Today I am interrupting the regular programming to bring you a very important message…
My guest today is Tim Pratt, who has a nifty-looking new science fiction book out this month, but we’ll get to that afterward. Over to Tim!
Making Better Worlds
I grew up in the rural south, I’m white, I’m a cis man, and though I’m bisexual, I’m married to a woman, so I get straight-passing privilege, too. My childhood wasn’t mono-cultural, but it wasn’t exactly diverse — my high school was about 48% white, 48% black, and the rest Hispanic. I think there was one guy of Thai descent, and none of the teachers would even learn to pronounce his last name properly. For the most part there was de facto social segregation in my school: it was rare to see a white kid sitting with black kids at lunch, or vice versa. As for religious diversity — well, some were Southern Baptist, but some were Methodist. I knew one Catholic and one Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t knowingly meet a Jewish person until college, and certainly didn’t know any Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, Mormons, Buddhists, or admitted atheists until then, either. Practically speaking, my entire world growing up was white, straight, and Christian (even if of the “we only go to church at Easter and Christmas” variety).
This was the ’80s and early ’90s. We didn’t even have the internet. But I was a big reader, and books told me there was more to the world than what I saw around me, and I was always questioning the fundamental axioms of the prevailing worldview. I was raised by lots of strong women, so sexism baffled me, and I never understood homophobia, though due to my surroundings I kept my own interest in boys to myself; it could have gotten me killed, after all.
My writing has always featured women, often as main protagonists. My writing in my teens and twenties suffered occasionally from “women are mysterious inscrutable incredible beings” syndrome, but fortunately a lot of smart women knocked the benevolent pedestal sexism out of me. Nowadays people seem to think I do an okay job writing women. (The secret to being a man writing a woman: write them like they’re individuals with inner lives informed by their personal experiences and the pressures and restrictions of their cultural milieu. When you’re a man, this requires paying attention to women and reading their work and listening to them so you can get the latter parts right.) My work has been full of queer and polyamorous and kinky people of assorted varieties for my whole professional career, too, and since I write a lot about love and sex and romance, I have the opportunity to explore all sorts of relationship variants.
Despite my few quirks, I see people who resemble myself represented a lot in fiction, and that’s part of what enabled me to imagine a life bigger than the ones that seemed available in my rural childhood: I had interesting love affairs, I pursued a career as an artist, I moved to California (to the horror of many), and I tried things, because I had models that allowed me to imagine a greater world for myself. That’s why representation matters.
My approach to diversity of characters in my writing is pretty straightforward these days: if my fictional universe isn’t at least as varied as my neighborhood in South Berkeley, I’m doing something wrong. Everyone should be able to find aspirational figures for themselves in fiction, like I did.
I realized some years back that while I was pretty good on the queer and feminist stuff, my work was often short on characters of color. I had shied away from writing them because I was afraid of messing up, but what was I afraid of?
Basically: Hurting someone’s feelings. Being yelled at on the internet. Being a white guy and purporting to understand an experience I can’t possibly fully comprehend.
Well, I could be careful about the first part. I could survive the second part; I decided if I messed up and got called on it, I would take the note and try to do better next time and avoid the defensive tantrums which are what really get writers in trouble. The last part… I can’t do much about that. I have a good imagination, but I’ll never know what it’s like to be a black man or an Arab woman, no matter how much I read and listen. I can just do my best, and use whatever position and privilege I have to boost the voices of writers of color too, and recommend them for awards, and sing their praises.
I started writing books with more characters of color, following my same rule: write them as individuals, shaped by personal experience and larger social factors. I don’t try to write about The Black Experience or What It Means to Be Mixed Race In America, because I am so not qualified; but maybe I can write about one person’s experience. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes, but I’m always trying to do better. We have to try. Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward wrote a great book called Writing the Other with good advice on approaching the problem.
More recently I’ve realized that I wasn’t writing much about trans people, or the non-neurotypical, or asexual, aromantic, or non-binary people. I know plenty of people on the spectrum; I have trans and enby and genderqueer and genderfluid friends and colleagues; I have lots of people of color in my life; and I have lots of books by all of the above on my shelves and in my library. I can listen, and pay attention, and make the effort.
Ace and aro characters are especially tricky for me, because I am so driven by sex romance in my own life, and they’re so central to my personal narratives, but wow — it must suck to swim in the sea of the dominant cultural romantic paradigm and feel alienated and unseen, so I’m making an effort there, too; I wrote my first story with an ace heroine recently, “A Door of My Own,” and I think I might write a novel about her.
My new novel The Wrong Stars is set 600 in the future, and 600 years in the future had better be even more diverse than my neighborhood. I’ve got a spaceship crewed by a diverse bunch of humans and posthumans and a galaxy populated by an even wider array of experiences and backgrounds. It wasn’t even a conscious effort, and I didn’t have a checklist; it’s just that, at this point, I wouldn’t write a novel populated exclusively by straight cis white people any more than I’d make a salad of nothing but iceberg lettuce: it would taste bad, and fail to satisfy.
The world is kind of a mess right now, but I strongly believe that art can give people hope, and help them imagine better futures, and imagining something is the first step toward making it real. Writing about diverse experiences thoughtfully and carefully is one of the things I can do to help, and so that’s what I do. If you’re a writer, I hope you do, too. Don’t be afraid. You might screw up, and you might get yelled at, and that’s okay. Just try your best, and if you fall short, take the note and do better next time. The outcome is well worth the effort.
Tim Pratt is a Hugo Award-winning SF and fantasy author, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He is the author of over twenty novels, most recently The Deep Woods and Heirs of Grace, and scores of short stories. His work has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and other nice places. Since 2001 he has worked for Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field, where he currently serves as senior editor. He lives in Berkeley, CA with his wife and son.
The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials… and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.