Talking point | Fiction

With respect

How to write about things you haven’t experienced yourself.

A black and white portrait photo of writer and lecturer Maaza Mengiste. She has chin-length curly dark hair and smiles at the camera.

Writer and lecturer Maaza Mengiste


People say you should write about what you know. But as a historical novelist, I'm very interested in what I don't know. Curiosity is a big motivation for me in my work. On the one hand, it can be a transformative act if writers imagine different protagonists – not only how they differ from us, but also the things we have in common, like the way that we are all afraid, insecure, need to be protected. If a writer can create characters that have depth and are complicated – then it doesn’t matter if they are based on one’s own experience. But if you write about someone who is, for example, trans, just because you think it is the cool thing to do, if you don't understand what it means to exist in the world as someone who is trans – then you are entering dangerous territory. Respect has to be there before the writing can begin.

As told to Gundula Haage