Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Journey of Writing an 'Other'

The protagonist of my current fantasy manuscript is a trans woman. She lives an agrarian life tending a herd of llama-sheep and processing wool. Until she is selected to free her people from their conquerors.

I want to get Carra right. I don't want to damage the trans community (plenty of books already have), and I want her to be, well, her. A trans, outgoing, llama-hating, stubborn, sometimes-insecure, charismatic, feminist woman.

Credit: Heather Ruiz.

Writing the so-called "other" is hard. Any protagonist I write is different from me, and I use empathy to put myself in her shoes and understand her. But with marginalized identities, writers must take care to avoid denigrating or stereotype-enforcing images.

Writing about oppressed groups when you've never experienced their oppression is hazardous at best.

I called on a lot of resources to learn about trans women's experiences before I even started plotting: trans friends, trans blogs, articles from trans writers about trans experiences, articles from trans writers about how to write trans characters, accounts about body dysphoria... I haven't found a trans woman who can read the draft when I finish, but that'll be a vital part of my editing process.
(Update: I now have two trans women willing to be sensitivity readers! I'm always looking for more, so if you or someone you know is interested, please let me know.)

That's a long list of research, yet I could still get it all wrong. I am cis. I've experienced prejudices, but never transmisogyny and transphobia.

Here are some of the questions and lessons from my research.

1) What does normal life mean for my trans protagonist?

My impulse is to write Carra with the same voice and awareness as my other female protagonists. She's a woman, and I understand women.

While that's true, it leaves out some vital pieces of her day-to-day experience. Physical transition is impossible in her world, so what kinds of body issues might she face? What worries or habits might she have? How would she handle others misgendering her?

On the other hand, many trans readers complain that writers let these questions take over the narrative. Trans issues become all-consuming, and protagonists lack the dimensions of having other concerns.

I need to balance her trans identity with her other identities, like friend and leader. This isn't an either-or: Carra is both a hero with a hero's problems and trans with a trans woman's problems. Those identities can and should coexist.

2) Should I include transphobia in the story?

On the one hand, transphobia is a real and constant threat. On the other, I want this story to be about Carra helping her people, not about prejudice. Trans lives include more than just trans issues.

The question goes deeper because I write fantasy. I can eradicate transphobia from Carra's world if I desire. Would that help our world by showing readers what an accepting society can look like? Or disrespect the trans community by ignoring their real-world pain?

The answer is: yes.

Books have the power to change our internal narratives. It's important to show how things could be. But erasing a social issue simply because "it doesn't fit the plot" and "it's easier" is careless.

Trans Americans lose their lives to hate crimes every year. Most people turn a blind eye to that: a writer's job is to challenge this status quo. At the same time, many trans writers want to get away from the old coming out or persecution narratives. They want to see trans protagonists having lives beyond trans issues.

Thus Carra experiences discrimination from some quarters (like one friend) and not from others (her mother). Discrimination doesn't overwhelm the plot. She tries to lead without any prior experience. She deals with discrimination for being female. She endures life-threatening betrayal.

These aspects of her life matter as much as the transmisogyny she faces.

3) How many trans characters should I have?

Besides Carra, the manuscript had a non-binary character in a major role. I wondered: will people think I'm overdoing it?

Screw what people think: I looked at actual data. According to surveys 0.3% of people are transgender--though there are innumerable reasons why those stats may be too low. It's a starting point.

Carra's hometown has over a thousand people, so it's strange if she's the only trans person. Since there's no reason to be in the closet in her society, there could be a dozen trans folks or more.

The clincher for me was hearing how trans people seek out other trans people. It happens with any identity: I have queer, Christian, and writing communities. Trans people have trans communities, among others.

One trans writer was blunt: if your trans character is alone in the book, you did it wrong.

I added more trans characters.

Ever time a writer portrays an "other," some will feel they didn't do it right (even if the author is from that community). I can't show the entire breadth of trans living in a single protagonist: some people's experiences will be left out.

Having multiple trans characters helps. They have different personalities and experiences. But even if I get them all right, someone will say I did it wrong. As Claire Light says: "No matter what you do, it's [considered] wrong... Welcome to a tiny taste of what it's like to be a [marginalized person]."

I write diverse characters because diversity is reality. My writing diversified when I began identifying my own white heteronormative thinking in high school. My next protagonist was Latino. Not on purpose: he just was.

Carra's transness is part of who she is, as much as her womanhood or tenacity.

The "other" is a ridiculous moniker for another person. Someone with a unique story worth telling.

Word count: 914.