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Writing Outside of One's Culture


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I've been having a lot of conversations about this lately. When I wrote The Legend of the Valentine, I already was very nervous about writing a Black POV character. I still love the book, and I am especially glad the publisher chose a Black illustrator (Don Tate), but I would not write from the viewpoint of a character of color again. It doesn't feel appropriate, and there is a great deal of discussion right now in publishing about representation and the need for diverse authors as well as diverse characters. 

That being said, I DO want to include characters outside of my culture in my cast, even if my main character has more in common with me. The trick is how to write them authentically. In order for authors to do that, we must do a lot of research. We must not only read a lot, but we must talk to people who are part of the culture we are trying to portray. And then, after we've got a draft, we must ask for sensitivity readers--people who can point out where we didn't get it right (and we won't get it right, so we have to start there.)  We also need to work on our own psyches, recognizing where we are "othering" people in our thinking, attitudes, and actions. 

We had quite an interesting conversation on the SCBWI-WWA FB page about this article https://slate.com/culture/2019/03/ya-book-scandal-kosoko-jackson-a-place-for-wolves-explained.html?fbclid=IwAR15i6uqb3RBm6j13wbZTyhOUaokimfmAFFr8GhihvdSBCRHvso_hsTIJ8Q

Though it seems like an extreme example, it gives you an idea of what's going on in reading and publishing right now and warns us that we can't be blithe about these issues. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

It's a delicate subject, that's for sure. When we were having this conversation at open mic, Kas put it in a way that I liked: that there's no inherent problem in writing from a POV of a minority group, so long as you take care and use (paid) sensitivity readers and consultants. Writing a story about the experience of being black or queer (or a character coded as such for fantasy/sci fi novels) is another matter, and while I don't like to flat out say anything is "off limits" to certain writers, I genuinely don't think someone who doesn't have that life experience could write an authentic story about it. I'd love to see more straight mainstream authors write queer protagonists, where it's an important part of the characters identity and is relevant to their interactions with people. I would, however, side-eye the hell out of a straight author who was writing a queer coming-out story or even worse, a story about how hard it is to be gay :'(((((. 

I think the trickiest thing about all this though is understanding that minority groups aren't a monolith. There's not going to be consensus within a group about if and how people outside their minority should portray them. At the end of the day, you listen to a lot of voices and make a judgement call, and not everyone is going to think it's the right one. Honestly the best advice I can give is to be careful, thoughtful, and a good listener. Remember that people of the demographic you want to represent know their lives and experiences and stories better than you, and give their opinions and advice the weight they're due. 

Nuance is hard and there are no right answers. Unless the question is whether to pay your sensitivity readers to which the answer is YES. 

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