Do's and Don'ts of Political Art

#1

So, I’m sorry if this is out of scope for these forums, but this is the only community in which I’d feel comfortable enough to discuss the following.

I’ve always wanted to write fiction and lately I’ve started writing stories as a way to process the state of the world (particularly regarding what feels like the recent resurgence of fascism and white supremacy) as well as outlining the ways in which marginalized groups can take action against institutionalized modes of oppression. As a person with a disability, particularly one stemming from a genetic disorder, I feel as though I have some skin in the game when you consider what far-right movements have done to people like me historically. However, I’m also a straight, white, cis dude from a middle class family in rural Canada, so to what degree is me writing about fascism, which envelops things like racism and colonialism – things I have in no way experienced – me co-opting the narratives of groups I’m not a part of? At what point is my perceived we’re-in-this-togetherness with other marginalized groups unwelcome or actively harmful?

More broadly, what considerations do you take when creating explicitly political art, whether that art be stories, games, music, etc?

#2

This is an incredibly complicated question and there is no simple answer (as someone who also writes in a similar way and is from a similar background, it’s been on my mind for years at this point). The only difference on my end being that I’m from a lower income area just outside a major US city and the area I grew up in was extremely diverse. I have heard vastly different advice from vastly different people, and from those that I’ve asked, there really is no pattern to who will feel what way about it. Except this:

The number one rule, above all else, is to listen. If someone tells you you’ve fucked up, listen to them and their criticism. You may not agree with it! That is after all how writing works. But listen and be open to perspectives you might not have considered.

But the crux of this also is that all art is political. There’s no kind of story you’ll write that doesn’t have a goal, and that isn’t about people with lives and existences different than your own. I have a mental illness, but I cannot write for everyone with mental illnesses. Despite being from the same group, we may have vastly different experiences, and I have no right to theirs. I can only educate myself on theirs, which is hard, and takes time and effort, but is what I have to do.

I’m guessing there will also be people here with vastly different opinions, and honestly, I don’t think my approach is wholly right either. Otherwise it wouldn’t still be something that I think about, and this wouldn’t be such a hard question. But that’s where I’ve gotten after spending basically a third of my current life trying to find a satisfying answer to this, and this is the best I’ve gotten.

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#3

I’ve been trying to put down my thoughts on this in a way that doesn’t come across as wholly insensitive, but I think getting hung up on whether or not you have the “right” to tell a story isn’t really super helpful for anyone involved. I totally get “staying in your lane” but I think, at some point, it stops being consideration and just veers into self-flagellation for an audience that doesn’t exist.

Now I’m not saying you need to immediately go out and tell a story based in a cultural experience that is completely foreign to you. Like, as an example, is your story explicitly rooted in the Indigenous American perspective? Well, maaaaaaaaybe hold off on that, or at least seek input from actual native people, like @diglett said, the most important thing is to listen, especially if treading on uncharted territory. I just think it’s more useful to focus on the immediate, what do you want to say, how do you want to say it, et cetera. If you’re just going to constantly second guess yourself, well, what’s the point?

But that’s just my two cents.

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#4

To follow on from what diglett said, if your intent is to tell stories that are inclusive towards marginalised perspectives and methods of resistance, I believe it’s essential to involve them in the process. That’s not to say you need to go out and solicit other folks to do the work for you (though consultation in the creative process is valuable and worth supporting if you have the means). It can be anything from doing your own research and learning from the art already out there, to taking in feedback on the work you produce, to simply being a part of communities that afford marginalised folks to share their voice (and listening to those voices).

By that same token, it’s important to support other people in these creative spaces and to use what privilege you might have to lift them up. There are lot of people telling stories about collective action and resistance, and I believe the messages of those stories are stronger when it represents the efforts behind their creation.

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#5

Thanks, y’all. I really appreciate any input on this stuff. I grew up and continue to live in an unfortunately undiverse and conservative place, so I don’t get a lot of this kind of thing in my day-to-day.

@diglett Listening to feedback and taking the L when you fuck up is extremely important advice. I guess I just worry about screwing up so bad that any opportunity for growth is forfeit. I really appreciate your input and willingness to relate your experience, so thank you.

@trty0 Yeahhh you definitely hit home on a couple things there. I’m sort of an overly analytical person, so I tend to want cut and dry answers to stuff like this so I don’t fuck up. Unfortunately when things are this complicated, that leads to not creating anything for fear of immediately screwing up and being written off. But that goes to your point about self-flagellation for a hypothetical audience, which is absolutely valid. I’m just a bit of a self-doubting mess in most aspects, so naturally that extends to insecurity about something like this. Thanks for bearing with me and hopefully I’m not the only one who gained something from this.

@Emily Thanks to you and the other mods for creating a space (and having the patience) that allows some clueless person like me the opportunity to bumble their way through something this complex. I’ve definitely been trying to expose myself to stories from people of various backgrounds. I actually came to Waypoint through Austin and friends’ work over at FatT which is one of my main inspirations for the stuff I’d like to write someday. So when this question occurred to me, I thought the Waypoint community would be a great place to get input.

If anyone has any other insightful sources they want to share, that’d be great. Or if the mods think this is topic is a bit too specific or self-serving on my part, I’d absolutely understand closing it.

#6

If this is something you’re thinking about doing professionally, there are sensitivity readers which you can either hire freelance (just as you may hire a freelance editor) or, if your book is picked up by a publisher, you can ask them if they’d have a sensitivity read done of your book. It’s becoming more common to do this, especially in fiction writing. An author can make an attempt to be inclusive by putting in underrepresented races/cultures, but by doing so unintentionally fall into certain tropes or stereotypes or create a subtext/commentary someone might read into the narrative unexpectedly.

Like editors, having a sensitivity reader doesn’t mean you have to follow all their advice, but the idea is to get someone else, who comes from a different place in the world than you, to give you their take on your writing and pinpoint any issues you didn’t anticipate before releasing your work out into the wild.

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