Writing About Others

Katie Tuohy
April 30, 2021

As a fiction writer, I am very familiar with questions of voice. From whose perspective are you allowed to write? What can you write about in that voice? What does it mean for your voice to be the one speaking on a given subject? What research can you do as an author, and what are the limitations of research? These are important things to consider, especially as we contend with white privilege in the publishing sphere. Because language can be a tool of power and oppression, we need to support diverse authorship. There are, of course, many different opinions and approaches to writing fiction from another perspective. But these questions seem even more serious in the nonfiction realm, particularly around topics of social justice and human rights. 

In fiction, a character is crafted. They may have experiences that real people have or be based on a real person, but their singular voice is ultimately imagined. This is not the case for nonfiction. In a social justice crisis, some group is made invisible, silent, subhuman, or many of those at once, in order to be exploited. Often, writers of these crises are outsiders tasked with ‘giving a voice’ to suffering people. But it isn’t that marginalized people don’t have a voice; it is that their stories and needs are not validated by those who hear them. So, then, what is the writer’s job? Is it to make privileged and powerful people aware of the injustices and concerns of the victims? Is it asking people to bear witness to other peoples’ pain? And then, how does one write about trauma and suffering that isn’t their own? 

One option is to collect information and experiences from marginalized voices and place them at the forefront of the text. In this style, the author frames content generated primarily from oppressed people. The author still has power, because they are responsible for choosing the most important or relevant material and shaping the reader’s experience of the issues at stake, but the voices of those who are silenced are foregrounded. For example, in her book Migrant Diaries, Lynne Jones ensured the voices of refugees were depicted as accurately as possible, without editorial changes. The photographs in her book are from refugee children, and each child received full credit for each image. Additionally, this style could be problematic because the profits of the book often go to the author - not the people whose experiences are being sold. Jones has counteracted this power dynamic by committing the profits of her book to Choose Love, a non-profit dedicated to the refugee crisis. 

Another style choice is for an author to generate all of the content of the text. They can decide whether their nonfiction will be narrative, persuasive, descriptive, or some combination of these. With the right rhetorical choices, this can be done well. Authors can do justice to the experiences of the people they are writing about and simultaneously acknowledge the privilege that allows them to occupy the position of the story-teller. Their work can also be reviewed and edited by those whom it is about. This strategy may help mitigate the constraints on oppressed people’s ability to exercise agency over their own narratives. 

Trauma porn, a form of entertainment for privileged people that excessively draws on the vivid pain of marginalized people without compassion for those who are traumatized, is an insidious trend in the media, especially in the immediate aftermath of high-profile acts of violence (Brittany J 2020). Writers of pain, fiction and nonfiction, walk a fine line between trauma porn and art that raises awareness. One considers marginalized readers, one does not. One may incorporate oppressed people’s joy, one certainly does not. It is largely up to the reader to decide whether content exploits or honors their pain. 

We are still left with questions that may not have definitive answers. Can an outsider write about a crisis? If so, what do they need to be conscious of, or give room for? What decisions do they need to make? What criticism do they need to be prepared for? And if the answer is no, how can we appreciate the voices and support the creativity of those who are most impacted by a crisis? I believe that power can be redistributed through storytelling - and that process begins by asking about writers and their privilege.