In campus discussions regarding anti-oppressive social justice work, many have argued that those in positions of privilege should exercise increased caution when speaking about the marginalization of other groups. This is due to the fact that, without having lived the experience of a member of a minority group, one cannot comment as effectively, or portray the particular narrative with the same accuracy, and are often taking up air in a conversation that a marginalized person should have access to.
This argument presents a difficult scenario when applied to literature. Specifically, should it be permissible for a writer from a privileged position to write from the point of view of a person in a marginalized position?
It seems that in literature, there is a greater creative license. For instance, in his published series of lectures entitled The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye argues that authors should actually write what they don’t know, and what they would like to explore. If we accept this theory, then it’s certainly unnecessary to limit what authors can write about: they can and should expand their writing beyond their direct life experiences.
Take for example, Camilla Gibb, now a professor at Victoria College. Her novel, Sweetness in the Belly, is mostly set in Ethiopia, and she writes about Muslim, Ethiopian characters. While Gibb herself spent a year living in Ethiopia while working on her PhD, she is neither Muslim, nor Ethiopian. Would it be fair, then, to dismiss her book and the lesson within? On the contrary, perhaps Gibb’s platform gives her the ability to write about depreciated peoples and places in literature — as an ally, she is using her privileged position to make the narratives of others known.
Similarly, in an article for The Atlantic, novelist Monica Byrne writes about her reasoning behind creating an Indian, female protagonist for one of her books. She desires to see more “non-white, non-male characters,” and in “writing characters different from us…[hopes to create] a literature in which all phenotypes are heroic, and therefore, all are humanized.” Like Gibb’s writing, this fulfills a significant goal of literature — that is, to inform and to create empathy for others. The intention here is also arguably in line with a lot of social justice activism, which is to increase the representation of minority characters in fiction.
This is not to mention the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, revolving around the life of an African-American slave, was written by a white female abolitionist. The novel has been credited with shifting popular opinion towards abolition at a time when American popular opinion was still divided in advance of the Civil War. Once again, someone from a privileged position can indeed write from the perspective of a marginalized person in order to create positive social change.
Similar to social justice activism, however, there are certain caveats to ally involvement, or promotion of marginalized narratives. With privilege comes power, and with power comes responsibility — authors should be doing their due diligence in terms of researching backgrounds and cultures they have no experience with. That is, you can write about other groups, but you have to do so in a way that doesn’t infringe upon, inappropriately romanticize, or reduce that group’s narrative to a stereotype.
Furthermore, it is important to promote the writing of underrepresented characters, but it is also important to promote the writing of underrepresented authors. Minority authors don’t necessarily gain as much traction or popularity as those coming from privileged backgrounds, and we need to be aware and critical of why this is the case. Though privileged authors may feel they are promoting certain narratives, it’s important to not ‘steal the show’ and speak over marginalized authors.
Literature and the study of literature is all about creating empathy for others and cataloguing the human experience. As a form of artistic expression, it certainly affords its artists a great deal of creative license — but as students, many of whom are reading and writing such literature, it is important to remain cognizant of the nuances in this field as it pertains to privilege and oppression.
Tara Moulson is a second-year student at Victoria College studying history and European studies.