Building Walls? Or Bridges?

Recently I left an online chat for authors with some magazine editors when the question was raised about writers having the right to write about certain ethnic or gender issues that are not part of their experience. Both editors seemed to feel that it would be difficult for such an author to get published “in today’s environment.”

My fiction features women, lesbians, and people of color. I write sword-and-sorcery, in which those groups are traditionally underrepresented. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, for example, there are very few women other than those brainless little nothings, usually prizes of war, who need the “big, strong, handsome man” to rescue them, but who tend not to be important to the story, except as decorations.

The only nonwhite people are the enemies, which usually are the Picts, but with an occasional Stygian or two thrown in. The Stygians tend to be evil wizards who have been dead for ages, but are revived by the adversaries (all of them white, of course) to conquer the world. The Picts are described as savages. In Howard’s words:

“Beyond the river the primitive still reigned in shadowy forests, brush-thatched huts where hung the grinning skulls of men, and mud-walled enclosures where fires flickered and drums rumbled, and spears were whetted in the hands of dark, silent men with tangled black hair and the eyes of serpents.”

Howard, like his contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft, unfortunately would throw in references to “degenerate” races, which meant any races that weren’t white.

Robert E. Howard was a gifted storyteller whose most popular creation, Conan the Barbarian, has lived in popular fiction from the 1930s until the present day. But because Howard was a Texan of the early twentieth century, his characters and values reflect that era’s beliefs and prejudices. Unfortunately, the sword-and-sorcery genre, with some exceptions, does not seem to have advanced with the times.

Yes, I am aware of Brandon Sanderson and Suzanne Collins, Katherine Kurtz, and Elizabeth Moon, and hooray for them all, and for other authors I may have missed. I have read and loved the works of Howard’s other contemporaries, including Catherine L. (C.L.) Moore, who wrote several powerful tales about the woman Jirel of Joiry. And Fritz Leiber was a bon vivant and raconteur who created the wonderful, funny Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, set in and around the imaginary city of Lankhmar.

In the popular mind however, the term “sword-and-sorcery” equals Conan.

I like the sword-and-sorcery genre, despite its weaknesses. Howard at his best was a natural storyteller whose passages often sing, and whose gift for description places the reader right in the story, as if s/he were another character.

My aim is to use the sword-and-sorcery form to raise serious issues that face us all, without (I hope) losing the story. And because I am a writer of the twenty-first century, my fiction features women, people of color, and nonbinary persons.

According to the latest so-called “experts,” however, because I am none of those, I have no right to tell stories about them.

The “rule” is that since I have never experienced what people who aren’t like me, I can’t possibly know about their struggles and pain, so I have no business trying to write about them.

I concede this much: The experts are right, I have never been discriminated against because of my skin color. I’ve never had to come out to family and friends who don’t understand or support me. And I have never been raped or otherwise abused as too many women (and men) are. Thus, the argument is, “You don’t know anything about being a persecuted minority.”

In response, I argue that while I may not have any experience being a lesbian, a woman, or a victim of abuse, I have plenty of experience as a human being. So that’s my focus. So while I may never been have sexually or romantically attracted to someone of the same gender, I have had emotional and physical feelings for lots of people of all genders.

And I thank God that I have never been sexually assaulted. Never been discriminated against because of my race.

But my own experience as the “skinny kid with glasses” on the playground who was frequently pushed around and bullied, and otherwise treated as if my needs didn’t matter has given me at least a taste of some of the feelings of rage and helplessness and lack of self-worth described by people who have suffered rape.

And my parents told me of the notices placed in shop windows saying, “No Irish [or Catholics] need apply.” It was 1970-something before the newspapers stopped advertising “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female.”

I know these are not perfect analogies, and that some of you reading this may discount my experience entirely. Which may hav been exactly what was done to you. Perhaps we aren't

so different, you and I. So I would ask that you please give that possibility some thought before you reply.

I am trying in my own less-than-perfect way to build a bridge across the chasm that divides me from many other humans. I’m attempting to expand my understanding and relate my experience as a human to imagine and empathize with those whose experience does not exactly match mine.

That’s what writing is about. In whatever form, fiction or nonfiction, good writing helps humans imagine what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes.

After all, to the best of my knowledge, Edgar Allan Poe never walled up a rival and abandoned him to die. H.G. Wells never saw a Martian. Judith Tarr never lived in the Middle Ages. Sara Paretsky has never been a private detective. So, in other than talent, why am I so different?

Who says I can’t try to build a bridge instead of a wall?



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