Wednesday, June 06, 2018

White folks writing characters of color

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.


Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie, a subject near to the heart of my own story-in-progress. I'm not on twitter but in a writerly facebook group that I belong to, we discussed this topic.

The trouble happens when white writers insert a Hispanic or black or Asian person willy-nilly into the story in order to say we have a diverse book. If we do not know POC as friends, colleagues, family, spiritual pilgrims, schoolmates, or housemates ... then there's the risk we will resort to tropes or stereotypes that have the potential to create harm.

When I went to a workshop in April, one of the things Janet spoke about during a panel on queries was the white hero who rescues a person(s) of color. The white hero is a trope that has been overdone and it undermines the reality that people of color also have agency.

Opie, it sounds like you have already have precautions against the above traps that await white writers...friendships with people of color, sensitivity readers, and a thoughtfulness in how you approached the story. Best of luck!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Opie, I feel for you. I write fantasy of a bizarre nature with a wild diversity of characters whose differences are far more than skin deep. Some are damned, some are divine, and most dangling somewhere in between.

I do not know what to make of this #ownvoices push - and feel rather excluded because of this. I am white female, not straight, but I don’t see how any of this has any bearing on what I write. It’s fantasy. Fiction. In a world with its own set of challenges. There are lots of things sentient beings can be small-minded about. Dragons and demons can be especially harsh.

So I have no plans to mention any of my personal crap in my query. I am hoping one agent somewhere will glam onto my ultra bizzaro post-apocalyptic fantasy and not worry about the melatin in my skin, who I sleep with, or my lack of actual experience of being other than who I am. I can only be me. And only I can write my books, my stories. So Opie query on. That’s what I will do. That’s all we can do.

Perfectlyaveragecakes said...

I think it's worth mentioning that the discussion in the kidlit space isn't really about white writers not being allowed to write stories featuring characters of races or orientations different to their own. In fact, most of the marginalised writers I follow say the opposite: add diversity to your book. Just make sure that when you do, you do it well.

The big question right now is whether a white writer – or a straight writer – should be writing a story about the experience of being black/gay etc.

This is the trickier question for me, because when we do that, we are actively telling someone else's story, and in fact, our privilege makes it so that we are more likely to get their story told than they are.

From everything I've seen, this push has been about more privileged writers making the choice to not pursue certain stories in order to make room in the publishing space for underrepresented minorities who want to tell those same stories.

Now whether you agree with that stance or not is up to you. I do see the value in it because social change happens very slowly on its own - and I'm personally okay with not pursuing certain ideas if I think I'm not the best person to tell that story.

But if you do disagree, I think the stats prove that though stories featuring marginalised characters are on the rise, only a fraction of those come from marginalised writers - so obviously, white writers are doing just fine finding homes for these books.

Timothy Lowe said...

Thanks for asking this question, OP. I think many of us are struggling with this reality.

Sam Hawke said...

Couple of things, Opie.

Take with a grain of salt people who are claiming they're being rejected because they're not #ownvoices. Sure, there are bound to be agents who are actively looking to support marginalised writers and they may be preferencing those authors right now - and that's fine! It's about time. Like Janet said, the publishing industry has not been great to a lot of marginalised groups historically and it's slowly trying to correct. That's a good thing. But anyone who tells you that they're being shut out for being white... well, like I said. Grain of salt. The stats just don't back that up. White writers are still overrepresented - if someone's not getting published or not finding an agent (and there are a LOT of agents) it's not because they're white. It might be because they haven't written a good book. It might be that they've written a story about a marginalised person and they don't share that marginalisation and have done a bad/lazy/harmful job of that representation. It might be any of the other reasons that people's books don't get picked up. Just like the white males who claim they're being victimised because some agents are looking to increase their proportion of female writers (there was one doing the rounds on twitter a month or so ago raging at agents for this).

Second - there's a difference between writing a story which is intrinsically tied to the identity of the main character, and one in which there are simply a lot of people with different backgrounds and experiences. There's a difference between a white woman try to write a book like The Hate U Give vs a story with characters set in an office environment (or in space! or at school!), some of whom are POC, or disabled, or queer, because that's a reflection of the real world. That's not an #ownvoices issue. From what you say there are no alarm bells that you're trying to tell a story that maybe should be better told by a different person - you seem to be writing characters based on yourself and your friends, after all, rather than a story ABOUT the experience of being from a marginalised background. (And even if you do the latter, no-one will stop you! White writers do it all the time. They just increasingly can't do it without the prospect of being criticised for their portrayal. The Lionel Shrivers of the world aren't being silenced or censored, they're being told that if they're insensitive they'll be called on it, and that's really what pisses them off.

Just like Janet said, if your story lacks authenticity to people who live it, you'll cop criticism just like you would from lawyers for portraying unrealistic courtroom scenes. The reason this issue gets so much more traction and visibility in relation to diversity is that it's much more important to be thoughtful about that authenticity when it comes to portraying people's identities. I as a lawyer might be annoyed at your lazy writing if you make errors, but lawyers aren't a historically or currently marginalised group, so at most you'll get an eye roll and a pass on your next book. But if you perpetuate harmful tropes or stereotypes about a marginalised group, you could cause harm to already vulnerable people, and that's a particularly acute issue when it comes to writing for children. So yeah, no-one's going to stop you (white writers are still writing POC MCs all over the town) but if you do a bad job, that's on you.

TL;DR: white writers are going to keep getting published with diverse casts or not, if you tell a thoughtful story and you're conscious of avoiding harm, you do the work and the research, you'll be fine. Don't listen to twitter hysteria.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Sam Thank you. Very clear response. And reasonable. So looking forward to your book.

Sam Hawke said...

Cheers EM Goldsmith - less than a month now (eeeeep!). How are you going with your query letter? Is it out in the world yet?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Sam Not yet on the query. I found 2 astoundingly good beta readers and am absorbing and making some very pinpointed edits based on their feedback. Read- letting book sit before I put my eyes back on it before I dive in. Been working on a couple of new books in the meantime. Hoping to query by end of summer. Still a little worried about word count, but it is what it is. And I do have a fine synopsis. The query I will tackle soon... yes, soon.

Mister Furkles said...

Perhaps Opie should have written to Smart [ass-hat] Agent that representing any books not exclusive of S-ah-A own ethnicity is cultural appropriation.

And publishers should only publish books aligned with the CEO's ethnicity. And people in other countries must stop wearing bluejeans because that's cultural appropriation. And African Americans may never read books by white or Asian writers, and ... and ... and ...

Turn the tables back on the fools.

Of course, accepting and rejecting of works by race of the author is racism. The NAZIs did that sort of thing.

Megan V said...

Sorry everybody, and QOTKU, but I’ve got a looong response to this and had to break it up into two long responses and seeing as I’m using up all the space, I won’t post again for a whole week, I swear.

Pt 1


I'm going to tell you the same thing I tell people I beta for (incorporating a thread I recently put on Twitter).

Writers should not avoid including a diverse cast of characters. But this SHOULD NOT be token diversity and tropes SHOULD be avoided. Writers need to do research and acquaint themselves with real people sharing those identities (BUT SHOULD NOT EXPECT THEM TO PLAY TEACHER AND EDUCATE YOU)


Ask yourself:

1) Are you the same marginalization as your MC?

2) If not, why did you make your MC that marginalization? (they came to me that way is not an okay answer. Read up on why. This interview with Dhonielle Clayton is a great place to start … ) *But don't go bothering Ms. Clayton. Go educate yourself. And BTW buy her book THE BELLES because it's awesome.

3) Are you unwilling to step aside from writing an MC whose marginalized identity you do not share? Why? (Because it's MY story, is not an acceptable answer, especially if your story is usurping someone else's voice).

4) Can you tell your story without having marginalized MC?
If you can sub a cis-white-hetero-able-non neurodiverse female character in for your current MC and it doesn't affect the story whatsoever, then yeah, you can. Race, sex, orientation, able-bodiedness, neurodiversity, etc. make up a person's IDENTITY. It affects who we are, it affects our experiences, and how we react to things. Now, can we learn about those experiences, by identities that are different from our own by doing research? Absolutely. But experiences in any identity are not monolithic. And well, it is hard getting it right even when you research.

There is ZERO difference in non-fiction and fiction in this instance. Life experience DOES come into play. Which is why RESEARCH is key when including characters whose experience does not match yours.

Megan V said...

Pt 2.

5) Did you consider the possibility that writing an MC whose marginalized identity you do not share might make it more difficult for an #ownvoices author to share their story, to get published?

Opie, you state that women are underrepresented as writers. In some respects this is true, in others it is not. But women are not a monolith. There are intersectionalities to consider. Women of color are far more underrepresented than white women. Transwomen are far more underrepresented.

Think about this:
(shout out to Claribel Ortega for sharing the link with these stats on twitter. Also, buy her book (coming out in 2019!)

In the children’s book arena the CCBC documented books with non-white characters and their authors:
Of the approximately 3,700 books we received at the CCBC in 2017, most from U.S. publishers, here's the breakdown:

340 had significant African or African American content/characters.
100 of these were by Black authors and/or illustrators. (29.41% #OwnVoices)
72 had significant American Indian/First Nations content/characters.
38 of these were by American Indian/First Nations authors and/or illustrators. (52.78% #OwnVoices)
310 had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content/characters.
122 of these were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage. (39.35% #OwnVoices)
216 had significant Latinx content/characters.
73 of these were by Latinx authors and/or illustrators. (33.8% #OwnVoices)

And cis white women are not underrepresented in the publishing industry. A study of the 34 publishers in the US revealed 79% of staff are white and 78% are female.

Now, if we are saying we want diversity in publishing, we have to be willing to put our money where our mouth is as writers as well as readers. Not only should books be more reflective of the diverse world we live in, but so should the writing community. Sometimes that means doing what isn't easy, but is right. There's a door that needs to be open to other writers. We need to think about what it means when we are making it harder by pushing others out of the way (or at the very least standing in their way). This is especially true considering the murmurs that some parts of the industry treat diversity as a quota to be filled. As in well, we already have a book with character A by a non-marginalized author so we don't need a book with character A by an author of that marginalization. Being an ally means being an ally, even when it's inconvenient.

And just to ward off the talk about but why can women can write about men? and why can POC write white people MCs?

The reason deals with power dynamics and representation. IT's much more complex than I can elaborate on here.

What about my story set in 1700s England? I wasn't born then.
Neither was I! So I hope you're doing your research!

What about my fantasy? My sci-fi? I’m no space wizard.
There are underlying narratives that are reflective of certain experiences and tend to be used awful tropes. And what culture is your world based off of? Think about that before using them.

But there are many resources out there to help you navigate these waters. A quick Google is all it takes.

You'll stumble on some pretty wonderful sites, like this one:

or this one:

okay. long post over. Sorry again! And I expect to be called out on this...

BTW I am by no means saying that my response is 100% the right one. I'm sure there are more knowledgeable individuals than me. But I'm hoping this adds to the conversation.

D Writer said...

3 things.

1) The #ownvoices push is incredibly important. As Janet says, the publishing industry is immensely white. And that's not just writers. It's the entire vertical. #ownvoices, to some degree, takes a bit of the control out of white people’s hands as to which stories are told (aka which ones are important). Don't take this as a slight against you. But as someone who is not a part of those marginalized groups, it is literally impossible for you to understand some of the things those people face.

2) Taking a more business-centric approach, the publishing industry is under a microscope for that same overly white representation. I have a writer friend with 2 successful self-pubbed books and a book pubbed with a major publisher who faced major hurdles to publication for the same reasons. My friend is white so they were pressured to change the black protagonists to white. This same person still faces active public criticism and campaigns for people to not purchase their works because their race doesn't match the race of their characters. I don't see anything wrong with their work being published, and as a Black man, I think their stories are actually incredibly representative of the communities they present. However, the publishing industry has to face the realities of a diverse buying public that is asking for #ownvoices. Like any business the publishing industry is looking to service its customers the best way it knows how. Unfortunately, it just doesn't benefit you in this instance.

3) Keep in mind that the publishing industry is just tough. And for most of its history, it has been even tougher for marginalized communities to get their work published for a plethora of reasons (one of the worst being that an overly white industry just didn't believe that non-white people read in large numbers). Take this obstacle as inspiration to sharpen and perfect your work that much more.

Julie Weathers said...

These discussions come up on twitter all the time. In one pitch contest, I had an author challenge me about my fantasy. How many POC do you have? How many LGBTQ characters do you have? Did you get a sensitivity reader to read for your POC?

1. I don't write quotas. I'm not an affirmative action writer. Sorry.

2. My POC don't exist in the real world so what the heck is some sensitivity going to read for? This culture didn't dress like that or use those tattoos or dance like that?

I am not using sensitivity readers for Rain Crow because most of you people out there have never been slaves or freemen or Natives in 1861. If you have, I want to talk to you. Let's do another story. I actually do have a story about a half Cherokee woman who is a vampire and wreaking havoc on those who stole her land, but that's another kettle of fish.

A well-known military and historical author starts out one book with Lee berating a young man for handing a black butler a letter. Doesn't he know blacks are too ignorant to learn to read? This historian is either flaunting his bias, he certainly did that in several other ways, or he simply couldn't be bothered to do rudimentary research. It's common knowledge the slaves at Arlington were all literate.

That stereotype fits with popular narrative though, doesn't it?

I have lots of blacks in Rain Crow. Some are slaves, some are free. Some are good. Some are bad. Guess, what? They're people. Just like the other characters.

Lorena's (the MC) personal handmaid grew up with her. Annie is a fabulous dress designer and seamstress.

You can't have a black woman being a dress designer! It would never happen. Why not? Elizabeth Keckley was.

The subject drives me out of my mind. I was going to rewrite Far Rider as a YA as the agent suggested, but after some recent kerfluffles, I don't know. Make a misstep and the thought police are out in force to destroy you. Re-write your work to suit them and they're still not satisfied. Apologize and grovel? Nope, still not good enough. YA and children's seem worse than adult with these self-righteous vigilantes.

BunnyBear said...

I got to know Tom Perry at several Tucson Festival of Books, when I served as his volunteer driver. We spent a lot of time together. I told him about my WIP. I picked his brain. His advice to me was, "be sure you get the gun stuff right." He did not comment on my diverse main character, or how to make her authentic. He trusted that, as a writer, that was my job and I could do it.

Amy Schaefer said...

Other people have covered a lot of what I came here to say (hurrah for this group of woodland creatures), so I'll try hard to be brief.

Think of #ownvoices as a way to control for unconscious bias. Scholarly research shows the same issue in job interviews: people tend to hire people they relate to, which generally ends up being people "like them". So the pool of people making those decisions tends to look the same, be educated similarly, be of a certain gender and physical type, and they bring in more people like that, and so on.

The key here is the word unconscious. This isn't the result of ill will - we're not talking about people who are overtly against one group or another. The problem is, people view themselves as well-intentioned - not racist, not misogynistic, not homophobic - and so often don't recognize that yes, they too have biases and comfort zones. Our brains work that way.

#ownvoices asks decision-makers to break out of their comfortable patterns - to consciously search out and recognize the gems that have historically been overlooked.

*sigh* That became long after all. To distill: actively open up the competition. And I agree with earlier comments: if (we) white authors can't compete in this new environment, then we should write better books.

Julie Weathers said...

And here's what drives me nuts. This right here.

Lisa "When I went to a workshop in April, one of the things Janet spoke about during a panel on queries was the white hero who rescues a person(s) of color. The white hero is a trope that has been overdone and it undermines the reality that people of color also have agency."

Yes, yes. We need more minorities being heroic and being MC's. Unfortunately, if you write a minority character in a leading role you're going to get:


"Are you unwilling to step aside from writing an MC whose marginalized identity you do not share? Why? (Because it's MY story, is not an acceptable answer, especially if your story is usurping someone else's voice)."

Do this!

Don't do this!!

Now, I'm going to go throw rocks someone and let off a little steam. *Looks at character list and decides who needs a little mayhem today.*

Mary Kate said...

I agree with Perfectlyaveragescakes. I’ll also add, I saw a tweet from a black writer a while back that said something along the lines of: “Include us in your stories. Just don’t tell our stories for us.” I think that’s the most concise, helpful bit of advice on this topic that I (a white, straight, female writer who writes YA) have ever received.

As both a writer and a reader, one of the things that makes a book great for me is authenticity. That feeling of reading fiction and thinking, “yes, yes, this person knows exactly what they’re talking about, they’ve BEEN there.” I have always written my (YA contemporary) stories from the perspective of white straight females, who are my age or younger than me. My MCs don’t experience sensitive topics I don’t have personal experience with (rape or living with a disability, for example.) They also tend to be from where I’m from, or from places I’ve lived, hold various insecurities I grew up with. Why? Because I KNOW this stuff. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten on my stories is “This feels so real,” and I love that.

I include diversity in my stories in the form of other characters, because I know what it’s like to have gay friends, to date a boy of a different race, to have a black brother-in-law, etc. What I DON’T know is what it’s like to BE them, and I think no matter how well I research that, my story wouldn’t have the same ring of authenticity to it that a person who’s lived those experiences would.

Not to say people can’t write outside their own experiences. They can, and should, and do all the time. My life is too boring for me to be able to mine all my fiction from it. I have MCs with murdered parents, while my parents are still alive and well, MCs who are far braver than I ever was as a teen, MCs who are only children, or who have brothers, things I never had. So I have to build on what I know to get to what I don’t, and in the process, research. But I think, when writing outside your own experience, you have to consider the people who DO have these experiences, and whether or not you’re stepping on their toes by writing their experiences for them.

TL;DR I guess for me, I don’t understand wanting to write a story when there are other people out there better equipped to write that same story, and more deserving of the opportunity. I want to tell my own stories. That being said I understand every writer has different desires, I'd just strongly consider why you want to tell a particular story (is it just so it's diverse, or something else?) and then think about if you're really the best person to tell it.

Megan V said...


Mine and Lisa's commentaries are not contradictory. They are two separate but connected issue.

Lisa points out the white savior trope. Where a White MC comes along and saves all the poor people of color (usually black people)and just the poor people of color from the tyranny of an oppressive regime based on race. How do we fix it? Well? One suggestion I've heard is to make the oppression based on something other than race (although you generally can't totally erase that) and make sure your non-white characters are complex, real people with their own backstories that show how central they are to the toppling of the regime. Team effort not a one to save us all story.

My connected string of questions (included the one you quote) relies on the fact that we need to consider why we are unwilling to change our MC. There's a difference between saying it's my story and I just want it that way and saying, this is a story about racial oppression and my MC is one of the oppressed so the characters marginalized identity is necessary or central to the story.

But then we connect one of the other questions I ask. Is a story about racial oppression a story that a white person should be telling in general? Maybe not.

None of my questions are authoritative answers. They are questions to ask oneself.

Brenda said...

Some of the discomfort here on the part of authors may be our ever present imposter syndrome.
My husband and I both had First Nations great-grandmothers whose pictures were burned after their deaths. We both have first cousins who married into First Nations. I have two children who are First Nations. My Aunt’s Grandma crossed the border into Canada following Sitting Bull. I grew up across the road from a reserve. My mc needs to be mixed race First Nations because it’s crucial to the plot of the third book. I have First Nations friends reading it to make sure I haven’t been offensive. I should feel comfortable with this mc, right?
Do I feel like an imposter? Yes because I look white and because I haven’t personally suffered from the historical abuse.
It makes me wonder if there are writers who worry that they aren’t black enough or LGBT enough because they personally escaped the bias.
All we can do is research, write the story as we know it, and be open to reasonable critique.

Sam Mills said...

I hesitated before clicking on Comments because this topic can get hairy, but phew, look at all this nuance! Thanks, everyone.

Like some others here, I also like to write diverse fantasy worlds, but just because you're making up all of the races doesn't mean you can't unconsciously reproduce tropes from the real world--especially if you go the worldbuilding route of "oh I'll loosely base this culture on THIS one, and this one on THIS one, oops I've just reinvented European colonialism and the colonists are the good guys." So even in fantasy, astute readers can help suss out themes/stereotypes you didn't intend to infuse in your tale of advanced-culture-meets-primitive-culture or war-of-light-elves-versus-dark-elves. You get my gist.

There are also conversations happening around the pressure ownvoices has on marginalized creators who maybe *don't* want to write their marginalization(s) and are afraid of being passed over because of that, so support diverse writers regardless of what they write. It's growing pains for the industry for sure. But also exciting! There are so many amazing-looking books coming out! Even the short story scene is exploding (in SFF at least) with lots of people doing fabulous and imaginative stuff. I love being a reader right now. :D

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Some years ago I went through my grandmother's research and found to my surprise that we were Mayflower descendants.
Wow! thought I.
Then I remembered our neighbors and friends growing up were Mashpee Indians.
Keeps it in perspective.
I know there is a story in there if I am ever smart enough to find it.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Terrific conversation, as always. Love your response, Janet.

The mc in my middle grade ms is a 13 y/o bi-racial girl. I'm white. But I have bi-racial granddaughters. In the story I've written, I didn't portray having a black mother and a white father as an issue or a social struggle. It's barely mentioned and revealed organically. I did that because I want my granddaughters to read stories where their family is represented as okay. Normal. Good.

Emma said...

I agree with OP. Fiction is fiction. If I were forced to write only from the POV of someone like me, living a life like mine, I'd walk away from writing forever. The reason, I think, people like to write is that it allows them to inhabit somebody else's body for a while and live a different life. And I think that's one of the biggest reasons people like to read.

I do have a weird insight into the subject though. Having been born in Russia, I'm usually terribly irritated by movies or books with Russian characters or set there written by people who are not Russian. They get a lot wrong. However, I'm a rabid fan of the Americans because they got so much right, I felt I was listening to my parents talk in some episodes. And from I can tell, the Americans was written by Americans, mostly men, and one woman of color. But they did their research, and they worked hard to get it right and they did.

Killing Eve, on the other hand, which also has a Russian character and is set in Russia, gets almost everything it can wrong.

But I'll watch it anyway. I won't like it as much, but I'll watch it.

In other words, the story is what counts, and if you do your research right, you won't annoy too many people.

That's my spiel and I'm sticking to it.

Gigi said...

Chiming in as a neurodiverse person who has no problem with neuronormative folks including neurodiverse characters in their casts.

Many have said similar things above, but wanted to join in to say I'd love to see more people like me being heroes in all kinds of stories. I think I would have especially loved it when I was starting to have symptoms and didn't know what they were.

Just make sure you get it right. Have multiple neurodiverse people read your neurodiverse character (because there's stuff that deeply bothers my community that doesn't bother me, so multiple opinions matter in this kind of thing).

I know this post was specifically asking about racial marginalization, but thought it might help to throw in an opinion from a different underrepped background. Please include people like me in your stories! Just know that it'll be more work and fully commit to that fact. Honestly, I think doing that work also just makes us all smarter and more empathic and better people in the end anyway.

Lennon Faris said...

OP, you sound thoughtful and thorough enough to do a good job with writing anything. Perhaps the agent's impression is that would-be authors are trying to use under-repped groups as a way to get into publishing. That is awfully shady.

BUT I do think it's important for authors to get their world right. Making books white-washed just bc the author is white is completely inaccurate and a disservice to all cultures. I do agree with the sentiment though that you gotta get it 'right.'

Unknown said...

As others have mentioned, it's important to avoid certain tropes like the White Savior narrative. Another important one to avoid is having a POC who's sole purpose is to help your white main character. In doing some research, I found a Spike Lee critism of Legend of Bagger Vance: everything that was happening to black people at the time, and Bagger Vance's main concern is helping a white guy with his golf swing?

Also definitely don't write only about people that look and talk like you, no representation at all will be just as bad as poor representation. I think basing characters on your real life friends is a good start to ensuring your representation is accurate. Also if you are making an effort to be sensitive and asking questions like "do I do have the right to write about this?" then again, you are probably on the right path. I think it is important to always be asking these questions, and if you do get friend, sensitivity reader, etc. that says something isn't right, it's important to listen.

Julie Weathers said...


Also if you are making an effort to be sensitive and asking questions like "do I do have the right to write about this?" then again, you are probably on the right path.

We need a "right" to write about something now?

I had a scene in RC where Lorena goes to talk to her father's accountants in Baltimore. For whatever reason, there is some kind of him stepping in to help them at some point I don't know the whole story yet as the boys in the back haven't shown me. Anyway, Keiran and this Jewish accountant have been friends for years. Mr. Sandoval has known Lorena since she was born.

I put in a Jewish term of endearment and asked on a writer's forum if this would be correct. Several Jewish writers said yes, their grandmothers, aunts, uncles, often called them that. Ok, got the research right and I'm golden.

Then along comes another. No, that wouldn't have been used then. That's a ____ term and they didn't come over until the 1900's.

According to my research there was a large population of them in SC and Baltimore on this date.

Your research is wrong. On and on.

Jews wouldn't have served in the Civil War. On and on.

I have pictures of them building a cabin to celebrate this holiday.

They wouldn't have done that inside. You do it outside. This is wrong also.

My research shows Jews did migrate to the Caribbeans from Spain and then to the US.

Yes, Julie, there were Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.

You know what, contact this synagogue which also has the largest Jewish cemetery in ______ and tell them all their history is incorrect and you'll be happy to set them straight.

With that, I deleted my Jewish accountant, who was loosely based on a real person so I wasn't just being stereotyping, and the backstory that was going to lead to another story later and inserted a white character because it just isn't worth the fight. No matter how much you research and how much time you spend "getting it right" someone is going to bitch.

Adele said...

Of course it's easiest for an author to write an MC that's just like them, but sometimes that can grate on a reader's sensibilities. Well, this reader's sensibilities, anyway. Years ago, when Regency romances were popular (because Jane Austen just didn't write enough books and Georgette Heyer died) I was mostly a fan, but I often found American authors writing stories in which the English gentry were in such a pickle and didn't know what to do or how to proceed - until an American girl came to visit and fixed everything. I don't think the authors intended to send a message like "Thank goodness we have the Americans, otherwise we'd never get anything right"; the moral is that we often don't know what grates on people until the book is published and the Twitterverse lights up.

Unknown said...

Always a delicate topic. I suggest listening to this podcast:

Brenda said...

If you’re looking for a great read about the travails of a diverse character in publishing please read LESS (Pulitzer winner). Andrew Sean Greer brilliantly plays with the question of “How gay do you have to be to make it into the canon of legendary gay writers, not to mention how diverse do you have to be to have your books supported by publishers?” It’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek poke at publishing and a grand story.

Sarah said...

Kate Messner had a fabulous post about how she made sure she got things right for one of her protagonists who was a POC in BREAKOUT, which released this week.

I'm glad we're having this conversation in children's lit. There are so many issues to consider, but I think it's worth the messiness.

Unknown said...

Julie “Right” probably isn’t the right word (ha!) but I was going off where the OP said, “Do I not have a right…” My main point was that if OP is the type of person who worries about diversity in their work and how it affects people, then this probably isn’t as big of an issue for them as someone who doesn’t think or care about diversity at all.

Kate Larkindale said...

As many others here have mentioned: research is the key. And not just throwing diverse characters into a story because you feel like you need a diverse cast to get an agent/publisher. There needs to be a reason for any character to be the person they are, whether that's Chinese, gay, schizophrenic or anything else.

But it's important also not to be afraid to write outside your own experience and world. Personally, I don't believe my own ethnicity, sexual orientation or anything else about me is relevant when it comes to my stories. If my characters are authentic, individual and real in their own world, whether that's the real world or one of my invention, then I've done my job as a writer. And that's the only thing I really want to be identified as - a writer. Not a woman writer or a New Zealand writer or a queer writer or anything else.

I just want to write about the world around me and the millions of fascinating people living in it each of whom has their own unique story to tell.

S.E. Dee said...

I don't really read books based in the present day or even in our world (so sci-fi and fantasy) or dystopians where being alive and smart matters more than what colour you are. Or in sci-fi's where being human is more important. Or in fantasies where being human is a race!

So for that reason I welcome any POC's in these genres as knowledge about a POC's culture can go out the window. I only know Lilith is African due to her name in Lilith's Brood, but other than that, it's so not important in the story. Just the fact that she was a POC was great to me! To say this almost sounds like "well then the MC could have been anyone" and that's true, but that also means for some reason they're usually white and that's where you can get to thinking only white folk are made to be heros etc, so yeah, make them POC's if you want, who ever you are.

Your hero/MC doesn't have to be one because they're a POC, but just a hero who happens to be a POC, like every other hero/MC that happens to be white.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Asian person here chiming in.

In a Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson's character said something to the effect that people like Tom Cruise use the words honor,code,loyalty as a punchline while the Marines use them as backbone of a life spent defending something.

Writers often use Asian characters as writing device. They say the novel demands it. They say the readers get tired of reading about all white characters.

Please understand that when you write about Asians, whether positively or negatively, you contribute to the body of stereotypes about Asians extant in society.This body of stereotypes is what we encounter and try to survive every day. This accumulation of popular notions impact our bus rides, how our children are treated in the schoolyard, our employment prospects, all aspects of our daily life.

As a writer you have this power over me.

I am scared of you.

Julie Weathers said...


This body of stereotypes is what we encounter and try to survive every day.

Oddly enough I have a friend who is Korean/Canadian. He wrote a story that depicted who his family lives. It got rejected because it wasn't Asian enough. Koreans would be doing this that or the other thing. His family does very few of those things. He's pretty much given up on writing other than the odd story here and there.

When I was in Surrey we had dinner and he talked about the time he went to Korea for a couple of years to teach English. I asked him how he enjoyed it. Did he have any travel tips? "I ate a lot of McDonald's because I was never sure what was in the food. The second piece of advice, don't ask what is in the food because they will tell you."

I've heard his stories before and read them. I wish someone would have given him a chance because I'm sure whatever it was, was hilarious and well written.

Stereotypes are everywhere. In a recent discussion on a forum, I made a comment about something. It was fairly innocuous as my comments go. The response from somewhere way out in left field was "I wouldn't expect anything less from a Republican."

1. No, I'm not. 2. It's none of your business if I were. 3. How or if I vote doesn't color everything I say, do, and think. Stop assuming because someone is from the country they are ignorant Republican hicks.

John Davis Frain said...

I'm not smart enough or experienced enough to weigh in with a qualified answer. But I'm reminded of Margaret Atwood who said, "I write as if I've lived a lot of things I haven't lived."

Do the work and move onward. You will never please everyone. Make sure you please yourself.

Megan V said...

Last comment from me.

I second the blog and podcast recommendations .

Really what it comes down to is a few things.

Writers shouldn’t pigeonhole their writing. Imagination is wonderful. Use it. Be inclusive. Write what you need to write.

Marginalized writers don’t have to write stories about being marginalized or with marginalized MCs. And they shouldn’t be forced to.

Hell, a lot of times there are ownvoices writers who don’t identify themselves and shouldn’t be pressured too!

Those who are not marginalized do not have to write stories without marginalized characters (and shouldn’t). But writing inclusively is more than including diversity because “it sells” or making a character marginalized because we want a fictional target to experience the problems marginalized character might experience.

If we decide to write marginalized characters we have to be mindful of the dangers of getting it wrong, do the research to prevent harmful representation, and put our support behind those writers who are ownvoices and are trying to share their experiences, because research can only take us so far.

Even then we all screw up. And we will screw up. And when we do it’s our job to acknowledge any harm done and work to be better, to do better.

But the best thing we can do is write, research, and support other writers.

Unknown said...

Also, there’s a difference between writing a book with minority’s characters (even as protagonists, even dealing with themes of racism and so on) and writing a book *about* being a minority. It’s when privileged authors write the second type while minorities doing the same are ignored that’s especially grating to people, I think.

Sarah said...

Ceclia, thank you for your insight.

Craig F said...

There is one thing to remember. No matter how hard you try to get it right, somebody, somewhere is gonna kick you around 'cuz of it.

The human condition is myriad because we are all different. Even how we look at the world is different from inside each set of blinders and every human is wearing blinders.

There are very few textbook cases of anything, so you can not cover every every angle emanating from any one thing.

That doesn't mean to stop trying. We all have some point we wish to make, just do your best to get what you can right, even though certain aspects of it will be wrong.

It is when writers with a following get lazy that it seems really wrong.

Joseph S. said...

I stopped reading the comments after I got too twisted and confused. So I fell back on Mother Teresa's wise words:

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

Colin Smith said...

I'm with the "just write great stories" crowd. Do your research, do the best you can, and put it out there.

One of the great joys of fiction is writing about people and events that are not me or my experience. Imagining what it must be like to be that person in that world. Sometimes it takes research. Other times, it's pure imagination. If writers only ever wrote about people like themselves, we wouldn't have Harry Potter, or Frankenstein, or Anna Karenina, or Oliver Twist, or... I'm sure you can add to the list.

There's lots I could say, but a lot's been said already. And I've said enough. :)

AJ Blythe said...

Awesome question, OP.

My ms is set in outback Oz. I have indigenous Aussies in the book as secondary characters, because if I didn't the book wouldn't reflect life in an outback town. I've lived and worked the experience and worked closely over a number of years with the elders of one mob - I've drawn on that for my story. I'd been worrying over exactly the same thing and decided to include them because writing a white-only outback story would be far worse.

ashland said...

I'm glad to see this blog post come up as last year I found myself in this same situation: cis-white that made the mistake of writing from a gay-POC perspective. While I did score an agent with the MS, I quickly found myself on the outside of the #ownvoices rally with editors, and after awhile we decided to part ways. And, sure, I understand there could have been other contributing factors for the break, but the one that played a larger part than it should have in the schism was that, according to my former agent, the "market just isn't right for a non-POC to write a POC story right now."

Okay. So be it. We ended things amiably and I honestly have no bitter sentiments regarding how it all went down, but I feel it's important to offer my humble opinion on the subject instead of just reading another blog post and never contributing to the actual conversation.

I'm from rural Appalachia and we are sorely under represented in popular culture/literature and I would love to see myself reflected in that lens. But I also want to contribute to it, and I know that means writing a better story than the next person so that the quality of composition will speak for itself. So that's what I'm working to do. I feel that should be the only metric by which we are measured--if some city slicker can write about these hills and hollers I call home better than I can, well then that's on me.

However it feels like today's culture has somehow flipped itself onto its head. I've always tried to approach things from the idea of treating people equally and giving everyone the same freedom, but, for some reason I can't fathom, it seems like the pendulum is swinging too far to the left of middle anymore. Now you have to be in the group to write about a group? That concept of exclusion boggles my mind.

Simply put: equality exists in a vacuum and if you would not disallow another ethnicity/sexuality/religion/(insert other qualification here) from doing something then you shouldn't exclude anyone from doing it. We should all be free to read, write, and experience all life has to offer the same. No exceptions, end of story.

Claire Bobrow said...

I’ve learned a lot from today’s post and discussion. Thank you, OP, for asking the question, and to everyone who contributed comments. The realization that many kids (and adults) never see themselves reflected in a book is a profound one, and I hope we can all continue listening and discussing and writing towards positive change.
At an SCBWI conference I attended, Vanessa Brantley-Newton talked about how grateful she was for The Snowy Day, and for Ezra Jack Keats, who created Peter. I’m grateful for that book, too, and hopeful the Peters of the world will have increasing opportunities to tell their own stories.

Lennon Faris said...

Cecilia! I've never consciously thought about it like that. That is eye-opening.

What a great discussion.

Jolie Taylor said...

Love this and your reasoning for doing it. You are a sweet grandma! ❤️

Jolie Taylor said...

I’ve enjoyed the comments and this topic. It gave me a lot to think about. I so want to write diverse books and I have, or at least tried, but I feel hesitant continuing to pursue that path when it is such gray area. I hate contention, and I’m so afraid of offending someone. But I’d also love to help create diverse books. My hope is to find an awesome agent who can help me with my story and navigate it along the rocky paths.

KDJames said...

Good characterization requires a writer to get into the head of the character. To understand not just their present circumstances in your story, but their backstory and even their place within the history of your world. This is true regardless of what type of character you're writing.

Part of what irritates me about this discussion -- not just here, but everywhere -- is the default belief that white people can be anything. We can be kind or cruel, passionate or cold, driven or lazy, wealthy or poor, open-minded or bigoted, beautiful, ugly, educated, ignorant. Think about it. All of that is simply fucking accepted. That's part of our privilege and, mostly, we don't even see it.

But when we branch out and write about "The Other" we have to be oh so very careful not to offend or portray them "incorrectly." As if there's only one acceptable portrayal, in some tidy little box. Bullshit.

Yes, I'm over-simplifying. Yes, I'm playing devil's advocate. To a point.

There is no one way to write POC or other diverse characters, any more than there is one way to write white cis characters. If you're writing a diverse character who is slow-witted but driven, or brilliant but lazy, or poor but generous -- or any other combination -- show the reader WHY they came to be that way.

Yes, of course, take into account what makes them diverse, what makes them feel uncomfortable or like an outsider, what makes them feel superior and triumphant and adored. Don't write the first mindless bigoted stereotype that pops into your head. Draw on your writerly empathy and compassion and understanding. Think beyond the surface.

But mostly, portray diverse characters in a way that is believable of each individual, in each specific situation, in your particular story. The same way you'd do with your white cis characters.

Joseph S. said...

KD James is correct.