I am prepping an article for a forthcoming issue of Voice of Youth Advocates called “Writing While White.” As research for that, I thought I’d revisit this blog and the answers from authors when asked about writing outside of their own race. <Part One>
The danger for authors writing outside their experience is that they sometimes try to write an ethnic group or a type rather than fleshing out a person. Writing this way includes the most superficial treatment of a character’s culture (for example, the character’s name, a food, a particular kind of job) as a sufficient expression of the character. Writing in this way, you can easily get something wrong, and those missteps make characters ring false at best and as ugly stereotype at worst. Can it be done well? Sure. I’ll point to the work of Linda Sue Park and Laura Esau, and Skila Brown who have all written compelling novels outside of their own ethnic group. But should it? That’s a harder question, particularly against the galling fact that so few diverse authors are published right now. I’d say examine your motives for wanting a particular character in your novel; take honest stock of your sensitivity. Be prepared for thoughtful research to draw him or her exactly right, so that you end up with a whole person that I want to know.
When I walk the streets of NYC there are no fences between anyone. What touches you can touch me and vice versa. I’m part of life and that’s what I’m writing about. A company in Texas once read Black and White before it was published and told me, “You can’t write this unless you’re Black.” So they passed on publishing it. A year later, the American Library Association (who probably hadn’t seen me yet) included me on a list of famous African-American authors. That publisher’s letter and that ALA listing sit side-by-side inside of the same frame in my office.
I don’t have any answers for how to achieve diversity in literature. Readers like what they like. Publishers market according to the numbers. I actually attempted to write a story featuring white teens. Epic fail. My agent at the time didn’t feel the story. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try again!
I’ve heard this before, and I suspect part of the problem is that it’s difficult for non-writers to understand how a writer thinks. Just as I can’t imagine how an artist figures out how to paint or a song writer comes up with music, non-writers sometimes don’t understand that it’s our job as writers to imagine what someone else’s life is like. We’re just like actors in a play, but instead of one part, we have multiple parts.