The Big Debate: The Right to Write
by Michelle Sutton and Lauren Towers (L.M. Towton)
Diversity in literature is important. To see yourself represented within a book connects us to the story and its characters. However, as an author, is it appropriate to write about a community you don’t belong to? Does it take away from genuine voices or help create diverse stories?
This has become a point of debate – with discussions arising about cultural appropriation and privilege – and recently, there has been an increase in opportunities for under-represented communities and own voices, including the creation of writing schemes like Penguin Random House’s WriteNow*.
Can a straight, white male author portray a gay, black female character? In truth, no. Certainly, not as well as an author who is gay, black and female. Not without research and thought. When writing, whether it be setting, plot points or characters, we research, ask questions and learn as we write, so we understand and not appropriate.
With The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created the ultimate fantasy story, paving the way for the genre as popular fiction. However, it’s not without its problems. Despite the fellowship’s different races, they are all white; noticeably non-white characters are evil and there are few named female characters, with only one playing a significant part. LOTR is, to argue, “of its time”, but noticing the lack of true diversity and negativity allows modern fantasy writers to create rich worlds that feel rounded and true. If written today, Frodo and Sam might be lovers, Eowyn part of the Fellowship and there may even be a morally conflicted orc.
In our book, The Soul Caller, the main character, Cleo, is a young, British, mixed-race woman, originally from Tower Hamlets, now living in Cornwall. Neither of us are mixed race, nor live in Cornwall or Tower Hamlets. She also has powers, but let’s not go into that. So, why did we choose her?
Our answer will resonate with most writers. We didn’t particularly choose. A set of characters appeared and fitted. They knew what they wanted, who they were and where they needed to be. Then demanded we research them. We could never imagine telling a character they couldn’t be written, because they weren’t like us. Even we’re not much like each other. Our backgrounds, jobs and hobbies differ. Our favourite books put us at different ends of a spectrum, but we’re friends, nonetheless.
As writers, it’s our job to create and explore. We want readers to become attached to characters and feel immersed in stories. The real world is rich in diverse individuals, cultures and communities. So, writing entirely within one’s own perspective would become boring fast. No-one exists or lives without interaction or influence from other cultures, so, why should our characters? If they did, we certainly wouldn’t have books like Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, in which a white author introduces us to Peter Grant, his mixed-race detective lead.
In suggesting people should only write within their own groups, lurks the dangerous assumption there is only one culture per individual. While there may be a dominant ideology, it’s not all that people are. Thank goodness.
Pros and Cons – Writing from a Different Perspective:
• More diversity in stories
• Learn about and understand other cultures through research
• Making readers more aware
• Promotion of negative stereotypes
• Cultural appropriation
• Suppression of Own Voices
Michelle and Lauren are a Science Fiction/Fantasy (SFF) writing partnership who write under the pseudonym L.M. Towton, Pen to Print Book Challenge Shortlisters 2015 and Penguin Random House (PRH) WriteNow Participants 2018. Connect @LM_Towton
* WriteNow is an award-winning programme which aims to find, mentor and publish new writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves. www.penguin.co.uk/company/creativeresponsibility/writenow/writenow.html
We could never imagine telling a character they couldn’t be written, because they weren’t like us.