What’s your ‘Writer Identity’?

person writing

Are you a Welsh writer? Or an Irish writer? Or an Asian writer? Publishers love pigeon-holing their writers, and writers are often labelled by the media. But how do you identify with a particular location if you move around? Can ‘writer identity’ be a positive thing? And what do the writers think?

Here are just three opinions on the complex subject of ‘writer identity’ – not a representative snapshot by any means, but please do feel free to add your own thoughts using the comments below…

Selena Caemawr writer

Selena Caemawr

Selena Caemawr is a poet and activist based in Wales. She writes about living on the intersections of oppression, as a queer, trans, autistic person of colour with mental illness. Her bold, and often intimate, spoken word performances challenge perceptions around topics such as race, disability and gender, as she aims to bring people into the world of intersectionality.

“I arrived in Wales in 2005 in search of new beginnings. Little did I know that one day I’d feel so attached as to call it home. I left behind many torn memories and Wales has been my sanctuary. Although I was not born here I identify with Welshness, as it made me who I am today, and despite it not being my first language, I am a passionate advocate for the Welsh language.

To add several “hats” on top of that one, I speak in voices that have been influenced by my background and culture. I come from a mixed-race, working class family, I’m autistic and coloured by several shades of the LGBTQ rainbow, and these factors shape the entity I am conveying. When I was younger I studied acting, and for me writing is a process of inhabiting a character. I write for performance, and so I am creating the voice of a character; although the character I’m embodying is myself; a version of myself; myself, the writer. I want people to see, to feel, to hear, to experience things as I do. Which “hat” am I wearing? Well, it depends on which story I’m telling today. I suppose, if I’m “being myself,” then all of them at once.

Before I began writing poetry, my readers labelled my activist voice as hostile and abrasive; they very much pigeon-holed me as “the Angry Black Woman,” which is endlessly amusing, because I’m actually a cuddly teddy bear. Poetry has saved me from this. Poetry prepares people to stop and listen. It’s a universal and ancient on-going conversation, removed from the specificity of identity, allowing people to look on objectively, but still connect with me. It’s a massive river that flows through all human culture, and I’m one small tributary.

Writer identity is everything. The work in and of itself is lifeless, without human connection.”

Rupert Dastur writer

Rupert Dastur

Rupert Dastur is a writer and founding editor of TSS Publishing. He’s also Associate Editor at The Word Factory and his own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter @RupertDastur

“I’m a white, middle-class man who lives in London and benefited from an education at Cambridge University. All these things can be advantageous, one way or another, in the publishing/writing world. I haven’t needed labels, because people like me rarely struggle for representation or need to face industry expectations or preconceptions. That’s lucky. It’s important to acknowledge it, be appreciative, and support others who aren’t so fortunate.

I don’t think we should deny some of the benefits the industry may have in applying their own labels. It helps monitor who’s being published and provides contextual data to debates surrounding representation, while also aiding the marketing of authors and books. However, I’d like to see writers carving out their own identity, rather than having them imposed by the publishing industry. For example, an LGBTQ+ author may write a book with a gay protagonist – in this instance, their identity may be relevant. But their next book may be totally unrelated to queer themes and so being externally labelled as a queer writer might be creatively constraining; this can be applied across the spectrum of identity-tags.

It’s a complicated, but important conversation. I feel that as long as we apply due sensitivity to the discussion, while also being frank about the facts, then sensible conclusions and solutions will be reached.”

Durre Shahwar - writer

Durre Shahwar

Durre Shahwar is a writer, Associate Editor for Wales Arts Review and co-founder of ‘Where I’m Coming From’, an open mic promoting BAME writing in Wales. She writes about a broad range of topics, including identity, gender and mental health, and has been published in various magazines and anthologies.

“It’s inevitable for me, as someone who has grown up, studied, and continues to live and work in Wales, to identify as a Welsh writer. I think there is something really particular and enriching about identifying as one, while at the same time saying quite a lot about the way that the writing/publishing world is broken down in the UK. Yet at the same time I identify with a different ethnicity to my home, which I guess makes me a ‘Welsh-South Asian’ writer. But interestingly in all those equal opportunities mentoring forms, there is no such option. Which then makes me wonder what makes someone a British Asian and what makes someone a Welsh Asian? Is one question more related to ethnicity and the other to nationality? Which is which?

I’ve not been labelled so much by others as I have labelled myself, I think. Of course, in Wales, I’ve been identified as a Welsh writer. But I think terms such as BAME writer/ writer of colour/ South Asian writer were terms I only came to acknowledge about myself in the past two years. And I think a lot of people like me did, because of the changes and the call for wider representation and diversity that were and still are happening in the publishing industry and in general across various sectors. And it became something that connected me to a lot of people like myself – even if they were in London or Bristol (social media is a great thing sometimes). And without this connection, I think I would have felt a little isolated and afraid of owning my stories. And so, in that sense, it was a positive thing for me.

But sometimes I battle with this, and I think that that’s okay. Like with anything, we’re constantly doing a balancing act of juggling our different identities and personas and this is probably a more obvious case for people who inhabit different heritages but I think it’s a privilege sometimes to be able to flit between many cultures.

Writer identity can be a positive thing when it is used to bring structural changes. When it is used to ask who isn’t sitting at the table. When it is used to ensure that all stories are told as though they were universal stories. But I also think it can be a negative thing when you get caught up in constantly justifying yourself to and pandering to a certain lens through those labels. When it is tokenistic or reductive.

I think the labelling that comes from external sources can also happen in less obvious ways than just terminology. For instance it can happen in the sort of events you are (or aren’t) asked to speak at. Or things you are (or aren’t) asked to write for. For me, that’s a form of negative labelling in which you are almost put in a box and expected to pander to a certain type of expectation that others have of you. So, I think as a BAME/Welsh/South Asian writer, I’m always juggling between celebrating these identities and trying to avoid boxes.”

So… what do you think? Do you identify yourself with a particular location? Have you ever been labelled by publishers? And do you think writer identity can be a positive thing? Please respond using the comments below.

One thought on “What’s your ‘Writer Identity’?

  1. My general biography that I send off with submissions says that I come from Scotland, but now live in Wales, and I do wonder if I should just say I’m a Scottish writer. On a personal level, though, I’m a writer. End of.

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