I’m sorry I haven’t followed up on my religion post until now (the, um, last day of the month). I’m going to be honest: this has been a terrible month. This whole year has been rough, but the last few weeks have been especially devastating. So before I continue with the rest of this post, I’m going to do my Call to Action first.
Call to Action
In addition to horrific earthquakes in Mexico and unprecedented flooding in South Asia, this past month the U.S. and the Caribbean have been ravaged by three historically devastating hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, and Maria), leaving Puerto Rico in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. If you are able, please, please consider contributing to their relief. Here are some organizations to which you can donate:
Additionally, if you are a U.S. citizen, please call Congress and ask them to send help to Puerto Rico. (Yes, sadly, that is something we need to ask.)
Writing Religious Characters
In my last post I talked about writing about other religions and how as an outsider, you need to respect the tenets of the religion about which you’re writing. (Religions are not a monolith, but I would be very wary of writing, for example, about a queer Muslim or a Catholic getting an abortion. Yes, queer Muslims absolutely exist, and Catholics do get abortions, but unless you are Muslim or Catholic yourself, you’re going to be bringing an outsider’s perspective to the issue. If you do belong to that religious group, the situation is obviously different.) In this post, I want to talk briefly about how to engage with your character’s religious beliefs without making that character seem one-dimensional. (Note: most of the following links will take you to the excellent resources posted on the Writing with Color Tumblr.)
First, as always, do your research so you understand how your character’s religious practices will shape their daily activities–and how religion differs from and intersects with culture. These will likely vary according to where your character lives. (Life for a Muslim looks vastly different in Saudia Arabia than it does in France, for example.)
Second, learn the stereotypes attached to that religion and stay far away from them. The best way to avoid tropes and tokenism is to have more than one character from that religious group in your story. (See here and here.)
Third, write your character the same way you would any other character, complete with all their beautiful complexities and quirks and flaws. People are nuanced beings, and belonging to a given religion does not mean a person will think and act exactly like every other person in that group. Yes, there will be shared beliefs. But hobbies, career interests, political affiliations, tastes in music and art, senses of humor, these will all vary.
Again, the rules are different when you do belong to the religion or community about which you’re writing, and on that note, I want to end with some thoughts about retelling and adapting religious texts and mythologies.
Reimagining Religious Stories
I love reimagined stories. They keep mythologies fresh and alive and imbued with new meaning, and writers have been doing this sort of thing forever (think C.S. Lewis or Madeleine L’Engle). However, if you want to retell a religious text or story and you do not belong to the community that holds that story sacred, I would advise proceeding very cautiously. Consider your position in relation to the group that owns that story. Is that story yours to tell? Has your culture in any way seized power from or silenced the culture that owns that story? What aspects of the story are you changing (why?), and will anyone be harmed or exploited by your retelling? (See my post on colonialism.)
The biggest problem, as with most of the issues we’ve addressed in this series, its that if you don’t belong to the community about which you’re writing, you don’t have a sense for what’s taboo, sacred, or offensive. If you do belong to that community, you already know where those boundaries lie. For example, a practicing Mormon might feel comfortable retelling parts of the Book of Mormon (I believe Orson Scott Card has done exactly that) or stories from church history but would probably not even consider reimagining parts of the temple ceremony or changing key doctrine.
I recognize, of course, that defining the boundaries of a community–who can claim membership and who can’t–is complicated and messy. I’m going to talk about that more in my final post, but for now I’ll just say that this is something you already know about yourself. Your upbringing, your heritage, your form of worship is individual to you, and the uniqueness of your experience and perspective is what makes your writing powerful. (And why we need all kinds of voices!)
I love what author Roshani Chokshi said this week on Twitter (@Roshani_Chokshi) after she shared the cover for her new book Aru Shah and the End of Time (and was met with accusations of exploiting Hindu mythology):
I am always conscious of the fact that when I write, I am drawing on my own faith. These stories are rooted in sacred texts. What has always interested me are the very human experiences of these characters regardless of their divine claim. Yes, ARU is “secular.” All her sisters are mixed race. I am Filipina and Indian. To me, that’s not tawdry. That’s my truth. I’m a produce of diaspora. I write for kids like me, kids who came by these tales secondhand, from grandparents who spoke accented English…I write to celebrate my heritage. Not mock it. I write to carve out a space where I did not see myself.
You can read the entire thread here. I especially appreciated the comment made by S.A. Chakroborty (@SChakrabs), whose forthcoming book is rooted in Islamic history and culture: “These texts have always been retold and reshaped for new audiences. That happens with any faith that lasts so long and spreads so far. Finding ways to share your culture’s stories with the next generation is LITERALLY the reason for all this!”
Thanks for joining me for this series. Keep writing, keep sharing, keep connecting. And please help the people of Puerto Rico if you can. I’ll finish things up with a final post in the next couple of weeks.
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure
March: Writing Race and Ethnicity
April: Writing Gender
- Improving Female Representation
- Writing Transgender and Non-Binary Characters
- Gender and Sexuality Terms
May: Writing Sexuality
June: Writing Disability
July: Writing Body Diversity
August: Writing Class Difference/ Intersectionality
September: Writing Religious Difference
- Writing Other Religions
- Writing Religious Characters and Retellings