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Do Your Research … But How?

Writers, when asking about writing characters outside of their own backgrounds, often get told “do your research.” This answer is deceptively simple, and appealing in its simplicity. White writers, upon reading that all they need to do is “do their research” and “consult a sensitivity reader,” may feel like they have the necessary materials at their fingertips. After all, how hard could “research” be? Most of us who graduated university wrote a research paper or two in our day. Some of us have even done dissertations. However, white writers, if we approach the research that is necessary to write acceptable POC representation the same way we approach the research necessary to write a term paper, we are bound to fail.

Wikipedia, scholarly articles, websites, even entire academic books, are simply not enough. The kind of research that is generally necessary in order to write another culture convincingly is the sort of research that would have you living and experiencing that culture, or getting as close as you possibly can, as a white person, to living and experiencing that culture. If the old adage “write what you know” holds true, then the white writer must know the culture that they choose to write about, and that knowledge cannot come from books, but from lived experience. The sort of knowledge that can be gleaned from a website, consuming media from the culture, or even reading academic journals may be fine for writing a research paper, which, after all, does not need to resonate emotionally with the audience, but a novel requires more.

Does this mean you have to spend decades living in a culture before you can write it? Not necessarily (although it would certainly be helpful), but it does mean, in my opinion, you have to be granted some degree of insider access to the culture, rather than using purely secondhand research. Painter Emily Carr, who was inspired by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and often included scenes from their villages in her landcape paintings, spent extended periods of time living in First Nation villages, living among the people and getting to know them personally.  S.A. Chakraborty, who wrote the Daevabad trilogy, is a white woman who converted to Islam long before she wrote her trilogy featuring a Muslim hero. While Chakraborty did not live in Egypt, the country where her story begins, as a Muslim woman as well as an Islamic scholar, she has first hand as well as academic knowledge of the religion and culture.

Consider, before writing outside of your own experience, that there are many writers out there who do have those experience and who are eager to tell their own stories. What makes you, someone whose knowledge is purely secondhand, a better person to write that story than a person whose knowledge comes from lived experience? Can you write it better, or if not better, can you do as good a job as someone who has firsthand knowledge of that culture? If not, are you willing to put in the work necessary to gain the firsthand knowledge needed?

Many of us do not like being told we cannot do something or cannot have something. When we are told “do research” we interpret “research” in terms that are most charitable towards ourselves. What is left unsaid is that often it may impossible for you to do the “research” necessary for you to do a culture justice. Personally, I would not attempt to write a book about the experience of being a Black person in the USA. I have not even lived in the United States for the majority of my adult life, and my experiences are so far removed from the reality of most Black Americans that any attempt on my behalf would be cobbled together from popular media, the internet, and consultations with sensitivity readers. I am a decent writer and I could possibly piece together something that was at the very least blandly inoffensive, but my account would be at best a pale imitation. Am I really the best person to be writing about what it is to be Black in America? Absolutely not. I will never be that person, because that experience is completely beyond my scope.

On the other hand, I have written copiously about the region of China, Yunnan, where I lived and made my home for fifteen years, as well as the Yunnanese people who live there. I have firsthand knowledge of the culture, I speak the language, and I have family members and friends who are from Yunnan. If I have a question about the region or the culture, I have multiple resources who are simply a text message away. I lived in villages and cities, and worked in environments where I was completely immersed in the culture. I was married in Yunnan and had my children there. I navigated the public school system when my kids started primary school, and had playdates with local moms. I was in every way immersed in Yunnanese life. While my family and friends cannot give me “permission” to write about their culture (an aside about permission: anyone seeking permission is inherently misguided. There is no counsel that grants such things, and if you are uncertain enough about your ability or suitability to write a culture that you go seeking permission, then you probably shouldn’t be writing that culture), they are excited that I am doing so, and are eager to help me get it right. There aren’t many Yunnanese people writing in English out there, and even fewer represent my family’s particular ethnic group, and they are happy to see their region on the page. And still, even with all of my experiences, all of my resources, I still might make mistakes and get things wrong. Now imagine if I only had the internet and books at my disposal?

Writing characters from cultures other than our own is something that not every writer can do, and we need to accept our own limitations. Yes, do your research, yes consult your sensitivity readers, but most of all, know your limits. The sort of research that must be done in order to write a culture outside of your own is not the kind of research that can be done without dedicating years of your life to the endeavor. If you’re not up to the task, then there is no disgrace in sticking to what you know.

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