This guest editorial featured in edition #9 of So Fi Zine.
Read the full edition here.
Fiction writers are often encouraged to “write what you know.” This is a useful guide for producing compelling and deeply resonant texts. It often means writing from one’s own experiences or location. This has become more relevant in an era of growing attention to the ways in which white writers have appropriated the experiences of non-white communities to produce salacious or stereotyped representations that will sell to white audiences. The example of American Dirt, a sensationalist novel about a family on the run from drug cartels in Mexico is the most noted example of this genre, but it is only the tip of the iceberg in a literary field in which recent studies have shown authors are predominantly white.
As a result of the many voices that have been speaking against such harmful cultural appropriation, there has been a flourishing of non-white writers producing representations of themselves and their own communities that stay true to their experiences. This is helping to broaden the field of literature, of who gets to see themselves represented in literature, and how non-white people are portrayed in literary culture.
I mention this as a starting point, that first and foremost literary culture needs to expand to make space for non-white writers who have traditionally been excluded to write about their own lives and experiences. And within that, I think there is room for us to ask also, could “writing what you know” be expanded to mean writing what we know from our own experiences and what we research as sociologists?
I was a fiction writer before I became an academic. But the reason I chose to pursue a PhD in the field of social sciences rather than in creative writing was because I wanted to write about more than the material of my own life. I was not compelled to write a coming-of-age novel or a second-generation migrant story. I was twenty-four years old when I started my PhD, and I wanted to experience the world, to travel, and expand what I knew before writing fiction.
Over the next fourteen years, I followed an academic career in sociology that allowed me to migrate from Australia to the United States and find a job. As a sociologist, I have done field research and written about the lives of those on the margins – Black, Indigenous, and migrant peoples. I have lived and worked in India, Cuba, and Venezuela, both in rural areas and in the cities of Chicago, New York, and Sydney.
At the age of thirty-eight, I was ready to come back to fiction, to write what I knew based on years of sociological research, in addition to my life experience. My first fictional work, still in progress, is a collection of short stories about migrant workers in New York City. These were the people I saw regularly, who were part of my everyday life in my neighborhood. As a sociologist doing research, I rode in yellow cabs with women drivers doing the night shift, I sat on park benches and chatted with the local building janitors, I interviewed construction workers and domestic workers and delivery workers. I used this material as inspiration for my short stories, always mindful of the gap between my own experiences and those of the workers, careful to check and double check details of language and culture with multiple friends and experts. I drew on my own experiences growing up in a multi-racial working class community. I write from cultures I know intimately, but also those I have learnt about in the field.
My second fictional work is a novel-in-progress about my ancestors who were forced to migrate from Goa to Karnataka in the eighteenth century, and were taken into captivity during the colonial wars of that era. This novel has taken a tremendous amount of historical and sociological research. But the portraits of place and culture are written from my childhood memories of rural Karnataka, interviews with my aunties and uncles, and the novel draws on my own experiences of friendship, marriage, and child-rearing gathered over a lifetime.
Writing what you know can be expanded through sociological research to take on topics and encounters beyond our own, always critically interrogating how our innate biases and structural location may impact our writing. The research I have done on popular Christianity in Venezuela, multi-racial working class movements, migrant workers, and labor politics all inform the fiction that I write and make it possible for me to extend into these fields. Sociology can help to sharpen one’s tools as a fiction writer and make available materials to write with and beyond the constraints of experience and biography.