My Accountability as a Writer By Tai Farnsworth

In my MFA program we’re required to write a critical paper. It’s meant to combine issues of social justice with literature. Even as a long time reader and writer, I had never truly thought of literature as an instrument of social change. But once I started looking, I couldn’t stop. Literature, even in its most base forms, can change minds. And as a writer, I’m accountable for the message my work sends. While the overt message of a piece (spoiler alert: Brave New World is about how much a society hinges on its access to knowledge) is important, the underlying message is just as critical. So what message are we giving to our readers? Not surprisingly it’s a pretty one sided conversation.

Most literature, much like the world, defaults to straight white men. That’s not to say that change can’t be achieved with a straight white man at the helm. One of the most influential series of all time, Harry Potter, has a deeply seeded greater message of compassion. Studies have proven that young readers of J.K. Rowling’s popular books are more likely to be empathetic children. But if we can’t diversify our books, we’re giving our readers the impression that their normal is, in fact, not normal. We’re telling them that, unless they are a straight white man, their stories aren’t worth being told. Writers are accountable for that message. And, as a writer, it’s my job to make sure my readers can see themselves in the pages of my books.

My paper focuses on the evolving representation of bisexuals and mixed-race characters in literature. One of the first representations of bisexuality in literature was Fanny Hill by John Cleland in 1748. Things have changed dramatically since then, in the world and in literature. We now have books like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that has characters’ sexualities represented as fluid and ever-changing. Larsson may not have realized the scope of what he did, but when readers can identify aspects of themselves that aren’t as commonplace in a novel, they immediately feel that acceptance.

The same can be said for mixed-race readers. Before, when the plight of the tragic mulatto was commonplace, it seemed that being mixed-race only ever resulted in death. But now we have books where mixed-race characters can embrace all of their backgrounds and represent them as they see fit. It’s exciting for readers.

When I write I try to do justice to that message. I try to perpetuate a culture of acceptance in my books and offer up a diversity never seen before. Writers don’t work for themselves only, they work for the readers too. And when I can write something that reaches across all divides and gives someone the opportunity to accept themselves, I have truly lived up to my accountability and accomplished something worthwhile.