Thursday, January 07, 2016

Is it insensitive to use my non-white sounding name, when I am white?

I share a name with a published author. Thus I use a variation of my name to post comments on your blog. I know that I will have to correspond with industry professionals by my given name. Should I also make it clear publicly that the blog name is my pen name?

Thanks to the white guy who used a Chinese pen name to publish a poem, I am a little worried that any obfuscation of my very white ethnicity is going to cause problems. The name I have chosen could lead people to assume that I’m not white. Should I be concerned?


No.
What people assume about you is their problem.

There's a hilarious episode of Seinfeld about this exact situation.

When you query, you'll mention your pen name...or not.  There's a blog post on how to do both.

I find it hilarious that people are upset that someone adopted a "Chinese sounding name" to get published, when any survey of published works will tell you that the best way to get published, hands down, is to be a middle-aged white male.

That said, when anthologies or calls for submissions specifically say "we're looking for diverse voices" you can err on the side of good manners by telling them while you, yourself, are not colorful, your writing is.

The true problem with diversity is that not enough non-white, non-males are sending in work.

When you ask a newspaper's op ed page editor why so few women are published, they'll tell you it's cause 85% of the submissions they get are from men.

We need to do better on the ground floor: getting young writers of all colors and genders to send out work.

If anyone is interested in supporting that there are some great places to do so.

Girls Write Now is one

Afghan Women's Writing Project is another.

I'm sure there are more and the commenters will provide us with info.

But the best way to support diversity in publishing is to buy and read writers who are non-white, and/or non-male. It's not enough to say "I read regardless of color and gender." You have to actively seek out new voices. Your librarian can help you. There are some amazing writers out there you haven't heard of yet. And just wait till you see what I've got coming up the pipeline!




90 comments:

Lucie Witt said...

Great post on an important topic.

I wold agree - don't worry about it unless you are submitting to something specifically seeking to publish marginalized voices and diverse characters. Then it's just being polite.

Names can be misleading. My husband is a Black man named Stacy and often included his masculine middle name on applications and what not to avoid surprised expressions later.

There are a lot of agents actively seeking diverse books right now. There is also this:

http://writeinthemargins.org/the-marginal-a-blog/2015/12/22/query-contest-the-details

(Colin, apologies in advance for not having a hyperlink. I am going to check out your blog post on this ASAP!)

I would add the caveat that we need more diverse agents and editors, too. I can't remember the exact stats, but I know that diversity on the other side of the fence is just as bad or worse than it is on our bookshelves.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Finally something I know about.
Years ago, and I mean many years ago, almost all op-eds I sent to my states largest newspapers were published. As a young mother with opinions, they published not only articles about what it was like to raise children, but what it was like to have thoughts regarding everything from animal rights to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Op-eds are a great way to get your name out there and garner a byline. (You get paid too).
I used my own name because it never occurred to me to be anything other than who I was, a female in my thirties. It was what the papers wanted then. Now, the newspaper world is different, less paper more pixels, which means there are more opportunities for publication no matter what name you chose.
My advice, represent who you are because that’s who YOU want to be, not who you think someone else wants you to be.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

What Janet says.

Diversity is important. I think another part of the problem is where books are shelved in bookstores. One young African American woman commented elsewhere that she writes romances and some bookstores shelve African American romance books on the African American shelves rather than the romance shelves.

This affects selling and visibility to the general public.

Lucie Witt said...

Lisa,

I used to work at Borders (RIP) and I can attest many interested readers don't find books because they're in the AA section. It's also often so arbitrary which authors go there and which do not.

Almitra Clay said...

Thank you Janet!

Tony Clavelli said...

I thought the Sherman Alexie vs. "Yi-Fen Chou" situation was pretty yucky. (Maybe hilarious in that "so this is happening?" kind of way.)

Anyway, to the post and the above--yes! Reading from writers outside your own experiences (especially in your own genre) can do so much good. Beyond helping create empathy, it makes you a better writer and see the world in a new way. As a super sci-fi fan, I really like to use io9 and Charlie Jane Anders to find a more diverse batch of new writers. There's a pretty constant stream of info there. I also love John Green's annual recommended book list, which is often as diverse in content and genre as it is with its writers. You can see a video of the books at this link which will probably fail because I still don't get how to do it.

And I agree with Janet--you've got to make a point of it--it isn't enough just to wait for publishers and submissions, you have to seek it out. I maybe mentioned before that though it felt silly to google things like "best novels black writers 2015," really, who cares? You get good stuff and good writers get book sales and everyone is better off.

Gimme said...

I think you're conflating two issues here: does this person have to "out" themselves, and is what they're doing okay. As a publishing professional, you are an expert on the first question.

As a POC, I find that part two is answered inadequately, and something about this post is rubbing me VERY wrong. (Not the publishing advice itself, which I am sure is accurate.) But the idea that someone decided to choose a "non-white" sounding name (whatever that means), and then say, "what other people assume about you is their problem."

As a WoC, people assume PLENTY about me from my name (that I have broken English, that I wasn't born in the USA, ad nauseum). It's not their problem, it is ABSOLUTELY mine. I have to deal with the ramifications ALL THE TIME.

There's something very irksome, almost black/red/yellow-face-ish, about the idea of a white person using a "non-white" name as a pen name: like s/he chose a non-white identity as a costume, which they can then shed at will when they are tired of it. Being a PoC in America is a constant grind of microaggressions and straight up aggressions, and it's bullshit for white people to pretend to be one of us for funsies and the teehees, even if they aren't actually "getting" anything out of it.

The letter-writer notes that they share a name with a published author, and thus chose a "variation" on their name, which leads me to wonder if they just chose a different version of a European name, which to me doesn't equal "non-white." But if they go around calling themselves something that sounds Indian or Japanese or what have you, that seems pretty problematic to me.

To be sure, commenting on a blog is, on the grand scale of things, not that big of a deal, it's not like this person is pulling a Rachel Dolezal. And again, I don't disagree that this person shouldn't have to "out" themselves because this is pretty minor. But I would seriously side-eye someone goes around using an obviously ethnic name, and question why they chose to do that in the first place.

That white guy pretending to be Chinese was seriously offensive, regardless of the reason for or effectiveness of his ploy. I adore your blog, Ms. Reid, and have for many years, but it's the epitome of white privilege to find the whole situation "hilarious" instead of a hurtful slap in the face.

nightsmusic said...

That said, when anthologies or calls for submissions specifically say "we're looking for diverse voices" you can err on the side of good manners by telling them while you, yourself, are not colorful, your writing is.

And...that sent my coffee everywhere this morning. Thank you very much ;)

I think I've mentioned before that my first name is very male. I however, am not. It can create a multitude of false impressions and expectations (especially for the government and draft notices) but! It's my name. If people get the wrong impression from my name, the loss is theirs alone.

I do write fiction under a pen name, for personal reasons, though magazine essays have been under my real name, more because they wouldn't accept anything less. The most important thing I always have to tell myself is, your name might define your gender, but your voice gives your story life. It's the story the agent is interested in, not whether you're male, female or whatever.

Tony Clavelli said...

Gimme--I must have been writing at the same time as you. I am not a POC but I didn't find it hilarious either (I took a guess above, hoping maybe I was misinterpreting the tone of that sentence). Either way, thank you for taking the time to post that. I imagine Janet will respond, and perhaps rethink that advice. OP with pen name can and almost certainly should change the pen name.

Lucie Witt said...

Thanks for your comment, Gimme. I missed some of the things you pointed out in your comments (hey, privilege).

Robert Ceres said...

Another place I think non-minority writers can help in #WNDB is to include minority characters in our writing. It is always weird to me how few minorities are included in published books. After all, today hardly anybody at all is not surrounded by minorities. In fact, minorities, when summed up, may be more prevalent than the non-minorities, depending on how you define a minority.

Readers and book buyers are also at fault, especially a vocal minority of perhaps middle-aged white guys, who vehemently oppose the entire concept of greater representation of minorities. The recent fiasco at the Hugo awards comes to mind. Also, furor over the portrayal of Rue as black in the Hunger Games movie, and the more recent discussion of a Harry Potter play with a black Hermione. Unfortunately these kinds of protesters seem to have the loudest voices, or perhaps their outlandish views just get the most coverage.

So write books with diverse characters, reflecting reality, even if you are a middle-aged white guy. You'll be a better writer. And what Janet said. Buy books by minority authors and with minority characters/protagonists.

Sorry for sounding like I'm ranting and overlong comment. I feel passionate about this, even if I'm a middle-aged white guy.

Hysterical episode of Seinfeld. Aren’t they all. I sometimes think most of life's possible lessons can be summed up in one Seinfeld episode or another. The lesson’s that aren't are covered in Caddy Shack, My Cousin Vinnie, and perhaps a few others.

Lucie Witt said...

To add to Robert's comment, I strongly encourage any white folks writing non -white characters to check out this piece:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/danieljoseolder/fundamentals-of-writing-the-other#.jx57kXklBm

Now I've broken the 3 comment rule, and before lunch, no less.




DLM said...

Gimme, thank you.

What a lot of us fail to see through our privilege is that "white is the default." I place that in quotes not for sarcasm, but because the words are not mine; they are at the base of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the issues with diversity (not just in publishing, but I'm trying not to go off the rails here). I grew up understanding that whitneness is the signifying quality of American-ness, and never thinking about that. I lived in a suburb that was the product of white-flight, and went to a school named for a proponent of segregation and massive resistance. So-called "genteel racism" was (and even remains) not hidden.

THE major reason I decided to shelve The Ax and the Vase was that, no matter how good the writing is, nor even how interesting the story is: American publishing is not suffering from a dearth of tales of white dudes in power. There isn't a single POC in that novel, and I thought that was completely valid, and I WAS WRONG. I guilted about it, but didn't change it. The WIP is an entirely different matter.

Robert C. is right, and I have made it a point to reflect the cosmopolitan world about which I'm now writing, AND to bring the characters who aren't pale-skinned princesses very much to the fore. It is exhilerating to write.

One of the things I've heard in the #WNDB conversation is people of color relating how often white authors ask them if they CAN write POC characters. Like it requires permission to create a story reflecting the truth of the world. Like we're not allowed to presume to develop diverse characters. And I even get that. But we need to get over it.

Dena Pawling said...


My brother [with very white/English last name] married a Chinese lady, so his kids look very Chinese. Sometimes they get double-takes because their appearance doesn't match their last name.

Then there was the lady several months back who queried under her real, very female, name. She got almost no requests. She sent out the exact same query under the name George, and got a lot of requests.

I know a male attorney with the name Tracy.

Both my husband and I have names which can be male or female [Dena is a pen name]. We constantly receive mail [and telemarketing phone calls] addressed to us with the incorrect Mr or Mrs/Ms in front. My managing partner [the guy with his name on the shingle outside the door] also has a name that can go either way. Many times when I'm in court, attorneys and judges assume I'm him, even tho I announce my name EVERY TIME.

I'm not sure it's still done now, but a while back it was trendy to give your girl baby a name which wasn't a “female” name but could go either way. I think people did this to prevent discrimination in hiring just based on the name on the job application/resume. I suppose it might do that, but it's sort of annoying [and sometimes uncomfortable] to have people expecting me to be male when I'm not.

I realize most of this is about gender rather than race/nationality. I don't like that people have expectations based on the name alone, but the reality is that they do. I include non-white characters in my ms, and I make sure it's obvious who they are, including gender and color.

Almitra Clay said...

Thank you everyone for your thoughts on this -- Gimmie and Tony Clavelli especially. Tony, and anyone else who wants to chime in: do you think it makes a difference that I am writing fantasy and thus want to have a more fantasy-sounding name? Or that I specifically want to avoid a name with its roots in an existing religion, because I myself am a religious “none”? I feel that if I want to pick a name for myself that is both appropriate for my genre and more honestly “me” than the one I was given, then automatically I’m in a gray area. What would you do?

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Lately I feel like I don't deserve to comment here because I've never published anything and haven't queried beyond short stories. But I want to comment today.

I think it is a wonderful thing that publishing companies are looking for authors who are not considered a majority. This whole situation, though, reminds me of any job application in the US. All the political correctness and the quota filling plain kills creativity. Who cares what you look like or where you come from if your writing is good. Politics and administration are the death of art.

Now bookstores are organized like a job application.

Can't the writing just stand on it's own?

What Carolynn says makes sense to me. I've used several pseudonyms. The last one I chose was genderless but it didn't translate well because it meant "stuck" in the country where I live. Finally I decided to use my full name.

Be what you are and let your work speak for itself. You want to write un pseudonym, do it. Tons of great artists since forever have used them.

This storm of political/gender diversity will probably not be remembered when future generations read the wonderful books you are querying today. Let the writing speak. Universal human values are timeless

I can't wait to see what QOTKU pulls from the pipeline.

LynnRodz said...

Gimme, well said. It's the pretending in order to advance oneself that isn't right, but each person has their story and who they are. I've been a Chicana all my life, I came to Paris over 40 years ago. I am a Parisian Chicana, that's who I am, whether people like it or not. No, I don't put on airs, but you'd be surprised at the comments I get when I'm in the States for little things I say or do, or the way I dress, or how I hold a knife and fork that comes naturally to me. This reaction isn't necessarily by white people, but often by Chicanos, like I'm trying to one up myself. I've learned not to pay attention to what others think.

BJ Muntain said...

Almitra, if you're uncomfortable with your chosen pen name, then maybe you do need to find one you're more comfortable with.

Me, I wouldn't be biased one way or the other reading your name. 'Clay' is pretty much a plain name, and it's an old English name from way back. And these days, people are naming their children anything that sounds right to them. I don't think 'Almitra' lends itself to any one ethnicity, to tell you the truth.

So, if you're uncomfortable, change it. If you like it, don't. People won't automatically assume you're of a different ethnicity.

Jenny C said...

This is something I've thought about since my married name is Asian but I am white. I certainly don't want any agents or publishers to think I'm tricking them into believing I can add diversity to their lists, but in the days of social media all they have to do is look at my Twitter profile pic to see that I am clearly not Chinese. Yet I am part of a multicultural family. My children study Mandarin in school and are proud of their Chinese heritage, as they should be. And my name has been mine for 20 years. If I am ever lucky enough to publish a book I'll use the name Jenny Chou.

Can I disapprove of someone else using an Asian name just to get an edge up in publishing? Do I get a free pass because I'm a woman and I changed my name when I got married? People should be able to to adopt any pen name they want. A woman named Candy Sweet probably wouldn't publish a thriller under her own name. (I went to college with Candy - hi if you're reading this.) And I doubt anyone would fault her.

But ultimately I've come to the conclusion that using a pen name specifically to get an advantage in a publication that called for writers from diverse backgrounds is devious and honestly quite shocking.

I would love to see more writers from diverse backgrounds get published so I can read their stories. If anyone is looking for some terrific reads from some diverse writers, here are my favorites from last year:

Everything, Everything
Untwine
Everything I Never Told You
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina
More Happy Than Not
An Ember in the Ashes
The Wrath and the Dawn

What did I mis???

BJ Muntain said...

On the Off-Topic of gender-neutral names:

I love Tracy Chapman and her music. I love her voice and the poetry of her songs.

My niece likes her music, too. One time, chatting about music, she called the musician 'he'. I said, "No, Tracy Chapman is a woman." She said, "No, that's just because of his name. Tracy can be a man's name, too." I said, "No, I've seen her on talk shows back when she started out."

My niece still didn't believe me. I hope she googled her to find out for sure. I think the fact that Chapman is a female writing those songs gives them even more depth.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

People make a lot of odd assumptions about me based on my name which is my actual name. They are rarely accurate. I am not Jewish for example. My grandfather was awarded the Jewish All American trophy for football. He had to decline it and explain his family immigrated from Ireland where there were lots of gentile families with our surname.

My nephew has to deal with even more assumptions. His mother is Chinese and he looks entirely Asian, but that is not how his name sounds. He gets a lot of grief over this that shocks the Hell out of me. People miss a lot when all they see (or hear) is the group you are supposed to belong to and conform to.

Reading books produced from diverse backgrounds is important, not just in America but from all over the world. Perspective, prejudices, challenges vary depending on where on the globe you are standing.

Also, not all experiences are equal for individuals across a single group. We are all different and that is a good thing. We need variety to grow, and as humans, we all need the same things- food, shelter, love, kindness. Those are things that should bind us, but instead, seem to endlessly divide us.

People most always assume wrong when they judge a book by its cover or even its title or author. And we should know by now, when you assume you make an ass out of u and me.

Colin Smith said...

The first time I heard Billy Joel knowing that I was listing to Billy Joel (I had heard him and his music before--I just didn't know who I was listening to) was when a friend handed me a C-90 cassette of his "An Innocent Man" album to listen to. I enjoyed it so much, I went to the record library to borrow it (I didn't have the funds to buy it and my friend wanted the tape back). I'll never forget looking at the cover and doing a double-take: the dude in the leather jacket sitting on the steps was clearly not black. Something about his vocal style made me think of singers like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, so I naturally assumed he was also black. I laughed at myself and my assumptions, and then, over the next year or so, bought any and every Billy Joel album I could find and afford. After all, I was sold on his music, not his ethnicity.

As with music, so with books. When it comes to fiction, I want good, well-written stories. I appreciate the sentiment that we, as readers, and especially someone like me (a white middle-aged male) should actively seek out books by non-white writers. But to be honest, there are so many books I haven't read, and time to read is so precious, I don't want to waste my time with books I don't enjoy, and I'm not going to be guilted into reading books because I ought to. I got enough of that at school. :)

I will gladly read books by anyone, regardless of whether I can pronounce the author's name, or where the author came from. Recommend me good stories that happen to be by non-white people, and I'll read them. A few years ago, someone recommended to me BREATH, EYES, MEMORY by Edwidge Danticat. I knew nothing about the book or the author, but I read it and loved it.

The problem of diversity in literature is not as simple as people buying more diverse books. Not all diverse books deserve to be bought, because not all diverse books are good, well-written stories. Heck, there are plenty of bad books by white males around, and we could do with a lot less of those too! We need to encourage writers of all ages, genders, and ethnicities to strive for excellence and to get their work out there. After all, agents take on clients regardless of race and gender, right? And publishers publish novels because they love the story, not because the author fits a particular demographic profile, right? :)

There's a lot to unpack there, but this comment's already getting too long. I'll leave it at that, and let you all shoot me down. Hopefully I've stirred the pot enough. :)

DLM said...

EMG: "not all experiences are equal for individuals across a single group. We are all different and that is a good thing. We need variety to grow, and as humans, we all need the same things- food, shelter, love, kindness. Those are things that should bind us, but instead, seem to endlessly divide us."

You just sold me anything you will ever publish.

Colin, I am wildly in love with the name Edwige Danticat. I know nothing of this author, but what a splendid name on the tongue!

Donnaeve said...

"I find it hilarious that people are upset that someone adopted a "Chinese sounding name" to get published, when any survey of published works will tell you that the best way to get published, hands down, is to be a middle-aged white male."

I think some of you misinterpreted the actual meaning behind this comment by Janet. Her finding it "hilarious" is (IMO) more about everyone getting themselves into a kerfuffle over the Chinese name - which according to publishing stats should have been en epic fail for this person - when she's pointing out the real problem. I.e. don't get upset b/c he chose a Chinese name, get upset b/c the publishing world is dominated by middle aged white men, as in, you're focusing on the wrong thing.

I don't care what color you are if you write well.

I read COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI by Anne Moody a few months back. I enjoyed the book even though I became pretty uncomfortable following the author's journey as she formed her perspective of white people, with both valid and invalid reasoning.

I have SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward. I've not read that book yet, but look forward to it because I'd heard such great things about it. I didn't know the author was a "PoC" until I'd bought it. THAT, to me, is the important part.

I like what Colin said. I won't be guilted in buying books just because I should in order to support someone's agenda.

I just want to read good books - by anyone who cares to write them.

Lennon Faris said...

I think most people want others to see them a little differently than what they were born with or have become. Some people put on makeup or curl or dye their hair to alter their faces, some people suck in their gut or puff up their chest to make themselves look like they work out, some get surgeries done to enhance or diminish body parts.

I know those examples aren't exactly what's being discussed here, but I think they relate: the way others see us is one of the things we think about a lot. If you alter something about yourself because you want society to perceive you differently, I have a hard time faulting you. I would question the people who see you and assume they know something about you based on something so superficial. Yes, if I absolutely know the primary goal is to deceive or make money, I would not think favorably, but there is a lot of gray area here. A writer's work is their baby and a big part of their own identity!

Lucie Witt said...

I think we have to be careful with the "I just want good books" reasoning. It is undoubtedly true, but can sometimes unintentionally bury the problem - people of color are writing great books, but those books aren't making it into the shelves at the same rates. When they do, they often aren't treated the same by bookstores, publicists, etc. THAT is what we need to fix.

Donnaeve said...

Lucie, Janet has already pointed out that not enough diverse writers are sending in their work. Can I directly impact that? I doubt it.

Can any of us? Only if you work in publishing.

I don't think anyone can tell me that publishing doesn't already know about this and would like to see more.

My point about wanting good books to read is to emphasize I don't care the color of the person who wrote them. I will ask for more of Jesmyn Ward's work - if I like what she writes. I'll treat my reading experience of her work like I would anyone else - if I enjoyed it, I'll buy more. That's how we, as readers, support any writer.

Colin Smith said...

Diane: This is from my review of BREATH, EYES, MEMORY:

BREATH, EYES, MEMORY tells the story of Sophie Caco, a girl born and raised in Haiti by her aunt. At age twelve, her mother, now living in New York, sends for her. She moves to be with her mother, and discovers some shocking truths about her past and the life her mother and aunt lead. Sophie returns to Haiti as an adult where she hopes to find healing from the scars of that past.

I'm tempted to post a link to my review because it's actually pretty good--at least by my standards. But no. I'll stick to my policy. If you want to read it, it's on my blog. Just click on "Book Reviews" under the "Reviews" tab and you'll find it.

My review raises an issue that Lucie just touched on. I believe Edwidge's book is classified as "Women's Literature." If that's where B&N would have shelved it, you can be sure I would never have picked it up. How many great books by non-white writers do we overlook because of bad shelving or categorization that marginalizes these books?

Another point--no... I'll save it for another comment. :)

DLM said...

Diversity is not an agenda.

Diversity is the reality of our world - in the past, where I write, in the present, in every part of the world, no matter what. There is diversity of age, of gender identification, of color, of religion, of tastes in ice cream, of economic/relationship/educational/class/intellectual status. We don't all have the same resources. There is no world without differences: yet many of us grew up not seeing that. Many grew up feeling invisible because "white is the default", and faces and voices of color were not proportionately seen and heard - even still, there's no money in it, as far as certain industries are concerned.

Writing a story within narrow confines affects its *E*ffect on its audience. Hewing only to one philosophical idea, one corner of the wide world, one view - literal or otherwise ... literary claustrophobia can have its uses, but most often when what is unseen is the goal, is implied, is a key force in getting to the end. Otherwise: limitations are limiting. Dis-inclusiveness makes for poor writing.

I write precisely because I want to see something of the word other than where I live. The inside of my navel would make an awful setting for a story. Story is for many readers not merely an escape, but a venture OUT - out of the day to day, out of what they already know, out of their own skin.

And diversity is not all about skin. Remember that it's much, much wider than "political correctness" or complaining about old white dudes. Old dudes need representation too, in cultures obsessed with youth.


I was biting my tongue not long ago as two relations, both white women within four years of the age of eighty, explained angrily and passionately that Black people do not have it as bad as "they say." Whether "they" was that all-purpose entity we never have defined properly, "those" authorities out "there" somewhere - or actual Black people - was not defined, but clearly it was to be expected that true authority lay right there before me. As stated by two geriatric white women who'd known some black kids when they were young, and not been mean to them.

Diversity is not a punishment for privilege, and it's not even the political rectitude so many who fear this punishment find so abhorrent. It's just the real landscape of the world we live in.

Cheryl said...

In my experience, one of the best things white authors can do is talk about the great books they've read by authors of other races. Blog about them. Gush about them at parties. Give them high praise on Goodreads and Library Thing.

I rarely buy books without a recommendation, or at least a review. I've found so many excellent books by diverse authors via Famous White Author Dude blogs, books I never would have heard of otherwise.

Grace Wen said...

DLM: "What a lot of us fail to see through our privilege is that 'white is the default.'"

Bingo. Heck, I had this mindset. How invisible is this default? I've written three draft novels and sold a bunch of short stories and NONE of them have PoC because I didn't want to deal with the additional mental baggage of "Is this a Mary Sue?" or "Does this make Chinese people look bad?" or "Am I doing this right?" or "Am I perpetuating negative stereotypes or making the PoC character too unlikable?" Yes, I'm a Chinese-American woman worried about whether I'm writing Chinese-American characters "correctly."

Now that I type this out, I realize I'm being ridiculous. Or maybe not. In this interview, Celeste Ng said that an early Goodreads review found the racism depicted in her book unbelievable even though Celeste Ng wrote from her personal experience: http://read.hipporeads.com/write-what-terrifies-you-an-interview-with-celeste-ng/

IME, when you're in the minority, you're aware you're setting an example whether you like it or not. If a white male writes a bad book, he wrote a bad book. If a PoC woman writes a bad book, then in some people's minds PoC women *as a whole* write bad books. So the possibility of other people telling me I'm doing it "wrong" is very real, and the fear can be paralyzing. Work isn't fun when there's no room to fail or even be mediocre (my day job is like this--I work in a 90% white male field and am well-aware I'm held to a higher standard than my co-workers).

Thankfully, as I get older and write more, I'm getting over this fear. The MC in my next project is a female Chinese-American con artist.

Sorry for the ramble. This is such a complicated topic that can't be reduced to a Twitter hashtag.

S.D.King said...

I am married to Stephen King and that has not helped me.

Well,yeah, not "that"one.

Robert Ceres said...

Almitra, I’m no expert, but I’m not sure it’s worth even thinking about a pen name until after you have an agent (unless you're already published.) At that point your agent might have a lot of good advice. In my opinion Agatha Christy was a great name for a detective story writer, but probably a terrible name for romance. When she wrote her romance novels she used Mary Westmacott, which, to me, sounds perfect. Similarly the pen name Spencer Quinn sounds much better for a detective author than Peter Abrahams, even though he was already successful under his real name. On the other hand, JRR Tolkien was a great real name for a fantasy writer. Would he be so famous if he had published as Jeff Smith? But in some genre’s (or perhaps all) it probably doesn’t matter. YA for instance; John Green, Ned Vizzini, Rainbow Rowell (who could have ever thought up that one?)

But hopefully my (future) agent knows a lot more about this than I do. I also hope my agent won’t give a rat's ass about my real name and will select me to represent based on the quality of my writing.

Lucie Witt said...

Donnaeve,

I got ya, and I definitely see what you mean.

I just think we (the universal, societal we, not you/me/folks here) have to be careful with "just want good books" bottom line in these convos because it can take away from the larger point AND **unintentionally** reinforce the idea that the recent dialogue around diverse books means that any person of color can publish a sub par book because of a quota. To reiterate I don't think anyone here is saying that :) but I've definitely seen it in overall dialogue on this issue.

Aside - I wonder what the numbers really are re: diverse writers sending in queries and how the vary agent to agent. And how agents know iif the writer isn't identifying as from a marginalized group?

Adib Khorram said...

The community on this blog continues to amaze me. In almost any other forum, a topic like this would have devolved into harsh invective by now.

I don't really have much to add—others have said it better than I can—but I was reminded of a conference I attended last November, where I was on the receiving end of a pretty epic "Where are you from?"

I was born and raised in Kansas City, so I answered "Kansas City," even though I knew that was not what the questioner was asking. I made him work for it, and I'll admit it was funny watching him get more and more uncomfortable.

Afterwards, a friend shared this with me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWynJkN5HbQ

And it was perfect and hilarious.

Donnaeve said...

"Diversity is not an agenda."

Diane, it seems you're pointing to what I said here, "I won't be guilted in buying books just because I should in order to support someone's agenda."

I stand by the statement.

If an author is only being promoted and trotted out under the limelight because of their color, that's a shame. And a sham.

It's not wrong to celebrate writers of all colors, but it shouldn't be about the color of their skin - it should be about their work.

Robert Ceres said...

DLM: Love your lines:

“Diversity is not an agenda.”
“The inside of my navel would make an awful setting for a story.”
“Diversity is not a punishment for privilege, and it's not even the political rectitude so many who fear this punishment find so abhorrent. It's just the real landscape of the world we live in.”

And especially, “There is diversity of…tastes in ice cream…” made me blow coffee up my nose. What a great way to inject a little humor to accent a point. It also hits close to home. I have a lilly white young woman who only likes strawberry ice-cream, strawberry shampoo, strawberry jelly… She’s also as manic as a humming bird on a sugar high.

Grace: You said, “I work in a 90% white male field and am well-aware I'm held to a higher standard than my co-workers).”

I so wish this wasn’t true and hope you're not making 70 cents on the dollar. I think American society is making some progress here, but it’s clearly two steps forward, one step back. (Is there really a leading presidential contender advocating discrimination based on religion??? Sorry for the political intrusion, but this makes me really upset regardless of any of my other political beliefs.)

Many of us are breaking the rule on overly long posts today. I see that as a very good thing.

Donnaeve said...

Lucie, thank you, got it. I understand what you mean by the collective "we." :)

Grace Wen said...

Adib Khorram: LOL! Ah yes, so much fun with the "Where are you from?" question.

One time at the border with three friends returning to the US from Canada:

Border Patrol: Citizenship?
All of us: United States
BP (to me only): Where were you born?
Me: [names US city]
BP: Are you sure?
Me: ...

Dave Rudden said...

I had really trouble trying to decided what pen name to use. I came up will all sorts of variations of my name and names that sounded more professional but would stand out enough to get noticed.

At first I was thinking of Max Powers but I didn't want to be confused with Homer Simpson.

I then considered going with Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, Senior but that would not fit on a book cover easily.

After months of banging my head against a wall, I made the hard choice of using Dave. The hardest part of using such a stretch for a name is inadvertently not responding when people call me by Dave. After all my birth name is David. I am sure you can see my confusion.

Jenz said...

"It's not wrong to celebrate writers of all colors, but it shouldn't be about the color of their skin - it should be about their work."

You're right, it should be. But what about the statements above from people who worked in bookstores and confirmed that books by authors of color are often relegated to minority sections instead of being shelved along with the rest of their genre?

What you're saying is right in theory, and I respect that, but it's really still theory, not reality.

InkStainedWench said...

I am an ecru-American, and my book includes similarly hued characters, along with several African Americans, Asians (both South and East), people of assorted Abrahamic faiths, and a couple of Basques. I am not being consciously Diverse. I am reflecting the reality of my story's setting. As DLM states, "Diversity is the reality of our world."

Colin Smith said...

Diane/Donna/everyone: No, Diversity isn't an agenda, but unfortunately it often is used that way.

One of the things Stephen King harps on repeatedly in ON WRITING is "telling the truth" and being "honest." To me, that means if your novel is set in a middle class neighborhood in the 1960s, your characters will undoubtedly be white. To put a black family in that situation for any reason that has nothing to do with story would NOT be telling the truth. And that story reason ought to reflect the reality of middle class America in the 1960s, and not try to superimpose 21st century ideas, just to be "diverse" or PC. If you're going to tell it, tell it like it is/was.

On the other hand, if I set a story where I live here in Eastern NC, and all my characters are white, I would be lying through my teeth. And the white people are not all rich and privileged, and the black people are not all criminals. But there are rich, privileged white people, and, sadly, many (though not all) of the crime stories in the local newspaper involve young black males. That's a hard story to tell because we don't want to fall into (or create) stereotypes, and we want to encourage excellence, altruism, and heroism within our communities (white and non-white). Good story-telling requires us to dig deep, not only into our characters, but our society, and ourselves. And that can be both painfull and rewarding.

DLM said...

Donna, kind of yes, but only the word not your sentiment. As you say, it shouldn't be "about" the color of anyone's skin ... and yet ... colorblindness isn't all it's cracked up to be either (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/12/oscar-isaac-and-the-case-against-colorblind-casting/421668/). And I know this is not what you meant either, BUT there is an immensely powerful urge for those of us who have privilege to try to make *it* invisible, by pretending "I don't see color" - which is something I have learned that POC have to contend with in order to be seen as they are, which all too often includes the experience of being damaged and harassed by those who see nothing but color.

You are not one to pretend anything away. But ohhhh is it comfortable to be able to do that. I know it is. I do it myself, perhaps every damned day.

And too: diversity is not (only) about color/ethnicity. (Rob, thank you.)

As flip as it was, the ice cream thing is real-world stuff, seriously. I am mystified by those who can stomach Pandora bracelets or licorice or team fitness challenges. These things horrify me to a point it's hard not to think "You are doing it wrong" about those people who love this stuff. And I left out a lot - diversity in our health (mental illness and its challenges have been much on my mind of late), and stigmatizations that do not relate to ethnicity even tangentially. We "other" people for as many reasons as there are people marginalized or brutalized or CELEBRATED. Yes, even those we put on pedestals end up set outside the majority, and that's led to deaths we romanticize and downfalls we feed upon and cruelty of different varieties.

Adib, you and I had an exchange once about the man I know named Adib who was forced to go by "Eddie" because his own name was somehow too tricky for the locals. I may misremember, but you found the substitution appealing. So I checked my privilege all over again and realized my outrage at his re-appellation was all.about.ME. Adib showed a little chagrin, but it was decades old and mild, and he still lets people call him Eddie ... even though he did tell me his "real" name. So who am I to play White Savior for his real name?

And that's just IT for me and the rules today, as I face the dangerous precipice I won't jump over to get into the White Savior/Magical Ethnic Person/etc. rabbit holes.

Grace - "Are you sure?" GAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH.

ISW - "ecru-American." I can shut up now. Let's all credit the Wench for this achievement!

Lennon Faris said...

Adib, I do love that video.

Dave - your post made me laugh out loud (literally).

I do admire that this is a very thoughtful, civilized conversation about a sensitive subject. Great blog.

elizabethadkins said...

This is off topic, but I’d like to take a moment to send thanks to everyone here. I’ve never posted before, but I’m a regular reader and find this site invaluable to my own writing and publishing education.

For a long time, I’ve avoided creating a website/blog for myself, thinking I didn't need one yet. Then, last week, Janet made it crystal clear that I was wrong. I overcame my hesitation and spent the time to build a site I’m pretty pleased with.

So I want to thank Janet, not only for making it abundantly clear that I needed to do something I’d been avoiding but also for providing specific examples to follow. I’d also like to thank you, blog community, for your comments and your own blogs and websites, which gave me ideas, guidance and inspiration. You seem like, and may think of yourselves, as a rather small group, but never underestimate number of others, like me, reading and learning.

Thanks!

Colin Smith said...

Diane: Your "white savior" comment reminded me of something that came up at a recent meeting at our church. The conversation revolved around ethnically-diverse ministry, and how to reach out to those who are not, to put it frankly, white people (our church, indeed our denominiation is predominantly white). Someone pointed out how our ministry to minorities is too often more about us reaching out--often down--to "them." Instead, why don't we TALK to minorities, ask what their needs are, get involved in their lives, and LISTEN to them? We need to treat them as equals, as people, and not as projects or ministries.

Amen. :)

Donnaeve said...

Jenz,

Janet said, "But the best way to support diversity in publishing is to buy and read writers who are non-white, and/or non-male. It's not enough to say "I read regardless of color and gender." You have to actively seek out new voices. Your librarian can help you. There are some amazing writers out there you haven't heard of yet."

The "I read regardless of color and gender," is what I've been commenting on, because that's me, and how I buy books. I don't actively seek books based on color, and yet, I've inadvertently found books by people of color and bought them.

I can't say why bookstores, etc. operate the way they do. It's like they need to study up on integration. If it can be done with schools...what's the hold up?

Grace Wen said...

Colin Smith: "To me, that means if your novel is set in a middle class neighborhood in the 1960s, your characters will undoubtedly be white. To put a black family in that situation for any reason that has nothing to do with story would NOT be telling the truth. And that story reason ought to reflect the reality of middle class America in the 1960s, and not try to superimpose 21st century ideas, just to be "diverse" or PC. If you're going to tell it, tell it like it is/was."

See, I have trouble with this because that's essentially saying there weren't ANY black middle class families in the 1960s. Really? None? In the entire country? If I were to write a story about a middle class Chinese family in Detroit in the 1970s, would that be PC or telling the truth?

Stories tell a specific truth about a specific group of characters to, I hope, illustrate universal truths. Just because they're invisible doesn't mean they didn't/don't exist. Maybe it's because we simply haven't seen them yet.

Susan said...

I really appreciate the discussion that's happening here, particularly because the more this topic is discussed, the more I understand it and can do my part to change it, even in my own small corner of the world.

Speaking of privilege: It used to upset me when someone told me I was privileged because I'm white and come from a middle-class background. It's not something I could change--or that I wanted to change--and I thought it sounded like an accusation, like I didn't appreciate what I have or where I come from (and anyone who knows me knows that couldn't be further from the truth).

But it wasn't until I began having wonderfully honest conversation with my minority friends--where I was able to ask questions about their experiences, and they welcomed those questions to help me learn--that I really began to understand what diversity meant, and what was meant by privilege.

What I learned was that being privileged isn't something to be ashamed of--no matter your ethnicity, religion, etc. You're born in the circumstances you were born into, and in many cases, you can't change that. In many cases, you shouldn't have to. What being privileged means is that you have an opportunity to play a part in bridging the gaps in equality and helping to ensure that everyone has a voice.

Tony brought up John Green's list of recommended books, which is a great example of this. He is using his status as a successful author (and his privilege as a white male, I'm sure) to recommend quality books by diverse authors, books that may have otherwise been overlooked. Quality books shouldn't be overlooked in the first place, but that's another story...

It's likely I'm still wrong about things--I'm wrong about a lot of things, and I can only promise I'm willing to keep learning. But in my view, privilege isn't about raising yourself above the rest. Privilege is about having the means and opportunity to help raise others--everyone--up.

Another note: I think I posted this link before, but Writing With Color is a great website devoted to helping writers address diversity in their writing.

Colin Smith said...

Grace: Good point. But wouldn't a black middle class family in 1960s America BE the story? That's my point. Not that such families didn't exist, but to pretend they were as normal and common as white middle class families at that time would be less than honest.

nightsmusic said...

Grace: As someone who grew up white in a middle class suburb of Detroit during the 60's and 70's, were I to write something I KNOW, which we all do to a certain extent because our background dictates somewhat what our writing will entail, I can tell you that there would be no characters other than white, middle class. (I know, ridiculously long sentence!) That is all I grew up with and at that time, all that I knew. For me, it would be disingenuous to write to something I had no experience with and did not know. So while I understand what you're saying, I have to disagree because for me, that is my truth.

Donnaeve said...

Diane, thank you, understand your direction with your comments.


And now, that's it for me - over and out.

Great discussion though. (one day, on my blog maybe, I'll tell you all about my experience back when I was 12 years old and being bussed across town to an all black school. This was during the early, mid 70's and when integration was being rolled out.)

Adib Khorram said...

DLM: I was just thinking about The Other Adib a few days ago (that post came up when I tried googling my own name). Teenaged me would definitely have liked to go by something different, but adult me has more or less grown comfortable with my Persian-ness. Though there are still awkward conversations sometimes.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I'm stuck on the pseudonym discussion. George Sand and Fred Vargas are both women, well, George was because she's long gone.

Recently Janet posted a question by an OP who said they could not publish in their home country because they feared for their life. This to say there are valid reasons to use a pen name. Because writing is art there is no law saying we have to not pretend to be someone we are not.

Colin Smith said...

Like Donna, I too should probably call it quits for the day, especially since we've crossed the 50 comments point. BUT with so many people here from such diverse backgrounds and experiences, there's so much to ask and learn. Especially for me, the white, middle class, middle aged British dude whose worst experience of prejudice was being mocked for his puppy fat in school (not to belittle that, but it hardly compares to border control questioning where you were born because you don't look like a white American).

Can we all meet up for drinks sometime? When's good for you? :)

OK, I do have one more thought that is, actually, somewhat on-topic. And I guess this is mostly for Janet, but I certainly welcome others' thoughts/opinions. Let's say I queried a novel, and the query went something like this:

Juanita Menendez works as an office temp by day, but by night she's an undercover special ops agent. She manages to keep her dual identity secret and live her double life without problem until she is assigned a case on the Texas-Mexico border. She has to infiltrate a brutal gang responsible for the murder of border guards, and for helping Mexican nationals cross over illegally. All in a day's work for Juanita. Until she learns that her brother, who was only an infant when she left Mexico, is involved with the gang. Juanita's challenge is not only to maintain anonymity and do the job she was sent to do, but also to stop this family tie from uncovering her own questionable residency status.

BORDER CONTROL is an 80,000 word suspense novel.

Knowing this query is from me--white English guy--how much would that deter you from considering the novel? If the novel itself is as good as a Jack Reacher, would you take it on, or would you anticipate resistance from publishers because I'm a white guy writing about a Mexican female? Would I do better to give the story idea to a Mexican female writer and have her write it, even though I love the story and want to write it myself (remember, this is hypothetical--this story doesn't exist, I just made it up)?

How about if I didn't write it? What if the "housekeeping" paragraph said:

BORDER CONTROL is an 80,000 word suspense novel. My parents were refugees from Cuba in the late 1950s, and became legal citizens of the US in the 1970s.

Would that make a difference?
What if mine was the better novel?

I guess that's what I'm really getting to: How much does the writing make a difference, even over how much the author connects personally to his/her MC and story?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Great discussion today.

Thank you, Diane.

Colin/Donna, I must agree. As a reader, with thousands upon thousands of books to read, I tend to be drawn to the ones that are well-written and transform my reality. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird did this in a stunning way. She looked at one of the world’s cruel injustices, one that was particularly endemic to the southern United States at the time, from the eyes of a child and caused millions to re-examine the way they looked at the world.

Great literature does that. It matters not a lick who wrote it as long as their voice is strong and reflects great truth. I do not believe this can be accomplished with some agenda in mind. It has to do with telling a story that profoundly illustrates some facet of the great and diverse human experience. I was blown away by Chaim Potek’s The Chosen and am still haunted by Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

Both of these are great stories on their own merit because the authors were both exquisite writers. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a recent title that altered my view of the world.
Diane is right. Diversity is not an agenda nor is it a conspiracy. It is a reality. Consider Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. This is written from a place of human darkness by the light of a child’s brilliant soul. Anne Frank was not trying to make us believe anything. She was simply telling her story. This is written by a young girl who would be murdered simply because of the family she was born to, something she had no control over.

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” (Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl)

My mother gave me this book when I was very young, telling me had I lived in Germany, all of my family would have been slaughtered because of our name even though we were not Jewish. Such was the fervor of the Nazis and their obsession with sameness. I was eight but already well-read for my age.

My mother taught me to read at the age of three because she disapproved of television and got very tired of reading books to me over and over again. I grew quickly weary of the children’s section of the library, seeking more sophisticated tales about my world and soon discovered my parents’ stash of books from their high school and college days.

Then my mother gave me Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I was nine. It was summer. I remember running out into the back porch where my parents were having their evening refreshment and throwing the book at my mother in blind fury. I cried so hard at the ending, devastated and awed.

“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy” (William Golding, Lord of the Flies)

Lord of the Flies recounts the tale of a bunch of white, “privileged” English boys who are plane wrecked on a deserted island with no adults. Diversity is not necessarily one marginalized group or another. There is diversity inside each little cluster of humans huddling together, regardless of what caused them to clique. Each individual has their own little quirks, their own views, and their own voices. All are valuable. We spend far too much time worrying about how others think of us - do I seem prejudice? Well, let me save you some anxiety, we are ALL prejudice in some way. That is part of the human experience.

I am not sure what the magic number is for “enough” diversity in publishing or how that number is measured. I am certain that diversity in thought and character and story is a great thing, and is amply illustrated in great works of literature, and often despite, the prejudices of the time. Think of all the books that people try to ban from time to time, and this usually because that book reflects some diversity of thought unsavory to the powers that be at the time.

DeadSpiderEye said...

This question focuses on a preoccupation that is culturally specific, for about 90% of the world it's of so little significance, that people are gonna have trouble concealing the bemusement when faced with it. I wonder how many people throughout the world would consider the name William contentious? Oh look, I can see the bemused faces from here, yeah well, call your son that in Ireland and you've got a problem on your hands. Is it daft, blinkered, parochial? yep it sure is; is it actually gonna be the cause of grief? you bet it is. I know it's stupid but would I name son Bill? never in a million, years because that's the way the world works.

Theresa said...

What a fascinating discussion today--a reminder that all words, including names, have meanings that are particular to time and place.

When a friend of mine submitted her manuscript to her publisher, she included in the dedication a reference to her grandmother, Peter. When the copyedits came back, she saw grandmother changed to grandfather. But, nope, her grandmother's name was, in fact, Peter.

The Doorman said...

I love that this conversation is happening here. I love it so much.

As a Black guy, I find that it's even a challenge for me to make sure that the books I read are diverse. It's not hard, but everything is Old White Male. If I don't take the time to think about it, I will have read nothing but books by old white men.

My WIP is YA featuring a young Black female heroine. She's in her late teens. I'm growing as I find her voice and that's exciting. I'm enjoying writing it, but I don't know if it will sell.

BJ Muntain said...

Lucie Witt's link on a contest for diverse queries:

Write in the margins.org

Lucie Witt's link on white people writing non-white characters:

Writing the other

Grace Wen's link about Celeste Ng:

Interview with Celeste Ng

DLM's link on colorblindness:

Case against colorblind casting

elizabethadkins: Welcome to the fold! If you tell Colin your website name, he'll put it in the list that's linked to from the top right corner of Janet's blog. :)

DLM said...

I break my promise to shut up only to say this: diversity is not a quota system. There is no magic number to get all the people we're not to stow this talk of diversity.

Failure to include is the failure to reflect the world. And, no, acutally I don't think the Black family on the block in 1960s middle-class suburbia HAS to be the story. It might add to it, but the very point of diversity is that it's there, whether we make a "thing" of it or not. It's the pretending-it's-not-a-thing that compromises reality. I grew up in Downtown White Flight, but one of my closest friends was a Black girl named Holly. She wasn't invisible; she introduced me to the concept of Michael Jackson outside of The Five, and when she did Rapper's Delight, I damn near fell over in awe at the speed of her singing-speech.

Diversity is not a didactic directive that we all have to write about POC/disabled/young/old/mentally ill/poor/disenfranchised/licorice-loving/religiously alternative/gay/differently pinky-toed people. It's the distillation of the point that if we're writers, and if we pretend that non-us people are invisible, we are failing in our WORK - failing to reflect the abundance of the world we live in, or the one we're trying to build.

Shutting up. Again.

"I came that they might have life, and have it in abundance." Why would we want to revel in limitation?

Welcome to Elizabeth, and Doorman - do you mean the authors or the characters? :) Adib, do you have to explain the use of the term Persian a lot too?

Steph said...

After reading through all the comments, pondering, googling a tiny bit, I had to refresh and see what was new - this is such an interesting discussion. I wondered what books I had read by "minority" authors (I put it in "", because, while I don't want to diminish it's importance, I think the term itself leaves a lot out - most of the world in fact, since we're basing minority on our little corner of it, but that's a different matter).
I couldn't think of many. Actually, off the top of my head, the only mainstream (in the sense that she was not specifically writing about her cultural experience) author I could think of was Tess Gerritsen. I'm pretty sure I read at least four of her books before taking not of the picture on the back flap.
The real question is, why her books. They were shelved under suspense; I like suspense. My googling led me "African-American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent," Wikipedia's definition of African American literature. And my first thought was, I wonder how many books I've missed because of how they're shelved. I read in a lot of genres, I like sci-fi, mysteries, fantasy, fiction - but, I'll be honest, African American literature isn't a section I've ever checked out.

Julie.M.Weathers said...

I should refrain from commenting because I'm probably going to piss some people off, but I am seriously sick of hearing about white privilege.

I was thinking the other day about fifth grade, I'm not sure why. I had a male teacher in Hardin, Mt which has a large Indian population who absolutely despised me. He ridiculed me constantly because my stomach growled in the afternoon. It growled in the afternoon because I didn't have lunch and half the time I didn't have breakfast. My stepdad would get into screaming matches with Mom about he wasn't going to feed some other bastard's kids even though Dad paid child support. I'd tell Mom, "That's ok, you don't need to send lunch money to school with me." and she wouldn't nor would she fix me lunch. I'd try to drink as much water as I could to keep my stomach from growling, but it doesn't really work.

The Indian kids, had free lunches. White privilege in action.

I've taken in ironing, baked bread, walked many a mile around town to clean houses, bought clothes for me and the boys at Salvation Army as well as Christmas many a year. White privilege.

When I went to work at Family Dollar as a reach fork lift operator when I got divorced they didn't care if I was black, white, green, what age or sex. They wanted to know if I thought I could pick up pallets and learn to run a reach fork lift. I said I could and I did. The majority of reach operators were women. Reach fork lifts are the big dogs of warehouses.

The company truly did not care who you were. They only cared if you could do the job.

I stopped entering the twitter contests for a while because I got sick of being asked if I was a poc and how many diverse characters are in my book. Excuse me. I thought it was supposed to be about writing a damned good book. I missed the memo.

A conversation got started a few months ago about demanding publishers be forced to publish according to quotas. I asked "And how do you propose to force buyers to buy a certain quota of diverse books? Publishing is a business. They can't stay in business if they can't sell what they publish. The trick is to find more talented diverse authors."

"No, they just need to publish diverse books regardless."

Well, all righty, then. Let me know how your drive to force publishers to publish x amount of diverse books works.

No one has ever given me anything. I've eaten pinto beans and rice for two months solid so I could take a writing course. I like pinto beans and rice, but not that much. (Add baking soda to your beans in case you're wondering.) I've paid my dues. If anyone ever dares to say I was published because of white privilege, we may have a come to Jesus meeting right there in front of God and everyone.

Almitra, that's an Indian name. So is Arya. I think you're safe. For pity sakes, the English language itself in a conglomerate of different languages.

nightsmusic said...

Julie: {{{{{{{{{{{{hugs}}}}}}}}}}}}} Only because I truly know how you feel.

Almitra Clay said...

Hello Julie M. Weathers. Thank you for sharing your story.

The name Almitra originates in Kahlil Gibran's poem "The Prophet," published in 1923. The poem is set in a fictional land and features a fictional religion and culture. Gibran himself was Lebanese-American. I think you may have confused the name Almitra with Mitra, an Indian deity.

Julie.M.Weathers said...

Almitra,

I looked it up in baby names. It lists it as of eastern Indian origination.

Julie

Colin Smith said...

Julie: I understand your thinking with regard to "white privilege"--but do non-white people use that term strictly in socio-economic terms? That's a genuine question. As I understand it, the concept of "white privilege" is the undeniable fact that if you are white (especially a white male) in the US, you are able to conduct your life with less hindrances and roadblocks, and less need for government assistance, than if you are of another racial group. Am I way off here?

Personally, I would love for those who feel the rub of "white privilege" to comment. Tell us what that means to you. I think there are many white people who don't understand how anyone can think all white people are privileged, when clearly there are many who suffer all kinds of deprivation every day. So, "white privilege" must mean something deeper.

This may not be directly relevant to the topic, but it is INTENSELY relevant to all of us as writers. If we're to write with authenticity, we need to understand those who are not like us.

Robert Ceres said...

Damn, I have to weigh in again (fourth time, breaking another of the comment guidelines.) Maybe white privilege is a terrible term. Maybe in some situations/sub societies in the US it doesn’t exist. The US military comes to mind. But in most cases, and I suppose we should caveat this with on average, a person is relatively better off white than that person would be, if, all other factors being equal, not white. This is documented over and over again by anecdotal evidence, surveys, census data, and scientific studies. Doesn’t mean there aren’t individual exceptions.

Donnaeve said...

Well, now I just can't shut up. Why?

Because. Julie.

I didn't have the nerve to speak up the way she did about the term "white privilege" but I was sure thinking about what I wanted to say when it came up.

My own story is not dissimilar from Julie's. What did I hear when I was growing up more than I care to admit? "We can't afford it, we're poor." And poor we were. Speaking of beans, we ate "Chuckwagon Beans" every time I turned around - three times a week at least. Mom knew how to cook stick to your ribs, cheap meals.

I started working at 11. Babysitting. Then a "real" job at 15. I had to have a "workers permit," b/c I was underage. I left home at 18. Married at 19, two kids by 23. Divorced by 26. Lived in a trailer for over a decade, where my credit went all to hell b/c ex wouldn't pay child support. Each month I chose trailer payment, or car payment. Which is it. Skipped many, many meals so kids would have enough hot dogs and mac and cheese to eat.

I went to buy their Christmas presents one year, and had to submit to the humiliation of trying to run a credit card I knew was over the limit. Back went all those gifts. I had to borrow $50 (!) from a friend just to buy Christmas that year. And they were happy - because they never had much to begin with.

And there's more, but you get the gist why some white people would get riled up at the term white privilege. Not many from where I come from were born with the proverbial silver spoon.

Kelsey Hutton said...

Thank you to folks who have shared from their personal experience, especially Gimme. Debate is important, but it often means laying your life out time after time for other people to examine. It can be wearying.

Cheers, everyone.

Lucie Witt said...

Colin,

I'm actually a professor in a gender studies department where I teach classes on gender, race and the legal system (and yes, white privilege). Your understanding is pretty on point. White privilege doesn't mean you're immune from things like poverty, not at all. If you'd like I can send you links to some of my favorite readings on the topic. I've already over commented today (need to pack my bags for exile), and hesitant to get to academic here. But teaching about this is my other passion, and I'm happy to share more if interested.

Lucie Witt said...

Im also a white woman who grew up dirt poor in Kentucky, for what it's worth.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

White privilege to me means that certain people/groups make decisions based on what you look like, and give special treatment to those who have light skin. A caste system.

And yes, it exists all over the world. To pretend it doesn't at all levels i.e. government, social, economical does a disservice to humanity.

How to solve inequality?

Raise your children, teach others, stand up and speak out that we all have dreams, desires, and we all bleed red. We are all equal.

And it starts with us, today.

Colin Smith said...

Lucie: Please share links. To Janice's question, we need the humility to accept that we ALL are prejudiced to some extent, and we need to be open to hear other people's perceptions about us. Those perceptions may be wrong, but that doesn't mean they're invalid. If we start out assuming we understand why black people are mad at white people, or why white people are frustrated with black people, the discussion goes in circles and never moves forward. Humility. Understanding. Dialog--even debate. This is the stuff of Education, Enrichment, and a better co-existence.

And, as writers, if WE can understand, then we are exceptionally well-positioned though our work to help others.

DLM said...

Just as diversity isn't all about ethnicity/nationality/color/religion, privilege isn't exclusive to whites. My own privileges start with my parents - they happen to have been white, but they also both were intelligent, and my father highly educated. The very time I was born has conferred privileges to me - I have lived a life better off than 99.999% of all humans who ever lived, and I'm not even what most Americans at least would call "wealthy". I am privileged to have a facility with language, to know some of the right people to have gotten me good jobs more than once, to have been attractive enough in my youth that I was preferred in certain situations where my own intrinsic value was debatable.

I use the term privilege unmodified, though I do discuss my whiteness as part of that, when I am taking myself to account.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love the name Almitra. It's different and resonates with me. I did not, for myself, think of it as proprietary to one group or another. I don't think you have anything to worry about as far as name goes. It is simply lovely.

To Julie, you are correct. And I understand your frustration. The politics of "white privelege" does no one any favors. Human suffering is universal and spares no one regardless if the tone of your skin (tiny gene in the genome that makes you who you are) happens to reflect a majority in your little corner of the world. Suffering is fully diverse and without prejudice or reason. No person or people have a monopoly on it.

It is a quite a gift to us readers that you are willing to write and pour yourself out into story so that others feel less alone in their trials and tribulations. That is the gift writers bring when they turn their pain to story whether in fiction or not.

I really don't get this odd trend of people screaming to be acknowledged as forever victims. Anne Frank doesn't resonate because she whined and cried about how unfair her horrific situation was. It resonates because she didn't. She saw light in the blackest of corners, and in doing so, opens the Pandora's box of hope amid the chaos.

If you happen to be of a minority background, tell your story, the one you want to tell and then pound the proverbial pavement of querying and pitching. Remember, no one else can tell your story the way you do because your voice belongs only to you. A great voice will win out in the end because a well told tale transcends our differences and recalls our humanity. And that wins an audience.

tell me later said...

About pen names:

On another site, a while ago, there was a thread similar to this one. The OP wondered how they'd deal with an author bio for a pen name. Like, would it be okay to say "Jonathan Doe lives in New York with his two sons and a dog" when the author is really Mary-Ann Winters, who lives in Texas and has no pets?

...okay, so that's kind of a lame example, but the question was about the limits when talking about a pen name's life. Is it okay to claim military service? A college degree? An ethnicity, orientation?

I'm thinking of using my mom's maiden name as a pen name, myself, with a vague bio. I'm a mixed-race with a white birth name, so I'm currently going through something of an angsty phase where neither surname feels exactly right. Oh, well.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I guess I should pack my bags for my inevitable exile. Really fascinating topic. Last comment, I promise.

My daughter took an African American studies class and we ended up in a fierce debate about white privelege. As a very young single mom, I felt no privelege at all despite being white. My daughter explained that economics had little to do with the concept. She said it had to do with the thousands of things a white person never had to confront in this country. People are not color blind, no matter how hard they try.

I worry though that this concept simply continues these arbitrary, shallow rifts that divide us. I want to love my fellow man. I want to understand otherness, not so we can be the same but so we can benefit from each other's experience. I am sick of all the trifling little slings and arrows that divide us and cause us to hate. What good does that do? Affixing the blame fixes nothing.

Colin Smith said...

tell me later: I've so blown the comment rules today that I'm sure a return trip to Carkoon is in my near future, but here's my 2c. No, no, never, ever lie in your bio. Better to say nothing than an untruth. Especially if it's to do with a career or ethnicity that you think might help sell your novel. These things have a habit of backfiring on you. Or as the Bible puts it, "Your sins will find you out." :)

Now, I'm not the agent here, so that's just my opinion, for what it's worth.

Lucie Witt said...

E.M.,
I'm cracking up about your convo with your daughter. Thinking how many of my students have told me: "So I got into a big debate with my parents after class. ..."

I do think it's important to name things and acknowledge them. An example I use with my students in my motherhood and the law class to explain privilege is children's picture books. If you aren't a dinosaur family or a white family you can't always walk in a bookstore or library and find books with families that look like yours. If you can find not just one easily, but dozens, that's a privilege.

If you're catching a late flight to exile, I'll ride with you.

BJ Muntain said...

tell me later: A pen name is not an identity. It's simply the way you put yourself forward for others to see. Yes, sometimes others will make assumptions based on that name, but that's still not an identity.

In writing a bio, stick to the facts of your own past. If you don't want people to know your past, then don't tell them what you don't want them to know. There is so little space in a bio (even if it's a page or two) that you can't cover absolutely everything.

Gimme said...

As a follow up to my first post, I want to thank everyone who took the time to read my comment, to post about it, and to discuss it. Thank you, you give me hope for humanity :)

With regards to white privilege: for those who grew up in poverty and feel like their whiteness conferred nothing, I completely understand your frustration. I am so sorry about the struggles you underwent. I do hope that you can read the stories of racial minorities, however, and acknowledge that their skin color has made life more difficult for them.

I am not white or male. However, in other areas of my life, I am VERY privileged: I'm straight, cis, and grew up in the 1%. I acknowledge these privileges, but that doesn't make all the crap I get for being not-white or a woman go away (it just means I didn't get the other crap too).

This isn't about creating or maintaining victimhood. This is about saying, "There are invisible but real forces in this country working against people for being not white, and especially for being black, and we should acknowledge them so that we can stop them."

Acknowledging one's privilege and that other people do NOT have that same privilege means that we can make real change. NOT acknowledging difference--saying that you are "colorblind"--is, in fact, counterproductive, because that does not acknowledge the very real differences in the lived experiences between different groups of people.

I never need to worry about money, but I am in favor of universal healthcare and higher minimum wage because I know that not everyone was born with my staggering good luck. I am not LGBTQ, but I believe that they deserve all the same rights to marry and be who they really are. I am not black, but I am pro-affirmative action and pro Black Lives Matter. Lifting other people up only lifts everyone up. Getting ahead is not a zero sum game. (And yes, I know I'm getting away from the original subject to some pretty big/broad topics, but I just wanted to address some misconceptions about white privilege.)

E. M. Goldsmith, I hope you take this the right way: I am very much Team Your Daughter and think that she sounds wonderful and articulate and very aware, and you should be proud of her :)

Having well exceeded my word limit, I'm going to go sit in a corner and think about what I've done. Again, thank you to everyone for reading and responding! For people who are interested in reading the voices of minorities when it comes to privilege, I'm a big fan of Black Girl Dangerous.

Adib Khorram said...

DLM: Yes indeed, I do have to do a lot of explaining about being Persian (vs. being Iranian). The distinction between cultural heritage and national heritage is a difficult one to parse.

Lucie: I love your example of the book store. I may have to borrow it from time to time!

At this point I think we're all going to Carkoon. I'm reminded of The Great Muppet Caper when, after making their plans to foil a jewel heist, the fold-down bed the Muppets are using as a desk suddenly springs back into the wall, leaving them all trapped. And then Kermit asks (from between the bed and the wall), "Can somebody turn out the lights?" And the light bulb falls out of the ceiling.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

A long time ago I worked in the Twin cities with a very diverse group. Not only did we have all sorts of colors, we also had limited physical abilities - we were quite a bunch. I lived in a rural area and commuted daily 45 minutes each way. In the small farming community where I lived, it was not so diverse.

The holidays came up. Being friends with my daughter's second-grade teacher, I asked if she would like me to ask one of my friends if they could do a Kwanzaa talk as the class was covering different celebrations in their curriculum. She was excited and said yes.

Richard came into town, and we went to school. Richard brought his drums, the items to celebrate family, community, Kwanzaa etc. He played music, described how they celebrate, and the kids LOVED it. Richard then opened up the floor for questions. The kids were intrigued, asking questions about the drumming, foods etc. And then one little boy, Robert, raised his hand.

"Yes?" asked Richard.

"Are you...are you a black man?"

Richard paused. "Yes, Yes I am," he said, smiling.

"Oh, okay!"

And the kids continued to ask questions about the gifts, the outfit he wore etc.

This was in 1995, rural Wisconsin, only 45 minutes from the Twin Cities. Goodness knows what Robert had heard about Black men, but that day he met someone who had explained his culture and left a beautiful memory.

Richard, recognizing the need, went on to apply for grants, and became an educational speaker for the Minneapolis Area. I went on to get divorced, remarried, and become a writing Timber Cruiser.

It can work, but only if we open our hearts and minds, and share, and understand there is a need to do this.

AS Colin said, "And, as writers, if WE can understand, then we are exceptionally well-positioned through our work to help others."


Back to the topic at hand - Initials. J.K. Rowling did okay.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay, I'm jumping in. I have not been able to read all the comments yet and I'm sure this is going to sound, well weird, or something, but in my WIP I want to add PoC but I am afraid to.

What the hell do I know about what it's like to be a PoC. Oh I can read about it, do research, blah, blah, blah, but I don't have a clue of what goes on in the mind of a man or a woman born to a race other than my own. We all share many life passages but our experiences can be very different.

I know what it's like to be spit on as an American in a foreign country but not by a fellow citizen in my own country, because I look, talk and have an ethic history different from the so-called majority. Have I as a woman experienced prejudice, hell yes but that is very different.

I am so afraid of getting it wrong, of offending, of coming off as someone other than someone with good intentions that I have, so far, left PoC out of my novel. Problem is, because of the socio-economic-situation of my characters, PoC should be included but if I do, just that assumption may be way off. I'm digging a hole here so I am going to stop.

The Doorman said...

To DLM: Authors. And I think authors write what they know so even my favorite author wrote very flat, other-ing non-White characters because he came from the English aristocracy. I think it's a struggle that many POC writers have--how to balance their affection and admiration for writers who don't seem to know or care about their experience.
As writers, we are called upon to be empathetic, investigating and mining human experience for some common string yet a lot of White authors just miss the mark.

Susan said...

Maybe I see things from both angles because I've been in both places, socio-economically-speaking. I grew up with that proverbial silver spoon as a middle-class, white female in suburbia. My parents told us once that they wanted their children to have what they didn't growing up, just as their parents wanted better for their children, and we benefited from that decision (and all others that followed, such as their education and work ethic). We had our struggles, as every family does, but we led an idyllic childhood.

While I empathize with those who didn't have that, I can't apologize for the way I grew up because those were the circumstances I was born into, and I'm grateful every single day for it. It's what has helped shape me into who I am--it's why every single day I make the conscious decision to do what I can to leave the world a better place, too. I may not be able to have children, but I can do what I can to make a difference in the world for those who do. Is that idealistic? You bet it is. But no matter where I come from, where I've been, or where I'm going, that answer remains the same. If being from good socio-economic standing helps me to do that, then of course I'm going to use it to my advantage.

I don't have much, especially now that I'm on the other end of the spectrum. I've been working since I was sixteen, in corporate jobs since I was 20. I've been financially independent the majority of my adult life. Yet, with this illness, I lost my livelihood, almost lost my house, and have used up my savings and retirement paying for medical costs. When I talked to a lawyer to see if I could get disability until I was able to work again, I was told that because I was relatively young and educated, I likely wouldn't qualify. Because of that, I've had to rely on assistance and other people to help pay my bills and support my basic needs. There's a lot of pride that's lost, but you do what you need to in order to get by.

Did I ever feel like I deserved anything I had growing up? No, because our parents taught us those values, which is why I've always been grateful for everything I've ever had. Do I feel like I deserve anything now that I have less? Absolutely not. Someday, I hope to have more so that I can do more, but now all I have are my words and my actions in how I treat others.

I appreciate this discussion and respect everyone who has shared their stories and opinions--this is a beautiful community. But some of the more recent comments have bothered me. There seems to be this constant need in our world now to invalidate other people's experiences, like one person's suffering isn't as bad as someone else's because of xyz. It's all suffering. All of it, no matter what that looks like. Whether you're born with a silver or a wooden spoon, what matters is the role you play in acknowledging the problems and struggles and alleviating that suffering for others, especially if that means using your own experiences as a backdrop for empathy.

Whether it's ethnicity or religion or economic status, you're not a better or worse person because of the circumstances you were handed. Like I said in my earlier comment, privilege doesn't have to be a bad thing--it all depends on what you do with it.


Susan said...

Carolynn: If I may, I'd suggest just writing your story first. As Angie said in her first comment, we can become so overly concerned that it stifles our creativity and interferes with the storytelling and writing. Get the story out into a draft form, then consider sending it to a beta-reader who would represent your characters and ask if they could provide some feedback based on their own experiences. Good luck!

Janet Reid said...

I'm going to close the comments for this blog post because I've kept a close eye on it so things wouldn't get out of hand and it's now time to work on tomorrow's post. (And things didn't get out of hand which is I think a testimony to the amazing community y'all have formed here, and I thank you for it)

please allow me the final comment (but certainly not the last word) on the topic of white privilege.

Within living memory, young black men were killed by armed groups of adult white men for what I will loosely call "color transgressions."

If you doubt this, read the story of Emmett Till. Or simply google the history of lynching.

Poor white folk didn't worry about lynch mobs. They didn't need to. That's white privilege in a nutshell.

If you think being poor and black is the same thing as being
poor and white, read Devil in Grove by Gilbert King, a book that made me weep more than once.


Of course there was and is violence against white folks, but it generally didn't start in the sheriff's department. Nor did it continue in the courthouse.

We each have our own experiences, and they give us a world view. That it's not everyone's world view is something we all come to realize as we grow up.

I lived in Seattle, a town that had a solid middle class black population and even though black kids went to my school, had the same teachers, stopped for after school candy at the same drugstore, my experience was not the experience of the black kids who lived across the street.

Nathan McCall's wonderful book Makes Me WannaHoller showed me that.


Dorothy Allison's stunning novel Bastard Out ofCarolina made me understand a lot too.

Chitra Divakaruni's novels pened my eyes.


I would like to make sure that these kinds of compelling eye opening books continue to be published.

There will be more to say in the Week in Review, but for now, time to go back to reading queries. And ya'll, time to go back to writing novels!