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Ask the Agony Editor: Check your ego before writing from a cultural viewpoint that isn’t your own

Dear Agony Editor,

Brian Francis (Evan Munday)I’m a middle-aged white woman working on a novel with a major character from a different culture. In real life, the people of this culture have been oppressed and racially discriminated against for generations. There’s something important in this story I want to tell, but how do I deal with my fears that I might offend those from the other culture or that I’m not brave enough to write this fictional story?

Middle-Aged White Woman

Dear M.A.W.W.,

You certainly know how to pick your hot topics. I didn’t feel I was in a position to answer this entirely on my own, so I spoke to Jael Richardson, author and director of the Festival of Literary Diversity. “For me, the big question is why,” Richardson says. “Why is this person a major character? And why are you the best person to tell this story?” Richardson says writers don’t always possess the means to tell a different story. “As writers, we write what comes to us, but we must do so thoughtfully. Be careful about tropes and stereotypes in the character’s language, description, and outlook.”

To me, there are two telling word choices in your question. One is “important” and the other is “brave.” You might think that writing about another culture is both. That’s where us white folks tend to mess things up. We assume we’re doing a marginalized group a favour by including them in our stories. But those people are better off representing themselves. While you don’t have bad intentions, I sense this character could be more about you than about its purpose. Risk is essential to good writing, but remember that you’re coming from a position of privilege. As Richardson says, “Be thoughtful, weigh the risks and keep asking the whys at each stage of the writing process.”

If you want to explore other cultures in your writing, support diverse writers by buying and reading their work. Practising – and celebrating – diversity will go a long way toward everyone having a voice in CanLit.


Brian Francis is the author of Natural Order and Fruit. He teaches creative writing­ as part of the International Festival of Authors.Have a question for Brian? Email info@quillandquire.com.