Windows, Mirrors, and the Spaces In Between


I’ve been thinking a lot about audience and what it means in terms of increasing representation of marginalized perspectives (recent brouhaha can be read here and here and here and here).  The windows and mirrors metaphor is a favorite in diversity and multicultural discussions.  It refers to the idea that books featuring characters from underrepresented groups can be a window for those from other groups or a mirror for the group lacking representation. In passing it can seem like windows and mirrors are equal.  They aren't.

The problem is in the difference between window books and mirror books, namely that in terms of diversity those intended audiences are very different.  A book intended as a window can be a terrible mirror.  Think of it as the difference between Iggy Azalea and Beyoncé.  Or the difference between bacon and turkey bacon.  Sure, you can say it’s bacon. But anyone who has had real bacon will be able to call bullshit in a heartbeat.

This brings us to the ever touchy subject of people from outside a marginalized group writing about those within a marginalized group.  This gets shortened in most discussions to white folks writing about PoC, but really this applies to anyone writing about a marginalization they don’t have.  Race dominates the discussion, but terrible and damaging depictions are also pretty common with regards to disability, genderqueer or trans characters, conversations around body size, and discussions of neurodiversity and mental health. That’s because it’s really, really hard to write about a room you’ve never been in.

I mean, imagine you’re writing a book about your neighbors. You might look in through their living room window and see a couch and a lamp and some gross shag carpet.  Anyone who is looking into the house from your perspective would see the same thing, which is basically what happens when books make it through the publishing process with problematic elements.  Someone inside that room may read the description you wrote and say “Hey! That shag carpet is actually grass, and you didn’t mention how that couch and lamp were left to me by my grandma. And you completely missed all of the art on the walls. Oh, and why the hell are you peeking into my living room like a creep anyway? If someone wants a description of my house I can totally do that myself.”

This is why a book written as a window fundamentally cannot work as a mirror.  So all books should be mirror books, right?  A book written as a mirror is less likely to get published because those standing outside the room (ie, most of publishing) have trouble seeing and believing what is actually inside of the room.  They may ask “Why the hell would you have grass in your living room? That makes no sense. And how many people really care that much about their grandma?  I was hatched from an egg! I can’t connect with this narrative.”

Ideally, all diverse books would be written by insiders of a marginalized group. But honestly, that’s unfair to marginalized authors.  There are so few of us as it is.  What if a person wants to write about the view from their window instead of the inside of their living room?  Part of an own voices movement is implicitly expecting everyone from a marginalized group to live inside of their marginalization all of the time.  That’s exhausting, yo. And marginalized groups didn’t create their marginalizations.  Why should they be responsible for fixing it by themselves?

As with most big issues, there are no easy answers.  But I deeply believe that authors writing about the marginalizations of others need to understand that while they may attempt to write a mirror what they’ll accomplish will be closer to the 2-way mirror in an interrogation room.  Folks from within a marginalized group will catch on after a while, but success isn’t about not letting us in on the secret, but in letting us get happily to the end of the interview before we discover it.

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