As you may know, I’ve been spending a significant amount of my time teaching writing courses. It’s been about a year of me doing it consistently, and I’ve had so many different students from such different walks of life, but somehow the same question always comes up:
Should I write from my perspective as a person of colour or would people not be interested? Should I just be writing from a western perspective instead because I’m too “exotic”? Are my stories unreachable to people?
I’m baffled when people ask me this question and it actually makes me feel pretty discouraged. I’m sad that we’re still in a time and space where people have to question if their stories are worth hearing. I guess I’ve been spoiled by such powerful people of colour in my life. People of colour who don’t take no for an answer and fight to have space and take space. I will admit, in the early days of my career I questioned if it would be authentic if I wrote about being a person of colour, as I didn’t grow up in either of the countries that I’m from, but I’ve come to the realization that while my experiences aren’t from the middle east, it doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to speak with the voice that I do have. Yes, I would never write about what it is to live in the middle east, but I can speak on the experiences of being a person of colour who grew up in Toronto.
The way I look at it is: people want to hear other people’s raw and authentic stories and whether they are about being gay, or being a person of colour, or being trans*, or being disabled, or being mentally-ill, it’s about reading and hearing personal life experiences, especially of those that are unlike yours.
I mean, I admit… there is less of a market for these stories, but how will there ever be a market if we aren’t sharing these kinds of stories? And on top of that… how many more people need to write inauthentic versions of you until you’ve had enough? I’m personally so sick of 2D caricatures of people of colour, and while the “industry” is doing a better job at forefronting people of colour, I stop and question… is it enough?
I guess what’s most disheartening to me is the fact that some of my students feel bad when writing about their experiences from their native countries and I’m left to question why? Because it’s not the stereotypical “white” story? It sometimes feels like they feel “less than” and while I don’t want to speak for them, I wonder if there’s a sort of shame from not having a typical western story. I mean, I know it took me years to be comfortable identifying as middle eastern. I grew up hating my ethnicity and even went by a “white name” growing up to mask my identity. I adopted a fake first and last name living three years under the pseudonym asking all of my teachers and friends to refer to me with that name only, and I wasn’t very young… If I remember correctly it was when I was 16 to 18. It’s odd how far I went with it, but the frustration of not getting jobs or being typecast got to me. I wanted to live life as a white person, even though there is absolutely no way to hide the fact that I’m not white.
I hope in a few years we come to a point where people are less worried about sharing their stories because they’re going to be lost if we don’t do anything about it. I know I learned a lot from my parents’ history, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who would learn from my students’. I know there’s a great deal of shame in my culture, especially for first-generation immigrants. My mom once told me, “what do we even have to be proud of, our culture is disgusting.” To me, that was a stab in the gut. There’s so much to my culture that I appreciate. Yes, there’s a lot that I wish would change faster, but that doesn’t mean that there is no good in it at all. For example, I don’t think I know a family as tight-knit as mine. We’d drop everything to help each other out, and I think a lot of it comes from our culture where the family is the most important. (Well at least my immediate family is the most important to me.)
I’m just hoping that one day no one will be afraid of sharing their experiences. Ethnic or not. They’re important and should never be treated as less than.