‘We want to be seen’: U Book Store event explores representation in fiction

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Writers Nisi Shawl (left) and K. Tempest Bradford (right) share what they learned through teaching workshops.

With the recent release of Disney+, there has been controversy around the warning played before movies that they “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” Times have changed since the release of classic Disney movies, with “Dumbo” released in 1941 and “The Jungle Book” released in 1967.

Even today, creators struggle to ensure that their work contains accurate, fair, and positive representation.

Nishi Shawl, author of “Everfair” and co-author of “Writing the Other,” and K. Tempest Bradford, discussed these issues and talked about how authors can write in representation Nov. 23 in the University Book Store.

Through the Clarion West Writing Workshop, Shawl and Bradford host other talks, as well as “Writing the Other” workshops, to help authors create rich worlds and stories using underrepresented voices. These workshops emphasize that it can be difficult to represent identities other than your own.

Bradford explained that the push for this representation comes from marginalized groups, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, as well as people with disabilities.

“We have shown up, and we want to be represented because we want to be seen, and you can’t keep pushing us to the margins anymore,” Bradford said.

Shawl, who is also a speculative fiction author and reviewer, discussed representation in their own book, “Everfair,” where they wrote 11 different viewpoint characters, including European, African, African-American, Chinese, Christian, and atheist characters.

“One of the things that I discovered in representing the other, is that having my characters represent themselves, have their own voices, talk for themselves, is a really powerful part of getting representation right,” Shawl said. 

Shawl and Bradford then criticized J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, for writing ambiguous characters. Shawl explained that most readers will end up filling in the blanks with what they consider “defaults.”

According to Shawl and Bradford, it’s “opportunistic” to later claim representation through these ambiguous characters, such as stating that Hermoine could be black, or Dumbledore could be gay.

“Even if [Rowling] never literally said it, the way that Hermoine moves through those books, she is a middle class, British, white girl,” Bradford said.

Bradford explained that although it isn’t necessary to explicitly name each character’s identity, it should be easier to tell without the author having to state it after publication. Shawl explained that although it’s more work, authors need to do enough background research until they have more information than will explicitly end up on the page.

When asked by an audience member about how to find authentic voices for inspiration, Shawl and Bradford suggested meeting and talking to people rather than doing straight research. For example, Bradford discussed how even after extensive research on ancient Egypt, her learning went much deeper when she was able to actually visit Egypt and stay with an Egyptian Egyptologist. 

Something she learned was that scholarship about homosexuality in ancient Egypt has only recently been allowed to be published “even though Egyptologists have known since forever that there were totally homosexuals and lesbians in ancient Egypt.”

To do research locally, Shawl recommended meeting new people at cultural festivals, and Bradford pointed out that Seattle and the UW are places where many different people will host talks or lectures about their culture.

Shawl and Bradford also discussed what they have learned from their students. For example, facial expressions often convey different emotions in different cultures. These realizations change how they view stories from five years ago that they previously considered having good representation.

Shawl pointed out that many new authors base the viewpoints and structure of their story on the work they’ve seen before. This is why it’s important to understand when representation in classic books and movies are outdated.

Reach contributing writer Kaya Bramble at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @KayaBramble

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