Should Non-Diverse Authors Write Diverse Stories?

Angelo Franco

 

In early 2017, several weeks before its scheduled publication, Book Twitter erupted in drama over Laurie Forest’s upcoming debut novel The Black Witch. The book centers around Elloren, the heir to a famous magical family who is devoid of magical powers herself in a world that prizes magic. Some fantasy beings (stand-ins for real-world minorities) are the target of discrimination, and Elloren begins to discover that the prejudices she holds against them are the result of long-ingrained sentiments against other cultures, and the book takes her on a journey of self-reflection as she learns to purge her prejudices when she finds herself among the beings she was taught to hate.

 

But some people who had received advanced reader copies condemned the book as bigoted and full of dangerous ideas, and the YA Twitter community soon repudiated the book as racist before most people could even get their hands on it. They denounced all the racial theme surrounding the plot and the fact that Forest, a white woman, had taken on the helm of writing a book about racism with myriad diverse characters.

 

The question of whether white authors should be writing non-white characters or stories about diverse characters is not new. But in the time of hashtags like #ownvoices and #writingmylatinonovel (the latter is a trip of laugh-out-loud proportions) and when readers can directly connect to publishers through several platforms and form parasocial relationships with creators, the topic of who can or should write what is loud and shrill.

 

The #writingmylatinonovel trend was a direct response to the now infamous American Dirt novel by Jeanine Cummins. It sought to satirize the way in which a white author took a Latin story, well-intentioned as it may have been, and ended up repackaging it in a colorblind box for mass consumption using stereotypes and eyeroll-inducing plot points as an immigrant woman made her way to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. For example, readers called out the stereotypical random use of Spanish that many could have considered as just lazy: “We fled through the night, or /la notche/ as Mami calls it,” read a tweet poking fun at the use of Spanish in the book. And many suggested that we should maybe leave a story about an immigrant crossing the border to be told by an immigrant who actually knew what that experience was like in their Own Voice.

 

You may have seen “#ownvoices” tagged at the end of a book blurb on Goodreads, or as a hashtag on some social platforms in an influencer’s review of a book. More often than not, people confuse Own Voices with “write what you know” with a dollop of racial identity, but that’s far from correct.

 

 

The term—or rather, the hashtag—was coined in 2015 by author Corinne Duyvis as a quick way for her to recommend books that were written by authors who shared the same diverse identity as their protagonists. In other words, if you were looking for recommendations for a book about and written by, say, an Asian woman, #ownvoices was a quick way to tag that book in a tweet. So, in a way, it’s maybe easy to misunderstand Own Voices as a limiting dictate that if you are not a bisexual Black man from the South, then you absolutely cannot write a character in your book who is a bisexual Black man from the South. Or (worse), if you’re not a woman, then you cannot write a woman protagonist.

 

That is shortsighted, to say the least, and a sure way to let cis white men continue to write about cis white men in a never-ending repackaging of some Updike theme or a Bukowski female. Instead, Own Voices is a way to consciously produce and consume stories about underrepresented characters written by openly underrepresented authors. After all, anyone can still write about anything and anyone they want; and they do, oftentimes to great success and other times less so (The Help and American Dirt are some examples, respectively). But Own Voices helps readers navigate a market saturated by white authors writing about white people and to more easily find a story in the cannon of diversity. The term Own Voices has since become a catchall phrase of sorts and an integral tool for the publishing industry, being used from manuscript queries and submissions to marketing.

 

But while the term Own Voices may be fairly new, its theme and application have been around from a while. For myself, for instance, I remember having a college prep course in high school that focused on fiction written by authors of color (I’m a Latin immigrant who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, for some context), and this was pretty much the only source I had on these works up to that point at a time when the internet was still dropping calls on the house phone and libraries did not have aisles dedicated to diverse YA or LGBT+ books. And still the concept of Own Voices goes way back. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press was founded in 1980 with the express goal of having a publisher run by and for women of color, with Audre Lorde being one of its most prolific and best-known contributors. Jacqueline Woodson was already talking about this back in 1998, and about her constant struggle of having to explain her frustration at seeing so few authors of color writing characters of color or, worse in her mind, so many white authors writing characters of color leaving little room for non-white authors to participate.

 

That, I believe, is the crux of Own Voices and what may be the fault line in the conversation of non-diverse authors writing diverse characters. Let’s take Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, for example. The book is fine, I guess (it contains a trope often found in queer literature that I personally dislike, so I may be biased). And the movie was really wonderful for several amazing reasons. But that the first gay teen romance movie produced by a major film studio was based on a book written by Becky Albertalli, a cis white woman, may have rubbed some the wrong way. Especially after indie movies like Moonlight, written and based on a play by a gay Black man, had just been out there winning award after award.

 

And when there are so many wonderful contemporaries to Albertalli that have written gems of YA queer fiction, like Adam Silvera. Or scores of veteran YA gay authors like David Levithan, Malinda Lo, and Shaun David Hutchinson with prolific careers writing queer fiction. It’s worth noting here that five years after her book publication and two years after the movie, Albertalli came out as bisexual. She apparently had recently come to that realization herself, and of course there is no timeline as to when someone should come out, or at all. And it’s wonderful that Albertalli has come to a place where she can live her truth, although some believe she may have been forced to come out exactly because of the criticism she received for writing queer stories.

 

 

But this is why it’s crucial to understand the emergence and existence of a movement like Own Voices: It is here so that readers who want to can consciously patronize authors who openly identify with their characters they write, who can write their character’s struggles truthfully and, perhaps most important of all, who are able to more sensibly connect the reader with their character’s experience by means of their own. By this measure, does Simon count as an Own Voices book now?

 

Which takes us back to how non-diverse authors should be writing diversity or if they should be writing them at all. The two schools of thought on this seem to be predictably in direct opposition with each other, as only a nuanced topic like this can be in the age of Twitter. If you are an author of any race or identity, then you must write as many possible racial and gender identities within your book without an iota of margin for error for anything that may be misconstrued within the experience of living that identity, and if you don’t, then you’re a bigot. Of if you’re a not a diverse author, then you have absolutely no reason to be writing any sort of gender or racial diversity to exploit and benefit from the appropriation of those experiences that you have no possible way of coming within an iota of understanding, and if you do, then you’re a bigot. Alas there is, of course, some truth to both of these extremes.

 

To the surprise of no one, the publishing industry remains astonishingly white at all levels. Not only are there huge disparities in published books written by underrepresented authors, but the rooms where decisions are made also remain starkly non-diverse. So it’s understandable that calls to write stories as diverse as possible are loud and unyielding. This is especially true when it comes to works of fiction that take place in very real, very diverse locations, or in imagined fantastical settings. In both instances, a homogenous group of characters who all look the same can definitely feel like a choice the author made.

 

Take V. E. Schwab’s bestselling The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Touted as a genre-defying tour de force, the book is a blend of romance, adventure, and magical realism that centers around Addie LaRue—an immortal of sorts—as she travels the world across continents and through centuries, addled by the curse that no one remembers her; she is forever forgotten by time and humanity. This plot is significant here because, in a story that supposedly takes place across the globe and through history, Addie never actually goes anywhere outside of Western Europe or America.

 

This was readers’ biggest criticism of the book, that in a work of fiction that promises adventure through the history of the modern world over almost 450 pages, Addie has a conversation with exactly one Black person. (It may bear to note here that, as is the case with most if not all of Schwab’s books, all characters are queer to some degree; even if not explicitly noted, the reader is simply to assume so). That we are taken through a journey of Western art history—apparently inspired by the immortal Addie LaRue, bien sûr—and even get to meet Beethoven in person, and that there is only one person of color that Addie speaks to definitely feels like a choice. And perhaps it was.

 

 

Enter Own Voices. Some critics argue that there are clear downsides to a movement like Own Voices. For example, authors must also now sell their persona along with their work in order to get published; and while this isn’t novel per sé, it’s not just their charisma or cynical genius writers must now sell, but possibly their gender identity or sexuality or family history as well.

 

It may also, whether intentionally or not, give an out to authors and creators to include non-white characters. It’s possible that’s what was happening with Addie LaRue. In trying to stay true to #ownvoices, and perhaps even motivated by the fear of backlash [that was almost certainly inevitable] when writing a person of color, Schwab—who is white—took a rather extreme route of excluding any non-white characters from the story. But extreme or not, this strategy is nothing new. In fact, it’s quite common.

 

Acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen has pretty much said this is the case for him. And let us not forget when Lena Dunham implied that the reason there were no major characters of color in a TV show that took place in New York City, factually one of the most diverse places on earth, is because she just wouldn’t know how to write them correctly, and so instead she eventually gave herself a Black boyfriend. Ditto Sex and City. And Friends. And the majority of fantasy books because genre and dark ages aesthetics, I guess, never mind that there may be fire-breathing dragons roaming the streets: Beloved fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin has lambasted pretty much every industry that has come across her Earthsea series for whitewashing the main characters, even though the author has nothing but insisted that they are not white.

 

On the other hand and considering that white authors and white stories are still more prevalent in the industry, it’s sobering when readers demand stories about diverse characters written by diverse authors, and not just another story with the token diverse minor character. 

 

Take Naomi Novik’s latest fantasy novel A Deadly Education. Here, Novik writes about a school of magic that is as diverse as the most colorful Queens neighborhood. Her protagonist is a half-white half-Indian girl who was raised by her hippie white mother in England, and so she does not know much about and is not very connected to her Indian culture. There are elaborate plots happening all over the book, but suffice it to say that one plot detail is that the students in this school of magic don’t shower very often because it is dangerous to do so. This, as well as the protagonist lacking some of her Indian culture, caught some backlash (there is also another passage in the book about dreadlocked hair that Novik was criticized for and for which she, rightly so, has apologized).

 

 

Critics argued that Novik—who is white—is perpetuating stereotypes about Indians being unhygienic because no one in the school showers often, on top of the fact that she made her protagonist half-Indian but denied her an Indian identity; while others contend that it’s amazing to see a fantasy book that it’s so diverse, and the fact that the protagonist may appear unhygienic should speak more to the fact that she was raised by a white hippie mother than to her being half-Indian anyway.

 

Enter Own Voices, again. Personal experiences when it comes to our identities are so complex that it makes sense if we want to read a story about that experience from someone who understands. That’s not to say that these things are impossibly out of reach for anyone who has not experienced them, but a reader may want a more tangible connection between them and what’s on the page or, at the very least, trust that what we’re reading is not just trying to deceive us with faux realism. A reader, for example, may not want to pick up a book about a trans character that focuses on their transition if it wasn’t written by a trans author. The lack of depth of knowledge of such personal experience there may ring hollow, well researched as it may be. And because of these deeply personal connections that readers, especially diverse readers, may have to the experiences that come with simply existing as they are, they may feel slighted when white authors decide to write diverse characters - and not to their liking.

 

But of course, everyone’s experience is different and no one culture is a monolith, just as not one person from a subculture can speak for the whole of that group. And so I’m sorry to say that I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer here. Writing is already hard, and having to navigate the complexities of identity in a world that is more vocal than ever about representation undoubtedly adds to that difficulty. Is it an easy way out to never write a character who doesn’t share you background or identity because you’d be sure to get it wrong regardless of how much you research and how well-intentioned you are? Yeah, probably. Is it unfair to receive backlash for attempting to do well by a diverse world who can tear apart every single bit of misrepresented identity no matter how minor? Who’s to say.

 

Because a writer can follow the old adage to just write characters as people and all will be swell. But whom H. P. Lovecraft considered people and whom Octavia Butler considered people differed, and therein lies the problem. To simply write a female character as a person who just so happens to be female without any of the experiences that come from being female denies the identity of womanhood in a world that both demonizes and craves for it. (Plus, the thought of Lovecraft writing a Black hero is laughable, old adage at play or not).

 

 

It may help to not think of it in terms of who is “allowed” to write what. Sure, there may be some stories that are just not for some people to tell. But if we stay in the extremes of “if you don’t write diversity, then you’re a bigot” and “if you are white, don’t write diversity or you’re a bigot,” then we risk falling into the gatekeeping and limitations of the likes of YA Twitter, which is a whole other conversation on its own; with seemingly unbendable rules that no one knows how to actually navigate or who is making the rules in the first place or even why at all (see the mesmerizing saga of Kosovo Jackson’s A Place for Wolves and his self-canceling).

 

I like to think that most writers write in good faith, and hope that continues to be the case when writing fiction. Because the truth is that no one diverse experience is universal and no one identity is monolithic. Mistakes will almost certainly be made, and taking criticism (the good, the bad, and the totally unnecessary), is always part of the job anyway. But it’s important for a writer to stand by their work, or otherwise admit their mistakes, in good faith if they have the wherewithal to show their actions, processes, and evidence to try to prove that they, at the very least, sincerely tried their best and stand by it (see the captivating saga of Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir and her self-canceling and subsequent self-un-canceling).

 

Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch was eventually published to generally favorable reviews and readers seemed to like it just fine. In fact, some of the most critical reviews focused on how the book’s message of anti-racism was oftentimes too on the nose instead of weaved into the story in a more nuanced way. As it seems that Forest wrote the book in good faith and its message was a good one actually. Perhaps what we as readers can do is just take everyone else’s opinions in strides. Take reviews with a grain of salt, and then decide on our own whether a book merits a place in our bookshelves, in our community book exchange program, or in the recycling bin. To read and consume consciously, patronizing the authors who gave us the stories that stirred our emotions, and then to tell everyone else about them until the industry finally gets the message.  

 

Author Bio:

 

Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:                 

--Philip Edmondson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Painting, “The Reading,” by Vittorio Reggianini

--Drew Coffman (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Piqsels (Creative Commons)

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