Pride and Representation

Posted: June 16, 2021 in real life, writing
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It’s June, so Happy Pride!

I never really talk about my own identity much because I have been in a monogamous heterosexual relationship for years now. I never had to come out or work to identify myself because I have never left that relationship. My bisexuality was always ancillary to it. I figured myself out under the safety of that umbrella. Since I am a white cisgendered woman living in a heterosexual relationship, I am cushioned by a lot of privilege, which often makes me feel more like an ally than a member of the community. I don’t want to occupy space on the platform I did not have to fight for. Yet, I still am what I am.

Since it is Pride Month, I thought it an appropriate time to write about representation, particularly in my own writing.

I am old enough to have watched representation drastically evolve in media. I can look back on some of the things from my childhood that were deemed so “progressive” that are now utterly cringy. That, in itself, is a sign of progress. Humans are slow to change, but representation does matter, perhaps for the people in the community seeing a reflection of themselves most of all.

But I, and the tiny little slice of media I produce, am changing too. My approach to representation in my writing has evolved lately, deliberately, and I can acknowledge that I don’t think I handled it correctly my entire writing career. Hell, I still don’t know that I have it figured out.

In my earlier writing, I physically describe my characters very ambiguously. As in, I never really fully physically describe them, or I never describe how they look at all. I may give you a detailed landscape of their entire marred psyche, but I leave their bodily traits nebulous. I may say a man has a stubbled chin, but what color is that stubble? What color is that skin? Is that chin on a square jaw or thick, doubled chin? Nope, nothing.

It is not that I did not visualize these characters in my mind. I saw them fully, every minute detail in full color and clarity. I just did not want to force my vision of them onto my readers. If my protagonist was a green eyed brunette with freckles, I wanted to allow one of my readers to make her another color or height or weight. I wanted to leave them open. I wanted my characters to be a “choose your own avatar” sort of experience.

The intention was inclusive. However, as I reflect on it, I do not know how effective it is. I question if, instead, it was more avoidant, just lacking the courage to tackle authentic representation. Can a character be a fully developed person without the influence of their race, size, all the physical traits that affect how the world treats them? Have I been doing my characters and their readers a disservice by leaving these details open?

I also did not make deliberate representation decisions. My writing ideas come to me like dreams, and I just capture them in words. I didn’t make calculating decisions on who and what to portray, like hitting demographics. Many of my characters have been in interracial relationships or have interracial children because that is my life so that is what my mind repeats to me. It is not exclusion so much as simple narcissism.

I could not leave my characters’ relationships as open to interpretation as their appearances. Their orientations were apparent when I included their partners. Yet, if I did not include their relationships, I did not really identify them. In The Waning, my narrator Beatrix is a lesbian and spends the majority of the book thinking about her girlfriend. In Followers, the friend and photographer Brady is a gay man living with his partner. But characters who are not active in dating or a relationship could be straight or queer or asexual. But should I have defined them? For everyone or just the significant characters?

So in my writing prior to 2020, I kept things open and flexible to be filled by what my reader brought to the page. Then I changed my mind and my approach, and true to my extremist nature, I went in the opposite direction. Where I used to avoid describing race, I made race a thematic element. Where I included LGBTQ characters, I made their experience part of the plot. In my new work in progress (WIP) novel, I made the deliberate choice to take the story and attempt to look at it from perspectives besides my own. I took what could be considered by experience and attempted to shove it away from the center of the narrative.

I don’t know if I am doing representation correctly now. The WIP has not even seen publication yet. I’m not even sure how wrong I was doing it before. But I am trying to learn, evolve, and do better. I am trying to find a way to tell my stories in a way that resonates with people, not just myself and not just people like me.

I enjoy seeing representation evolve and diversify in media. I know it still is not perfect. I know it still has strides to make. I just hope I can contribute in a positive direction. And if I am not, I hope someone out there will gently call me in to suggest where I can do better.

Christina Bergling

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