Literature Still Urgently Needs More Non-White, Non-Male Heroes

This editorial by Monica Byrne originally appeared on The Atlantic on 5/20/14.

If privileged writers keep “writing what they know,” marginalized people groups will continue to feel—and be—marginalized.

One of the most celebrated pieces of advice to writers is “Write what you know.” Unfortunately, it shows.

The demographics of published writers in the West are largely homogeneous, and as a result, our literature is also largely homogeneous. Growing up, for example, my heroes were Atreju, Frodo, and Paul Atreides. All I ever really wanted to do was go on adventures like them. I readily identified with them, and their trials became my scripture: the loss of Artax, the recovery at Lothlórien, the knife fight with Feyd-Rautha.

Despite a liberal upbringing and an education at a women’s college, it didn’t occur to me that my identification with male heroes had damaged me in any way—that is, until I became a writer, and found myself weirdly reluctant to write a woman hero. This wasn’t an accident.

As Vanessa Veselka wrote in The American Reader, there is a profound relative lack of female road narratives in the Western literary tradition. This absence hurt her in much more concrete ways. When recounting her years as a teenage hitchhiker, Veselka writes, “my survival depended on other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me…[but] there was no cultural narrative for [us] beyond rape and death.” Male hitchhikers had Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and dozens of others. Veselka had bodies in dumpsters on the six o’clock news.


Click here to read the full editorial on The Atlantic.