The Stories That Are Ours To Tell

It began with this tweet, following a spectacular panel at the Nebulas Conference (Pittsburg, PA) in May 2017. The following is a slightly expanded and edited essay from the tweet thread.

Second tweet in thread by A. Merc Rustad

I wanted to touch on the subject of including characters of diverse identities in your fiction when you do not share these IDs.

Yes, PLEASE DO include diverse characters. Boost authors of diverse backgrounds! Raise each other up! It benefits us all to have more.

Intersectionality is a thing, too. Characters, like people in peoplespace who LIVE ON EARTH, have many axises that intersect. It’s good! I want ALL the representation. I want ALL THE THINGS in my fiction, including being able to see myself. ❤ All of us need that visibility.

So a tip if you’re writing about characters who do not share your identities, i.e. you’re a cis person & want to write a trans character:

The big difference is telling a story WITH characters of [specific identity] versus telling a story ABOUT a character’s [specific identity and/or experience].

Say you’re a cis person and you want to include a trans character. That’s great! I want to see lots and lots of (well-done) trans characters in fiction. But if you’re cis? Please don’t make it ABOUT “being trans.” That is not your story to tell. Leave the stories about being trans to trans authors. Those are our stories to tell.

Privilege is thinking just because you KNOW about something, that it is then yours to tell a story about. No. That creates harm.

Include characters of different backgrounds and identities and disabilities and genders and preferences and names. Yes! Show positives. Have nuance. Let people of every aspect see themselves in fiction. But do not claim another’s identity, or story, as your own (like, as I said above, a cis write telling a story about “being trans” rather than simply including trans characters in their fiction).

Boost other voices. Especially if you care about these voices and people and diversifying our field, lift others up! Listen to #ownvoices authors, listen to those of us whose stories you want to hear (but don’t take over the narrative and center yourself). Are there are going to be people who take our stories, deny our right to our own bodies and words and dreams, and perpetuate a cycle of violence against us in the name of creativity/artistic license? Unfortunately, yes. You don’t have to be part of that cycle, though. You can choose otherwise — choose empathy and listening and support. We all have a choice, and must own the responsibility of what we choose.

Claiming someone else’s narrative to tell yourself, and denying their right to their own stories and voices, is violence.

There are many types of violence. It is not always physical. It is always a harm, and we should strive to minimize harm. Show empathy. Don’t take someone else’s lived experience, their truths, and think you have a right to tell their story for them. Learn, include, but no swiping.

And remember, there are no One True Monolith of any identity or community. Everyone is unique, human. (Even us robots.)

Someone sharing their experiences with you is not automatic permission to take that and use it for your own gain. Be respectful.

Fostering empathy, being kind to each other, respecting each other’s stories and experiences: these things make our world and narratives better.

So yes. Do include diverse characters! Give us all the spectrums and all the rainbows! Make things better! Just remember to ask yourself:

“Is this my story to tell?”

And if it is not, step back and see if you can boost the person whose story it is their’s to tell. This requires honesty, empathy, and sometimes letting go of that idea you wanted to use. It’s okay, you’ll think of something else. Ideas are fast and furious and free-flowing. You’ll come up with another angle! There are infinite sparks and ideas to choose from. It’s better to change the idea and tell a different story, one that is not going to steal from, and cause harm to, other people.

I promise you there are billions of people in the world, and each has a story, and each is unique, and we can find each other and lift each other up. We can make the world better by being better to each other. In words, in deeds, and in stories.

Let’s do it.