When you begin a career as a scriptwriter, as I am now, or any writing career for that matter, you’re told to “write what you know”. This is good advice of course. However, as a mixed-heritage twenty-something female writer of colour who grew up in Cardiff, it struck me recently that what I’m often really being asked is to “write what ‘my people’ know”.
It seems after years of neglecting diverse storytelling, the media and creative industries are now racing to play catch-up. There is no question that our storytellers have centred their narratives around the white male experience for so long that every other community outside of that is now being called upon to share their version of events. I welcome this change, it’s long overdue and necessary for us to move forward, but while the sentiment is right, the approach is very often wrong.
Personally, when people show interest in my stories, in “what I know”, I regularly get the feeling that I’ve let them down. Without understanding why, or what it means, I come away with a different kind of imposter syndrome. One in which my story didn’t meet expectations because it wasn’t quite “Black enough”. In this context, a “Black story” is a story that exposes the historic trauma of being a Black person in society.
As a writer of colour, you feel you are constantly walking a tightrope. You are finely balancing who you are, your known history, and the history of “your people”. A history I personally did not live but nevertheless often feel the weight of.
The problem with the publishing and creative industry playing historical and cultural catch-up right now is that, as writers of colour, we are expected to grapple with the trauma of today’s racial landscape and, at the same time, yesterday’s too. Is it fair that I am expected to write about this trauma to educate others? Especially when practical emotional support isn’t readily available to deal with the consequences of that.
I am lucky: the majority of experiences in my career thus far have been supportive and celebrated the colour of my skin. I’m very proud to be part of a Literature Wales programme that fosters new writing talent called Representing Wales: Developing Writers of Colour. But ironically, alongside this programme come more requests for me to talk about my race. Within this space dedicated to diversity, I am safe, nurtured and creatively inspired. I only wish this support extended to writers of colour when stepping out into the surrounding industry.
When you ask people of colour to “write what they know”, check first that you aren’t asking them to write a story that white people can’t. Personally, I would love to be able to sell you the new scripted version of Sex in the City or Girls without having to reassure you that, “Of course the lead character is not white – and yes that does change their perspective on the world. Oh, but don’t worry, I’m sure they will still be relatable to the masses.”
For a writer of colour, your heritage is in everything you write. It’s something you’re probably always thinking about and want to celebrate. I’m proud of who I am, and where I’ve come from. Black stories, past and present, are so important – but let’s not put pressure on the next generation of diverse storytellers to feel their stories are only worth the colour of their skin, or the collective trauma of their heritage. Their talent and place in this industry is worth more than that.
Emily Burnett is a scriptwriter, actor and part of Literature Wales’ new programme that develops writers of colour