How to Write Across Difference
Rebecca Makkai on Writing About the 1980s AIDS Crisis in Chicago
I won’t rehash all the recent debates about cultural appropriation in literature. (A quick flashback montage would show a YA author stripped of her Kirkus star after backlash to a perceived “white savior narrative”; Francine Prose holding aloft an old racist children’s book; Lionel Shriver donning an ill-advised sombrero.) If you haven’t followed the noise, suffice it to say: Representation of the other, when done poorly, upsets many people. Other people see that upset as censorship.
These arguments put me in a constant flop sweat as I finished a novel, The Great Believers, that extends well beyond my lived experience. It’s about gay men; I’m a straight woman. It’s about HIV/AIDS; I don’t have it. The story begins in 1985 Chicago; while I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, I was born in 1978 and spent 1985 reading about dinosaurs.
I’m sympathetic to arguments that artists need to stay in their lanes. I also believe preemptive judgment of work based on its premise, not its merits, is ridiculous. I don’t need to apologize for writing across difference; I need to apologize if I get it wrong.
In the end, I’m grateful for our increased sensitivity around issues of cultural appropriation. It has made me a better, more careful writer. In many ways, it saved my book.
1) It made me clarify what I was doing, and why.
In order to write this, I had to satisfactorily answer two questions: Was I reinforcing stereotypes, or combatting them? And was I stealing attention from first-hand narratives, or shedding light on them? The first question was a matter of good writing—something I had control over. The second was stickier.
There’s shockingly little in book or film form about AIDS in Chicago. This meant when I interviewed survivors and activists, they were often speaking for the first time in years about certain memories. I was honored by their trust, heartened by how many spoke about wanting now to write down their own thoughts. With the novel out, I’m in a position to guide readers to direct accounts of that time, or art by those who lived through it. (To wit: Quick plugs here for one-time AIDS nurse M.K. Czerwiec’s graphic memoir Taking Turns, and Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Angel of History.)
Moreover: My constant mindfulness of these lived stories kept me vigilant, kept me from taking lightly my responsibility as storyteller. It made me more compassionate. If I was going to write about characters I had no business writing about, I’d better not take them for granted. I’d better love them to pieces.
2) It made me do the legwork.
Back to that question of good writing: I was terrified of getting things wrong. Setting out to write about a real time and a real place, I knew empathy wouldn’t be enough. I couldn’t good-person myself into good writing.
In addition to hours of in-person interviews, I read every back issue of Chicago’s LGBTQ weekly Windy City Times from 1985 to 1992. I went to surviving gay bars from the era (okay, this wasn’t a hardship), I watched footage of ACT UP protests, I walked the city carrying business maps from 30 years ago. Along the way, I encountered my own ignorance.
In an early draft of my third chapter, my main character walks down the street in 1985 searching for his friends, looking into the window of every gay bar he passes. If you’re not already laughing, let me explain: The windows would have been blackened, or covered with heavy curtains. This wasn’t information I found in a book. I learned it sitting across from a friend in Dunkin Donuts, listening to his memories of the bar scene.
In the one previous thing I’d written about AIDS, a short story, I’d mentioned everyone lining up for the new HIV test. But reading all those newspapers from 1985, the year the test appeared, I realized how badly I’d misspoken. There was tremendous fear and mistrust around testing, a hundred reasons not to do it. This ambivalence became a plot point of my novel, and I was able to understand my characters better through their reactions to the test’s availability.
“I knew empathy wouldn’t be enough. I couldn’t good-person myself into good writing.”
3) It helped me write with more nuance.
One detail kept arising in my interviews about the AIDS unit at Illinois Masonic Hospital: The walls were covered with Broadway posters. I had to use it—how amazing!—but what a risk. A detail that might sound genuine coming from a writer inside a marginalized group could sound stereotypical coming from a writer outside that group. Anyone who thought I was making this up would assume I’d conjured the décor as lazily as possible. (What would gay men put on the walls? I dunno, Broadway posters.) But to write about this place without including them felt wrong. I tinkered with my wording until the posters were part of a longer sentence about the decorations—including them without casting a giant spotlight on them—and made sure to include a hundred other details of the AIDS unit. Before I wrote this section, I interviewed the doctors who started the unit, the art therapist, patients, friends of patients. The unit is closed now, the rooms serving as nap rooms for on-call doctors. I walked around the place in the half-dark, took photos, camped on a hallway bench with my laptop. If I hadn’t been so worried about getting the nuances right, I might not have done all that work for what’s really only one chapter of my novel.
We should all be terrified of writing tritely, regardless of our subject matter. In this case, that fear was always breathing down my neck; for that, I’m grateful.
4) It made me tell a broader story than I would have.
I was a hundred pages into my first draft when the appropriation issue stopped me cold. At this point, my narrative was solely about the 1980s, solely from the viewpoint of one character, a gay man named Yale Tishman. The more I stewed, the more it did feel like speaking for someone else—telling stories from a life not my own. While it wasn’t a first person narrative, it still felt like an attempt at ventriloquism.
I wondered: If every other chapter were told from the viewpoint of a straight woman in the present day—someone more like me—would that help? Or was I just chicken?
I tried it, worried I was diluting my book. I put Yale’s friend Fiona in 2015 Paris, finally confronting the demons of her past. Lo and behold: The whole thing clicked into place. Suddenly I had a populated universe, the depth and echoes of history, resonance between generations and across continents.
This isn’t the solution for every story, but it sure as hell was for mine.
5) It made me braver in approaching filter readers.
There’s been a lot of talk about “sensitivity readers”—people hired to make sure depicted groups won’t be offended. And of course there’s been a lot of mocking of this process. I was grateful that I didn’t have to hire readers—that I had eager, qualified friends and interview subjects. (And I’d argue that if you have to hire a stranger, you should ask yourself why you don’t have more friends like the people you’re writing about.)
These filter reads are something I should have done with everything I’ve written, something I only now found courage (born of fear!) to do. My first novel, The Borrower, was about a librarian who inadvertently kidnaps a child. Some combination of shyness and hubris kept me from finding a librarian to read it. I was taken aback, when the book appeared, that librarians were offended—not by the kidnapping, but by the fact that my character didn’t have an MLIS degree. Even if I’d been clued in by a helpful librarian, I might have ignored the warning—but I’d rather know what I was stepping in than not. Isn’t our job, as writers, to know the world?
6) It made me grateful, again, to write.
Every beginning writer wonders if they have “permission” to write. Some wonder if their voices are worthwhile, others write without the support of family. For me, in the beginning it was about stealing time from my “real” job to work on what I feared was a hobby. Two Saturday hours at Starbucks felt dearly bought, and I never would have squandered them.
I have more time to write these days—it helps to know someone’s waiting for your work, someone’s paying you—and I can forget how ridiculous it is that I get to do this for a living.
This time, holding in my hands the narratives people had trusted me with, I felt again the ridiculous fortune, the honor, of being a storyteller. I had something fragile, something I could not, for an instant, take for granted. I was a novice, a supplicant, an acolyte. I couldn’t believe my luck.