Writing For White People Without Offending My Entire Country

How I tried to balance two audiences in a viral post

How they make toddy (palm wine) in Kotahena. They filter it through a cloth. It’s more palatable (but less alcoholic) fresh. We used to get it at our beach house (I know) but the tapper fell off the tree and died.

Being a writer is weird because it’s both an intimate and a mass medium. When I write I’m alone and, in my head, talking to one person. I then, on an edit, switch the person I’m talking to. If I talk about children, how would people without children feel? If I say fat, is that OK, and how can I make it clear to everyone that they’re beautiful?

In a world of many different perspectives, I have to do this a lot.

The anti-woke brigade is like ‘oh this makes writing so hard, I can’t just express myself’. I think this is dumb. Writing is hard, and what I’m trying to express is truth, filtered through my experience like toddy through an old t-shirt. Expressing yourself isn’t about getting something out. It’s about connecting to other human beings. So of course you want to think about them.

But at some point, you just need to say fuck it. There are many perspectives which I think are just wrong and I’m not going to engage them with complexity. I’m not trying to engage with, say, white supremacists and make them comfortable. I’m not even trying to engage with mainstream liberals who want everything to be polite and slow. In many cases, I know that I’m pissing off my parents. I was basically neoliberal in my youth. In my old age, I’ve gone radical.

In those moments I think about Biggie. Did Biggie think about pissing off his mother all the time? No, she just cashed the checks.

I think you have to think about perspectives and then take one. At some point the conversation has to winnow and some people do need to get left out. I just try to make it the assholes, and not people who are like ‘Hey, this is just the way I am. I was born this way. Did you forget about me?’ So I try not to forget about them, and then I try to forget everybody else.

Nowhere did I feel this more keenly than writing I Lived Through Collapse. America Is Already There. For me that’s an unusually intimate piece because it talks about, well, my childhood, and life, and family. And my country. Things I don’t even think about that much myself. Part of the piece is about the normalcy of collapse, and honestly I’ve entirely compartmentalized that part of my life. I never think about it but looking through photos I’m like WTF.

With that piece I felt like I had to balance a lot of things. I’m writing to a western, largely white audience, but at the same time there are at least four separate sides to the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was really hard. I cannot use the experience of war lightly because it’s not mine. Of all people, I would have had it the easiest.

So for that I had to think about especially the Tamil people who got bombed by a military, while we were usually inconvenienced by whatever asymmetrical warfare they could muster. Though sometimes completely hammered, Prabhakaran was in my opinion a military genius and he really fucked us up. Anyways, we would be like ‘don’t bomb our shops’ and they would be like ‘hey, don’t bomb our everything’ and honestly, yeah.

I had drafts where I discussed that directly, but that didn’t work because then I had to mention the soldiers, who were also Southern boys going through some serious shit that city boys like me never even considered as we just complained about checkpoints. They were manning checkpoints all night, and that was the easy part.

Now, however, I would have lost the western audience, because they’re suddenly trying to understand a war nobody understands, and losing the original point which is that they are even more fucked up.

For someone that doesn’t live here they could just wing it. You can be totally wrong about entire countries and nobody seems to care. But I live here. I can’t shit where I eat, or Sri Lankan Twitter would eviscerate me, as I would to anyone else.

So basically I left stuff out. I used nuance and elision to hint at the multiple perspectives and then humiliated myself as a “Colombo fuckboi” to basically apologize and submit. And then I could get to my main point, which was for a different audience entirely.

Did it work? I mean, I have my digital viscera, so I guess. But this is invisible. I’m just telling you because this is a newsletter, but who cares? There’s a tiny audience that could have been hurt but wasn’t; it’s a non-story. But that is the story behind the story. That’s actually what I labored with most with the piece, and what I had to explain to the GEN editors when they were editing it.

As a writer you have to think about your audience and choose the conversations that matter to you. And if I write about any place, the conversation with those people is the most important. Because they know infinitely more than me, and I do strive for some semblance of truth, filtered as best I can, through the old t-shirt of my experience.

You can read the viral post here, and it’s follow up also.