Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A-Z Challenge Reflection Post - Thoughts on Writing the World

April was a very challenging month for me.

I rarely write short fiction, and in April I wrote 26 pieces of short fiction.
I rarely set stories outside of places I know well - usually my books take place in Dublin or London, the two cities I know best. In April, I had to write about places I had never heard of, with languages and cultures and complex political systems I could never hope to understand fully.
I rarely write stories that could potentially offend people. In April I wrote about a man reflecting on the legacy of apartheid and about a woman sneaking over the border from Saudi Arabia to Yemen in order to learn to drive.

It's been great fun, but it's been tough.

One of the most difficult things for me was leaving my cultural comfort zone. I'm a white girl, living in a very white country that has only experienced inward migration for about fifteen years. Ireland is still very culturally homogenous compared to, say, Britain or the US. My day job is in a richly multicultural industry and environment, but nevertheless, I live in a country where I can go from dawn to dusk and not see a face that isn't white outside my workplace.

I also enjoy some serious priviledge - yes, as a woman I can expect to earn somewhere between 15% and 30% less than an equivalently-qualified man across my lifetime, but guess what? That may suck, but I'm allowed to drive a car. I'm allowed to vote, serve in the armed forces and run for political office. I can wear what I like, go where I like and read what I like. Hell, I can read.

I have never gone to sleep at night afraid that my house will be bombed, or that the police will enter my home and harm me or my family. I have been afraid to walk down streets, yes, but I've been afraid of the actions of individuals, not of the state. I'm Irish, so I carry some legacy from a time when we did not have freedom of religion or the right to own property (the Irish state was paying the British government for our own land as late as the 1930s, because when we earned the right to own property, our government had to buy it back from Britain. We were paying for our own country during the Great Depression, seriously) but none of these things happened to me, or to my parents. I have priviledge, and this month I took the very scary step of trying to write about people and cultures who didn't have any. Who got screwed a lot by people very like me.

This scared me a lot. As a woman and an Irishwoman (a post-colonial, if you will) I am used to being comfortably 'other', to being the underdog, the 'minority.' But on a global level, I'm really, really not. I was so scared, in fact, that you'll notice a lot of my little stories this month were about tourists. This was a safety device, designed to excuse any massive cultural screw-ups I made. 'It's not me being ignorant - it's my characters. They're tourists, you know.'

But I was supposed to be writing about the world, not some white people looking at the world. So I tried to be sensitive, and I wrote about a black guy in South Africa reflecting on the end of apartheid, feeling gratitude for the things I take for granted. I wrote about a Muslim woman crossing the border from Saudi Arabia into Yemen to learn to drive, because when I googled 'Women in Yemen' and 'Muslim women + rights', do you know what I found? I didn't find lots of stories about stereotypical people living happily under a regime that minimised their rights. I found stories about intelligent, smart, religious, observant, spiritual, strong Muslim women trying to make sure their countrywomen didn't die in childbirth. I found stories of how they honour Allah while still campaigning for an end to child marriages. I found people, so I wrote about people.

And I have no bloody idea if I got it right or wrong, but as a white person with no memories of oppression who feels gratitude for the freedoms I enjoy, I believe I might sneak across a border if I couldn't drive in my own country (I'd certainly think about it!), so surely there's someone who looks a little different to me, and has had a different experience of life than I have, but who feels some of the same things that I do.

I doubt I will ever have the insight and intelligence to write extensively about cultures that are not my own. But it was certainly a fascinating experience to try, and I think it helped me to find some resources for researching characters, because I don't want to spend my entire life writing about bored white girls in their 20s.

Do any of you guys write about people from very different backgrounds to you? How do you find it? What resources do you use to find information?


  1. I think it's very brave to venture so far outside your comfort zone in such a public and demanding way.

    Coming from pretty much the same background as you, I also lack confidence when it comes to writing different cultures. I do what research I can, whether it's from Google searches, reading books by someone from a background I'm trying to portray, or watching tv shows and movies which are known for accurate portrayals. But I know in the end, the best thing I can do is treat my characters as people first. People generally have the same wants and needs. If I get the common ground right, that makes a good base on which to work out the differences.

  2. I think I'm ok writing as someone else - as a man, as an elderly woman, as an animal but I'm not brave enough to try and emulate certain cultural facets like speech idiosyncrasies or dialects or traditions I've not lived through - but I think if I stick to universal truths and do so with compassion and with sensitivity and with intelligence and academic research, I maybe embody someone else completely different from me. Or I hope I may! Take care

  3. In one series of books, the first awaiting publication, my mc wore a moonstone ring that induced visions. She helped people from all over the world. To find material, I used short news excerpts from the newspaper. I entered into the people's experiences as if they were my own. I found this very helpful in understanding other cultures.

  4. i have not tired to write out of my culture yet--good for you!

  5. I think exploring outside of our writing comfort zones is important. Saying that, I'm not sure I have done it yet, though I am mulling over an idea that is tying me up a bit. Now following :)

  6. I love your perspective and I loved reading your stories. I hope you continue to step out of your comfort zone and write more!


  7. I've certainly written outside of my own cultural background and experiences before, writing about places I haven't been to. I've found that doing as much research as possible heading into it helped.

    I do understand homogenous... when I was in high school at the time, in a school of about a thousand people, there might have been thirty or so who were of visible minority status. That's changed, of course, since the area has quickly been growing and getting an influx of a larger population since I left there.

  8. I've written outside of my comfort zone many times.


    Also, I'm an African American woman living in America who is quite proud to be African American and who does not feel oppressed. I live a good life. If you ever write about African Americans, please don't assume we're all poor and struggling and wishing we were white. Not saying you would, but some of us get tired of that notion.

    Congratulations on completing A to Z. I'm off to parts of Scotland and London next month. Won't make it to Ireland, however.

    Precious Monsters

  9. Hello! Stopping here on the #AtoZ Road Trip... As a French national living in the UK I found your discerning observations, about writing on "other" people, very close to my own thoughts. Perhaps a subject for discussion some time?

  10. Congratulation on finishing the challenge. During the challenge I didn't visit as many blogs as I would like to but, cross my heart, I'm visiting every single one with the reflection post (and I'm almost done)! I am so glad my journey brought me here.

    Evalina, This and that...


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