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.

When I wrote The Girl in the Road, I chose to write my hero with brown skin, specifically, both as an answer to what I perceived to be the imaginative and empathetic failures of my progenitors, and also as a reflection of a human population in which the most common phenotype is—and has always been—a woman with brown skin. To write a white woman as my hero in a 21st-century story felt cowardly in the extreme—not only in terms of literary ambition, but in moral terms. How could I fail to extrapolate the lesson of having been unconsciously conditioned by a male-only set of heroes? How could I pretend that whites deserved to have the spotlight in global literature, or even American literature? How could I pretend that they ever did?

Thus was born Meena Ramachandran, a Malayalee Hindu, 27 years old in the year 2068, living in Kerala, India. She’s morose and temperamental. She’s aggressively and unapologetically sexual. She dropped out of college. She shares a house with her transgender partner in a quiet neighborhood in Thrissur. She works at a women’s shelter where she struggles to feel compassion for her clients.

Of course, creating a brown-skinned hero was not a simple venture. When I was traveling in Ethiopia and India to research my characters, I knew I would never understand another culture well enough to write from within it if I lived there for 10 years, let alone a month, so it was both futile and arrogant to try. I knew that one of the most natural coping mechanisms of culture shock—making quick generalizations—was fundamentally at odds with my purposes as a writer, and I feared I would only ever be able to see stereotypes and not individuals. That my privilege in all dimensions—especially in coming from an imperialist, ex-colonizer culture—overruled my right to write about cultures affected by colonialism. There’s a painful history of white writers doing exactly that, without grace or consideration, the imaginative equivalent of what Teju Cole called “a little due diligence” in the sphere of international aid.

It's also true that white writers—and I include myself—largely escape critical inquiry on our right to write about whatever we want, as if whites are the objective commentators on world affairs. Many also write within a mindset that regards countries with histories of colonization as “playgrounds” where they can engage with minimal risk.

So there are pitfalls. At several points I considered abandoning my book for those reasons, not to mention the fact that brown-skinned women heroes already exist all over the world, like Phoolan Devi, Princess Mononoke, and Scheherazade. But my hope for a greater benefit won out.

Western writers still make up the majority of published English language authors, and English is one of the global lingua franca. Western literature already has extraordinary women heroes created by extraordinary writers: Toni Morrison’s Sethe, Ursula Le Guin’s Tenar, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ifemelu. But they’re a tiny proportion of the whole. We need more. Writing characters different from us—for all creators, in all directions—is integral to creating a literature in which all phenotypes are heroic, and therefore, all are humanized.

I won’t go so far as to say that creators have a responsibility to do so. But I do submit that our increasingly global society offers an unprecedented opportunity for all creators to write what we don’t know. The defining heroic journey of the 20th century was to conquer evil: the Nothing, Sauron, the Harkonnens. But the defining heroic journey of the 21st century will be to reconcile the Other with the Self.