I listened to a woman read a chapter from her romance novel about gay male truck drivers. Within a few minutes, it became glaringly obvious that she knew nothing about gay men or truck drivers. I was incensed—this was my community she was writing about so badly—but I was also chagrined.
I was reminded of my own 300-page gay romance novel I had written several years before. Like the author in question, I thought I was edgy and skillful. I sent a few chapters to a volunteer editor—a straight male—who told me it was cliché.
“Just because they are gay doesn’t mean they aren’t still men. We don’t cry all the time. You’ve basically taken a female character and made it a dude,” he said.
“But wait! I published a chapter online,” I defended, “and several gay men said it was the most realistic romance they had ever read!”
“But are you sure these readers are really gay men IRL?”
My editing friend reminded me that online people can be anyone. And he posited that most gay romances were written by women, not men, so it was logical to assume that many of my readers were women as well, no matter what they said in their profile.
I was still indignant—I grew up in the gay community. I spent two years as the only female in a flower shop inhabited by five gay men. I had a gay roommate who was my bestie. I knew gay men a whole heck of a lot better than this editor did. But I hadn’t vetted my novel with any gay men. I was so sure I knew what it was like to be a gay man that I hadn’t bothered to do a reality test—and therefore couldn’t refute his accusations. Oh, the hubris. I sensed my editor was right, and put the book in a computer file labeled Things Going Nowhere and started writing something else out of sheer embarrassment.
I had the good fortune to attend the Key West Literary Seminar’s Writers’ Workshop last week, and got to hear the lovely and talented Naomi Jackson speak about her process in writing The Star Side of Bird Hill. Jackson has West Indian parents, and she was a Fulbright scholar and won all sorts of awards—like seriously an impressive list. With her skill she could have just gone off her family’s recollections about the Caribbean when she wrote her novel, but instead she got on a plane and went to Barbados to fully immerse herself in the world she was writing about. There she learned all sorts of things she didn’t know—like that breasts are called bubbies—little details that made her story richer and more authentic. This is the difference between what I did—assume I had authority to write about a group I didn’t fully belong to—and actually having the authority to write about a culture. And it shows in the writing.
I’m not saying people can’t or shouldn’t write characters outside their own experience. We need diverse characters—main characters, side characters, bit characters—all of it. We need our writing to reflect our world. But no amount of writing skill can ever replace actual research and vetting by real people, no matter how close to the group we think we are.
For more on the subject of sensitivity readers, I suggest this wonderful blog by 2016 Debutante Aya de Leon about vetting her books with members of the groups she wrote about—even the groups to which she belonged.
“And I didn’t just vet the sex worker details. I vetted the cultural details, as well. I’m a Black/Puerto Rican/West Indian woman. But I got consultants from these constituencies that I am part of to vet cultural details of my book. Because I’m Puerto Rican, but not from New York. I’m African American but not from Chicago. I’m West Indian, but not with roots in Trinidad (the third book in my Justice Hustlers series The Accidental Mistress has Trinidadian co-protagonists).
…To be privileged in a society is to have no idea what it would be like to move through the world experiencing a certain kind of targeting. The imagination of the privileged is highly overrated. Not to mention distorted.” –Aya de Leon
Do the work. Talk to people. Ask people to read your work. Pay people to read your work. Be prepared to rewrite your work and then submit it to sensitivity readers as many times as necessary. I may drag that old manuscript out of the drawer someday, and when I do, the first thing I’ll do is give it to a few gay writers to read. Then I’ll check my ego, and listen to what they have say.