Roundtable: Intersectionality, Part 1

Theodora Goss

I want to address the writing part of Nisi’s question. I think being aware of all of our identities, and the way they make up who we are as individuals, how they create our connections with and also differences from others, is important for our writing. So I write as a woman, an immigrant, someone who grew up in the south — you can see those identities in my writing, and I write out of them, because they are what I know. You could use any of those as lenses to look at my writing — you could interpret it from a feminist perspective, a socioeconomic one, etc. But I as a writer need to be aware both of those identities and of how I create characters who may have different identities than I do. The fact that I am a woman does not mean I will understand women of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, nationalities. I need to be aware of how we are all socially constructed. I need to do my research.

I mean, at the simplest level, this is how we make our characters individual. We need to be aware of what social identities have created them. They stand at the intersections.

There is a sense in which, in genre fiction, we sometimes get “default” characters. So that awareness is one way of avoiding the default. There seems to be a sense that default characters are more universal, easier for readers to identify with — the white male teenager going on his quest. But I think the universal is in the particular — and it’s our job as writers to find the universal in the particular.

Russell Letson

The best art is generated by a whole person, and as useful as various theoretical frameworks might be for “locating” the artist or the historical moment or political stance or whatever, it takes a whole person to respond–and the greatest art takes everything you’ve got. If that’s what intersectionality amounts to, I’m all for it.

An anecdote: One of my wife’s first published stories–maybe the very first–depicted two young women, one pregnant, and a very young child. One of my aunts, on reading it, thought it miraculous that it could have been written by someone who had never been pregnant and had no children. My wife’s response (tactfully spoken only to me) was, “That’s what imagination and observation are for. That’s what art is about.”

Siobhan Carroll

I suspect its easier to work with multiple lenses when reading, rather than when one is grappling with getting words on a page.

But I also wonder if the writing process itself militates against authors’ actively considering the “intersectionality” of their characters’ identities. I’m not just thinking of the oft-repeated “this-character-popped-into-my-head-and-I-just-had-to write-about-her” story, but also the demands of plotting.

I think it’s fair to assume that the majority of authors assemble their characters from traits they have observed in themselves, in the people around them, and in the cultural products they consume. Often I see authors deviating from their basic building blocks in one or maybe two ways: the author might decide that a certain character is a lesbian, for example, or a whiskey salesman. But apart from these one or two significant (and hopefully researched) areas of difference, the character in question tends to inherit the same DNA that shapes every other character written by the author. Of course the character is American. Of course she is Christian. Of course she collects tropical fish.

I don’t often see SF characters who embody the kind of numerous, overlapping identities described by Nisi. This may (as my previous paragraph implied), due to the limits of the author’s imagination. It may also be due to the constraints of plotting.

I was impressed, for example, by the detailed approach to characterization taken in Mary Doria Russell’s wonderful The Sparrow. I think characters like Sophia Mendes — a woman, a programmer, a Jew, an ex-prostitute, and an indentured servant — do embody intersectional identities. But I also see how the identities that Russell describes all contribute to her novel’s themes, and set up Sophia’s decision in the novel’s climax. There’s nothing ostensibly extraneous about Sophia — no tropical-fish collecting for her — because, while people in real life have stray threads to their personalities, such messiness is hard to work with in fiction. A character can have multiple identities, but only if each one advances the plot.

What does the mighty Locus-mind think? Are there authors you can think of who write characters with intersectional identities and do it well? And am I off-base in thinking that linear, plot-driven fiction (particularly in at short story length) has low tolerance for intersectional characters?

Theodora Goss

I think Ursula Le Guin writes intersectional characters, and very well indeed. This was in part the basis for her criticism of the horrible adaptation of the Earthsea series. It was sorta multicultural, with actors of different races (but mostly white) thrown in seemingly at random, whereas Le Guin had carefully structured societies with different skin tones, cultural traditions, etc. Even in what was sold as a YA fantasy series, and which I read in elementary school, she took care to create societies that were diverse, and in which where you came from, your gender, etc., affected your life choices. Of course, it gets even more complex in her adult novels.

When I get characters in my head, they tend not to be versions of me. I tend to have a very clear sense of things like their religion, race, economic status, general physical type, etc. My problem is actually getting a character who is different from me, and having to research a different religion, for example — and worrying about getting it wrong. But that tends to be how I build characters — even the fact that they went to a certain university means that a whole lot of other things also follow, because there are certain ways they could have gotten there (they had money, no money but scholarships, athletic scholarships, and each of those things positions the character differently). All of those things function, in a sense, as constraints, because they determine how a character will act, what he or she will say. Even if the character is rebelling against the social identities he or she grew up with.

I think those elements are all the building blocks out of which we create characters.

Paul Witcover

Delany springs to mind as well.

N. K. Jemisin

Dora: I think Ursula Le Guin writes intersectional characters, and very well indeed. This was in part the basis for her criticism of the horrible adaptation of the Earthsea series. It was sorta multicultural, with actors of different races (but mostly white) thrown in seemingly at random, whereas Le Guin had carefully structured societies with different skin tones, cultural traditions, etc.

I wouldn’t call it random. It was done because otherwise the main characters would’ve been all people of color, except the love interest. I imagine some studio exec decided that this would be too psychosexually/egotistically threatening to the young straight white males assumed to make up the audience.

When this sort of thing happens, it’s never random. Let’s call it a different, and very old, way of approaching intersectionality.

Theodora Goss

Nora, that’s an excellent point. I meant randomly in that everyone on Gont should have been darker-skinned (I think Le Guin mentioned hoping they would cast Native American actors), but there seemed to be a random selection of mostly white actors and a few people of color to represent the Gontish population. But I saw it a long, long time ago, and this is all from memory.

I agree that the motive was certainly not random. It’s the same assumption that there’s somehow a default — that we will all mentally identify with POV characters who are white boys.

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Dora, I think that the people who make most movies are former white boys, and they are assumed to have the cash. That is changing rapidly, but not fast enough.

I was very excited, a while ago, to hear that a woman was writing a major, exciting fantasy featuring a child. At last! I thought.

I was deeply disappointed when the main character turned out to be Harry Potter. A woman wrote it, and I guess that she made the calculation, too. Or perhaps someone pointed it out to her at a very early stage.

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