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Why Authors Should Write Characters from Different Cultures August 12, 2020

As I wrote in April, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone after getting burned by multiple "dumpster fires." Yet like a moth, I keep going back periodically to peek at the dancing flames.

One day last month I visited the site on my computer for a couple of moments. In the first moment, I found recommendations for a cool book series I hastened to reserve at the public library. In the second moment, I glimpsed multiple writers declaring with pride, "Because I'm not a person of color, I only write books about white characters now."

WTF mates? In the short period of time I stayed away from social media, how did everyone manage to completely invert the goal of #ownvoices—to increase the representation of minority cultures in literature—into a righteous dictum that white writers should never ever try to represent characters from minority cultures in literature?

The twisted logic, from the few tweets I scrolled past before noping out that day:

  1. "No white writer can write a minority character well."
  2. "White writers are stealing opportunities from writers of color."
  3. "That's not your story to tell."

While each of these arguments sprouted from a grain of truth, their ultimate conclusions are nonsense. Let's examine what people are really saying when they make these assertions.

"No white writer can write a minority character well."

The grain of truth: Every adult has a unique set of personal experiences and unconscious biases they've picked up over decades. Recognizing those biases and pushing past them to write about people with different experiences takes a lot of hard work.

Another grain of truth: Faux diversity runs rampant even today. I've seen publishing experts declare making a book "diverse" is super easy—just change minor character names like Brittany and Sean to Latisha and Juan!

Both of these grains can sprout into equally inaccurate conclusions:

  1. "People of color are sooo different, white people could never understand them."
  2. "People of color are exactly the same as white people, just with funny names and noses."

Believing one or the other is how authors end up writing bad books about people from other cultures. To write well, you have to find the balance in the middle. Culture can affect the way people think and express themselves in subtle ways. But also regardless of culture, people everywhere are fundamentally the same: same emotions, same needs, same basic desires and interpersonal conflicts.

If you have a background of privilege, writing a marginalized character is difficult. But so is writing from the perspective of a woman if you're a man, or vice versa. So is writing from the perspective of a hard-boiled police detective when your only experience with law enforcement was that one time you got a ticket for speeding. Or writing about characters in Alabama when you grew up in Oregon, writing about a gorgeous Manhattanite with an exciting dating life when you're a reclusive bookworm, or writing about foraging for nuts and berries in prehistoric world of wizards when you're comfortably ensconced in the suburbs.

I recognize my own limits as a writer. After reading Angie Thomas, I know it's beyond my capabilities to write from the first-person perspective of a Black teenager in contemporary Atlanta. After reading Sandra Cisneros, I wouldn't dare to write the story of an immigrant Latinx family.

But I'm not going to write nothing but books about half-German-Irish, half-Chinese-Singaporian librarians from Southern California for the rest of my life, because only that narrow type fits my specific personal experience. We all need to stretch, carefully and conscientiously, to create fictional worlds full of unique and interesting characters.

"White writers are stealing opportunities from writers of color."

The grain of truth: The publishing industry has long pushed aside talented authors of color who wrote their own stories, and instead rewarded white authors who wrote clumsy POC stories for white audiences. For decades publishers told Mexican writers their stories of immigration "wouldn't sell," and then they lavished money and praise on American Dirt. And crafted barbed-wire centerpieces for a dinner party to celebrate its publication.

Barbed-wire-themed centerpieces at the Flatiron dinner party for American Dirt

Yeah...not a good look.

However, if all white writers stopped writing about marginalized characters, what would happen? Would publishers rush out to find new marginalized writers because OMG there's a void of color we must fill ASAP? No. Publishers would continue to buy the works of white authors with established platforms and impressive sales records, only now those works will have all-white casts in them.

For white writers to actually give opportunities to writers of color, they'd have to stop writing completely. None of the self-righteous authors I saw on Twitter offered to give up their publishing contracts. They're still writing and busily promoting their books. They're still taking up those coveted slots. Volunteering to "stay in their lane" does nothing but fill the shelves with Caucasian, neurotypical, heterosexual characters from the Christian tradition.

It would be absurd to demand all writers from one ethnic group sacrifice their careers for writers of another. The problem of under-representation isn't caused by writers in the first place, but by publishing companies that long offered limited slots for books featuring people of color, claiming that "Black children don't read," "Asian fantasies don't sell," or "White women over twenty-five don't want interracial romances."

Why are writers blaming other writers for producing "too many" stories about people from marginalized backgrounds, instead of demanding publishers make room for all stories? It's frustrating to see Twitter meekly accept that shelf space for non-white or LGBTQ+ books is limited and fight over who deserves to fill it. It's like we're in a sci-fi show about a post-apocalyptic society that allows only ten percent of the population to live in a purified bubble city, so we all started murdering each other to establish who's worthy of The Bubble, instead of protesting for the government to build more bubbles.

"That's not your story to tell."

The whole seed packet of truth: Western Europeans have a centuries-long habit of colonizing other cultures, taking over their lands and governments, and retelling traditional stories with an imperialist twist. We all grew up reading and watching beloved classics told from the European settlers' perspective, portraying "explorers" as brave heroes and other cultures as exotic, primitive, and in desperate need of rescue by nice civilized Christians: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, Disney's Davy Crockett, and so on.

Even today the most popular books and movies about different cultures place blue-eyed American protagonists in the center and people of color in the background for set dressing: The Help (2011) stars Emma Stone as a journalist writing about the lives of Black maids, The Great Wall (2016) stars Matt Damon as a mercenary who saves China from monsters, Green Book (2019) stars Viggo Mortensen as a chauffeur who repeatedly rescues his jazz-pianist client from racist bullies. The positions of characters on the official posters show whose perspective Hollywood considers most important.

Movie poster for The Help Movie poster for Great Wall Movie poster for Green Book

Stories have been told this way because (a) privileged novelists and scriptwriters default to writing from their own point of view, and (b) privileged publishers and producers believe audiences share that point of view. Those publishers and producers believe the white majority aren't interested in stories about people of color unless they're blockbuster tearjerkers about how much those poor, poor people suffer because their cultures are so backwards and violent. See: American Dirt, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Kite Runner. Have you ever seen a bestselling adult novel in the U.S. with a happy Middle Eastern protagonist?

Seeing all this, it's tempting to say, "White people aren't allowed to write about other cultures anymore. They'll write some colonialist nonsense that capitalizes on other people's pain for profit. From now on only writers of color have the right to tell these stories."

However, that way lies gatekeeping.

If you try to make a rule that only writers from group A can write about group A, and writers from group B must stick to group B, to enforce it you must sort all writers into groups A or B. So what happens when a writer is part A and part B? When they're genetically A but adopted by a B family? When their faces and names aren't stereotypically A enough to seem "authentic"?

Then online mobs attack a mixed Black and Native American author for "misappropriating" Navajo legends in a fantasy novel. Publishers tell an aspiring Nigerian novelist her book about an anime-loving teen doesn't feel "authentically Nigerian." A poet in Indiana figures out he can slap a Chinese pseudonym on his work to sneak into journals and anthologies, because all that matters to gatekeepers is the appearance of #ownvoices.

Gatekeeping is inherently racist. It assumes all people from an ethnic background look the same on the surface, have the same life experiences, and express themselves the same way. Anyone who doesn't fit those preconceived notions of POC-hood is "not really a POC."

The solution is more stories, not fewer.

The problem people are attempting to solve by dictating who can write what is the poor representation of minorities in books published today. So let's address that problem the right way: through education.

When a well-meaning writer attempts to write a story from a marginalized point of view and gets it wrong, we point out the mistakes in critical reviews and discussions. When a publisher promotes an exploitative tearjerker about poor, suffering immigrants, we promote other books that portray immigrant experiences in more varied and nuanced ways.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said in her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story":

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

We're not fighting racial stereotypes by saying, "Everyone who doesn't fit a racial stereotype, shut up!" We can fight them by showing people how reductive and harmful those stereotypes are, through both candid conversations and representations in fiction.

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