Devourer of Words 050: Who Has the Right to Write?

Toucan reading a comic
Marc Bernardin

When I was a teenager, my favorite comic book was The Uncanny X-Men, as written by Chris Claremont. It did all the things I wanted a comic to do: It thrilled, it chilled, it featured adolescents who saved the world but couldn’t save their personal lives. It had a multi-ethnic cast that represented every corner of the world. It was pretty progressive—or, at least, it was what teenage-me thought was progressive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that reading that run today didn’t elicit the occasional cringe. Not because the heroism fell flat, or the soap opera theatrics didn’t ring true—no, because of the book’s shorthand ways of denoting cultural or ethnic specificity. From Rogue and Gambit’s pidgin Cajun to the six Russian phrases Colossus would utter regularly to the noble stentorian bearing of Storm or Forge. The characters were all beyond solid, but the stereotypical sketching of their heritage leaves something to be desired when read with today’s eyes.

There has been much said—and, sadly, not enough done—about diversity in today’s comics industry. And with a call from both comics fans and pros for more creators of color to get real work has come a debate: Should people outside of a specific ethnic, religious or social group be allowed to write about groups they don’t belong to?

This question, and the varied answers to it, is the current third-rail of comics discussion. (And, frankly, literary discussion as well.) My view, as a writer of color, is nuanced but I’m gonna boil it down to two main points.

A fiction writer’s job is to imagine and invent.

If all I did was write what I knew from first-hand knowledge, every story would be about an overweight former journalist who watches too many movies and plays more videogames than he should if he wants to make his deadlines. I am not a mutant, or a teenage revolutionary, or a hitman, or a man navigating the perils of the supernatural. My job is to imagine bigger; to embroider a fictional life in such a way that it feels real and can pry emotion from the reader via ink on the page.

All writing is, at its core, is building a compelling character, deciding what he or she wants, and then erecting obstacles to keep him or her from getting it. Human wants are human wants. They are universal. What is specific, however, is the lengths to which different characters will go to fulfill those needs. A black woman will attack a problem differently than an Asian man.

I am not a white man, but the majority of the characters I’ve written are white men. I feel comfortable writing white men because the world I live in—and the world you live in—is dominated by white men. Their reality forms the structure of my reality, their lives cast white shadows over the media I consume, so I never feel at a loss trying to understand why a white guy will act the way he does. It’s been hammered into me since birth. In other words, I have done the research.

I also carry the knowledge of what it’s like to be black in America. So when I sit down to write a black character, I know the texture of that life. But if I’m gonna write a Muslim character, or a woman, or a gay character, I have to reach beyond my life experience to make sure that said character has the ring of truth. I have to do the research.

To me, it feels a bit like writing a symphony vs writing a rock song: One of which uses every tone, every musical voice, while the other works with a very limited instrumentation. Both symphonies and rock can elicit emotion. Both are equally valid forms of expression. But one feels … fuller than the other.

I am aware that when I write outside my life experience, I am writing a rock song.

I feel that any writer should be able to write any thing—so long as they understand that their life experience isn’t the totality of every life experience. When Claremont was writing X-Men stories back in the 1980s, I’ll bet all the money in my pocket against all the money in yours that no one was pushing him to make any of his diverse characters more than shorthand sketches of ethnicity. Just as so much of the culture of the ‘80s betrays reprehensible views of LGBTQ individuals, Asian Americans, black people and, yes, women. The overwhelming majority of the people telling those stories were white and they thought good enough was good enough. In the 2010s, we know that it’s not.

So if a writer knows where he or she is weak and does the work to make sure the writing is strong, I have no problem if that writer is a white lady taking on gay Eskimos. We should all be driven by the stories we tell to make them as good as humanly possible.

That said…

There need to be more opportunities for writers of color to write, period.

And not just to write characters of color—that way lies ghettoization. It is not lost on me that the one time I got “the call” from Marvel or DC to write a monthly book, it was for a book built around a black hero. Not five years ago, you could count the number of black writers working for the Big Two and not need your other hand.

Being black doesn’t necessarily make me a better writer of black characters than a white writer. HBO’s The Wire is as sharp a look at urban life as any you’ll ever see. Executive produced by a white guy. Cinemax’s The Knick is a harrowing, incisive look at race, class and gender in turn-of-the-century America—written by two white guys and entirely directed by a white guy.

But I will say that the lives lived by people of color, and the perspectives forged as a result of those lives, are different from that of everyone else. There are shades of character, twists of plot, entire classes of people that are part of a diverse life experience that wouldn’t even occur to anyone else. To ignore that is an oversight that only hurts the product line and the bottom line.

For every writing opportunity that opens up on a Marvel or DC book, each editor should be forced to meet with a woman, or a writer of color—or, gasp, a female writer of color—when staffing the book. Need that writer be hired? No. I’m not suggesting a quota. I am, however, suggesting that the industry as a whole would be better off if everyone involved was made to broaden their horizons, with real ramifications if they don’t. Excuses like “I couldn’t find anyone” or “No black writers wanted to write Batman” must be met with negative marks on performance reviews.

And to the white writers who get gigs writing characters of color, the days of conveying ethnicity by dropping letters from words to make it sound more “street” are over. Do the work. What used to pass no longer passes. Take the responsibility of portraying real people who are paying attention to how they come across.

So, to return to the initial question, “Should people outside of a specific ethnic, religious or social group be allowed to write about groups they don’t belong to?” My answer is yes. Any writer should be “allowed” to tell whatever story they want—but the audience is watching.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!

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