“Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

Subtitle: A Practical Approach

Recommended to me by: reading Nisi Shawl’s other book “Filter House

I felt so warmed and included by Nisi Shawl’s writing in “Filter House” that I was eager to read “Writing the Other.” I wanted both to learn how to write inclusively, and to experience more of that included feeling.

This short book includes three essays and an excerpt from Nisi Shawl’s forthcoming novel. The first essay’s full title is “Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction.” Aimed specifically at fiction writers from mainstream culture, this essay was informative but did not feel inclusive itself.

The acronym ROAARS covers differences that majority culture recognizes as significant: Race/(sexual) Orientation/Ability/Age/Religion/Sex. Class is mentioned as a difference but intentionally excluded from the acronym.

White privilege, and more generally unmarked privilege, are the hidden, taken-for-granted benefits that come from matching majority culture on the ROAARS characteristics. For example, white heterosexual couples do not worry about being insulted if they publicly hold hands, nor do they notice that they’re not worrying, unless one of them has previously been in a homosexual or mixed-race relationship.

Parallax is the writerly art of showing the world from the character’s point of view, rather than the writer’s.

Both positive and negative examples of inclusive writing are cited. Writing exercises are given for practice.

What I noticed most about the writing exercises is how they didn’t fit me. They assumed a familiarity with writing character vignettes that I don’t have. They assumed a familiarity with majority culture that I also don’t have. When asked to choose a celebrity to write about, I chose a well-known Balkan dance teacher, but the second part of the exercise assumed I had chosen an American celebrity. Several of the exercises required a writing partner.

The most illuminating moment came from an exercise I couldn’t bring myself to do, even though there weren’t any obvious impediments. It asked me to write about myself as if I had one major difference in my ROAARS characteristics. I found myself unwilling to relinquish any of my majority or minority truths, especially the ones that are indeterminate or unclear.

I can’t tell if I’m not advanced enough to benefit from this book, or if I already knew most of the multi-cultural, inclusive lessons it is teaching. Perhaps a mix of both.

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