Over a span of a five decades, we’ve stepped foot on the moon, witnessed the Vietnam War, raided Area 51, ingested Tide Pods, and possibly foreshadowed (what appears to be) a second Cold War – and yet, the only constant over centuries of revolution and evolution and ephemeral peace and perpetual turmoil – has remained the pre-eminence of white cis-het men in artistic and literary works.
Right from Hemingway’s perfectly crafted tales of war, love and loss, to Bond’s infatuation with the mountains, to Sheldon’s crime thrillers – which, far too often, rely on descriptions of ludicrously voluptuous women, to incite arousal in his audience – the literary world has borne witness to centuries of white, cis-het male authors who’ve systematically stolen words and space from women, only resorting to them as accessories of convenience.
Since the beginning of time, the literary world has been congested with Caucasian protagonists, cisgender characters, blindingly self-evident canvases of heterosexuality, and physically-abled leading figures – an ideal society, brimming with meticulously-bred products of capitalism’s artificial selection.
But the time has come for this old-age system of selective representation to be destroyed. Because we’re tired. We’re unbelievably tired of reading about white, male, cis-het and/ or physically-abled individuals. It’s time to create literary works starring queer protagonists, coloured characters, and leading figures with physical and mental illnesses. Now, more than ever, we’re in dire need of representation of oppressed minorities.
However, our responsibility towards ensuring greater representation and inclusivity, must manifest at two separate levels – consumption and production.
It isn’t enough to merely consume art which offers representation to oppressed communities – but as artists and writers, it is also our duty to create art which unites, which builds empathy, which upholds communities.
With that being said, here’s a brief guide on how to make writing more inclusive (read: representative) – for writers.
Include a diverse range of characters
Whilst this goes without saying, it’s helpful to reiterate that the first step of making your writing more inclusive, is incorporating characters belonging to a diverse range of gender identities, sexualities, ethnicities, physical and mental abilities, and socio-economic standings.
However, employing a myriad of identities often gives way to the temptation of introducing varied characters for tokenism’s sake – which is both, problematic, and a sign of poor conception. In addition, one must always be wary of playing into harmful stereotypes, which may perpetuate toxic beliefs about certain communities who’re already shamed, oppressed and harassed for specific behavioural and/ or physical qualities. For instance, portraying women of colour as perpetually angry and ill-tempered, plays into the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype – which is a harmful notion that perpetuates misinformation about the community.
Remember that a person’s gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, or any other demographic detail – is merely a figment of their identity. There is more to people than their social demographic – an aspect they aren’t even in control of.
Make use of primary sources whilst conducting research
Excellent writing typically requires extensive research pertaining to the subject matter; however, the idiosyncratic nature of experiences encountered by communities belonging to a marginalized demographic – stipulates that superficial secondary research simply doesn’t cut it, when it comes to representing said communities.
Primary research includes information procured directly from a source, rather than a third person’s objective account of the same event – therefore, data from primary sources is often subjective, personalized and might be subject to bias. Examples of a primary source could include an interview of a queer individual, or an excerpt from a diary entry by a bisexual man.
Using primary sources to represent a certain individual or community ensures authenticity, and often, accuracy. It enables other people belonging to the same community, to relate to the character, and to experience the sense of empowerment that comes along with representation and inclusion.
Be wary of appropriation
Appropriation is the act of adopting a disadvantaged minority’s experiences and taking center stage in a struggle that was never your own. Offering support, and lending a voice to oppressed communities is an excellent way to make use of your privilege – however, if you’re a cis-het individual speaking up for the queer community, bear in mind that the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals are not your own. Use your voice to empower us, to uplift us, but remember to eventually hand over the mic to us.
Understand that reclaimed slurs are not yours to use, if you’re not a part of the community they share history with. Using triggering words or slurs in your writing, will mitigate its inclusivity, since the people belonging to oppressed communities might experience pain and anger upon encountering a historically traumatic piece of their heritage, casually strewn across a text.
Use gender neutral pronouns
Although this is slightly tricky to manoeuvre, using gender neutral pronouns whilst referring to characters identifying with a diverse range of gender identities – is an eminent strategy to normalize gender neutral pronouns and non-binary identities.
Discard the male gaze
The male gaze is the act of assuming a cis-het male perspective whilst viewing or creating art – which objectifies and fetishizes women, and members of the queer community. An essential component of ensuring the inclusivity of a literary work – is confirming that the text arises from a neutral, unostentatious perspective.
Hereby, discarding the male gaze implies that women in literary works must be viewed as human beings – and not as swinging navels, a pair of breasts, or as pleasure-granting machines. Sex scenes must grant equal designation and agency to both (or all) the parties involved. Cis-het men cannot, and should not be glorified or romanticized for fulfilling the bare minimum required of them. Members of the LGBTQ+ community must be portrayed as human beings with emotional depth – not puppets, caricatures or zoo specimens.
Ridding the literary world of the male gaze is a favour we must all do ourselves, and oppressed groups – in order to ensure that literary texts are accessible to all. Texts written from an objective gaze are far more likely to make a vulnerable audience feel safe, comforted and understood, rather than the male gaze, which reduces them to mere smithereens of their authentic identity.
Assume the context of reception
Assuming the context of reception is essential, to predict the audience which will be reading your text and will most likely react to it – either affirmatively or critically. This is necessary to ensure that your work is inclusive of audiences from various demographics. If your context of reception includes an audience brimming with individuals from a vast range of gender identities, sexualities, ages, races, castes and socio-economic positions – it is imperative to customize your writing style to include all these people in your dialogue. Ensure that you decipher culture-specific terminology, or any other community-specific jargon, which certain members of your audience may be unfamiliar with.
For instance, if you’re writing about transgender or intersex individuals, bear in mind that certain members of your audience may include people from the aforementioned groups, who may seek representation, information and/ or validation, but may fall in a lower socio-economic strata, and hence, might struggle to relate to the text, in the face of complex terminology and LGBTQ jargon. Thus, it would be wise to simplify the text to ensure that it remains inclusive of its entire audience.
In addition, assuming the context of reception, is necessary to build a sense of empathy, and compassion for your audience. If you’re writing about queer individuals with physical disabilities, try placing yourself in the position of a person belonging to the aforementioned community – and imagine how they’d feel if they were reading your work. What would they appreciate? What would they dislike? What would they wish you’d written differently? Empathizing with your audience can go a long way in ensuring that your work remains genuine and authentic.
Be accountable for your words, and remain receptive to constructive criticism
As human beings, we’ve grown to be possessive of our achievements, our experiences, and our identity. We interpret criticism of our work as a carefully-targeted personal attack, and assume that all criticism stems from a place of jealousy or inadequacy.
And that’s natural. It’s a symptom of our human-ness.
But a part of making your writing more inclusive, is shouldering accountability for your actions, and being prepared for their consequences. We’re bound to make mistakes, and in case we’re corrected, or reprimanded for something we’ve done wrong – the wisest thing to do, is apologize, learn from our errors and move on gracefully.
Whilst representing a vulnerable character, an excellent strategy to document your thought process and intentions during the process of sketching out said character – is to provide a rationale, in the form of a brief footnote.
For instance, if you decide to assign a certain quality to a transgender individual featuring in your literary work, it would be helpful to provide a brief footnote, explaining why you chose to represent your character in that way. This clarifies your thought process for the audience, which makes it easier for them to understand your context, and if needed, enables them to spark a dialogue about your ideas, since they’re more aware of your intention as a writer.