. How wonderful this is. Thank you for this post.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Thanks, Rita! It was really a great day. Roxane led a non-fiction (essay) writing workshop in the morning, then the craft talk in the afternoon.

      It had been awhile since I’d been on a college campus as a student instead of as an instructor or a volunteer. The U of M Mankato has a gorgeous fireplace in their student union, which I appreciated on a cold winter day. I parked there with some hot coffee and read one of my Rita books between sessions. 😉

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  8. Hope Ramsay says:

    “As a writer, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to simply try. Even if you don’t quite hit the bulls-eye authenticity-wise, your attempt means you’re acknowledging that humanity isn’t a monolithic whole.”

    Yes. This. I’d like to share a story of my own journey on this important topic:

    I chose to write a series of books set in South Carolina. The first few books showed a town that was kind of homogeneous and decidedly white. Even though I knew I wasn’t painting an accurate picture of the real world I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I vacillated between a strong desire to fix it, and the universal view that romance is fantasy so any resemblance to the real world is unintentional.

    Then one day, at a book event, I got into a conversation with an African American reader and I confessed that I wasn’t happy with the diversity in my books. I told her that I felt as if I wasn’t being honest or true to the setting. I also told her that I wasn’t sure what to do about it because I was terrified of making a mistake or offending someone.

    She told me to get over it and just do it.

    She pointed out that I often wrote about people who weren’t like me — people with different faiths, people who commit crimes, people with dementia. Why did I feel as if I could write those people but not someone of a different race?

    She was so articulate and so right. And once I started writing characters of different racial and cultural backgrounds I discovered that they are just like every other character with goals and motivations and backstory. In fact, I created these characters through their backstory and goals before I layered on any racial aspects. Sometimes race was important to their backstory, but often times it wasn’t. I don’t know if they are authentic African Americans, or gay people, or Latinos or not. I stopped trying to fit some stereotype in my head and instead I tried to make the people in my town authentic as characters.

    In short, I just got out of my own way. I even added a few bigots to my town as well, because I need them for the town to be real inside my own head.

    I think sometimes we shy away from writing about race because we’re afraid of doing something that isn’t PC, especially in a romance story. But if we write stories about people facing problems and (for those of us who write romance) finding love, those experiences are universal and quintessentially human.

    Thanks for this post.

    1+
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      –> I stopped trying to fit some stereotype in my head and instead I tried to make the people in my town authentic as characters. In short, I just got out of my own way. I even added a few bigots to my town as well, because I need them for the town to be real inside my own head.

      Great advice, Hope. One thing that sometimes happens to me is that I become hyper-aware of my privilege and then psych myself out. “Do I dare try to write this? How will people react?” It’s hard to push through that – but then I remember how I reacted to some contest feedback I once got, in which a fellow ‘writer’ told me I was going to hell for my subject matter.

      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      Whatevs.

      Carry on.

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  9. Scarlett West says:

    “People who are different than you are people first, and different second. When writing difference, start with universal emotions. ”

    I very much feel this quote is the core of what Roxane Gay expressed. I appreciate this article bc it keeps me on my toes as a writer. I plan to write “multi-cultural” books one day, and I do think it is important to make all characters multi-dimensional.

    Some tips: if you are writing about a character that is not of your background, you can google “writing about characters of color” or something like that. A lot of great articles come up that further discuss how to describe people’s appearances etc. in a real and respectful way. Also, I thought about how I could ask beta readers that I trust from that background to help me out! Just a few ideas. 🙂 Good luck.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Scarlett, I realized as I was writing this blog post that, as someone who writes paranormal romance, my work is all about difference…but it’s also about finding similarity, finding the common core of ‘humanity’ that even paranormal creatures possess. I also try to keep the “they’re people first” concept front and center as I develop villains.

      Awesome idea with your beta readers! Roxane definitely recommended soliciting feedback from trusted sources who might be able to bring a perspective of difference to our work.

      1+
  10. Scarlett West says:

    Thanks for sharing this article btw. Very insightful and helpful.

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