RAWing about Writing about Race Part One

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>

shawngoodman-210-something_like_hope-330Shawn Goodman

I might roam a bit on this one. If I can reframe the question to one of risks, specifically the risks of writing across race and gender, I’d say the first risk is failure. There are so many ways for a writer crossing race and gender to get it wrong. Unbelievable characters. Unnatural language. Forced or shallow emotions. Or just showing on the page that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about! But perhaps the biggest risk is of stepping on others’ cultural toes.   I think the question that best speaks to this is, “what gives you the right to write this book?” It’s a good question for any writer of cover-330any book, I think, a fair question, and perhaps the best answer in my case is, because no one else was going to write SOMETHING LIKE HOPE. The girls I got to know in lockup read everything they could get their hands on. And yet, at that time, there were so few novels with characters and stories that reflected their experiences. Which is invalidating, if you think about it, because every kid should be able to find books that speak to him/her.  Of course, the alternative is to write only within the boundaries of our own racial, cultural, and/or gender identities. Imagine if we could only tell stories about people who look and dress and talk exactly like us?

140127095838-25-young-adult-book-awards-horizontal-gallery1Meg Medina

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 girl_silence_wind_cvr-1-copywork 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.


Black_and_WhitePaul Volponi

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.

Dream Jordan

badI 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!


Todd Strasser

todd1I’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.

<Read part two>

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