[GUEST POST] Bradley P. Beaulieu on Writing in Discomfort: One Writer’s Thoughts on Political Correctness
Bradley P. Beaulieu is the author of The Winds of Khalakovo, the first of three planned books in The Lays of Anuskaya series. In addition to being an L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award winner, Brad’s stories have appeared in various other publications, including Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies from DAW Books. His story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat,” was voted a Notable Story of 2006 in the Million Writers Award.
Years ago I had a discussion with a group of writers about writing beyond the boundaries of politeness. It wasn’t couched in quite this way at the time, but I think that’s what it boiled down to, at least for me. The subject came up because someone in the group, a young white man, had written a story about an underprivileged black man from the D.C. Metro ghettos. I remember how uncomfortable I was when reading the story, not because the language wasn’t on the money–it captured the slang and cadence quite well–but because I knew it had been written by a white guy.
Now, this says more about me than it does the author who wrote it. I was born and raised in Southeastern Wisconsin in mostly white bread areas. I never saw anything like drugs or gang violence. The neighborhoods we lived in never had trouble. I don’t even remember interfacing with blacks until I’d entered junior high. In some ways this made me a blank slate. I had no bias toward blacks, though as I went through junior high and entered high school, I started to become more aware of the lay of the land in America when it came to political correctness. I largely felt that speaking for blacks, or even about blacks, was not my place. I didn’t know enough about it; I didn’t come from that culture; and so I should probably just keep my mouth shut.
That was before I started writing. Anyone who writes long enough, especially a writer of science fiction and fantasy, where in some ways it’s easier to manufacture a situation where cultural or religious or racial or sexual tabboos can be explored, will come across this sooner or later. For me, it was during that conversation about story of the black man from D.C. When that group of writers–all of us white–had this conversation about writing outside of your comfort zone, it struck me hard. It challenged me and my preconceptions of what I should be writing about. Why can’t I write about Black America? Why can’t I write about things that are taboo from my current, somewhat-limited point-of-view?
The lesson I learned that day was this: writing takes courage. We can and should write about things that are uncomfortable for us. It will not only expand our own boundaries, but those of others as well, and if there’s some chance of stepping on toes, of embarrassing yourself, then so be it. That’s the risk we take, and it’s a risk we should take, because only by examining ourselves as a people–be it through writing or otherwise–will we rise above the issues of the day.
Determined to challenge myself, I later wrote a story about a black woman in Harlem with a child who’s taken by the ghost of a young man who committed suicide decades ago. It was called “Good Morning Heartache,” and it was eventually printed in Spells of the City, a DAW anthology. Even now I’m rather self-conscious of the story, wondering if a black woman from Harlem would be offended if she read it. I hope not. I tried hard to do the characters justice.
When I started writing The Winds of Khalakovo, I didn’t know what it would be about. I only knew I wanted a big epic fantasy that included a major culture clash as part of its primary, driving thread. I remember during college, after Operation Desert Storm began, sitting in front of the TV, watching intently as forces were deployed, as we clashed with the Iraqis. Tanks and troops and laser-guided bombs. It was the first war I hadn’t experienced through the lens of a history book. I was seeing it (or the newsroom-filtered equivalent of it) right before me through news footage and war reports and news articles and so on. The conflict expanded, and I grew more and more despondent. I felt terrible for all those caught in the middle, and it continued with 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without getting into the politics, my heart cried for those killed–regardless of nationality–because they happen to be in the wrong place at the worst possible time.
I couldn’t help but think: what if this was happening here in the U.S.? What if someone invaded Wisconsin? On the surface, this seems a ridiculous notion, the American military machine being what it is, but reality has nothing to do with empathy. So when I began writing Winds, I didn’t try to make these feelings and thoughts surface, but surface they did. From all of these pent-up feelings were born the Aramahn, a peace-loving people, and the Maharraht, a fringe group of the Aramahn who want to push the Landed (who amount to white colonialists in the story) from the shores of the islands throughout which they once enjoyed complete freedom. I modeled the culture of these people off of ancient Persia, but one need not look too hard to see parallels with what happened in the Middle East.
I became conscious at times that these parallels existed, but I was careful to stay tight to the story. Just as Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings was no allegory for war, so is Winds no allegory for racial conflict. In this respect I’m a Tim Powers disciple–I’m not out to make my work say anything–but by the same token, if issues come up in the story, I’m fully prepared to explore them and see what comes of it. In fact, I embrace it; I just don’t try to force it.
I suppose any writer will eventually face this crossroads. Do you tackle tough issues or do you not? I think we have to, and though my inner critic is still uncomfortable with doing so, I think it’s a terribly important thing to do.
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