I love stories.
Reading stories, writing stories, telling stories. They’re a way to recount history and, through fiction, a way to make persuasive points about one thing or another. I’ve always been a fan of storytelling, and many of my friends indulge me when I get together.
Earlier this week, I was able to meet with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while. They asked me about my recent travels, and I recounted some of the more enlightening parts of my trip to Brazil – namely arriving in a non-English-speaking airport with no idea how to get to a hotel and no way to communicate my needs.
“Wow, that sounds pretty terrifying. I don’t think I could ever do something like that.”
“Of course you could! You’ve been plenty of places, and I’m sure you’d be more than OK working your way through.”
“Well, imagine if you had faced that as a woman. Alone. It probably wouldn’t have been as much fun.”
I admit, I hadn’t thought of it that way at the time.
Check your Bias
I will only ever see the world through one set of eyes and one set of experiences. That doesn’t devalue who I am at all, but it increases the value of listening to the stories of those around me and trying to put myself (figuratively) in their shoes.
When I have to navigate a foreign country with no means of communication other than pantomime and prayer, I will only ever do so as a white man. It’s impossible for me to experience that any other way, so while I can imagine other circumstances, I will always need to yield to others for factual accounts.
When I tell a story in person, my personal bias – the demographic lens through which I experience the world – is immediately apparent. I can’t pretend to be anyone I’m not when I’m speaking, so everyone can immediately identify my bias and raise concerns like the one above.
When I write, though, that bias is a bit more hidden. I can write under a pseudonym. I can publish through an anonymous medium with a phony biography in place. I have the option of obscuring my background so no one can claim such bias.
Bias and Written Stories
I read several travel blogs before my Brazil trip to mentally set up expectations before I landed. Some were collaborative – written by groups who had gone to the country for hiking, exploring, or business purposes. A few were solo accounts, ironically similar to my own of trying to navigate the country with zero Portuguese skills.
The even larger irony is that more than half of these solo accounts were written by women. Like me, they landed in a foreign airport with no clue how to get to their destination and made it safely through depending on the kindness (and ability to understand pantomime) of taxi drivers.
When I read these accounts, I related instantly to the stories. I didn’t discover until later they’d been written by women and I was pleasantly surprised our experiences were so similar despite our difference in gender.
This reminds me of the common complaints I see of men writing women, or of white authors writing minorities. Too often we look at the demographic of the writer and immediately assume they’re incapable of relating to or conveying the stories of another demographic.
I was recounting a personal experience, and it was implied that my experience would not apply to another demographic – despite my finding very similar stories presented by that very demographic. I find it a bit frustrating to have my stories limited in their application to demographics fitting my personal appearance.
To this end, I proposed a wild idea:
I would love to publish a lit anthology with authors' names removed from individual pieces.
— Eric Mann (@EricMann) May 9, 2014
Too often we see a name/bio and immediately assume racial/sexual bias, particularly in literature. Would be an interesting project.
— Eric Mann (@EricMann) May 9, 2014
I still hold that a somewhat anonymous anthology would be an interesting experiment. Do you see any value there?