Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing What You Don’t Know

In a writer’s workshop I took this past January, the workshop leader took the time to talk about the strong need for diverse characters in our writing. It was slightly surreal, as the leader and every single participant was a white woman. Still, it was hardly the first time I’d heard this plea. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a very common hashtag among publishing professionals on Twitter.

Does it follow, though, that stories starring diverse characters need to be written by diverse writers? Should they? Can a white writer authentically write a story with a black protagonist? If not, are we also saying that black writers should not write stories with white characters? Can “color-blind casting,” which is exploding on television these days, be adapted for a written narrative?

J.K. Rowling’s recent experience doesn’t bode well for warm acceptance of white writers writing about cultures not their own. Native American communities were infuriated when her recent history of magic in North America, written as a run-up to the debut of the Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, touched on certain tropes and beliefs about Native Americans. What does a white woman from the U.K. know about the Cherokees and Navajos?

I’m not writing this to defend Rowling – I haven’t read the stories and don’t know enough about Native American cultures to even form an opinion. But I’ve cherished the Harry Potter books, and Jo’s interactions with fans and her charitable giving. I can only imagine how horrified she must feel, being accused of appropriating someone else’s culture. Getting it wrong.

I am a white woman – a wife and mother – and in every book I’ve written so far, my first-person protagonist is the same. True, one of them was also a half-vampire, but I didn’t get a lot of emails from half-vampires complaining I’d gotten it wrong. However, I did get one review that mentioned her Hispanic co-worker, Vic Ramirez, was Hispanic in name only.

In that writer’s workshop in January, I presented the first 25 pages of a YA novel I’m working on, featuring a morbidly obese teenager who decides to have gastric bypass surgery. I’ve had my issues with weight, but I’ve never been nearly that heavy. I’ve done research, and had a live-in nanny who had the procedure, but still, I have no personal experience with being that weight. So as much as I love my story and my protagonist, I still feel that I don’t have the right to write it. (Reading this blog post reinforced that feeling. ) I feel panicky at the thought of querying agents or publishers, imagining a similar reaction. Who are you to write about this girl? More broadly, do I have the right to write from the perspective of a bi-racial teen, or a black woman, or an Asian man – of anyone whose experience of the world is fundamentally different from mine? I can make up plots and whole universes, but do I have the right to make up people?

And if the answer is no, then are we saying that at obese person shouldn’t write from the point of view of characters who don’t struggle with their weight? That a black man shouldn’t attempt to write a story about a white woman? That a gay man should only write about gay men? Of course not. How much smaller our literary world would be if we only accepted stories in which a protagonist mirrored her creator.

And yet … some of the most well-known books about characters from minority populations are written by writers from those populations.
I don’t have any answers. Just lots of questions.

I honestly don’t know if I’m going to finish my story about my obese teenager. As much as I love her, the writing is tough, and there are other ideas that come easier. One of them is about a white wife and mother.

Are you writing a story in which your protagonist differs from you in a major way? How did you build her world, being different than yours?

1 comment:

  1. This is a great topic and I've dealt with it a bit, too. One of my editors said that the book she was editing had no diversity in the characters and she was right. I think I'm afraid to write about a different ethnicity/cultural background because I don't want to get it "wrong" and I also don't want it to be cliche. I added an Asian woman into my last book but her part was very small and I never actually mentioned that she was Asian. I described her physically. But I understand your fears. Most of my books feature a single, white female (not THAT single, white female...) who works in the legal field because...well...yes, that's me. Even though their personalities are nothing like my own and their stories are fictional, there was not much research to be done in that regard. My newest book features a woman and other characters with a completely different career and background and even that is scaring me but I need to stretch myself and, you're correct, the literary world would be way too small if authors were only allowed to "write what we know."