Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Beyond the Comfort Zones: Writing Across Boundaries

by the two halves of Sophie Mouette

We confess: We’re kind of Call for Submission Whores. New anthology guidelines go up on Erotica Readers and Writers and our dirty minds immediately start trying to come up with scenarios. From sexy cowboys to men in uniform (and the men who love them) to music to fun with latex and rubber, we’re game to try just about anything. (In writing, that is. Our personal lives are…personal.)

But once in a while, an anthology theme throws us, and it’s not for the reasons you might think. Okay, the latex and rubber anthology was challenging. Teresa used to date someone with a parts-per-million allergy to rubber, so when she thinks rubber, she didn’t think “sexy,” she thought “Where’s the nearest emergency room?” Still, after much exercise of the empathic imagination, she came up with something.

That anthology theme wasn’t Dayle’s personal cup of tea, either. So she wrote it from the perspective of a wife discovering her husband’s fetish and deciding to give him a birthday he’ll never forget. A rubber bathing cap wasn’t her idea of a sexy toy, but she loves her husband and is willing to try, and she gets incredibly turned on sharing in her husband’s reactions. In the end, Dayle feels, sex is better when there’s a connection between the participants, and a story is sexier when there are characters you care about.

(Sadly, that anthology was cancelled—so if anyone’s looking for a couple of hot and sexy stories about rubber, give us a call!)

Anyway, the anthologies that throw us have been anthologies that asked for different ethnicities as major characters. We’re both about as middle-class whitebread Americans as they come. (Different areas of Europe, perhaps, and Dayle is one-quarter Mediterranean—but white girls who have to look back a few generations before they can find family members who trotted across the pond.)

We feel pretty confident putting ourselves into the head of someone whose sexual kinks aren’t ours. The mechanics may be different, but sensations and emotions draw more from the characters than from whatever acrobatics or props are involved. But in a world where race is such a hot-button issue, where white authors and artists are routinely called to task for playing off racial stereotypes if they don’t do their homework or “cultural appropriation” if they seem too fascinated by a culture other than their own, how much does one dare to get into the inner sexual and emotional life of someone from a very different background? Not to mention just describing them in a way that’s not clichéd or, worse, offensively stereotypical?

In “Special Delivery,” Teresa’s story in Iridescence: Sensuous Shades of Lesbian Erotica, she got around that problem by making her own discomfort a plot element. The point-of-view character’s a white lesbian who’s attracted to the sari-clad hostess at her favorite Indian restaurant, but knows that part of her fascination is the lure of the exotic:

“I felt like I was being Weirdo Stalker Chick, and in a way that would make my more politically savvy friends scold me. I knew damn well that the source of my crush was at least as much the exotic-to-me packaging—the pretty saris, the bindi, the delicate gold nose ring that connected to her earring with a fine chain—as the woman herself.”

This being fiction, our heroines find a way to get past their surfaces differences and hook up, but Teresa felt far more comfortable dealing with the familiar issue of white liberal guilt trips than dealing with her Indian lesbian more directly.

Dayle went a similar route for her story in the same anthology, in that she also chose to make her narrator white. But rather than touch on any personal uneasiness, she wrote about two women who’d been together for a while, who loved each other and found each other beautiful in a way that transcended their ethnic differences. Her main character loved her partner for herself, not for any specific exoticness. The conflict they have to overcome is one that could happen in any partnership: the strain that going back to school can put on both members in a relationship.

Set in racially diverse southern California, our novel Cat Scratch Fever couldn’t have an all-white cast and be even remotely believable. Surprisingly, though, the toughest character to get “right” was our bad boy Lance, who, although white, might as well have come from another world. Trying to make a barely legal, hip-hop-loving reformed gangster sound believable was an exercise in writing about a foreign culture, far more so than the well-educated professionals, José the zoo vet (Hispanic) and Melissa the animal handler with a degree from Stanford (Asian). (Now, we love the character we created, but we’re pretty sure a real nineteen-year-old hood would laugh his fool ass off at our attempts at slang. Someone’s probably laughing right now at our use of the word “hood.” But at least we’re pretty sure we haven’t outright offended anybody.) Which probably goes to show that writing across any major divide in experience—age, class, race, sexual preference—can be a challenge.

Can a white woman truly pull off writing about a black woman? About a man, no matter what race? An upper class person about a poverty-stricken one? Where does the line get drawn between an honest attempt and a descent into un-PC cliché?

Or are emotions and passions universal, even when the particulars of experience differ?

17 comments:

Portia Da Costa said...

What a thought provoking post!

I love to write male characters, but I can never be sure I've really got into the male psyche... I suppose I write men how I'd *like* them to be!

As for racial diversity and social status? Well, I don't reach for characters... they come to me. So I suppose I stay within the realms of my own experience in terms of character background a lot of the time. Maybe that's a deficiency? But I do like to voyage through wild realms of imagination and empathy in terms of what happens to the characters in my stories.

Janine Ashbless said...

Fascinating subject, and you're brave to bring it up.

I could sound very smug telling you that in my two linked erotic novels Divine Torment and Burning Bright there are no white characters at all - except for a bit-part slave in the first chapter of DT (Guess which bits, ahem),whom I made pale and blonde in order to point up the fact that nobody else was.

But the fact is I was cheating. Both novels have a fantasy setting, and in fantasy worlds you can write about people of any ethnicity without having to deal with the historical baggage of colonialism, slavery, class, education, liberal guilt etc that comes in real life. You can treat individuals as individuals.

Divine Torment had an erotic love-story across really hostile ethnic barriers, but because it was fantasy I could sit back on my white middle-class arse and look at the conflict from both sides, or from a point of neutrality.

In a contemporary setting I don't think I'd dare step beyond what I'm familiar with. I'd be too scared of Getting It Wrong. My ego is a monster.

*****

Ursula K Le Guin, by the way, wrote the classic Earthsea series very deliberately with a non-white hero in a non-white setting. She says white people are a minority in this world so why should they have the monopoly or the p.o.v. in fantasy worlds?

She also says white readers don't notice what she's done - because they have the luxury of a life in which skin colour isn't an issue. Interesting.

I'm not familiar with the mainstream romance market but I'm guessing that most of the writers are white and so are all the heroes and heroines. Does anybody know any different?

Olivia Knight said...

I rarely describe my main character's skin or eye colour (I like my protagonists left largely to the imagination) but have always assumed they were white like me. Next time maybe I'll try assuming they're something else... I wonder how much or whether that would affect anything else? But as you say, class boundaries are harder to cross than racial, because class ones are definitely cultural whereas race isn't necessarily. So maybe I should try having a character who isn't a white-collar graduate!
When I write stuff set in antiquity, it's a different matter. No-one can pull me up on the language (except possibly an Indo-European specialist) and I just assume everyone is brown.

Janine Ashbless said...

I also agree with the original posters and with Olivia - the really difficult boundary to write across is Class.

Olivia Knight said...

Yeah, wha'eva. It's all about class, innit? But like, culture's well important too, yeah? Like me mate Dave, right, he's got a place in Spain, yeah, and he says they're like well mad there. I mean, they're different, innit. Stands to reason.

TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

Janine, the vast majority of mainstream romance characters are white. There are several major lines aimed at the African-American market. I've noticed some of the smaller e-publishers looking for interracial or multicultural stories, but I haven't looked at them enough to know if they're trying to cross boundaries or exploit them with Modernized Mandingos for bored suburban white women dreaming of the exotic and politically suspect (or, I suppose, bored black/Asian/whatever women who find white guys exotic and politically suspect.)

Portia, I think one of the joys of romance and women's erotica is that we can write "men as we'd like 'em to be."

t'Sade said...

I have to agree with Ashbless, and not for bringing up one of my three favorite authors. I dealt with those issues in fantasy worlds mainly because I can research those better. However, there is always the case of your characters being close to the same because they are created by the same person. I just remember reading the Amazon reviews for Lifeprobe and people ranting about how the author didn't "know" the African communities enough to make them the bad guy.

Actually, that also let into what happen with my novel. In my first draft, I had it set in ye' old Egypt. But, one of my first readers told me that Bast and Set would never have sex like that. Ever. So, I made up a new fantasy world where Bast and Set would get it on that way. :)

Alison Tyler said...

As an editor, I run into the PC problem a lot. An author will try really hard to get a non-white character in a story, and then will write something that someone, somewhere, might deem offensive.

The biggest issues that I have had between authors and my publisher are over racial descriptions. People are so in tune right now about the issue that sometimes it's scary to even try to write outside the comfort zone.

More power to you, Dayle & Teresa, for tackling the topic head on.

Nikki Magennis said...

I'm still thinking of what to say. Because this is such a sensitive issue, isn't it? At least it is in my neck of the (very multicultural) woods. Bravo for raising it, Teresa and Dayle.

I usually write characters with a similar cultural background to mine, partly because it feels natural and partly because I'd be wary of getting things wrong. Maybe I should be brave and rethink that.

One of the things I love about erotica is that sex is such a crucial and universal drive, it can be a ... what's the word... a 'removed place' where issues like intolerance and guilt and curiosity and tension can be explored in human terms, rather than necessarily political. A hinterland? A meeting place?

I think the erotica community is - generally speaking - open minded and sensitive. We have more rules about ethical writing than any other genre I can think of. Sometimes this is restrictive, but often I appreciate the rules that ensure this otherspace has a friendly, considerate climate. It could be the perfect place to find common ground.

Then again, perhaps the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for Midnight's Children squelches that idea?

I s'pose what I'd really like is to hear from writers from different backgrounds. I would love to hear more from Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian writer, for example. If we had more voices from different cultures (I'm deliberately using the word culture instead of race) then the debate might be more balanced.

And I'll end with a quote from Zane: 'Sensuality is universal'.

Joel A. Nichols said...

When I first saw the Rubber/Latex call, I could think of was being too hot and sweaty. (It was summer in Philadelphia when I started writing that story.) So I had to make up a world where all the stores are closed and people are making clothes out of old tires...It can be tricky, though, to think of something that will fit the call and still be HOT.

Madeline said...

Wow. What a topic. Before I address it, let me say that your nom de plume is the best ever. I'll trade you! It's so sweet and pouty and sexy. Nice work on the penname. Now, the topic - Wild Card has four main characters, two white Canadians, one white Brit and one Chinese Asian. Like Portia, I found writing the white man the most challenging. It was important that Ray be likeable as well as a macho man. I'm proud of the way the character turned out. The biggest challenge I had was this - Penny has anal sex with a man she's just met, who is in from Africa for a conference. I was concerned that, even in a 'fantasy'(which all erotica is)readers would be put off by the risk factor. However, since my African was black, I didn't want Penny to insist on using a condom when none of the other sexcapades in the novel involved protection. That seemed racist to me. When I looked at the book as a whole, all the characters but Penny only have sex with each other. So I decided that all 'sex with strangers' would require protection. Penny is the one who has sex with strangers and it was really necessary because the book takes place primarily in a hotel room and to avoid total claustraphobia I had to get out of the room from time to time. So Penny used protection with the two 'strangers', one a white American and one a black African. Once she joined the gang in the hotel room, she didn't. Ray and Victoria, the two 'main' charcters, discuss their negative HIV status. And Lonnie, the fourth character, only has sex with Ray so I felt that I handled the issue quite well. I haven't been afraid to write characters of a different colour/class than me. I love to stretch my imagination and I imagine (erroneously?) that my editor will nix anything that smacks of racism. I have friends of all colours and classes so perhaps that makes me feel comfortable creating characters of different classes/colours. Great post!

Mathilde Madden said...

Christian - Imogen's boyfriend - in Peep Show isn't white. But I don't think Imogen really bothers to tell people about that much and hence her narrator voice doesn't really say so.

But I did write a guy in a wheelchair. A bitter fucked-up guy in a wheelchair who discovers he quite enjoys being objectified over it.

Now, I'm not in a wheelchair. I didn't really know that much about disability before I started. The concept had appropriation written all over it. But I just thought it was hot.

I had no idea how it would be recieved but disabled people seem to love that book. Down to the point where recently a guy sent me an email telling me the numbers of the pages on which he had... Oh, you're erotica writers, you figure it out.

Erastes said...

Great post!

I often look at submission calls and think... "ooo - wish I could write as if I'm a New Zealand Lesbian Sub" or a "Bear living in a polyamous marriage" But I'm so horribly vanilla!

You might blink at me at that and say "Bwha? But Erastes, you are already writing out of your comfort zone. You are writing about historical gay men, when you are a modern woman!" But it's not true, gay fiction IS my comfort zone. Nothing scares me so much as writing a contemporary gay story as I have very little clue of the male gay scene - even my textbooks are all 19th Century and backwards.

As for Lesbian leather lovers? Hot Het Monkey Love? I'd run screaming.

Well done - very well done to those that do, though. good on ya.

And while I'm here, I'd just like to praise this community - there are few places where people who write ANY kind of fiction can take part (and feel welcome) and you should be proud of yourselves

Kate said...

I don't this class is such an issue in the U.S. as it is in the UK-(obviously this is just my personal opinion so feel free to ignore me!)People here are more aware of racial differences and in California, 'everyone' tries to make sure that 'everyone' is included in 'everything' which can make things quite tricky.

As my contemporaries are set in the U.S. I have to have real American people de-Brit them for me-who knew things were so different?
Sometimes it feels like I'm trying to write a different language and getting it right is important to me too.

I love stepping outside my boring self and trying on the lifestyle of a cowboy or a bisexual Regency rake. I particularly like writing men. But I do have 3 sons so I have plenty of raw material to study.

Not sure if this post has answered the relevant question but it's the best I have!

Alana said...

Dear Dayle,

Thank you for the post. (Oh, and too bad about that rubber and latex anthology! I can't even begin to imagine the range of stories in that one. Wow!)

Anyway, this particular topic is near and dear to me, and honestly, I could talk all day about writing across boundaries. Sure, I make jokes sometimes, but I take the art and task of writing outside my race and gender seriously. It's not something I'm willing to do half-heartedly, ignorantly, or without genuine passion/intent.

My first successful attempt to cross boundaries was with my story, "Genuflection," which was selected for Best Gay Erotica 2004 and then Best American Erotica 2005. I narrated the story in first-person as a young biracial gay man living in a porn shop in exchange for working there.

OK. I'm not a gay man; I'm not biracial (although my son is, but that's another story) and I've never had to live on the street.

With that said, I must say, and I mean this: Manny's voice felt authentic to me because I found in him a desire I understood. Manny wanted acceptance, affection, love. And then he wanted revenge.

Really, desire is universal. I mean the experience of wanting is not confined by gender or sexual preference or even race. It's a stipulation for being human. We want.

Up until the moment I "finished," that story, I felt Manny was my most convincing character, ever. Although the story was only 25 pages long, I wrote over 100 pages of narrative, scene, and stream of consciousness in my attempt to understand Manny's world, and I wrote at least twelve revisions of that story.

I began "Genuflection" the summer before my first term in graduate school, and I later sent it through the fiction workshop, and the best compliment I've ever received as a writer came from a peer in that group. She said, "If I didn't know you, Alana, I mean if I'd never seen you before, I would have thought for sure you were a young gay Mexican man. That's how convincing this voice is."

Bam!

Susie Bright has told me on a couple ocassions I have a talent for writing in the voice of a young man/teenaged boy. I admit that means the world to me. Because it came from Susie Bright, and because asa writer I want nothing mroe than to write genuine characters.

Ultimately, words have power, don't they? Stories can change the way people think or feel. I'd never intentionally demean, downplay, or exploit anybody's experience, their humanity. Like I said, I've joked about crossing boundaries and have said I'm a gay man in a woman's body. Or, I was a gay man in a former life.

As writer's we have two things:

1) A unique gift of opportunity to use our to talent to embrace and portray the universal truths that unite our human experiences.

And

2) A responsibility to write with a genuine desire to understand those universal truths and to share them with readers.

Lately, I'm passionate about doing that with stories narrated by gay men. Those voices provide me a way to explore some universal truths, a way to confront the world. Hope that doesn't sound corny. I think you all know what I mean.

It's cool, isn't it, being writers?

Alison Tyler said...

I know this is off topic, but I am always surprised by what is outside of people's comfort zones (as writers and readers). On my blog, the most appalled responses I've gotten so far were to a tickling scene. Seriously. But things that I was sure would raise, um, issues have gone unnoticed.

Today, I wrote as a male Dom and (as comments would indicate) did so fairly successfully.

And oh, damn, Erastes, and I was so hoping you were going to submit to my "Hot Het Monkey Love" anthology.

*grin*

ADR Forte said...

This is such a great post. I haven't struggled with the race issue much, but the class thing has come back to haunt me a few times.

In fact, I was once asked "Do you know any blue collar people?"
The question threw me for a loop and I think I managed to answer "uh yeah. Why?" without launching into a lengthy description of my *own* years working at Wal Mart and eating ramen noodles.
To be honest I think I was just a tad bit offended.
"Well," said the questioner "You never write working class characters. Your characters are all professionals or they sound educated."

I thought about that a lot and for a while it bothered me. Was I being prejudiced?
Then I realized it was simple: I had written characters I could do justice to. That I wanted to write.
Most of my contemporary characters are businesspeople because that's what I live day to day and I can create realistic settings and situations and people from that in my writing.
I haven't had an idea yet for a really hot scene between a couple of X Mart employees, but someday it may show up. Or it may not.
I'm not going to lose sleep over it.

That incident and a few others like it taught me one important thing: I have to be true to my characters. I won't defend the kinds of characters I want to write; I'll let them be what they want to be. If they turn up vanilla middle class yuppies then so be it. If they turn up purple people eaters with shoe fetishes then so be it.
My responsibility as a writer is to write good characters and real characters, not P.C. characters to fit the quota.

What bothers me more, and this came up just recently, is writing characters with sexual attitudes I don't agree with.
While I can deal with characters whose religions and prejudices, sexual orientations, fetishes and ethnic or moral backgrounds differ from mine, I found myself having the worst time with characters whose beliefs about sex and gender roles pushed my buttons.
I wasted a lot of time trying to make my character behave as I thought she *should* rather than as she wanted to because her behavior and my other character's behavior in the bedroom crossed my own comfort boundaries. I didn't approve of it.
Finally I gave up and let them do their thing and I was able to make the story work. But I don't think I'm ever going there again with that particular theme. It just makes me too uncomfortable.

It is something I wish I could get past though. If I take the approach that I will let my characters be what they want to be, then I have a responsibility to write them even if I think they're out of line. I can't impose my morals on them.
Sadly, that's turned out to be a lot harder than it sounds. *sigh*

Thanks for letting me stray a bit off topic. My excuse is it's Wednesday :)