Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward on ROAARS and The Unmarked State

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward are guestblogging here on Booklifenow all this week. Their book Writing the Other is a remarkable exploration of character, situation, and perception. It’s a recommended text in Booklife – JeffV

Cynthia and I want to begin our joint stint as guest bloggers here by sharing an excerpt from Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the book we wrote together based on the workshop we co-teach. The excerpt will help you get into the spirit of our upcoming posts, which are going to riff on related topics

First, we’ll define a couple of the terms we use:

The unmarked state—Possessing demographic characteristics considered “unremarkable” by the dominant culture.

ROAARS—This is an acronym we created to talk about a group of differences from the unmarked state that are, in this culture, considered to be deeply significant differences. These differences are: Race, (sexual) Orientation, Age, Ability, Religion, Sex.

Keep those concepts in mind as you read the book excerpt below. – Nisi Shawl

Parallax: Who is Looking at Whom?

Parallax is an astronomical concept that we’ve adapted to literary usage. The original idea can best be illustrated by performing a short, easy experiment.

Gaze at an object some distance away. If you’re indoors, look for something across the room from where you sit or stand: a picture on a wall, or a book on a shelf, perhaps. If you’re outside, choose an object in the middle distance: a tree, or a building not too far off, rather than a mountain, for instance. Hold one finger up so that it covers whatever it is you’re looking at. Now close your left eye. Open it again and close your right. Does your finger seem to shift in relation to the object you picked? That’s because of a shift in parallax. The slight change in the perspective from your left to your right eye results in an apparent change in the position of what you’re looking at. And the perceptual change is larger when you’re looking at something closer to your eyes—your finger—than something more distant—the picture or book in the background.

In terms of “Writing the Other,” slight shifts in your viewpoint characters’ positions vis-à-vis the unmarked state will change how they look at the world, at themselves, and at the concept of the unmarked state.

In fact, in addition to the dominant culture’s version of the unmarked state, each of us carries around our private take on what is “normal.” This definition adheres much more closely to our own specific characteristics.

Sometimes people apply this definition so inappropriately it’s almost funny. When Nisi first came to Seattle, she hired a cab driver to take her around to all the places she was considering renting. The driver was a white male with long, slicked back hair. He looked like he weighed 80 to 100 pounds more than she did. A crucifix dangled from his rearview mirror. Over the course of the afternoon they spent together, he advised Nisi as to what parts of town she should avoid: the Central District, for instance, an historically black neighborhood. As for Capitol Hill, known for its unconventionally clothed and behaved inhabitants—“You don’t even want to know what they get up to around there,” the driver claimed, referring, probably, to the prevalence of same-sex couples.

Remember, Nisi is black, and has slept with other women. So why would this man expect her to be uncomfortable in these neighborhoods? Well, because he was uncomfortable there. Obviously Nisi was just like him, because she was a good person: she’d been polite to him, laughed at his jokes, and conformed in plenty of other ways to his expectations of how a good person acts. He had, in the words of linguist MJ Hardman, conferred “honorary whiteness” on Nisi (personal communication).

Depending on their immediate context, your characters may perform similar mental acrobatics when thinking of those they come in contact with—or when thinking of themselves. They may identify with the dominant unmarked state though lacking its characteristics, or they may reject it—conditionally and partially, or without reserve. They may be conscious of privileges they lack or possess due to their ROAARS traits.

In the 1980s, Cynthia read a story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The title of it escapes her, but she will never forget the actual story. It may be the most astonishing work of fiction she’s ever read—although not for a good reason. The flaw she finds so memorable is a flaw that illuminates parallax.

The story was set in Maine. The protagonist was a straight Maine lobsterman. His best friend was a gay male bed-and-breakfast owner who’d moved up to Maine from New York. As she read, Cynthia spluttered with ever-increasing incredulity. Finally, she shouted aloud: “A Maine lobsterman would never be best friends with a New Yorker!”


That’s all for now. If you’d like to find out why Cynthia, who identifies as a Mainer, felt so affronted by the idea of a lobsterman from her home state befriending a New Yorker, you’ll want to read the rest of the book. It came out from Aqueduct Press in 2005 and is still available online from the publisher and other online booksellers.

5 thoughts on “Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward on ROAARS and The Unmarked State

  1. Good to see the two of you here. I found WTO to be pretty eye-opening, on a topic I really didn't think there was much new to be said about. Highly recommended.

    I found myself thinking about "the unmarked state" during the Sotomayor Supreme Court confirmation debate (if we can dignify it by calling it a debate). One of her critics' premises seemed to be that the rulings of white males was the obvious default state that every justice should aspire to, & the fear seemed to be that Justice Sotomayor would file some kind of weird otherworldly set of opinions.

    Which of course the rest of the Roberts court would never do. Nothing but sane policy from that majority.

  2. Thank you very much for your recommendations, Todd and Tom.

    Tom, I noticed that, too, about the Sotomayor hearings. There was a definite assumption that the conservative white male Supreme Court justices offered facts, whereas everyone holding another viewpoint had only opinions.

    Um. Right.

  3. I love your book & recommend it to all my writing students–some of them are gay, some of them are women, most of them are white, nearly all of them are from Arkansas, and almost none of them are writing about themselves (they love to write SF). They want to know how, how, how they can write about people they aren't. Have I got the book you need, I say, and point them to you.

    Thanks so much for writing it.

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