I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion in the writing community lately in regards to “what characters” and “stories” we are allowed to write. This has been an ongoing conversation for years but lately, I’ve been seeing this come up again and again since May and it is pretty obvious that it stems from topics and issues being expressed by minority groups (in Western Countries).
Many seem to respond to this discussion with their guard up, rather than approach it with a level of understanding. I get it. I do. However, I think that it is important to have these conversations and learn from one another, versus brushing them off and going, “Well I’m gonna write whatever I want because it’s my story! Screw you!”
Approaching it with that attitude will not make you a better writer. I understand being protective of your work, but if you plan on sharing it someday you need to be aware of what you are presenting to your audience.
After seeing these Tweets, it came to my attention that many people aren’t aware of the articles which address how to write COC (characters of colour) when you aren’t apart of that group. There are a lot, in fact I myself am going to be reviewing seven of them. Many of the comments on these articles held that same hostility towards the subject.
I want to be very clear, that this is in no way an attack on your writing or on you as a writer, but instead a means of education which I think we can all benefit from as a community.
The first article I am going to be reviewing has a more controversial title:
The author of this article, Fiona Snykers, begins by talking about an article they wrote back in 2013 regarding the same subject: should white writers be writing POC? Their original article titled, White writers writing black characters – a form of literary blackface? is also relevant to the conversation, and although there may be a few of you who feel these titles are a personal attack, it is important to understand where Fiona Snykers is coming from. There is a reason that they chose to write not one, but two articles on this subject, one in 2013 and another six years later in 2019. So, let’s delve into their thoughts about this subject by starting with a brief summary of their earlier article from 2013.
The article begins with Fiona Snyker addressing this topic, as being redundant, since it seems as though it is always popping up in the writing community (in this case specifically among South African writers).
“When white writers are questioned about this issue, their reactions range from the exasperated to the downright tetchy.”Snyker, 2013
I myself have seen similar responses to this topic, where some either shy away from having diversity in their work at all, and others argue that because writing is a creative process, they should be allowed to include whichever characters they want, and tell whatever stories they please.
“The standard liberal response is that fiction by its very nature is an exercise of the imagination. Writers make imaginative leaps all the time to create the characters they populate their fictional worlds with.”Snyker, 2013
Snyker then adds one of the most popular answers to this discussion, that I myself have seen:
“Taking this prohibition to its natural conclusion, no writer would ever be permitted to create a character outside of his or her precise social, political, racial, cultural, economic, religious, and gender circumstances. This would obviously be undesirable, and lead to boring, one-dimensional books. Therefore writers should be left in peace to create whatever characters they like.”Snyker, 2013
In summary, the most popular argument is, “If we can’t write what we want then books will be boring. Just let us do our thing!”
Snyker however, goes on to talk about how white South African authors go about creating black characters in a way that they believe “is a form of literary blackface” and gives an brief summary on the history of blackface. They then go on to, what I believe is the main point of their 2013 article.
“Black stories are best told by black writers — this needs to be said. Whites already dominate nearly every aspect of South African cultural life, so for them to be putting words into the mouths of black characters seems like an act of arrogance.”Snyker, 2013
Statements like this seem to cause a lot of discourse within the writing community. I’m sure a few people tried to pitch the old, “but men write women and vice versa” argument to themselves when reading this quote. However, I think it is important to try and understand Fiona Snykers thoughts and feelings, even if you disagree with her statements.
The emphasis in this quote, and something that I think people tend to misinterpret is “Black stories are best told by black writers.” Stories that belong to POC, meaning their experiences.
I had this conversation the other day with my sister, where I used a book that I read back in elementary school as a way of explaining this discussion. This book was written by a white, adult man and in it, the young female character gets her first period while at school. The novel talks a lot about male and female puberty, however I have always found it bizarre that an adult man was writing about about periods as if women are excited to get them. I had already had mine the year before reading this book, and I can tell you I was not in tears because I was “excited” it came. I was upset, I felt sick and I ruined my white leggings forever. He got that and many other experiences very…very wrong.
Did he write female character’s incorrectly? No.
Did he incorrectly tell a story about getting your first period? Heck yes!
This is exactly what people misinterpret with these statements. There also seems to be a misconception that these arguments are only coming from white SJW (social justice warriors) and that is not the case at all. In fact, I would argue that if you have been told something is problematic in your writing or about your character by a white person, they might have already educated themselves on the subject and are honestly just trying to educate you as well. Now, of course I believe that there are proper ways to provide others with constructive criticism, but that is a tale for another day.
Going back to Fiona Snyker’s 2013 article, they go on to talk about how they view the race relations in the US and how they feel it is much further along than in South Africa. They bring up early 20th century American authors like Herman Melville and Mark Twain, who wrote black characters in stories that are widely remembered to this day. They then go on to discuss the Black Consciousness Movement, in which white writers were heavily criticized for attempting to write “black voices.” This movement however, seemed to die down not long after, according to Snykers, who provided two examples of works that came out soon after these discussions.
“More recently, it has become acceptable for white artists to depict blackness again, as novels like The Help and films like Django Unchained demonstrate. Kathryn Stockett and Quentin Tarantino hardly got off scot-free for their presumption, however, but the public outcry was more muted.”Snykers, 2013
They end this first article of theirs with this lovely quote:
As Zukiswa Wanner, one of South Africa’s most prominent young black writers, has said, “No-one should tell a writer when to write, what to write, how to write, where to write or indeed, who to write. It only ever becomes a problem if your character does not sound genuine to people of his/her demography, which is just a mark of bad cultural research or writing on the writer’s part and can’t be attributed to race.”Snyker, 2013
Ending on that note, I am now going to move onto Snykers 2019 article, It’s 2019. Why are white writers still writing black characters?
In this article, Fiona Snyker reveals that they themselves are a white author, and have recently released a book with a black character, “It is 2019. Why am I still writing black characters as a white author?” They discuss how many works have been pulled before publication due to discourse around this subject.
Let me start by repeating a point I made in my piece from 2013 – the best people to tell black stories are black writers. This is at the heart of the #ownvoices movement in YA fiction. It makes intuitive sense. Someone who has lived through an experience is always going to have a more authentic insight into it than someone who has picked it up secondhand through research.Snykers, 2019
If you are unaware of the #ownvoices movement, I think it is important to do a little research on it and see what people using this hashtag think. Here is a definition of what the hashtag means:
“#OwnVoices is a term coined by the writer Corinne Duyvis, and refers to an author from a marginalized or under-represented group writing about their own experiences/from their own perspective, rather than someone from an outside perspective writing as a character from an underrepresented group.”
Going off of this point, Fiona Snyker then goes on to discuss the intimacy that comes with writing a first person narrative. They argue that although some writers believe their characters take on a life of their own, that writers need to be aware of what they are putting on the page.
“Writers can (and undoubtedly will) continue to write what they like. But they will have to accept the consequences of the choices they make.”Snykers, 2019
Snykers then adds, “In this age of social media, readers are no longer the passive consumers of content they once were. They now have the ability to let writers know instantly and in no uncertain terms what they think of their work. If a writer has misrepresented some cultural issue, or trodden clumsily on someone’s sensibilities, they can be called out in the most public way possible.”
This is something that I feel we have seen happening a lot between the end of 2019 and going into early and now mid-2020. Authors like JK Rowling being called out for their tweets, or Amelie Wen Zao who was accused of all kinds of problematic behaviour on social media before her debut novel even released.
Fiona Snykers statement, resonates heavily with our current situation as a community.
“If readers or reviewers come back to tell us we have got something disastrously wrong, we have to be prepared to take it on the chin, and resolve to do better next time.”Snykers, 2019
This last statement in Snykers article, is something that I think all of us in the community should remember, no matter what story we are telling. We should look at the constructive criticism we receive and try to do better next time.
Now moving on to the next article, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew,
This article just so happens to have some very critical statements about earlier mentioned author JK Rowling:
“Really all I know about her these days is that she’d hop on twitter and come up with randomly generated factoids, like how that guy who played Harry in the films was Chinese all along, Hagrid has joined ISIS, and the snake? She’s Korean now and Joanne K.”Sriduangkaew, 2018
They go on to talk about, the very reason that I am writing this post, this ongoing discussion of if people should and how they should write POC characters. They then go on to criticize the way in which these discussions go about on social media:
“They want simple resources: they want blog posts and easy rules (‘Don’t compare skin colors to food items!’). They won’t read post-colonial theory or race theory, because that can’t be boiled down to ‘Don’t do X, do Y!’ and those texts might force them to confront uncomfortable subjects. They’ll also regard ‘POC characters’ as interchangeable, such that they ask Asian people for ‘permission’ to write black American narratives or they throw Japanese and Chinese and Korean cultures together into an orientalist fantasy mish-mash (the name ‘Cho Chang’, anyone?).”Sriduangkaew, 2018
All points that I feel are valid when it comes to this subject, especially since the first articles I reviewed were written by a white South African author about this topic. I myself have also witnessed some of these poorly executed forms of “research” among the writing community both online and in person. Although I myself have never read Harry Potter, I am familiar with the examples they give from Rowlings work and have seen extensive complaints about it from a variety of different people of ALL races (especially in recent weeks).
Sriduangkaew then goes on to make a point that I think is very crucial to their argument:
“And they will never read fiction by a writer of color. At the very first sign of being asked to do so, they will clam up, disengage, or go on racist rants about being abused.”Sriduangkaew, 2018
If one does not even attempt to engage with fiction written by those who have experiences different than our own, how can we expect to write an authentic portrayal of said group of people in our own work. How often have you seen others go on the defensive, versus being open to discussion about this subject?
From my experience, I have been in threads where there is a great about of hostility versus actual listening, engagement and willingness to understand. Again, this is not to attack anyone, my goal is to help educate others on this subject and provide them with articles that they themselves can and I believe should be reading. Why avoid this subject or be hostile towards it, when it is so crucial to how you perform your craft? Instead of approaching these subjects with hostility, perhaps take this criticism into consideration.
Should we read works by people who do not look like us, or share different world views/experiences? Absolutely.
Do we actively seek it out? No, I don’t believe we do…much of the time it is a conscious decision.
I know for a fact that I probably wouldn’t have watched Bollywood Films or Asian Dramas and anime if it hadn’t been for the friends I had growing up. I probably would have still watched Bruce Lee films with my Dad, but these other genres, and stories that I grew to love, were introduced to me by childhood friends. I tried different types of curry, not just West Indian, and learned that patties, samosas and perogies are all delicious, and almost variations on each other. I would not have learned these things or been as open to these discussions in the writing community if I had not been friends with people who were different than I was.
Although this is a very simple example, it highlights Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s point. Sriduangkaew then goes on to argue that the reason why some writers become so hostile toward this discussion, especially when asked to read works by POC, is because “deep down, they don’t actually see people of color as people […] when told ‘Try reading this author of color’, they feel cornered. Minorities are supposed to be lesser, not their equals or, god forbid, more accomplished than they are.”
They then share a Tweet from JK Rowling to emphasize how a lack of engagement and understanding is extremely problematic within creative communities:
This makes me very uncomfortable, and I definitely agree with the response from Ken Cheng.
“There’s probably something to be said about the way fandom has idolized Rowling herself for so long, even though her racism has always been blatant in the text […] It’s just that, for whatever reason, people wanted to believe Rowling was a great ally, a true champion of minorities, even if evidence for any such thing has always been at best tenuous and at worst outright imaginary.”Sriduangkaew, 2018
They go on to further elaborate on why it is important for authors to read works by POC, stressing how a lack of understanding can create problematic narratives.
“Another factor that contributes to these writers’ refusal to read authors of color, I expect, has to do with authenticity or rather lack thereof. Writers like to feel original, profound, insightful, and white authors want the most to feel that about what they believe is their insight into racism,” Sriduangkaew writes before giving an example of a non-Muslim person attempting to write what they believe is the experiences of a young Muslim woman and then giving another example of problematic behaviour.
What happens when something they read by an author of color doesn’t at all align with the racist stereotypes they know and love? Pasty Becky insists all Dominican men are wife-beating alcoholics and all Latinas are fiery-tempered in her Young Adult book; books by Latinx authors that don’t follow the same line will of necessity disturb her, upset her racist notions, and most likely she’ll call them inauthentic — that she is more objective, somehow, and knows their culture better than they possibly can.Sriduangkaew, 2018
They use this “Becky” as an example throughout, with another example, where Becky attempts to write a novel about growing up in Singapore, going over how some choose to ignore the stories already written by POC about their own experiences, and instead refuse “to recognize that Singaporean writers know anything more than she does, because conceding to writers of color as a greater authority about their own culture impinges on Becky’s very sense of self.” (Sriduangkaew, 2018).
Sriduangkaew calls out the writer’s ego, without holding back, and although some may take offense to some of their statements, I think that it is important to reflect on them and ask yourself, why such statements are being made in the first place. If this subject continuously emerges, then clearly there is an issue that needs to be addressed within the community.
They finish off with this, which I feel really hammers in the overall purpose of their article:
It’s not that white authors should never write characters of color, period. But if you have to pester people of color for praise and attention? If you refuse to ever read authors of color? If you demand free research and free resources and never actually follow up on doing your own reading? If you aren’t humble enough to recognize that you have a lot to learn and that people of color will always know better than you? If the only thing you can think of is that Pakistani girls are defined by honor killings and Latino men defined by being domestic abusers and black people defined by the ‘inner city experience’ and Chinese women defined by foot binding? If you don’t understand why some stories are not yours to tell?
Don’t bother. You’re not doing anything good and you’re not bringing anything new, and self-respecting people of color have no reason to read your fourth-rate racist sludge.Sriduangkaew, 2018
At the bottom of their article they have linked further reading for anyone who is interested.
Their final statement is one that I have seen a handful of white writers make, however I feel that they may have misinterpreted the difference between telling someones story and having a diverse set of character’s. If you look closely at the examples Sriduangkaew gives, they very clearly highlight problematic behaviour, and the authors ego which, I would say, all of us in the community have some form of. No one is perfect, and we all are capable of making mistakes, however by not even trying to better ourselves, we remain ignorant, and that is when people dismiss apologies made by authors or celebrities who continue to display poor behaviour, despite claiming that they have changed. Audiences now have more ways of publicly calling out ones poor decisions, and can even provide several examples from the past and present, as to why they believe someone has or has not changed their ways. It is important to take careful consideration when crafting our characters, regardless of their race, gender, religion etc. It always has been important, but previously it was much more difficult to hold others accountable. Now, they end up on “trending pages” and with things like cancel culture, most of us know that seeing someones name appear in the “trending” page is rarely a good sign.
Now, lets move on to the next article…er book actually.
This non-fiction book was posted to Wattpad by talkthepoc, which highlights problematic behaviour within the Wattpad writing community when it comes to writing outside ones race, and how certain characters are portrayed.
The book is divided up into chapters which cover specific stereotypes that have been attributed to different races by the media, specifically in literature. Each chapter heading indicates which race they will be discussing, and the tropes within them, all written by members of those groups. I didn’t read the entire book, but I will be going through a few chapters to summarize them, as well as looking at the comments.
Mainly I am interested in who chose to engage with this book, especially after reading the last article by Sriduangkaew.
The introduction to the book begins by highlighting the fact that many books that try to include a diverse cast, seem to do it as an afterthought, and that POC in these books often feel like stereotypes versus people.
After reviewing the comments, many of my fears seemed to be true, much of what is said in writing community groups (in person or online), flood the comments.
Some comments are the age old:
I just want to know why poc authors can write stories with white characters but white authors can't write stories with poc characters? They all say they feel uncomfortable...
And others are more honest:
*nervous laughter* I literally came here because I friggin do that
*Looks at all the chapters* *Cries bc I'm everything* 😭😭
I personally appreciate the honesty. These people came to read this book because they clearly know that they need to be open to educating themselves on how to portray these types of characters in a way that isn’t harmful or problematic.
Many of the things highlighted in this book remind me of the article that was written by Asha Bromfield, where she talks about how POC are written off as the “black friend” or simply put in as an afterthought to meet some sort of diversity quota. I have seen her in several shows, and much of the time her character along with other characters of colour, are merely written as accessories. A lot of the recently conversation surrounding Riverdale, which Asha was on, highlights her points and the points made in the introduction of this book very well. I recommend looking at the portrayal of POC in popular shows like Riverdale, and which negative stereotypes have been attributed to them.
As this book, Writing POC 101, points out very early on, writing a diverse cast is not about meeting a quota, nor should it be an afterthought. This comment highlights that well and compliments the opinions many have on the subject:
It's not an excuse to not write POC characters because you're scared to portray them incorrectly or in a racist manner. If you can't do the small amount of research required to write a non-white character, you're not doing it because you don't know how, you're doing it because you don't want to. There is a wealth of information out there. If you're serious about writing, you have to get serious about research and character development too.
The next article we will be looking at is from Vulture’s, Lisa Shapiro, written last year in 2019 titled:
Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story? Ten authors on the most divisive question in fiction, and the times they wrote outside their own identities.
This article is similar to the first that I read, where one discusses this topic, who is not necessarily a member of the group they are portraying. I think that it is an interesting read, because it offers several different perspectives on the subject, highlighting both successful attempts and utter failures.
In the young-adult fiction world, a number of books have been pulled in advance of their releases for clichéd and problematic portrayals of minorities.Shapiro, 2019
Shapiro goes on to write how this argument continues to go back and forth, with one side claiming “that only writers from marginalized backgrounds should tell stories about people who share their cultural histories” (Shapiro, 2019), while others feel that this would be a form of censorship.
Again, I would argue that there is a difference between telling the experiences and stories of another group versus having a character who is a member of that group. As we saw before, without doing any research at all, these portrayals can be harmful, and more often than not receive a lot of backlash.
The authors interviewed for this article each gave their own thoughts and perspectives, such as doing things like sensitivity reads, looking through tumblr and blog posts for information, and even wrote about things like “cross-racial longing.” Is all of this good advice, not necessarily, but are these experiences which people can learn from when approaching their own work? Definitely.
An excellent quote to ponder from this article comes from Monique Truong,
The tension is, why do we do it? Do we do it for ourselves? Does it make us feel better? Are we rescuing a bird or something?Monique Truong
If people choose to write outside of their race, why? Does it contribute to some sort of savior-like notion, that we are doing a great justice by including POC in our narratives? Are we simply writing these characters to get a pat on the back or are these characters present because that’s simply who we chose to write about?
I find some of the comments made by the authors in this interview odd…for example, describing writing other races as a supernatural experience, because to me that sounds like, someone doesn’t think POC are human. The statement is merely dehumanizing, and problematic as it does fall under a form of micro-aggression. Do I believe this author or authors in this article who made similar statements are suddenly evil racists? Absolutely not. They are simply growing, and learning, and I believe by participating in this interview and sharing their experiences, they help educate others on this type of thinking. They are allowing for others to realize perhaps, things that they themselves have thought when writing outside of their own race.
The next article we will be looking at was featured in the Washington Post by author Laura Lippman:
Laura Lippman a white author, had read aloud from a book they had written which included a black character, who happens to also be a ghost during an event. They go on to discuss how surprised the audience was when it was revealed at the end of the passage that the character was black, and if Lippman had received permission to write such a character.
“The issue of writing across racial boundaries had been very much on my mind, but I didn’t know how to answer those questions, questions not unlike ones I had asked of several African American writers earlier that year.”Lippman, 2019
Lippman goes on to talk about current issues over the years, where books have been pulled from publication because of appropriation, especially in YA genres. They go on to discuss how “Publishing is disproportionately white” referring to a 2015 survey that was done on the industry, where 80% of employees across the industry identified as white.
American fiction, like American film, has a “magical Negro” problem, in which black characters often exist primarily to encourage the white protagonist to realize his or her potential, as in “The Help,” which Roxane Gay memorably described as “insulting to everyone.”Lippman, 2019
This goes to say that there are similar tropes with POC being otherworldly or supernatural beings, something that I pointed out earlier when reading the last article. It dehumanizes POC, and adds to this idea that people who aren’t white aren’t people. I often think about the blind-black or Asian character’s who seem to be all knowing, or that one woman from the Matrix that tells Neo his destiny. These character tropes, as Lippman states, are problematic and harmful.
Lippman then goes on to talk about their experiences when engaging with POC when going about writing their newest book. Lippman says that they regretted making themselves “the centre of the discussion,” when approaching the black community. Despite people being mostly polite when answering her questions, Lippman soon came to a shocking realization:
After years of mocking stories that assuaged white guilt, I became as ridiculous as the protagonists in the books I had derided. Here I was, an earnest white lady, asking outstanding writers — writers working at a much higher level than I’ll probably ever achieve — to comfort me, to tell me I was one of the good guys.Lippman, 2019
This self-realization is extremely important, and really emphasize what Monique Truong was getting across. It also adds on to points made in earlier articles as well as the honest comments circulating the Wattpad book Writing POC 101. When someone realizes their own thinking, and how it contributes to an issue at hand, they finally open themselves up to a willingness to learn. It’s important to remember that no matter how old we get, we are capable of learning, of engaging in thoughtful conversation and of changing our perspective. Yes, social media does allow for others to hold us accountable, but our flaws are what make us human, and by accepting them we can learn from them and change for the better.
Sure, white novelists could “stay in their lane,” as I saw one social media scold frame the issue, but given the overwhelmingly white state of publishing, won’t that mean more overwhelmingly white stories? Surely that’s not the solution. The long-term fix, instead, is a more diverse publishing industry across the board, which should give rise to more diverse writers and more diverse books.Lippman, 2019
This statement, is in fact one that I am seeing more and more, and as Lippman pointed out earlier in the article, their novels are Baltimore based, an area which is predominantly black. They cannot ignore an entire group of people, who make up the majority of the city that they both live in and write about.
In creating this wide-ranging cast, I took a lesson from one of my heroes, Donald Westlake, who once said, “I became a novelist so I could make things up.” So I did that — but I also asked that my novel be assigned to a sensitivity reader.Lippman, 2019
Lippman finishes the article with the fact that, although she believes authors don’t need permission to write from other perspectives outside of their own experiences, they should however “be open to being told that they have failed and, in the worst-case scenario, caused real pain.”
The next article that we will be exploring is,
written by Mya Nunnally. In this article, posted on Book Riot, Nunnally begins by commenting on the backlash they received from how the article was titled, “yes, I realize it is not all white authors” before continuing on to the main article.
I’ve been reading for a long time. Before I committed to reaching out and finding more authors of color to read, I read a bunch of white authors. Heck, they make up the majority of published writers.Nunnally, 2018
Nunnally then goes on to talk about the lack of representation in books as a whole, especially when there are novels that take place in settings like New York City, which has a diverse demographic. It is something that in 2018, when this article is written, is shocking to readers. It doesn’t reflect the world around them.
It’s hard to explain the importance of representation to someone who doesn’t understand. But it’s like not having a good parent to look up to. You don’t have a positive image of what you can be. When you’re a young child of color and all around you are stories and movies and television about white children, you internalize the idea that hey—maybe my story isn’t as important as theirs.Nunnally, 2018
They talk about novels were, POC are introduced using the colour of their skin, which contributes to this false idea that being white is the default position, when in fact this isn’t true. This contributes to the quote above in a different way. A person is not their skin colour, and often this thinking is what creates such harmful stereotypes in the media.
Nunnally goes on to talk about how many authors describe people of colour by using food, don’t research peoples dialects or culture, write stereotypes and include characters like “the white saviour.”
I really could do without another book/movie/anything where the white person saves “the Natives” because they can’t fend for themselves. This notion has a long, bloody history. This was the idea that many oppressors subscribed to: that it was the White Man’s Burden to save the savages. It led to assimilation and colonization across the globe.Nunnally, 2018
This quote is actually something that was discussed in a couple of my university courses. We talked a lot about The White Man’s Burden, and the effects it had on peoples perception of others. As Nunnally says in their article, this way of thinking has done so much harm and damage. Nunnally gives film examples which play into these ideas, ones that were made very recently, such as The Avatar, Pathfinder, The Last Samurai, and many others.
It infantilizes people of color and gives them no agency or respect.Nunnally, 2018
The final article that I will be reviewing is by Mo Black titled,
This article begins by talking about the two-sides of the argument.
Mo Black summarizes them into two bullet points:
- It is MANDATORY to include at least one character in your main cast of every identity that exists otherwise you’re a racist, sexist, homophobic bigot literally enabling fascism and strangling puppies!
- If you’re not a certain identity, you are disallowed from ever writing a character of that identity in any of your work, and if you do you’re a racist, sexist, homophobic bigot literally enabling fascism and strangling puppies!
Although, they approach these perspectives with a bit of sarcastic humour, they are aware of the seriousness within the topic. They give an example of how people react to this discussion…one that I have seen more times than I can count in Twitter threads:
People are so sensitive these days that someone is always going to find a reason to get offended over your work. Forget identity and just write characters as you see fit. If anyone gets offended or approaches you with reasons why your work is “problematic” you can tell them to go right to hell.Black, 2019
They go on to talk about how writing has a direct effect on readers, readers who come from all different backgrounds, with their own experiences and world-views. When authors don’t take any of that into consideration, it is as if they are choosing to completely ignore their audience.
Writing is a transfer of an experience, from you to your audience. It makes no sense to focus on your side of the message and not care a single bit about the receiving end.Black, 2019
They go on to say how, authors cannot be there to explain each and every single one of their intentions to their readers. That the only thing that matters in the end, is how the readers interpret what is on the page.
You should be writing your characters as if each one is a fully fleshed out human being. Never include a character in a piece to fill some sort of quota, act as a token for a larger group, or act as a mouthpiece for large sections of the population. Diverse characters don’t need a “reason” to exist in the story at all, as diverse people don’t need a reason to exist in real life.Black, 2019
This is something that I myself have written about on my blog. Writing people and not stereotypes. As Black states in the article there are men who write wonderful female characters, and women who write wonderful male characters, and includes a great quote from George R.R Martin, “Strangely, I have to say this as sort of a weirdly radical statement, but women are people and they’re driven by the same desires that drive men.”
Black goes on to explain that “[our] idea of what a person is is shaped by [our] experiences, and [our] experiences are shaped by [our] place in society, [our] life, and [our] identity.” By acknowledging this, we are able to deconstruct our thinking and learn from it.
Black then goes on to create two fictional authors in order to provide some examples. Both authors are the same age, one is named Lisa and the other is named Todd. Their lives are fundamentally different, however on the same day they both decide to write a novel, and write all their characters as “people.”
“But Todd and Lisa have vastly different ideas of what people are like. Todd wouldn’t be faulted in thinking that the human experience is cynical and isolated and that trusting others is dangerous and hard to do. Lisa meanwhile couldn’t be faulted for thinking the human experience is social and warm, that friendships and connections are a given in life, and that it’s these that protect us from the cruelty in the world that lies beyond our bonds.” (Black, 2019).
Black uses this example as a way of explaining that
simply “writing humans” is not enough to fully understand how to write diverse charactersBlack, 2019
Black continues using both examples, and elaborates on if Lisa were to write about a black boy, being a white woman, “she runs the risk of at best misrepresenting life for people in that situation and passing that misrepresentation on to an audience that doesn’t know any better, or, worse still, codifying the harmful misconceptions and biases readily available in the world around her into her book. Again, she wouldn’t need to be a Nazi or a bad person to do so, but it could still happen unless she’s aware, honest, and makes an effort to not let that happen.”
Black then goes on to explain how if a character doesn’t necessarily meet certain expectations, that it may not be an issue, however this can still falter. Many of the examples Black uses relate to men writing women and vice versa, but the same ideas apply to writing outside of ones own experiences. Mainly it goes back to that example I gave earlier about an adult male author, writing about a girls first period inaccurately.
This isn’t about dipping into to stereotypes. Rather, it’s about understanding the types of experiences people in marginalized groups share….Getting this balance right is what creates authenticity.Black, 2019
Black then goes on to give advice for authors on how they can approach this issue, suggesting beta readers and also stating that there may be times when a certain story isn’t yours to tell. In this instance Black means that, the experiences might be too far removed from that of the author, and therefore, it may be best not to write at all. Black explains how readers can clearly see when an author is in over their head, and that beta readers can help an author when it comes to avoiding problematic tropes and other issues in their work. They also include one poor and one excellent example of how to write a diverse cast of characters, from works they’ve read.
This was the last article I read, and as you can see, there are many different views on this topic however the majority of people writing about, writing POC in fiction, seem to have one thing in common.
Many believe it is important to educate oneself, research and engage with works written by POC. All points, that I myself agree with. It is important to be willing to set our egos aside as writers, and to learn about other peoples experiences. I have seen so many poor examples of representation across the board, whether than be film or books. These poor examples, should and can be used as a means for learning to do better. By not having characters present to meet some sort of quota, and by not generalizing a group of people.
The entire conversation is controversial simply because no one seems to actually want to engage with it at all. Instead of reading more books by POC, some authors continue to write poor representations of POC in their work. Instead of learning from mistakes made by others or being open to criticism, some authors brush it off entirely, and go on the defensive.
In order to grow as a writer, one needs to be constantly learning both from their own mistakes and from those made by writers they read or read about. In order for the community to evolve in a positive way, we shouldn’t just tell people to, “screw off” when they point out issues with certain portrayals in our work, especially when it comes from a place of concern. Instead, we should listen to our readers and be more aware of our decisions and our own experiences, and how those have an effect on the ways in which our work is interpreted by our readers.