Thinking about specificity, context, and the other

Brace yourselves, guys, this post is wandering.

I’m heartened by SFF’s enthusiasm for portryaing the “other.” The “other,” in the context that we’re seeing it emerge in SFF discussions, is really a sociocultural other – some person or somebody who does not fall under the umbrella of, frex, the imagined “self” in America (white, male, if you’re reading this, you know the drill). (“Imagined” because have you seen America lately?)

It’s difficult to come at this word for me, because I feel like I end up crouching in the weird liminal space between cultural self and cultural other A LOT, and that kind of fluidity can make it hard to have a conversation about what it means to write the other. Especially when the dialogue of self and other is pretty much couched in racial terms, and like, I have more than one race. WHAT DO I DO.

(Please don’t give me suggestions for what to do. That was a rhetorical question.)

But despite all this, I wanted to talk a little bit today about how I’ve been thinking about writing people who are not like me.

I really want to talk about specifics, today, because I think that the moments that are most othering, the most vibrant depictions of what it means to feel out of place, are small ones.

A term that you might be familiar with, and that I think is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about, is “microaggression.” Wikipedia can break this down a bit:

So basically what I’m thinking about is the idea that the small things, built up over a long time, are what really differentiate experiences.

This is important when we write about people who are not like us, I think, because too often we try to pinpoint why those groups of people are different, even when we’re in those groups. There’s something that goes on even when writers say, “Just write people,” that makes me feel like we aren’t thinking about writing people. We’re still thinking about writing groups. Maybe instead we should be thinking about writing a person?

When I think about my own personal development, I can pinpoint a handful of moments that create a kind of context-web, whose nodes provide these guidance-points that I use to figure out I feel about whatever weird tiny Racialized thing just happened to me. Or Gendered thing. Or, Whatevered thing. But the context-web doesn’t only crop up when I’m reacting to some problematic thing. It’s always there, free-floating around my brain.

That’s why specificity is important, I think. “Being Asian” or “being white” doesn’t particularly influence me because I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS. The only thing I know is that sometimes people decide that they are going to call me a chink, and sometimes people are going to stop talking to me because they find out that one of my parents is white, and sometimes I eat kimchi on pizza, and sometimes people tell me that when I eat kimchi on pizza I’m either parodying my family’s culture or making it more easily consumable for other people or whatever. Dammit, kimchi on pizza is delicious. Especially white* pizza. That tomato sauce gets in the way.


So as we all embark on this super cool mission in our SFF to talk about people who are not like us, I’m wondering – can we think about our context-webs and apply that to what we talk about in our writing? Can we make those webs for our characters? Can we create moments where lapses of understanding occur because of the webs of different characters? Can we create moments where suddenly two people connect because of their contexts?

(These are also rhetorical questions. Obviously we can.)

Aaaaaaand because I’m talking about specifics, an anecdote about specifics, and contexts:

Angry Roommate and I bond regularly over our shared love of Margaret Cho. During the first stand-up movie of hers that we watched, Margaret was talking about growing up as an Asian-American child of immigrants.

“I didn’t have things that other kids had,” she says. “I didn’t have – I didn’t have tape. Or any kind of adhesive.”

Angry Roommate shrieks.

“That’s true!” She’s practically shaking me by the shoulders. “Sophie! I never had tape! We never had glue! We used rice!”

It’s the small things.


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