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Writing challenge/exercise: Unamerican

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These exercises are particularly aimed at writers who are white Americans; most of them may not seem especially unusual for writers of color or writers from other countries.

Note that although there's overlap in these suggestions, they're separate things; it would be possible to write a story, if you're so inclined, that matches any one of them without matching any of the others.

  • Write a story set on Earth, in the present or future, somewhere other than the USA. In the story, don't mention words like "American" or "USA," and don't include any characters from the US. (If you must mention the US or Americans, don't mention them more than, say, twice.) Don't explicitly draw attention to the absence of America and Americans in the story.
  • Write a story set on Earth, in the present or future, in a place where English isn't commonly spoken (could be in any country, including the US), with all of the dialogue in the story being in a human language other than English. It's fine to have the dialogue appear in the story in English, "translated" from some other language, in the standard way this is handled in stories; I'm just saying that from the characters' points of view, they're not speaking English. If you don't speak the language they're talking in, try to learn a little about it and about the local culture that speaks it, so that the dialogue is plausible for locals to be speaking.
  • Write a story containing at least four human characters, in which none of the characters are caucasian. Don't explicitly draw attention to the absence of white people in the story.
  • Write a story containing at least two caucasian human characters who are aware of their own cultural backgrounds. You may find Mary Anne's discussion of non-generic white characters useful.

As usual, Nisi and Cynthia's Writing the Other may be helpful.

(Wrote most of this a month ago, neglected to post it.)

This entry was partly sparked by a couple of submissions that matched some of these criteria, which pleased me, and partly by discussions with Kate B and Mary Anne around the end of Readercon, and partly by a long-ago discussion with Fred B in which he pointed out that most of the stories we publish are set in English-speaking countries.

I'm sure that someone is going to claim that this entry is proof that SH is biased against white characters. Standard disclaimer: we have no quotas; I'm sure most of the stories we publish will continue to feature white Americans, many or most of whom are ethnically generic. And this entry isn't so much a call for submissions to SH as a suggestion for an exercise to try. (And I lay no claim to originality here; I'm sure others have proposed similar exercises in various contexts.)

Still, fwiw, I personally would love to see more good stories that reflect a wider range of character backgrounds, settings, and languages.

8 Comments

There's something quite thoroughly depressing about the idea that any of these things would be a "challenge."


This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing this.

I second your suggestion for picking up Writing the Other.

(By the way, I was a student at Clarion West this year, and my class truly appreciated the time you spent with us. It was a pleasure to meet you and pick your brain.)


Already did number two. It'll show up next week.

Frankly, I'm not remotely interested in one through three.


David: Hmm -- I can think of several possible things you might've meant here, but I'm not sure which one you did mean. Can you clarify?

...I should note that I'm not really sure "writing challenge" was the right phrase for me to use here; by the time I posted this, I was thinking of them more as exercises than as a challenge per se. To the extent that I see this as a writing challenge, I think it's kind of in the sense of "People sometimes ask me what they should write next; if you're not sure, then I challenge you to write one of these stories." Which is a pretty weak use of the word, so it probably wasn't the right word.

Maggie: Thanks for the note! I was pleased to meet y'all, too, and sorry I didn't get more of a chance to interact. After that evening, I wrote a long entry about what I should have said to y'all, but I haven't had a chance to polish and post it yet; maybe your comment here will get me to finally do that.


I don't have any "real" writing experience, but in writing and reading fanfic, it seems to me that it is much easier for American English-speaking anglos to convincingly write non-American non-English speaking non-anglo characters if they leave out American English-speaking anglo characters all together. I will buy into an all-Japanese or all-Mexican cast much more readily as being observed "in translation" if they aren't being specifically contrasted to that American Transfer Student (tm), at which point they develop fragments of untranslated speech and stereotypical mannerisms to overemphasize their ethnicity...


Hey, Jed. Here's two things I might have meant, but I'd be interesting to hear what others you thought of.

  • None of these should be so rare as to inspire you to challenge people to produce them.
  • Nobody who calls himself/herself a pro (or pro-level) writer should find any of these so exotic, let alone difficult, as to be worth making a challenge out of -- or even an exercise.
  • (I'm aware there's quite a gap here between "is" and "ought". Thus the depression.)


    (Hey! Who turned my into a

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    (Hey! Who turned my two pairs of HTML-escaped left and right angle brackets and their contents, "ol" and "ul", into blanks?)


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