Representation vs Exploitation, Part I: On Taking Up Space

lb_takeupspaceFor anyone who’s been following literary news in the past month or so, Canadian lit-fic darling Joseph Boyden has been outed as a fraud who claimed Indigenous  ancestry* and cultural knowledge which he does not have. In response to the rightful outrage of actual Indigenous authors, I’ve seen a lot of commentary to the effect of ‘but writers are always write outside their own experience’ and ‘first you want white writers to represent [whatever group],now you’re mad when they do?’ flying about. (These arguments were also dragged out during discussion of Lionel Shriver’s book The Mandibles, which was criticized for being a mess of unexamined racist stereotypes).

These are actually arguments worth engaging. Obviously, there is no singular ‘right answer’ and humans can be an unpleasable lot. At the same time, I believe there is a line  where ‘representation’ becomes ‘exploitation’and ‘taking over others’.

First, let’s talk about the p-word. Privilege.

I really like John Scalzi’s description of privilege in the context of setting up a video game character, because it allows us to think about what law professor Kimberle Crenshaw calls intersectionality.  In any given situation, we’ll all have advantages and disadvantages based on our wealth, education, race/ethnicity, religion, and so on. (These can also, unfortunately, multiply and interact, as described by Deborah King). The majority of people have membership in both oppressed groups and privileged groups, and each have their own unique challenges.

As Scalzi notes, it’s not like someone on a ‘high difficulty setting’ (say, a transwoman of color) can’t be wildly successful, or that a cishet able-bodied white dude can’t crash and burn.  However, the more traits someone has in the ‘low difficulty setting’ column, the more likely it is that their voice will be heard and listened to in a variety of settings. This is particularly true in homogeneous ‘bubbles’ such as the publishing industry. Because of this, people tend to set up systems (of various effectiveness) to even the playing field, such as setting up special networking events, or offering literary awards for authors from marginalized groups.

In spite of the usual vague noises about talent and meritocracy, the ‘difficulty setting’ concept applies very well to creative fields. For example, creators with more of the ‘low difficulty setting’ traits are more likely to get past gatekeepers and are more likely to be heard and taken seriously by their intended audience. Even something as simple as having the ‘right’ kind of name can be the difference between your work ending up on the editor’s desk and your work ending up in the recycling.

The more subtle factor, and the one that does some real damage, however, is perspective. All of us like to get our opinions confirmed and enjoy entertainment within our comfort zone, which is why I firmly support fluffy genre fiction. This goes wrong, however, when we write about the Other– someone who is not only different from us, but is coded as ‘Other’ by society– in a way which reaffirms negative mainstream ideas and stereotypes about the group. Not only have the voices from that group been drowned out as resources are siphoned towards the creators with more ‘mainstream’, they’ve been drowned out by the same old prejudicial nonsense. No one learns, no one benefits (except the writer), and no one really gets to enjoy the immersive cultural experience.

Now, none of this is an argument that we should all write autobiographical fiction. Instead, I’m suggesting several things:

  • First, that we be conscious that our work is neither written nor consumed in a vacuum, and that we have the potential to perpetrate harmful power dynamics with our work;
  • Second, that when we  write about real-life cultures (past and present), we have a responsibility to present those communities as accurately as we can. This is especially important when one is writing about groups with a long history of marginalization;
  • Third, we should consider our biases, perceptions, and motivations for writing  about this particular group and this particular story.

Next post, we’ll discuss the interaction between colonialism and the stories we choose to tell or ignore.

*Hi person who’s scrolled down to fight about blood quantum! This isn’t an issue about genetics or genealogy. It’s about lying for profit (at the expense of others) and about Indigenous sovereignty and our right to determine who is and isn’t a citizen (y’know, just like every other country on Earth).


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