You have spent years studying stories.
Even if you never took an English lit class, never went to a writing group. You’ve watched countless movies and bonded with friends over favorite scenes, argued with family about what a line meant. You’ve sat through over a thousand hours of TV in a year.1
You’ve absorbed a number of story elements, to the point where you accept them; they are things which need little or no explanation. A young woman seeking love. A dude has to save his girl, his home, his country. A young guy joins a law firm/business/military outfit and wants to rise to the top.
Luke wants to be a pilot, like his dad. Cool, got it!
What if the young woman isn’t seeking love? What if the dude is happy working in the mailroom? Well. Then you need to know why. If you don’t get an explanation the story doesn’t make sense to you. Maybe you’ll say that you couldn’t get into the character, maybe even that the plot didn’t work.
This is not as innocent as it seems.
Let’s look at a short story opening:
“The year 2076 smells like antiseptic gauze and the lavender diffuser that Dara set up in my room. It has the bitter aftertaste of pills: probiotics and microphages and PPMOs. It feels like the itch of healing, the ache that’s settled on my pubic bone. It has the sound of a new name that’s fresh and yet familiar on my lips. The future feels lighter than the past. I think I know why you chose it over me, Mama.”
Nino Cipri’s “The Shape of My Name” (Tor.com March 4, 2015) for some, begins a narrative about time travel. Many readers will focus on this speculative element and judge the story according to the way it compares to other time travel stories.
But they are missing something.
This opening is also an emotionally complex, immediately powerful narrative about identity, belonging, empowerment, and the painful experience of one’s truest self being rejected by a mother.
The story comprises both the science fictional tale and the emotionally complex subtext. Readers, reviewers, and editors who don’t have the experiences needed to engage properly with the material may not get the impact—they may miss the emotionally resonant elements; in fact, they may miss the point of the story entirely.
Some narrative perspectives just…haven’t been explored that much by movies, TV shows, and books.
The values, character types, and motivations of most mainstream stories leave out lots of people. You might know this already, but you might not realize that it’s kinda messed up to demand that Cipri, or other authors coming from “non-mainstream” perspectives, explain every detail to get you caught up.
Toni Morrison gave the wakeup call a while ago:
“You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you? …even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.”
Jana Wendt asked Morrison if she would ever substantially incorporate white lives into her work.2 Things did not go well for Wendt. Morrison’s response stands against the notion that Black stories must cater to white audiences, and demands that Black stories, written from a Black perspective about the things which concern Black people, be seen as equally valid as anyone’s stories. She exposed the notion that Black stories should be adjusted for white readers as a racist notion.
We can apply a similar idea to other identities, other marginalized groups. Recent studies suggest the US has 81 million LGBTQ folks, with over 8 million identifying as trans.3 Queer stories, written from a queer perspective, about things which concern queer people, should be seen as equally valid as anyone’s stories.
Even if you missed the point of a story—whether Cipri’s or that of someone else speaking from a perspective different than your own—there are many, many people out there who will get it, who will feel connected to the narrative, without any further need for explanation. The problem isn’t with the story, it’s with the reader; and the fact is, in a lifetime of pursuing stories, you may not even realize that the range of perspectives and experiences you’ve seen are actually pretty narrow.
Morrison pointed out to Wendt, and to the world, that certain people are used to being centered in narrative. Instead of making an effort to understand narratives which don’t center them, they demand the narrative be changed to suit them, despite plenty of readers out there who get the narrative just fine, and plenty of writers whose experiences and perspectives are just as valid.
Whether you are a casual reader, or a professional such as a critic or a reviewer, or even an editor, you might be missing something. Even if you are part of one marginalized group, you might be missing something in your readings of other marginalized groups. It’s also important to remember that on the one hand, while many folks in any given identity group may have sets of common experiences, not every person in any group will have identical experiences. For example, an employer I had once told me, “No fags work for me,” and many LGBTQ youths are kicked out of their homes by prejudiced parents4, but some queer folks never have to deal with these things. On the other hand, you don’t have to have the exact same experiences an author had to really get the heart of the story: you just need a little perspective and a touch of empathy.
Let’s take this from a different angle.
“She’s heard worse, seen worse, reflected in the green eyes of strangers and coworkers, men and women, those who resent her for making rapid strides against all odds.”
The way readers understand this single line from “Giant Steps” by Russell Nichols (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 118) will depend on the context of their experience. But it goes deeper than that. It’s not just the understanding of the words, it’s the feeling of the effectiveness of the words, it’s the way the words evoke emotions in the reader.
Most will probably get at least one idea about what this line is saying. But what many readers might be missing is that this single line, even standing here on its own, for Black readers and especially for Black women, is nuanced and powerful. This line, for me, clearly speaks to the theme of the story; in fact, it absolutely excites me, it energizes me. It makes me eager to see what else Nichols has to say. Understanding this power, or not seeing it, isn’t about the quality of the line, but will definitely impact the way you read the story.
I want to take you through one more piece, one which hasn’t seen the recognition it deserves. Christopher Caldwell’s “Femme and Sundance” in Uncanny Magazine Issue 38:
I was 19 when I met Tommy. A day and a bit into a two-day Greyhound trip from bumfuck, Nevada to Saint Paul, Minnesota. Going to meet some trick from the internet. Thought it was true love. Funky and itching for a smoke when we pulled into a truck stop in a one-road Nebraska town called Hendrickson or some shit. Big fat moon was high over the cornfields, and the diner gleamed all silvery. I was hungry, hadn’t eaten nothing since a McDonald’s outside Reno, so I finished my Newport and went in. You ever walk into a place where they hate everything you are? Them white folks stared at my fuchsia naps and mesh shirt like they couldn’t decide if they were gonna call me “faggot” or “nigger”. I sat at the counter, gave the waitress my biggest “y’all sure fine people” grin and asked, “That good smell the meatloaf?”
This paragraph is a complex layering of intersectional truths. Every line is deliberate, speaking to location and class, as well as queerness and Blackness. If you don’t get the nuance of what’s happening, you might glaze over what’s being offered. If you’re paying attention, you get a wonderful sense of a wild character, maybe even the sense of a story set-up: a young man in a precarious situation. But that’s not nearly all.
There are so many things to relate to here, including the kind of hunger that has you hopping a bus to meet some guy. Importantly, there are those of us who have lived through places “where they hate everything you are.” If you’re BIPOC and queer, like me, this very likely was your childhood, your teenagerhood, maybe even your adult life. For us, dear reader, when our protagonist grins and delivers that line? I feel a wave of elation, a physical tingling; I laughed. There is a joy in seeing someone so daring, this horny kid flipping off a too-familiar danger in a way that I only wish I could have. You might have missed it, but this is powerful storytelling.
Missing the context or not having the perspective to immediately get these stories doesn’t mean that they are impenetrable. It means that it’s time for you to look beyond the things you’ve been watching and reading to-date. The stories are out there. It’s not that the shows, movies, and books don’t exist; it’s that you may need to put in a bit of effort to find them. Don’t wait for authors like Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, N.K. Jemisin, and Charlie Jane Anders to break through to get your attention. Sure, read them, too! But don’t stop there. So many amazing stories are out there, and it’s up to you to engage with them.
Understand that so many of the narratives which are most easily accessible—which you’ve grown up on and absorbed over the years—are delivered by people outside these groups, and often misrepresent these groups in harmful ways.5 Understand that often people from marginalized groups are pressured to write in limited ways to make certain kinds of readers feel more comfortable.6
In other words, if you aren’t Black, read more narratives written by Black authors. Not queer? Cool. Read more queer narratives by queer authors. But don’t stop there, take your understanding to the next level: Read a book by a Black author, then read a review or two by white reviewers, and finally, read a review or two by Black reviewers. If there’s an author interview somewhere, give it a look, just to top things off. Honestly? Nothing will highlight my point better than this simple exercise. Not only will you see what you missed, but you will see what others are missing.
The author’s job is writing a fantastic story. Yours is understanding that your own perspective is not the only perspective, and that you might not understand a few things about another’s perspective. But your job doesn’t stop there. In realizing these things, seek better understanding by broadening your reading habits. It’s really not that hard, it just takes an open mind, a touch of perspective, and a bit of empathy. You’re going to get far more out of your fiction—once you can see what you might have missed.
Here are a few ideas to get you started7:
Stephanie Andrea Allen & Lauren Cherelle, Black from the Future
Kinitra Brooks, Linda D. Addison, Susana Morris, Sycorax’s Daughters
Patrice Caldwell, A Phoenix First Must Burn
Bill Campbell & Edward Austin Hall, Mothership
Castro & Cina Pelayo, Latinx Screams
Dhonielle Clayton, A Universe of Wishes
Rose Fox & Daniel José Older, Long Hidden
Nalo Hopkinson, Mojo
Walidah Imarisha & adrienne maree brown, Octavia’s Brood
Swapna Krishna & Jenn Northington, Sword Stone Table
Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams, A People’s Future of the United States
Karen Lord, New Worlds, Old Ways
Ellen Oh & Elsie Chapman, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings
dave ring, Glitter + Ashes
Tia Ross & The Black Writers Collective et al, Black Sci-Fi Short Stories
Nisi Shawl, New Suns
Sheree Renée Thomas, Dark Matter
3 Surveys are always problematic, but safe to say: there are millions of trans folks, nonbinary folks, and people from many other kinds of marginalized groups, and many of them are readers.
6 As one recent example of countless I could cite, Light From Uncommon Stars author Ryka Aoki said in an interview, “And if I had a dollar for every time someone suggested that I write more like Amy Tan…” https://www.themarysue.com/lessons-from-the-donut-king-and-science-fictions-golden-age/
7 This list is far from exhaustive and does not aim to represent all marginalized identities. This list is comprised of a few titles I’ve personally read and recommend. Entries arranged alphabetically by editor, except the last entry. I encourage readers to find other lists, especially those put together by individuals who share identities with the authors on their lists, such as Nisi Shawl’s excellent resource, here: https://www.tor.com/2020/07/07/take-a-tour-through-the-history-of-black-science-fiction/ or Mithila Review’s list, here: https://mithilareview.com/asian_sf_2016/
© 2021 Arley Sorg