There has been lots of twitter kerfuffle today about the stats surrounding authors of color not being properly represented in children's book publishing (and I'm sure other genres as well). Some smart agents tweeted that it is exploitation for a non-POC to write about POC. One smart agent went so far as to engage in commentary with a white female teacher who had researched and wanted to write a story involving POC; smart agent told her to recommend books to her students written by POC rather than write her own. Huh?
I am a female writer; therefore, historically I've been underrepresented in the field of writing. However, the best female MC I have ever read in my life is Jane Whitefield--not just female but half Native American--written by Thomas Perry, a white man. It's a series and I've read it four times. I learned a lot about Native American culture from these novels (he was a professor of Native American history before he was a writer).
I always thought that writing was about imagination, and about observing life and writing what you see. Now I can't write about anyone except people who look like and talk like me or else I'm being exploitative? Another tweeter remarked she'd been rejected by several agents because her well-researched novel about an undocumented immigrant was not #ownvoices (this was actually written to her in the rejections).
I ask this because I am querying a book that has diverse characters. They are actually based on my real and true life friends right now (I made us all 11 years old), and I had them read it to make sure I wasn't saying something stupid (I wasn't). But even if these characters weren't based on real people, do I not have the right to use my observations and imagination to write about what I see? We're talking fiction here, not non-fiction where life-experience and platform come into play.
I try to be very sensitive to other people's feelings, plights, and general existence. So my ponderings are not just self-serving (hey I wrote a book are people going to hate it?) but also, am I doing something wrong by writing from imagination and observation rather than just personal experience? What if Thomas Perry had been discouraged from writing about Jane Whitefield -- egads, life without Jane Whitefield!!
*runs to bookcase*
*sleeps with Dance for the Dead under her pillow*
I have a feeling I'm preaching to the choir here, since your answer is generally (and rightly): IS THE BOOK ANY GOOD AND DID YOUR QUERY MAKE ME WANT TO READ IT? I guess I want your thoughts on this because there seems to be a general smart-agent rallying cry right now, and I'm feeling out of sorts and I want guidance from the QOTKU. Also I read your blog every night because you always make me laugh, and I'm able to look up from the query trenches, cheer up, and stop being so serious about it all.
Insert hamster wheel.
I love Jane Whitefield too. A lot.
And I love Stringer Bell. And Omar. And don't get me started on Bubbles (all from The Wire, all written by white men, who as far as I know are not gangsters, thugs, or drug addicts.)
Right now, publishing is experiencing a paroxysm of self-awareness. It's a very white industry that hasn't been too interested in reaching past the usual voices for a long long time. I'm old enough to remember when Terry McMillan's books about adult black women were "a revelation" that adult black women read books.
And I think there should be more writers from different backgrounds writing the stories they want to.
And for a while, the voice of reason and temperance which is "everyone gets to write what they want" isn't going to be well received, cause right now we're kicking ourselves for being stupid and shortsighted for a long time.
You'll see this in the juvenile markets MUCH more than you will the adult markets; in fiction more than non-fiction.
The central question is: can people write honestly and truthfully about a culture that isn't their own?
I don't know the answer.
I don't know if there is ONE answer, or even one TRUE answer.
I know that a lot of writers get a lot of stuff wrong in books about things I know about: geography and history.
I know that every time there's a news article about an event I was involved with, the reporter gets at least a couple things wrong--or at least wrong based on my view of what transpired.
And in a conversation today at Mysterious Bookshop with Laird Barron and some of his devoted readers we were talking about "we don't know what we don't know."
And I don't know what it's like to be black in America. Or a man. Or a teenage boy. Or a lot of other things (nice, polite, sweet all come to mind.)
But if the question is whether I want the stories told or not, I vote for having them told.
And I'd vote for having people tell their own stories, but sometimes that's not an option.
I'm facing this problem with some of my writers. We handle each author and each project differently.
I think the only thing to do is keep querying. You don't need every agent to say yes; you don't even need two. You need one, who sees the value of your work and wants to champion it.