Quick tangent before today’s post: After two and a half months, the last post-house-flood construction finishes today (*fingers crossed* that I didn’t just jinx it…), and we should be able to “move in” to our first floor again on Monday. Yay!
And…and! After nearly four years, my dentist finalized the last step of rebuilding my mouth yesterday after a bone-disintegrating infection ate a hole in my jaw bone.
(If you’ve been following the saga of countless surgeries, crazy-desperate treatments, and multiple rejected implants… The experimental metal successfully tricked my bone into regrowing, and after 3 false starts of trying to find crown hardware that would hook into the non-standard implant, I finally have a complete smile again. *whew*)
So I’m not in the right mindset for a big post today, but I do want to touch on a recent controversy in the writing world that’s echoed the issues revealed by the RWA implosion. What do the calls for better handling of diversity and inclusion mean for our writing and story ideas?
The American Dirt Controversy
If you haven’t heard about the book American Dirt, here’s the relevant detail in regards to the controversy: The author is a woman who until recently identified as white (she now says she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), and she wrote a story about the Mexican immigrant experience.
What can the American Dirt controversy teach us about our writing ideas? Click To TweetI follow enough authors from diverse groups that I saw the initial criticism about American Dirt several weeks ago, as people pointed out the stereotypes and harmful portrayals. The complaints increased with news of the seven-figure payout to the author, the massive publicity push by the publisher, and especially after Oprah announced the book as one of her “picks.”
In other words, this book is on the fast track to success (and the recent negative publicity has only increased sales). What might be surprising is that its high level of support is part of the problem.
Why is all that success a problem?
For many, the level of support emphasizes the industry’s history of preferring stories about “diverse” experiences to be told through a white lens. Mexican-Americans who have written about the immigrant experience weren’t courted with seven-figure deals and nationwide tours, so it feels like their own stories are being stolen and sold by white authors.
Who “Gets” to Write Certain Ideas?
The controversy has revealed that the author herself questioned whether she was the right person to tell the story. But the conversation about that fact has led some to push back: “Does this mean I can’t write any character who’s not like me?”
Should we *not* write certain kinds of stories or characters? Click To TweetSo let’s state for the record what should be obvious (to those who aren’t being disingenuous): Anyone can write any story and characters they want. No one is stealing writing instruments to prevent authors from drafting their ideas.
However, no one is owed a criticism-free publication of their story. So we can go ahead and write what whatever we want, but also remember that any type of story can come with consequences. Look at toxic fandoms or Stephen King’s Misery premise for the many types of consequences in existence that have nothing to do with diversity.
Even if our portrayals are respectful and avoid stereotypes, a story where the premise is centered on a diversity-related experience we don’t share might be criticized for speaking for—and over—others with that experience. Those criticisms are valid.
As I’ve said before, as a white author, I know I’m not the right person to write stories about diversity, like where tackling complex diversity questions, goals, motivations, conflicts, and themes are the main point of the story. That doesn’t mean I’m not “allowed” to write those stories. I’m just acknowledging my limitations and whose voices should be centered with those stories.
This thread by David Bowles is a great look at why—even though he says in his first tweet that authors have the right to “write outside of their identity”—white authors taking on these stories of others’ experiences is such a huge concern:
It gets worse. Among those books featuring kids of color, white authors are prioritized over #ownvoices. 2017 statistics:
-only 29% of books w/ Black protagonists written by Black authors
-only 34% of books with Latinx protagonists by Latinx authors
And so forth.
— David Bowles (Mācuīl Ehēcatl) (@DavidOBowles) January 29, 2020
Only a single-digit percentage of stories feature characters from diverse communities. And only a third(ish) of those stories are actually written by authors from that community. The complaints are valid: Authors from marginalized communities aren’t being supported in telling their own stories.
The Strawman Arguments
Any time anti-bigotry messages gain steam, some push back with false arguments, such as the “so I can’t write any character who’s not like me?” complaint above. Their arguments try to establish themselves as victims, with their freedom impeded by not being allowed to do what they want.
We saw the same problem echoed throughout the RWA implosion. Some on the RWA forums and recent hashtags complained about the support for LGBTQ+ and/or non-white stories.
Their complaints were literally along the lines of: “But I don’t want to write/read those kinds of stories!”
Okaaay. So…don’t. *shrug*
This isn’t rocket science. Just as no one is preventing us from writing a story about diversity, no one is forcing us to write or read those stories either.
The problem comes in only when those complainers take that attitude to the level of proclaiming stories they don’t like are “less than.” Or when they refuse to hear or believe others’ experiences of harm.
Preferences are one thing; discrimination is something completely different. Discrimination takes the idea “Don’t yuk someone else’s yum” and dials it to eleventy billion.
What Should We Do with Calls for Diversity?
Obviously, as we hear the various arguments and complaints surrounding these recent controversies, we should watch out for strawman ideas, especially from those pushing back against progress. But there are other positive steps we can take as well:
- Yes, we should feel free to include characters with diverse identities…because that’s the real world, but we should also feel free to not include them…because no one is forcing us. If we include characters outside our experience, we should do our research, watch out for stereotypes, and avoid harm. Get it right, and be respectful.
- At the same time, we should be careful of trying to tell stories of another culture’s experiences for them…because that’s often disrespectful, or worse.
- Instead, we should boost the voices of diverse and/or #ownvoices authors: link to them, retweet them, share their words, etc.
- And of course, when we find books we like by diverse authors, we should support them: buy their books, promote their work, etc.
If we ignore the false arguments trying to draw conclusions and force choices that don’t really exist, the situation doesn’t have to be difficult at all. Calls for diversity and inclusion are an invitation to learn and improve ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. *smile*
Have you ever questioned whether you’re “allowed” to write certain characters or story ideas? Have you ever decided against the attempt, and if so, why? Or if you went through with it anyway, how did it work out for you? Have you seen others make strawman arguments, setting up false choices? Can you think of other insights or advice on this topic?Pin It