IMPOSTER SYNDROME AND RACISM IN MY WRITING


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I think perhaps that my first personal blog post since 2017 suggests I’ve had imposter issues for a long time. I’m attempting to gather up my courage for Camp NaNoWriMo in July, and have had the dickens of a time with my motivation, in part due to some recent revelations.

What got me to post this? A couple of FB posts from an old friend about racism in fiction and D&D. I was simply going to reply on his wall until I discovered I had written a novella.

So Ed, here is my reply to your posts.

My very first, unfinished novel (barely 50k words written for NaNoWriMo in 2005) started as a coming of age novel where I could work through some of my childhood issues, challenges to my self-esteem with both my social situation and complications with my family.  

Although set in a fictional fantasy world, the core of the novel was about bullying. Bullying because the MC’s father was a European-modeled outlander, hence the MC (living on an isolated fictional AAPI island) was treated horribly by most of the other islanders. This race of islanders were exclusively dark-skinned. His white father, and mixed-race brother, were both banished from the island (in the backstory), because of their skin tones. In the story, there were superstitions about outlanders, and because of the remoteness of the island, the very few outlanders had their own racist notions about native and were in their own ways cruel, modeled after our world. Think pirates and shipwreck survivors.

The MC’s brother, who is bisexual – relevant to the novel – in his youth tried to fit in and act straight, but he was despised for his speckled cheeks and flame-red hair. He was later banished for kissing a native girl, whom he honestly loved. I developed his character later, in another prequel-style novel (also unfinished), where after being ostracized and banished, was captured by pirates and sold into slavery by an Ottoman-style, extremely racist society. 

Also, magic exists in the world, and complicates everyone’s lives. 

These stories were originally inspired by my own experiences with bullies, ostracized as a kid for being fat, geeky and different from my peers. My imagination and writing creativity took over from there. 

Sure, there were some commonalities between myself and my characters (there always are with writers), but when I was working on the re-write for last November’s NaNo, I developed serious Imposter Syndrome. 

Who the hell am I to tell a story about a race that I am not part of, even if fictional? 

Did I write these stories because I am an unwitting, ignorant racist? 

The stories were about the struggle of non-inclusion and being mistreated for being different, and character choices: whether to just try to fit in and behave (as I did as a kid), or to stand up and find strength in one’s self, and a decent self-image. Also, I tried to capture how it feels to be bullied for being different, and that even though the MC has one friend who does not judge the color of his skin (a character who represents goodness of heart), the protagonist cannot filter out the bad emotions brought about by so many others – specifically the leadership of the community, who are written as over-the-top racists.

So, as much as I loved the characters and the story I had written, and as much as I wanted it to be a coming of age story with a ton of character growth (the MC was a teen), I abandoned both projects because I HAVE NO CLUE what it is like to be AAPI, or bisexual. I have never suffered anything like racism, only what I saw in the world around me and in historical context (and other fiction I consumed).

I consider myself a good person, and I hate to think of myself as racist, but after some serious thought and soul-searching, I am still stymied. I was raised in a family where one parent was racist and the other was genuinely kind and open-minded, showing me unconditional love. I always objected to the slurs and attitudes of the closed-minded parent, and sometimes even called them out for their behavior, which earned me more bullying and a few backhands to the face or belt strokes across my butt. 

Obviously, there is something about these issues that resonated with me and attracted me to write those storylines, but, since November, I have not written much. On ANY story. That Imposter Syndrome has sucked the life out of my imagination, and I am second-guessing everything, including my own identity. (Certainly Covid has not helped, keeping me isolated and fearful).

I have only discussed this (and then, only vaguely) with my therapist. Privately. I feel extremely vulnerable sharing this, publicly. 

Am I way off base here?

Am I allowed to write about horrible things, even if the specific things were not done to me? I’ve never been captured by pirates and sold into slavery. I’ve never been forced to choose whether to warn and protect the villagers who bullied me (and worse) that pirates have landed on the far side of the island, intent on capturing them all and selling them as slaves.

I feel I have no right to even consider these fit subjects for my Cis White self.

Objectively, I thought the MC’s dilemma would have been a great character moment and a compelling turning point for the plot of that first novel. 

But with all I hear these days about white privilege, and authors who “in their day” and “with their cultural background” were racist as fuck, yet still are time-honored for their literary prowess, I am intimidated to think I have any right to tackle such topics (not that I would ever claim to have their prowess – at best I am a hack writer who makes up stories because I loved being a Dungeon Master in D&D and I love writing about cheesy pirates).

Even as afraid as I am, I would value your ideas on this topic, so please <cringe> comment your thoughts on my dilemma. I need to get out of this rut, find my genital fortitude, and get back to one of the few things that brings me joy – writing.

PS: One small note: If I were simply writing for myself, this would be less intimidating. I could simply vomit cruddy words into the computer and delete them once I was finished. But, I believe I have talent, and I have things to say, even if they are not as deep as other novelists. I wish to someday publish and sell my stories. The fact that others, people better than myself, might pick up one of my stories and call me out as a racist hack (the hack part I am okay with) has paralyzed me. I fear being labeled, and these fears are what have put my knickers in a bind. I am a coward, I admit it. But am I also a racist coward? And if so, how can I fix or change that?

PSS: A wise person once told me, “You can’t get your panties in a bunch if you are not wearing panties.” Freeing myself from the constraints of fear and anxiety is the emotional equivalent of going commando, I think.

About markadamthomas

Writer, Creator, Artist, Dreamer #amwriting View all posts by markadamthomas

6 responses to “IMPOSTER SYNDROME AND RACISM IN MY WRITING

  • Stuart Danker

    You are probably overthinking this, but that’s what writer’s do, don’t they? I think that you can write for yourself, while still polishing it up for public consumption later, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

    Either way, I hope you find your path, and I wish you all the best with all your writing endeavours!

  • underpope

    I agree with Stuart: definitely overthinking this.

    We all have racist moments, despite our best intentions; I have a story about locking my car door when I saw a Black kid running toward me, on the very day that I voted for Obama. The best you can do is continue to learn and apply what you’ve learned to your writing.

    That said: write with sensitivity and with love and care. When you are done, show it to a sensitivity reader, who will point out your errors and who will help you make your story better.

    • markadamthomas

      Thank you my friend. Like Stuart said, overthinking is part of being a writer, and checking myself is also part of learning to be a better person and writer. I also think part of my concern was how much fun I was having writing the despicable pirate characters (as well as the bigoted islanders). Some of them were truly vile, while others had hearts and consciences (but went along with the plans because… pirates, etc). But without conflicts like those, stories are not as effective, and become boring.
      I appreciate your comments.

  • Pontus Rosén

    I think the fact that you are concerned about these things is the whole point. That’s the human condition, right there. It is the sort of vulnerability from which art emerges. It is brave of you to share your concerns and people will respond to that.

    If these particular pieces of writing give you such strong feelings, there is probably something there to explore further. As painful as it may be, explore these feelings (the scarier, the better), analyze them, and then include them in these two pieces. Try to share your own doubt, fear and anguish by giving them (in some way) to selected character/s in the story. Maybe to the MCs, or maybe to someone else – why not include a narrator/author in a frame narrative (like in “The Princess Bride”). “Write what you know” as they say.

    Because if YOU feel this way, chances are other people feel this way TOO, and that means there’s potential for people to connect deeply with these stories and with you, as the author.

    I would definitely take underpope’s advice about sharing it with someone you trust first, though, to make sure it comes across the way you intend.

    • markadamthomas

      Thank you for your inciteful comments. I must admit I had not expected such kind replies and observations. I have decided to work these stories back into my writing time, and hopefully, I will continue to discover more about myself with these characters. My confidence is certainly returning. Thank you.

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