You don’t know my name yet, but when Death’s Head Press releases the splatter western graphic novel I’m currently writing along with great new artist Adam James later this year, hopefully you’ll check it out. But speaking of westerns: well, this particular oasis seems to filled with refreshingly like-minded horror folks, and while horror is refreshingly diverse most of the time, we need to talk about westerns. Specifically, the trouble with them and “writing what you know”.
“Write what you know,” I’ve always been told — in high school classes, college classes, from other authors. Repeated over and over like a mantra by so many that write, such a statement has always confounded me; such a statement seemed antithetic to the very act of creating art itself. Anyone can put pen to paper and use their imagination to create any world they please, any situation they longed for, any character they could dream up — and yet, time after time, I just kept hearing to just “write what you know”.
As a Bi 25-year-old Hispanic primarily from Mexican descent (with some Native American ancestry as well), getting the chance to write a splatter western comic for Death’s Head Press seemed like the perfect challenge: the wild, wild west, infamous for its racism, sexism, homophobia, and general griminess was as far removed from my liberal Los Angeles bubble as I could get, the exact opposite of “write what you know”.
Writing this essay at the tail-end of a year-long pandemic in which I was contained to my apartment for most of the time has taught me to relish the chances to experience new things when I can; this was my chance to infiltrate a section of genre historically anti-everything about me and who I am, the chance to stick a middle finger to “write what you know” and experience a time period and genre I really didn’t know much about previously — for good reason.
You see, while I’m a major horror fan, I’ve always shied away from westerns. Historically, in every one I saw as a kid, they were more often than not just white cowboys riding around killing Native Americans and saving the day, with Mexican /Hispanic characters usually reduced to drunkards or cheesy villains. This was such a problem in Hollywood Westerns that a 1981 New York Times article claims famed Western Director John Ford himself once “expressed surprise when he discovered that real Latins were far more industrious than the siesta-prone caricatures that Hollywood had been portraying for many years.” The article continues describing how the Mexican was often characterized in early Western films as “…among the most vile of the screen's villains. He robbed, murdered, pillaged, raped, cheated, gambled, lied and displayed virtually every vice that could be shown on the screen.”
And sadly, in all my research for this DHP book (watching and reading a ton of varied westerns; tons of western history) this has almost always been proved true in both classic western literature and film. The Native Americans get gunned down. Anything LGBT isn’t mentioned or is shamed. And the Mexicans are background characters, villains, drunkards.
Why? Well, because historically white writers wrote them that way; white historians wrote the history books; white directors directed them as stereotypes. They wrote and depicted what they “knew”. The racism they had been taught, the stereotypes in society at the time — usually pushed by people writing what they know and not being willing to branch out, to look at other cultures and break down stereotypes.
Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times now. The Western/Horror genres (film and literary) are still very much predominantly led by white males, but more often than not, they’re striving to write outside of “what they know” and give us diverse characters and less stereotypes. Publishers like Death’s Head Press is giving female and minority authors chances to dip their toes into genres that have historically locked them out, and that just thrills me — to be a part of it isn’t something I take lightly. The modern city may be the furthest place from the Old West, but putting in the work to give a fresh new take on a genre that’s historically hated me? That’s pretty rad.
I may not have known much of the history of how the West was won, but to now have the chance to tell horror stories in such a setting that can have Mexicans that aren’t constantly comedic relief or bad guys? To feature LGBT or Native American leads and give them actual plot points and conflicts? I’ll sit and do the research and learn the history if it means I can do so. I’ll learn the time period it means being able to tell stories with representation rarely seen in them.
Screw “write what you know”.
Write from the heart. Write outside your usual boxes. Write the stories that haven’t yet been told.
After all — only you can do so.
Vicente Francisco Garcia