The Courage To Write About Race, Gender, and Sexuality

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by poet and playwright Imadé Jones.

Writing From The “Margins”

For those of us who write from the “margins,” there is often a focus on “remembering.” We’re usually called to remember a past when our colored selves were not fractured from our queer selves were not fractured from our female selves or whatever other selves there may be.

In other words, remembering is always about re-membering.

I believe that attempting to recall such a time can help us to imagine its existence in the future (which is the thing many of us are writing toward).

However, I also believe that in order to fight the temptation to write more mainstream (read: less colored, queer, female, poor) stories, it’s important to forget.

There are three things specifically that it’s helpful to forget:

Forget About The Market

The very first thing you should forget about is the market. While we would all like to make money from our writing someday, having that goal in mind as we write will keep us from writing certain stories.

I was recently expected to write a short play with no restrictions whatsoever. I spent so much time thinking about what would appeal to the market (white, middle-aged theatregoers) that I ended up writing a play that I didn’t care about or recognize. I wanted to write about a boy who was going to lose his leg for no other reason than the fact that he was born black. But then I decided that I should avoid writing a play that made too direct a statement about race because I didn’t want to alienate the audience.

The result was that I wrote a play about an affair between a man and a woman. It’s not to say that the second story isn’t valid or interesting. However, it wasn’t the story I felt compelled to tell. It wasn’t the story I would have written had I simply forgotten about the market and written what I wanted. 

Forget About “Art for Art’s Sake”

So someone somewhere decided, at some point, that writers shouldn’t write because we have a message to communicate to the world, but because we simply want to tell a story.

I have something against the rule about avoiding a message. It implies that great works of literature don’t seek to influence their readers’ beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been acutely aware of that rule for as long as I can remember. Having it in the back of my mind has often led me to question my impulse to write characters who belonged to marginalized groups. My fear was (and often still is) that the writing would be deemed “political” and, therefore, not literary. There are definitely examples of messages ruining novels. (See Richard Wright’s Native Son.)

However, for most of us, we write because we have something to say. That something isn’t always earth-shattering, but it’s a message all the same.

Forget About Your Family

While ancestors tend to figure heavily in a lot of writing by people of color, I think it’s necessary to forget about your family, at least your immediate one.

Worrying about what our parents think of us can stunt our growth as adults. The same is true of our growth as writers.

My parents are ostensibly devout… no, obsessive, southern Catholics.

Shortly after I first started writing, I realized that there was some sexuality “stuff” that I needed to address. However, I stopped in order to consider what my parents’ reactions would have been to seeing the words “I like girls… like, like-like girls” in my handwriting. Because I was worried about how they would respond, I wrote around “like-liking” girls for a good two years.

Although I was no longer living at home and keeping a diary that my mother could potentially search my room for, I couldn’t forget about her opinion. If I hadn’t forgotten about my mother and admitted, on paper, that I found myself attracted to women, I would have never written the first poem I ever got published. (And I’d still be praying to St. Catherine to send me a husband.)

Forget… So That You Can Remember

In the end, you have to forget so that you can remember the stories that compel you.

I recently heard a writer say:

“Everything you write should be as urgent as a suicide note.”

Stories that address issues of race, gender, and sexuality are that urgent to me because I’m walking through this world as a queer, black woman.

Writing about that keeps me from the suicide note, so whether my work will ever be popular just doesn’t seem to matter that much to me.

Imadé Jones is a poet, playwright, occasional short story writer, queer woman of color, and all around indecisive person who likes words.

How do you sum up the courage to write stories that address issues concerning race, gender, or sexuality? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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23 comments on “The Courage To Write About Race, Gender, and Sexuality

  1. karenselliott says:

    Ollin – This is a wonderful post. I have avoided race, sexuality, gender, and so on. I am afraid to offend someone. I’m such a middle-class heterosexual cracker that I have no idea what it is to be black, Hispanic, gay, or otherwise. And I’ve been afraid to offend family (I have no such compunction about offending ex-husbands, though!) This article opens up a lot of channels. I hope people will talk about it.

    • Imadé Jones says:

      I’m glad you liked it!

      I recently attended a workshop in which writers expressed similar concerns about offending others by writing characters who didn’t look like them. One of the veteran writers there noted that as long as we write with honesty, then there’s no need to worry about offending anyone. That may oversimplify things a bit, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. To be black, Hispanic, gay, female is to be human. If we capture that experience truthfully, then I think we’ll have done our jobs as writers.

  2. Ollin says:

    Philana, thank you so much for contributing to the C2C.

    You’re such a talented writer, and I know this first hand from reading your work in college.

    This is such a difficult issue to tackle, but I agree with you. I simply cannot write anything unless it is true to my culture and heritage. I love my culture’s history and mythology.

    I also cannot live a lie as a gay man. So I make it clear to my readers as often as I can that I am gay and I have no problem with it and if they do then maybe this blog isn’t for them.

    I think we do a disservice to the world if we don’t share our unique perspectives with the world. How else are we all going to grow and learn?

    Very important post Philana, and thank you for bringing the topic up!

  3. This is such an important post — I’m glad things are starting to shift with writing about race, gender, and sexuality. Posts like this are why. I agree with you Ollin, that we do a disservice to the world (and ourselves) to not share our unique perspectives. For me, I can only begin to understand on a very small scale — as a woman who has experienced both sex and age discrimination. But even that can give me a very small taste of why it’s so critical to write urgently about who we are–yet the courage it takes to do so. (p.s. I love how Imade describes herself as “all around indecisive person who loves words.” Wish I’d thought of it first; I can so relate!)

    • Imadé Jones says:

      That’s exactly right, Julia. Your unique view of the world matters and should be shared. And I thank writers who defended that belief and wrote about race, gender, and sexuality in times that were far less “open” than our own. (They aren’t fiction writers, but Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, and Cherrie Moraga are few of my heroes.)

      And it’s good to find another indecisive person.

  4. clarbojahn says:

    Thanks for posting this. Ollin. And thanks to Amada Jones for writing such important stuff. I did a review on a book called “She’s not there” by Jennifer Doylan, about a gender crossed man who had been wanting to be a woman all his life, on my blog. It didn’t occur to me that it may be controversial till after I published it. It is so important to note that not everyone is happy with what life dished out for them.

    • Imadé Jones says:

      Hopefully, there will come a day when a book like that won’t be considered controversial because people will learn to see it as an important account of a human experience. I think that book and your review are both steps toward such a future.

      I would like to note, however, that writing from a marginalized perspective doesn’t necessarily translate into being unhappy. (Or angry, which I am often labeled because of my writing.) It just means experiencing the world differently.

  5. Victoria says:

    Ollin: Like a breath of fresh air I find this post to be immensely meaningful for me. I am a white, heterosexual woman but I have a queer daughter who I absolutely adore and support. As she grew up facing discrimination for her beautiful self, I have grown up too. And so has my writing. I do write about being a devoted PFLAG mother, about having a queer daughter from a mother’s perspective. I recently had a blog entry entitled “Saying Queer Out Loud.” I admit the use of the Queer term (as a positive one) has not been easy for me since I grew up with all the negative connotations. Thanks to the writer for this essay. It has inspired me to write more honestly. Thanks for letting me rattle on.

    • Imadé Jones says:

      It’s so great to read that your daughter’s experience helped you and your writing to grow.

      And I agree, you have to say queer out loud (and write it down).

  6. This is an incredibly post, and I thank you so much for writing it, Ms. Jones.

    While I agree that many writers have something to say, I also don’t think we’re necessarily aware of what it is until we’ve written it. I agree that we shouldn’t dissuade ourselves from writing about things we care about, but nor should we strive to force some sort of message or moral into our words.

    I can understand the fear of writing about race, gender and sexuality. In today’s world of political corectness, there seems to be a huge fear of addressing these issues because we’re always scared of offending or alienating someone. But how will we ever get over prejudices if we remain mysteries to one another? How can we understand different cultures, genders or lifestyle choices if we’re not open to learning about them, reading about them?

    • Ollin says:

      I love your point. Just wanted to chime in and say I agree with what you said in your last paragraph. My sentiments exactly.

    • Imadé Jones says:

      I completely agree that we should never try to force anything.The story usually knows better than we what it’s supposed to be about. And, yes, we have to write and speak about things in order to learn and grow. It seems political correctness actually keeps us from moving toward a truly open and accepting society.

  7. Great post as usual, and it also applies to religion.
    In dance the ‘Art for arts sake’ idea created some extremely boring work with no heart or reason
    Some modern literature is the same, self indulgent and dull. I prefer popular fiction with a deeper meaning to the story, the meaning makes them more powerful and memorable. Truly great literature always deals with issues anyway, look at Dicken’s satire on society.

  8. Hi Imade!

    Thank you for your great post. Your call to “forget about the market, about your family, about art for art’s sake” should be a battle cry for all writers regardless of whether they’re writing from places of marginalized identity or not. I think one great example of this is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That book’s success doesn’t make sense in a publishing market dominated by vampires and Scandinavian thrillers–a fat, nerdy, Dominican male-teenage-virgin who speaks mostly through the lens of his encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction and fantasy novels? I think not. And yet the book is, in my opinion, extremely compelling because the narrator (or shifting narrators) seem to be sharing “the stories that compel them,” as you said.

    I have to admit that I’ve never read any of your work before this, but I am really hoping I can find one of your works here in Sweden, where I live, and checking it out. Thanks again for your moving post.

    Best,
    Kate | Transatlantic Sketches

  9. Shirls says:

    Imadé, thanks for this great post. My “writer’s block” is, I know only the fear of offending someone by writing anything real. This has really given me some ‘courage to create’.

  10. Thank you for this post. It is thought provoking. This post made me think about my own writing and the courage it takes to tell the secrets that keep my family in bondage. My growth is dependent on me being able to tell the truth about my race, gender, and sexuality. If I don’t tell my story not only would the silence drive me to suicide but the spirits of other children may be killed. Your blog has been very helpful as I finish my book and chart the journey on my blog. Thank you.

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