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?