Writing SFF From The Margins

Welcome to Part 9 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: E.J. Beaton (as moderator), Maiya Ibrahim, Michi Trota, Dr. Eugen Bacon, and Kieron Gillen. The panel description was as follows:

How do marginalised aspects of identity — gender, sexuality, culture, race, health, ability and more  — shape our creative work? How can we empower, express, and explore through writing fantasy and SF?

Politics and Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction as a whole makes it easier to explore the concepts of race, of sexuality, of disability, and — what does it mean to belong? Additionally, by placing it in a speculative setting, you can show the issues zoomed into the individual level, without making it personal — because you’re not talking about yourself directly.

Speculative fiction is all about the world building. Despite its reputation as ‘escapism’, it gives us the space to show potential worlds where people of all races, abilities, gender, and sexual orientations are accepted. It can give voice to ‘the other’, showing stories of diversity and hope. From the very beginning of the genre, it’s been used to tackle very complicated issues and concerns.

Still, there is pushback. People say that stories, that media should be entertainment, not political. So, let’s look closer.

Let’s explore who is featured in these stories and what sort of things happen to the characters? When you look deeper, you can often see a pattern of what society deems acceptable and mainstream. Yet, none of us are the ‘average person’, we all have unique challenges and skills, so reducing our stories to that is erasing the reality of what it means to be human.

When you write and create new worlds with different economies and religions — you’re exploring that. What you chose to write — and what you chose not to write says something.

If you take a look at older books, from the 1980s or the 1950s or the 1920s or the 1800s, the assumptive context presents a world view that says something about the time, the intended audience, and the culture that created that work.

In other words? Telling a story about something seen as ‘different’ is always seen as political, but upholding the status quo is, in and of itself, a political decision.

When we say that someone is ‘writing from the margins’, what does that mean?

Typically, they’re writing about an experience that is not the ‘default’ in the literary or publishing world. They’re writing about race, or gender, or country of origin, or disabilities, or … the list goes on.

But. Why are they still in the margins? Why is it still considered that?

We all know that it’s dangerous to be visible outside the margins — it makes you a target. There are accusations of pandering and forced diversity and undeserved recognition due to quotas. Any success is rationalized away from the creator, turning them into an identity statistic and a publicity stunt.

When writers stories spotlight the issue that makes them marginalized, people often focus on the issue and not their writing. They often end up pigeonholed, talking about why these issues deserve a space on the bookshelf, and what’s it like to be an X writer in the SF community.

What we need is more space for them to talk about what their situation adds to their writing, to celebrate the diversity of human experience.

Struggling with Inclusivity

Many writers who have been marginalized can find themselves even white-washing their own self-inserts, because of the influence of the dominate culture. It can be hard to go against these cultural influences.

If you are sharing your own experience, you get the chance to normalize your way of life! Your experiences! Because it can be normal for the point-of-view character — thanks to the magic of fiction.

Some people struggle when writing stories that are close to their own trauma. One suggestion is to switch from first-person to third-person point-of-view, this can pull it back a little and make the story read and write a little less immediate.

On the flip side? If you want your readers to really understand the trauma of the situation you’re writing, (assuming you can pull it off), you might want to try second-person.

For those out there who aren’t from a marginalized background, it can be hard to know what to do. If you leave out diverse characters, you’re chastised; if you get it wrong, there’s might be a mob calling to cancel your book, or worse.

The best answer I’ve heard is to include the characters. Write the characters either as tertiary, secondary, or even primary characters — but don’t have the story plot be centered around the aspect that marginalizes them. Plus, get a person (or three — they are not a monolith and have different views) from that lived experience to proof the story for you (and be willing to pay for their labor), to make sure that you’re getting them right — that you’re not falling either into stereotypes or whitewashing.

The Complexity of #OwnVoices Stories

The hashtag #ownVoices is used a lot in literary circles these days to represent stories in which the author has lived experiences with some of the struggles presented in the story, based on identity.

Using this identifier can help get past the standard “did not connect” rejection, hopefully making the agent or publisher take a step back and evaluate the reason why they didn’t connect. Is it because it’s so foreign to their own lived experience, and not a problem with the writing or story? When the agent or publisher goes in expecting a different culture and viewpoint, they may be open to a better array of stories.

But, it can be fraught to ask what aspect of the story is #ownVoices, because those are identities that can leave a writer open to attack.

Worse? There are people advertising works as #ownVoices, because they see it as a trend and a way to get ahead — without the story actually being #ownVoices.

A real question we don’t have the answer to: where is the line between gatekeeping and helping people promote their own voices.

Additionally, there’s the feeling from some publishers that if they have “one Asian” story, they don’t need another that year — despite the wide array of cultures and stories that fit under that umbrella. Or? The publisher ends up chasing trends, and showing up late to an oversaturated market.

Any work can find an audience if the publisher is willing to put in the work and the money — and that’s outside of the writer’s control. Which ends up in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy (as any writer, #ownvoices or not can attest), the publisher invests no money because they don’t think there’s a huge market, because no one knows about it, and it sells poorly. And with inclusive stories, that makes it less likely the publisher will take a risk on the next inclusive story, not just that one writer.

Self-publishing is helping break down the walls, but most self-published books are fighting for an ever-shrinking margin, and it can be hard to stand out with poorly edited novellas flooding the market and losing the audience’s willingness to take a risk on an unknown author.


Writing inclusive stories is hard. Writing from the margins is often harder.

How can you make a difference? Besides including the true diversity of the human condition in your own stories? The same way you can support any writer.

Read stories by writers in the margins, review them, and tell your friends.

What do you think?

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