Literature Still Urgently Needs More Non-White, Non-Male Heroes

If privileged writers keep "writing what they know," marginalized people groups will continue to feel—and be—marginalized.
New Line Cinema

One of the most celebrated pieces of advice to writers is “Write what you know.” Unfortunately, it shows.

The demographics of published writers in the West are largely homogeneous, and as a result, our literature is also largely homogeneous. Growing up, for example, my heroes were Atreju, Frodo, and Paul Atreides. All I ever really wanted to do was go on adventures like them. I readily identified with them, and their trials became my scripture: the loss of Artax, the recovery at Lothlórien, the knife fight with Feyd-Rautha.

Despite a liberal upbringing and an education at a women’s college, it didn’t occur to me that my identification with male heroes had damaged me in any way—that is, until I became a writer, and found myself weirdly reluctant to write a woman hero. This wasn’t an accident. 

As Vanessa Veselka wrote in The American Reader, there is a profound relative lack of female road narratives in the Western literary tradition. This absence hurt her in much more concrete ways. When recounting her years as a teenage hitchhiker, Veselka writes, “my survival depended on other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me…[but] there was no cultural narrative for [us] beyond rape and death.” Male hitchhikers had Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and dozens of others. Veselka had bodies in dumpsters on the six o’clock news. 

Meanwhile, in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a work that compares mythologies from cultures around the globe, the hero pretty much just has one face: that of a white (or white-washed) man. Women are usually guiding spirits or goddesses encountered along the way, not the heroes themselves. This has troubling implications when we view writing stories as an act of creation: not just of a narrative, but of the society in which we live, and the possibilities prescribed for the people who live in it. Literature is our collective creation myth.

The first female road narrative I remember reading at all was when I was 23, in Mating by Norman Rush. The protagonist sets out into the Kalahari with two donkeys to find a rumored utopian society. Reading it was a revelation. I felt like I was stretching limbs I never knew were paralyzed. So, like a daughter who reproaches her parents once she’s old enough to have her own children, my inner relationships with my childhood heroes’ creators became troubled. In my heart, I asked Ende and Tolkien and Herbert: Did it ever even occur to you to write a hero who didn’t look like you? To use your privilege to humanize and valorize everyone, instead of just yourself?

As it turned out, I was definitively persuaded to write a woman hero by none other than my male gynecologist, on the eve of a research trip I was taking to Ethiopia. (He thought it would be cool to write an on-the-road menstruation scene, and, to hell with lofty principles, I agreed.)

On my trip, when I met fellow travelers who asked me about myself, I got used to the reaction: “Oh, like the woman in Eat Pray Love?” What was striking about that comparison was not how accurate it was. It was that, because of that book, I was now a recognizable figure in the cultural landscape: a single woman on the road with a non-tragic destiny. 

My reluctance to write a woman hero, however, made me realize how overrepresentation of men in heroic roles had hurt me. And I realized that it also hurts men for the obverse reason: It reinforces their sense of privilege, which they then have to work that much harder to dismantle in themselves. It’s that much more difficult to recognize women as human. Humanization—the recognition of the “other” as equally valuable as oneself—is foundational to giving and receiving love and compassion. Privilege impairs men’s ability to do so. 

This phenomenon, of course, plays out for any phenotype overrepresented in literature, including the ones I embody. As an American able-bodied, middle-class, mostly straight cis white person, I lack privilege in just one dimension: being a woman. But I can summon experiences of that non-privilege—the daily reminders that I’m a special subset of human, rather than human, full stop—to make me understand who, by omission, literature instructs me to dehumanize.

Presented by

Monica Byrne is the author of The Girl in the Road. She is a freelance writer and playwright, and she lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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