More fear, more love, more honesty: A call for intimacy in works from marginalized writers
Casey Plett on how writing for your own community means writing better books — for all readers
When I was a teenager and still thought I was a boy, I read Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, a novel about the adolescence and (im)maturing of a sex-obsessed Jewish man in urban postwar New Jersey and New York.
I loved the book, and on the surface I understood almost none of it — I was a millennial from a Mennonite family, raised first in the Prairies then the Pacific Northwest. One year spent at a majority-Jewish daycare notwithstanding, I had zero frame of reference for understanding the setting Alexander Portnoy grew up in or his world at large.
But it didn't matter that I couldn't understand those things. Or, it did — but not in a way that kept me from enjoying and being moved by the book. I didn't have to know New Jersey's geography or understand the complexities of the sexual revolution. It was just a well-written, funny, outrageous, immensely readable and intimate book, and by dint of that, it didn't worry on how to explain itself to a theoretical Protestant adolescent in the west 30 years in the future.
Yet Portnoy's Complaint talked about family troubles and sexual frustration and religious suffocation. And though it looked different than mine, I could get all of that. The electricity and rage and desperation of the writing crackled on the page. I could feel how true and meaningful it was for the characters in the writing. And when I read Roth's book now, I think about how intimate it feels. (I also think, 'Goodness gracious, is it pervasively misogynistic and Lord knows the deleterious effects it had on my 13-year-old closeted brain' — but that is a different article/year of therapy.)
Of course there are many aspects of Roth's writing that, not being Jewish, I'll never truly understand no matter what age I am. But I don't have to.
A novel that everyone understands every part of doesn't exist.
A decade later: when I was a young adult in New York, I pressed Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness into the palms of any book lover whose hands were free. Everyone loved it. I wrote a staff pick at my busy bookstore downtown and it soon was in the top three bestselling fiction in the store.
There are parts of Toews' writing I'm not sure you'll never get without spending time as a Mennonite from southern Manitoba. Like the complexly hapless Ray, such a specific kind of Mennonite man of his generation — or even a scene as simple as Nomi and Travis drinking at night in the gravel pits, calling up images to me many others won't have.
If you write about your own community, to your own community, it's not just a politically pointed idea — it also just makes for better writing, more intimate writing, better books. Which, as it turns out, everyone can enjoy.- Casey Plett, writer
But the writing is so intimate, the relationships so searing, that millions of people who are not such Mennonites still read her and love her.
And here we come into the issue of privilege and "diversity writing".
In 2015 I wrote in The Walrus on novels about trans characters penned by cis people, or what I termed "gender novels": books with two-dimensional tortured hero protagonists whose trope-laden journeys (it's always a "journey") do not bear much resemble to those of complicated three-dimensional humans of any stripe. Earlier this year, I wrote an article for CBC Arts pleading cis writers, particularly those in movies and TV, to make trans characters messier, more complex and interesting.
What I didn't touch in either of those pieces is how trans writers ourselves repeat that trope, having swallowed the guidelines that the two-dimensional unflagging tortured hero is the story we are required to produce.
It's not just trans writers. This is something all marginalized identities in writers face: the pressure from other forces to politicize, educate or simplify 3D stories to be more palatable to the dominant norms. In other words, to sacrifice intimacy, to sacrifice the freedom writers might have to write to their own communities — however small they may be — without fear, and with love, and with honesty.
Often folks say: "Well, how can you sell books just writing for [trans/queer/racialized] people?" thinking they are posing a question of clever economics, that you can't make a book commercially viable that is pointed at a minority of the population.
My response? Oh yes you can.
A blessed side effect of writing for your own community is that when you have more intimate, fearless writing, it tends to make for better books. I didn't need a background in cultural studies to enjoy Portnoy's Complaint, and I could sell A Complicated Kindness to squalls of areligious urbanites in downtown Manhattan.
To be sure, I don't want marginalized writers to feel like they have to only write concerning their own identities (case in point: the fantastic Zoey Leigh Peterson's new book Next Year, For Sure.) But I do want the lit world to understand: if you write about your own community, to your own community, it's not just a politically pointed idea — it also just makes for better writing, more intimate writing, better books. Which, as it turns out, everyone can enjoy.