Monday, July 5, 2010

Writing the Other

By Guest Blogger Sarah Smith

Recently I finished a novel, The Other Side of Dark, in which one of the two first-person point-of-view characters is a teenaged African-American boy. Though members of my family are of African ancestry, I self-identify as white (and I’m not teenaged either). I was terrified to even attempt a first-person character whose life experience was so different from mine. 

Still, SJ Rozan had created Lydia Chin, Barbara Hambly had written about Benjamin January.  If they could succeed—well, at least I could try to write about Law Walker, and try to find his voice.

Here are a couple of things I learned.  They might apply to writing about any character who is significantly different in age, gender, class, or ethnicity from you. 

First, though people made me welcome, often I was way out of my comfort zone. It felt impolite to ask about race and class.  It was unfamiliar to read books written for the assumptions of African Americans.  (Nat Turner was a revolutionary hero?  In a kids’ book?)  I visited places where I felt like an unwelcome minority. 

My friends from various “different” groups just rolled their eyes when I thought this was unusual.

I genuinely knew nothing. Barbara Neely gave me some wonderful advice, early on. “You can learn,” she said.  “You can read.  Ask questions.  Listen.”  Research would help?  Research I could do.  I learned new ways of looking at American history, read marvelous authors, and heard stories whose existence I had never suspected. 

Still, research only goes so far; I knew I’d get things wrong.  My friends read drafts and told me what I should change.  I went out and recruited people to read The Other Side of Dark, from historians to landscape architects and African-American activists.  They helped to ground the characters in the details of real life and saved me from repeated stupidity.  They graciously accepted my apologies when I was especially dense.

One of the many rewards of working on this book was hearing new opinions and new voices. I read everything -- mystery novels and history, popular fiction and self-help books—and listened, and I heard people speaking their minds forcefully and persuasively.  I adapted and echoed some of those voices for characters in The Other Side of Dark. Law’s father, for instance, owes a lot to a radical American historian whose work I admire. 

Recently, a white student at a historically black university was asked the cringe-worthy question, “What are black people like?”  He blinked and said, “What are white people like?”  Books about someone who’s different from you are not about the difference, they’re about the someone.  In The Other Side of Dark, Law has wanted to date the same girl for four years without ever daring to ask her out; he wants to be an architect but his successful father looms over him. Mrs. Wilson has to stop a girl getting killed. Law’s father wants success too hard … They all happen to be African Americans, but their problems are no more “African American problems” than (white) Katie’s seeing ghosts is a “white problem.”

What are “different” people like? 

What are people like?

There is one problem about “writing the difference” that does bother me deeply.  Writers who write about “different” people, and who are not “different”, can find it easier to get published than people who are “different”.  (Hard to believe that anyone, ever, finds it easy to get published.)  White privilege exists, the way homophobia and sexism and ageism exist.  “Different” itself is a prejudicial term that assumes something else is  “normal.”  Nisi Shawl’s and Cynthia Ward’s classic book on writing and cultural variety puts it much better: Writing the Other.

If you’re the beneficiary of not being “different,” pay it forward.  Don’t just read books; if you like them, buy them.  Add them to your LibraryThing or Goodreads library.  Review them.  Tell your friends about them.  Friend their authors on Facebook so your friends can find them more easily.

Visit my site or Facebook page in coming weeks for some of the books I like and some of the stories I’ve heard. 
Sarah Smith’s The Other Side of Dark, a YA ghost thriller, will be published by Atheneum in November. Her Web site is; you can visit and friend her at or

Writing the Other is available from Aqueduct Press,

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