by Bill Konigsberg
With my new novel The Porcupine of Truth, I tried to be brave.
I decided to do the one thing that writers talk about as being among the most challenging things an author can do. To give a realistic interior to an “other.” To write across a boundary such as sexual orientation.
I wrote from the point of view of a straight male character.
I know, I know. I should probably get a medal. But I did it because I fully believe that straight guys deserve the same rights and privileges I’ve been afforded.
They were born that way, after all. I truly believe that.
I joke, I joke. But there’s a kernel of truth (a Porcupine, if you will) in there. My first two novels, OUT OF THE POCKET and OPENLY STRAIGHT, were both from the point of view of a gay male character. With this book, my two main characters are a straight white male and a gay black female. I am neither.
And yet. Carson Smith and Aisha Stinson, who meet in Billings, Montana, and wind up on a life-changing cross-country road trip together, are the two most emotionally “like me” characters I’ve ever written. Carson, like me, uses humor to mask his emotions and will never be quite as normal as he wishes he were. Like me, Aisha has a firm, somewhat rigid understanding of right and wrong and doesn’t believe there’s anything more important than being exactly who she is at all costs.
Perhaps it sounds like a stupid question, but as I wrote the book, I wondered: is it harder for a straight person to write an LGBT character than for an LGBT person to write a straight character?
Think about that for a moment. If we think it’s easier, does that mean that straight is like a base condition from which we LGBT people stray? That I have a frame of reference that a straight author, for instance, might not have in writing a gay character? Or if we think it’s exactly the same, does that discount the first 13 years of my life, when I believed I was straight because that’s what society told me I (and everyone around me) was?
It’s actually a little bit complicated. Did I understand Carson’s interior as a straight white male because I thought I was one? Or did I understand it because we are all the same inside?
Or is it possible that I understood Carson’s interior because of heterosexism? After all, I’ve been considered straight at all times when I don’t say otherwise. In my life, when straight men haven’t known I was gay, I’ve been invited into their culture. That probably doesn’t happen so often in the reverse, though I assume there are probably some straight people who have been invited to be part of LGBT culture, through assumption, or perhaps through family.
Regardless, I admit I didn’t focus on Carson’s straightness that much. I knew he was in love with Aisha, who is not available. I was able to hone in on what it feels like to be in love with someone who doesn’t love me back without too much trouble, sadly.
What I focused in on instead was Carson’s joy and pain. What does Carson love? To feel connected to others, as it turns out. What brings Carson pain? Feeling unloved and uncared for.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in there. For all the talk about how careful we need to be writing across these boundaries—sexual orientation, race, class—perhaps all we really need to be focused on is creating a realistic interior. Is it possible that it’s that simple?
I am fully in favor of writers attempting these sorts of endeavors. I think on a personal level, striving to give a believable interior to a “not me” character is the surest way I can grow and evolve. In the process, I learn the ways that humanity puts its stamp on all of us. And also, I learn the ways in which human experience differentiates us from each other.
And also avoiding the pitfalls helps me grow, too.
For me, a pitfall a straight person might fall into in writing an LGBT character is oversexualizing that character. In the same way M-4-M romance is somewhat fetishized these days by straight female readers, I think it’s potentially problematic to think that a gay character, for instance, is somehow more sexual simply because they happen to be attracted to people of the same sex.
I suppose time will tell whether there were pitfalls in writing a straight male character that I fell into! We’ll just have to wait and see.
The Porcupine of Truth hits store shelves 5/25– Buy your copy today!