Dear Story Nurse,
I’m currently stalled out on both short stories I am writing. While they are both fantasy stories, each one deals with a theme that is important to me. One is a romance with a genderqueer shifter and the other features a character embracing her chronic pain. While both of these topics are important to me, I’ve not been writing them because it’s stirring up unresolved feelings in me on both of these issues.
My question is this: Writing #ownvoices is important, but how do I support myself in exploring hard topics that stir up unresolved feelings in me, and relatedly, how do I manage the fear that I’m not doing #ownvoices stories well enough, sensitively enough, or with enough compassion and good representation?
Thanks for your time, and I understand if you want to split the questions up!
I sympathize a lot with this letter. I’ve run into this problem with my own novels in progress. We are surrounded by wonderful conversations about representation, but that can come with an increased feeling of pressure to get it right. That can then get tangled up with internal anxieties around identity, such as the feeling of being not [identity] enough or doing [identity] wrong. So I definitely think these two questions go together.
A couple of years ago, Ken Liu was a guest on the podcast I co-host, discussing his silkpunk novels based on Chinese historical myth. (You can hear the whole interview here.) He said, “I didn’t want to write a magical China story because I think magical China stories are very difficult given the history of the colonial gaze and orientalism. When we invoke a ‘magical China’ setting, there’s a set of associations that I think gets in the way of the story I want to tell.” His solution was to move the books’ setting away from mainland China and onto nearby islands, as there aren’t nearly so many common cultural notions about what a story in such a setting should look like.
How would a similar solution work for you? What are the stereotypes of genderqueer people and people with chronic pain, what aspects of those lives are often filtered through a cis or abled gaze, and how can you move your stories in other directions? For example, people with chronic pain are often assumed to be unable to leave their homes or participate in vigorous activities; if you write a story about someone with chronic pain who’s in a sailing race around the world, there are many fewer rules for how it’s supposed to go, and you can write it from the heart without fear. Trans people are often depicted as leaving their marriages and families when they transition, usually with their cis spouses feeling angry and betrayed; if you write a story about a genderqueer person whose marriage has stayed happy and stable through their transition, suddenly you have so many more options for your narrative.
Don’t try to tell an “authentic” story; to quote Ken again, the whole concept of “authentic” has been colonized. Instead, tell an “inauthentic” truth. There are as many truths as there are people. Your genderqueer experience is not the same as mine; your chronic pain experience is not the same as another person’s; your fictional characters’ stories will not look exactly like any real person’s story. You get to choose which truths you tell. I get into that more in my post on excavating internalized biases, which I think will be useful for you.
As for supporting yourself through your internal struggles—which is a wonderful framing for it—I suggest going back to my post about facing the challenge you set for yourself. In addition to the advice I have there, I think it would be a good idea to find or create a support group of people who are familiar with your particular marginalizations and can give you targeted advice and support. When you’re struggling to feel like you’re allowed to write these stories, or you’re wrestling with your inner demons, it can help a lot to chat with other folks who’ve felt the same way and can remind you that those feelings have everything to do with culture and nothing to do with you. If you have access to a knowledgeable and understanding therapist, they can also be a great help. Part of supporting yourself is surrounding yourself with others who support you too.
You are yourself. You are sufficiently yourself. You are being yourself correctly. You are allowed to be you. You are allowed to write all your truths, even and especially the ones that look nothing like the stereotypes.