The Default Setting


Right before I began my MFA program, I had the premises worked out for ten different novels. I could see the stories, characters and their universe clearly. I saw every story as viable and all the protagonists as fixed characters. It wasn’t until the first quarter of my program that I realized all of my main characters were white males.

Tony Morrison’s Playing in the Dark got me thinking about Othering for the first time. The lack of diversity among my characters struck me in the form of cognitive dissonance. I’m an inclusive liberal, aren’t I? How did this happen? What happened is that my imagination was operating on a default setting. After much meditation, I determined that my high capacity for empathy has made me a liberal and a storyteller, but when it comes to inclusivity, my intelligence is required.

Before being educated, the characters in The Alchemist’s Theorem were mostly white males. After reading Tony Morrison’s book, I did some re-imagining. Though Sir Duffy is still male with caucasian features, he’s middle-aged, ‘over-weight,’ and emotional. And after reading Naoki Higashida’s book The Reason I Jump, Mendel took on Japanese features.

But making decisions like these only got me so far. When it came time to describe Mendel’s eyes, I hesitated. My default setting would have used offensive descriptives. However, my intelligence required that I do some research. After a little Googling, I came across the Tumblr blog Writing with Color and found this blogpost by a Korean-American named Stella about how to thoughtfully describe asian eyes.

I didn’t realize how afraid I would feel while trying to write inclusively. What am I afraid of? My own ignorance. Of my intelligence failing me. Of my own self-perception not matching up to my actual self. But that’s a whole lot of ‘me.’ If I push the ‘fear of me’ aside, and continue to listen to the many voices like Stella’s that are out there, then my empathy and intelligence will operate on a higher setting than the default.


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