I’m going to keep this short for two reasons…the first being that I want my words to have an impact, and to do that, shorter is better. And second, even though words matter, actions matter more.
I’ve been thinking about marginalized voices for a long time. Many, many years. My job as a teacher focuses on lifting those voices out of the noise and making sure they’re heard. Making sure they see themselves in the books we study. Making sure they feel valued and important and respected. It’s more important than the content I teach. In fact, it’s the most important work I do. That, and teaching others in the room how to listen and lift those voices up so they will grow up to be allies.
But it’s one thing to raise up the voices of people who already exist. It’s another matter entirely to create voices from nothing, from your imagination, where all your biases and assumptions like to hide. Who will see themselves in your work? Will they like what they see? Will they think it’s fair and honest? Or will they feel disrespected and maligned?
It’s a big job. It can be a scary job, because the stakes are so high. Without a doubt, it’s an important job.
As a writer, you can’t hide behind your privilege. You can’t say I don’t know how, so I just won’t. This is a huge discussion in publishing (and our world!) these days, and there’s no excuse to not be aware of it.
So how do you do it?
Start by talking less and listening more.
Engage the help of sensitivity readers. You won’t see your bias. They will. Listen to them and LEARN SOMETHING. It doesn’t matter whether the marginalized group you write about is a main character, or someone who walks into and out of the story in a single page. You need people to read it and tell you whether you’ve portrayed them accurately. Fairly. Honorably.
Pay attention to the composition of the room you’re in – online or in real life. Invite marginalized voices into it. Listen to what they have to say. If you only surround yourself with others like you, you create a dangerous void—both in your own writing and in the world.
Read widely. Outside of your privilege. Buy books by marginalized writers. It’s the best way to ensure their voices continue to be heard. You can find excellent lists here and here. It will also broaden your understanding of their experiences, which will help you represent them accurately in your own writing.
Opt in. You can’t opt out of grappling with this issue. The problem of under-representing – or worse, misrepresenting – entire groups of people in books isn’t something you can choose not to think about. Join in on one of the many conversations about this. And if you don’t feel like you have anything to contribute, sit down and listen instead.
THE ONES WE CHOOSE is available for preorder!
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