While sending out my alternate history World War II novel, I’ve noticed that a lot of speculative agents are looking for #ownvoice stories. This has given me some pause, as the three point-of-view characters in No More Hiding are a Slovakian Jewish woman, a gay German man, and a teenage German socialist. I’m not Jewish or gay or German, but I figured I could mostly get away with it. I’ve read books on Judaism and kabbalah and my own religious tradition shares a lot of sociocultural background with Jewish thought, and I’ve taken graduate seminars on queer theory and have a close sibling who is gay. One of the first agents who asked to see more of my manuscript was a Jewish agent, so I figured my depiction of Anya couldn’t be horribly off base.
With my current pirate fantasy project, however, I’m starting to feel like maybe I’ve stepped too far behind my own experience. It’s basically set during the age of sail, and the main character is half Spanish and half Native American. In the section I’m now editing, she’s visiting with her mother’s tribe, so the cross-cultural conversations and relationships are getting lots of close airtime. And by the end of the book, there are some seriously complex social and political situations between the colonial and native characters.
Obviously, one tries to be sensitive. Although we’ve opted not to align the mother’s tribe with any specific people group in the real world, we’ve done the research to try to make the characters and town feel “authentic” to their time and place. We’ve asked the questions: What kind of houses would they live in? What would they eat? What’s the social structure like? How would they actually think? That is, if it’s even possible to get outside of my own conceptions about what people hundreds of years ago from a foreign culture would think and feel?
There’s also the question—as there always is in fantasy and science fiction—of whether to try to imagine an idealized version of reality, or whether that’s sugarcoating reality. For example, we’ve consciously decided to make our fantasy world less patriarchal than our world was during the age of sail, so it’s not uncommon for women to inherit property or lead armies or rule kingdoms. That’s an area where we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine optimistically. On the other hand, we’ve chosen to maintain a high level of racism in the world, which means characters that I otherwise like and want to succeed are often making biased misjudgments and ugly choices.
At the end of the day, perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m uncomfortable creating thoughts and feelings and dialogue for my native characters. Our world, after all, has a long and terrible history of Europeans or people of European descent making up false and hateful stories about Native Americans. And maybe I’m simply not in a place where I should be attempting to write such characters at all. In my head, part of the essential power of fiction is that it allows all of us—the writers and the readers—to imagine what it would be to live other lives and have other experiences, and through the magic of story to become more empathetic people. But perhaps whether stories truly led to more understanding and empathy depends on who’s writing the story and what the story is.