Smart People Talking: Jodi Picoult (Part 2).

Last week, Jodi Picoult was talking cultural appropriation and racism in SPT. In part 2 of her Brisbane talk, the focus is on the art and act of writing.

Ask yourself: why am I creating this voice? Is it an important narrative point? Is it integral?

Though it’s important to have a diverse cast of characters, it’s just as important to have fully formed characters, rather than stereotypes. If you’re writing, say, a poor white man in a rural community, does he have to be racist? Alcoholic? Illiterate? Emotionally repressed?

When a black woman was cast as Hermione Granger, parts of the fandom lost their minds. Nowhere did Rowling state Hermione’s ethnicity, but a large number of people saw the intellectual girl with a literary name and sucessful parents, and made an assumption. Challenging those assumptions in your work isn’t a bad thing.

It’s pointless having a checklist of minority groups to represent in your work- characters need to be there because they fulfill a narrative need, not to try and earn yourself brownie points. But it’s definitely possible to have diversity in fiction that doesn’t feel shoehorned into the story.

How can I bring empathy, and authenticity, and compassion into my writing? Speak to people. A lot. Speak to lots of people, and find a variety of voices.

Not having to be aware of or talk about racism is a type of privilege, as is not having to experience it. But if you’re a writer, ignoring the realities other people face isn’t a great way to go about your work. Learn from other people. Research. Try and understand, even if only a little, what it’s like to be someone else. Because that’s how you write well. That’s how you capture alternate voices and make them realistic. Not by guessing, but by learning.

Your job isn’t to write as an expert, to tell people how to think or feel. It’s to explore ideas with empathy, authenticity, and compassion. You can’t do that while pretending other people’s problems don’t exist, or being defensive about the role you (or your culture) play in those problems.

Find sensitivity readers to challenge what you’ve written to create an authentic voice.

It’s good to have a wide range of beta readers, who can bring different viewpoints and experiences to your work. But when you’re writing about culturally sensitive issues, consider finding sensitivity readers. Their job is to be utterly honest about what works, and what doesn’t, and to point out the places where you’re having issues. It can help strengthen your writing, making it more authentic, and it helps you learn what you can improve in your work.

It’s important to recognise that racism is systemic and messy… it’s about prejudice and power. Even if we don’t talk about it, we’re still a big part of the problem.

Racism is a massive issue, and an issue in ways most white people (myself included) don’t see or fully understand. It’s in the way we shorthand black as bad and white as good, the way we put certain cultures in positions of power in our media, while relegating others to secondary or minimal roles. Think about the way it’s generally white people playing heroes- and the way a big deal is made whenever that’s not the case because it’s so unusual.

Think about the way shows like Luke Cage get accused of racism for having few, if any, white actors involved while there’s rarely any white outcry over the idea that the majority of our most popular shows have either entirely white casts, or one token character of colour. In the same way, studies show that we’re so conditioned to value male voices over female that while we accuse women of being overly chatty, the vast majority of group interactions favour male perspectives. There are power dynamics at play, and while it’s complicated to figure them out, it’s important to at least try.

I don’t think anyone is purely evil. There are always shades of grey. It’s important to have empathy for even the most vile characters. Give vulnerable characters their dignity. They’re all vulnerable.

In life and in writing, the binary character tropes of good and evil don’t really measure up. The trite ‘even Hitler had a mother’ idea kinda has a point: though we see Hitler as the most evil man to have lived, he had a kind side. He cared deeply about people close to him. When you write someone up as just a monster, you’re missing a large piece of the puzzle: what made them.

How can your heroes be flawed, and human? And how can your villains have a softer, kinder side? How can you make readers relate and empathise with both sides of the conflict?

With prejudice, there’s a sense of otherness, a feeling that they’re never really ‘one of us’.

Picoult was quick to mention that race gets no mention in US courts, because the results are too unpredictable. In the Trayvon Martin case, for example, there was a courtroom ban on the phrase ‘racial profiling’. Stop and think about that a moment. The man who killed Trayvon had a habit of calling the police on black men in his community, because he deemed them suspicious, and assumed they were out to do harm. That right there implies a racial bias at play. Though he’d been told by police not to give chase when the teenager ran away from him (after, it must be noted, doing absolutely nothing wrong but being followed by a strange man in a car), the man opted to give chase, end ended up shooting Trayvon in the chest. It’s hard not to see racial profiling, and bias, at play. And yet, it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about because it’s not a topic juries want to hear about.

How can you ever truly belong in a community where you’re judged without reason, but your murderer walks free? How can you belong when the colour of your skin deems you a threat or a thug, rather than just another person going about their day?

If I write a twist, I know about it before I write page one. It’s my job to leave you a paper trail.

I’ve learned to hang onto the reins and just go along for the ride. Each book starts with a what if that’s been keeping me up at night. Characters pop up, and I follow them a while before a few months of research. It’s like a tornado of information, that touches down into a first line. Once I have that, I’m ready to start writing.

It’s important for readers to be able to follow your train of thought, without them knowing from page one what’s going to happen. Having an idea of where you’re headed helps with that. But even so, you don’t need to have a fully fleshed out summary before you start. Whatever works for you is the best way to create your story.

My books aren’t gendered. When people say ‘you’re a women’s author’, what they mean is that you have lady parts.

And, lo, the problem with gendered genres: while women are expected to read male characters, men aren’t expected to return the favour. There’s too many men saying they don’t read work by women because it’s not as good- without ever having read enough to make that call. Stories about men are considered universal, so why aren’t stories about women? If women can relate to male experiences, why can’t men relate to a woman’s? Men are certainly smart enough to manage it. That we assume the work of women is lesser than the work of their male peers is a deeply troubling element of our society. That we assume the works of minorities are lesser than the work of white, generally male writers?

Just as troubling.

What really matters is what works for you. The key to being a success is finding out what turns that key for you. You’ll find it. Just be brave.

Tell the stories you want to tell, just tell them compassionately and fairly to those involved. Figure out what stories you want to write, and write them. It doesn’t matter what the market trends are- by the time you’ve written the story, those trends will have changed, anyway. So write your story your way, and figure out what works for you.

And never be afraid to talk about difficult subjects. Art of all kinds is an exploration of truths and social ideologies. Stories speak to the fears and issues of the times they’re written in, so why try and pretend otherwise?

Be brave, and go write.

The only way bullies succeed is when the people around them laugh.

There’s a concept in comedy called ‘punching up’. What it means is that comedy, good comedy, isn’t about victimising people who are already being victimised. It’s not funny, say, to laugh at rape victims (unless you’re a rather unpleasant person). But there’s comedy in tearing apart the beliefs that protect rapists from the consequences of their choices.

Tim Minchin got in a bit of trouble for a song to Cardinell Pell, urging him to return to Australia to answer questions about his involvement in the covering up of child abuse within the Catholic Church. He used his privilege as a white, male celebrity to attack an institution that doesn’t generally cop much negativity, even though they’ve done plenty to deserve it. He punched up, attacking a more powerful person in defense of people whose voices weren’t being heard or respected.

Punching down would have been to attack the victims, or to back Pell.

In life, and art, it’s better to punch up than punch down.


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