How do we write respectfully?
Research can include reading books, but it also means talking to people, visiting places, and participating in community events, among other activities.
Even if we are writing characters who come from our own backgrounds, research helps to deepen our narratives and our understandings of ourselves.
When we are marginalized, or not part of the group in power, reclaiming our roots is a radical act and is not meant to be overwhelming.
Instead, reclaiming our roots is a compassionate act to ourselves, made in the spirit of exploration and curiosity. Research for marginalized people writing about our own experiences is a way to reconnect with the histories that have been taken or withheld from us.
For those writing outside their experiences, this responsibility to honor the contexts of the people we are writing about means that we need to be mindful when we do our research.
First, we have to recognize that, because we are writing about people who still exist, and who very often have long histories of being misrepresented in media, we have to put aside the notion that we as writers are the priority.
Our own hurt feelings if people dislike our work or call out our mistakes are small in comparison to the broader legacy of misrepresentation that we may have perpetuated through our writing.
The non-marginalized reader has traditionally been prioritized as the audience. Imagine if the people you are writing about were your audience. How would they feel reading your work?
Second, we have to recognize that research is not a chore!
Just like for those writing within their experience, research is something done in the spirit of exploration and curiosity, not dread.
In the end, people are people. This is not meant to erase experiences. Instead, it is meant to celebrate them. When we avert our eyes and refuse to acknowledge difference, we aren’t able to celebrate the joy in shared experience, even if the details aren’t the same.
But, because people come from different contexts, we can’t strip away context and claim that two experiences are exactly the same, either. We can only recognize similarities and use that recognition to deepen our understandings while researching to cover the gaps where we don’t understand.
Third, for those writing speculative fiction and poetry, we can let curiosity spark our imaginations.
In our world, we can’t travel through time, but in other worlds, maybe people can. How would traveling through different temporal contexts affect a culture’s understanding of gender?
We can look at living cultures who have traveled through geographical locations and see how that has affected their understandings of gender. From there, we can extrapolate to imagine how time travel might affect how people understand gender.
We can only make these connections when we recognize and celebrate difference, as synthesizing similarities across difference is what makes imagining these scenarios interesting: the same human experience, but in new contexts.
Finally, we have to recognize that sometimes, we will never understand.
Sometimes, no matter how much research we do, no matter how much we try to relate, we can’t wrap our minds around something.
This is normal.
The whole reason we struggle to write across experiences and have so many misunderstandings in the first place is because some things only make sense to people who have been through it. Think about inside jokes with your friends: Two words can get both of you laughing uproariously, but trying to explain to someone else would be too much effort, and they wouldn’t get it anyway.
But just because we don’t fully understand, doesn’t mean we can’t still be respectful and still try to conceptualize the world from another perspective.
Still, we have to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings while acknowledging to others where we’ve made mistakes. Even if our hearts were in the right place, good intent doesn’t fix the fact that we may have still hurt someone. The best we can do is to remain humble, make amends where we can, understand our mistakes, and grow from them.