I am currently working on my seventh novel. (No, they’re not a series.) The main cast of characters includes a Deaf Black gay man, a closeted pansexual multiply-disabled woman, a poor indigenous genderqueer, a lesbian asexual Chinese transwoman, a working-class immigrant African woman, and a closeted pagan and lesbian with several psychiatric disabilities, among a number of other multiply-marginalized people. The CIA director is an immigrant woman; the deputy CIA director is an Arab Muslim; the first President is in a mixed-raced marriage, the second is a woman, and the third is a Jew.
Someone once said to me, “None of that’s realistic.” There’s no way an Arab Muslim would be in that high of a position in the CIA. There’s no way the Senate would confirm a woman born outside the U.S. as CIA director. There’s no possible way we’d manage to elect those people as president consecutively. And there’s no possible way whatsoever that my cast of characters is at all representative of the actual U.S. (or even global) population.
That may be true.
Yet how representative of the United States’ actual population are the almost entirely straight, white, and Christian casts of the vast majority of novels and TV shows? Whites and Christians are numerical majorities, but certainly not to the proportions portrayed in popular media. These images of America paint not how things are but how those privileged by whiteness or Christianity can perceive them to be. No one except marginalized people ever questions this status quo, and when we do, our voices are labeled extreme and hypersensitive and our concerns trivial and non-issues.
How we represent ourselves and others both reflects and shapes our attitudes toward social and cultural realities. Undocumented immigrants are labeled “illegal;” women stereotyped as needy, submissive, and sexual objects for the sole gratification of men; queers for the most part altogether erased except for upper-class gay men and some lesbian women; the disabled deigned to be “crippled,” “mad,” and “retarded.” Where are we in American fiction? Why are Black authors’ novels in the “African American Literature” section while white authors’ novels are simply “Fiction?” Why must we be qualified with adjectival labels of identity while privileged identities are omitted?
If you are white, if you are upper-class or even middle-class, if you are Christian, if you are straight, if you are cisgender, if you are able-bodied, if you are neurotypical, if you are a naturalized citizen or documented immigrant, then your experiences, your perceptions, your thoughts, your ideas, your theories, your cultural and social norms are all centered as normative and treated as a baseline for human interaction and perception. Anyone who falls in any way outside of one of those categories of privilege will find their experiences and perceptions exiled to the margins with a qualifier.
If you’re privileged, you often won’t realize how your society has privileged you because you grew up being told constantly by the media, your parents, your teachers, your political leaders—everyone around you, both implicitly and explicitly—that the way you see and experience the world is normal and ideal. Everyone else’s experiences are exotic, unreliable, or quaint, worthy merely of voyeuristic entertainment with no need—and no consequences for declining—any real or meaningful engagement or critical examination.
Those of us whose bodies have been racialized, queered, and disabled know otherwise. We too are socialized and enculturated from birth to accept these hegemonies as legitimate, unchangeable, and natural. We are taught to hate the color of our skin, to hate the ways that we move and speak, to hate how an accent can betray our race or national origin, to hate how moving can betray our disability, to hate how a voice’s pitch can betray a sex assigned at birth that doesn’t match a gender identity, to hate how we speak with each other, to hate ourselves as lacking, inferior, deficient.
Our literature and film reinforce these systems of oppression by systematically erasing marginalized creatives and marginalized characters from art and entertainment, thereby perpetuating the status quo and disenfranchising those of us who would write against it.
It is entirely possible that the cast of characters in my seventh novel reflects the population or politics of an America that does not exist. It should. Fiction is not merely about the way things are. It is also about the way things ought to be.
Fiction lends itself naturally to the political imagination.
I had a friend who asked me not long ago whether my writing is political, whether my writing is a part of my activism. In the sense that my fiction is not intended to be pedantic, didactic, or heavy-wrought with propaganda featuring my political ideology, no, my writing isn’t political or part of my activism. But in another, equally valid way, my writing is the most potent part of my activism. You see, people who think of themselves as apathetic to politics, people who’ve internalized oppression against them, people who’ve never had the opportunity to learn about their own privilege, people who’ve never conceived of an America that could be different than the one where we live now, people who can give wonderful scholarly treatises but fail to speak to ordinary people, people who’ll never read this piece right now—all of these people are equally likely to pick up one of my novels someday.
All of them are equally likely to wonder at how I could write something so “unrealistic.” And through that thought, all of them are equally likely to imagine how and why our society ought to be different.
After all, I’m not writing about things as they are. I’m writing about a dream. I’m writing about many dreams that I’ve had, some of them realer than others. I’m writing about how things could be.
Lydia Brown, Slant Editor
Image Source: (http://www.washingtontimes.com/multimedia/image/b3-diversity-hands-ggjpg/, Greg Groesch for the Washington Times)