I think I’ve figured out one of the biggest things that bug me in this “Who Gets To Write What” discourse going around lately.
I think it has something to do with the fear of making mistakes and who gets to make them.
There have been a lot of great ongoing conversations about this, but I have been thinking about it a lot and something just clicked in that nebulous, 2 a.m. way it does sometimes. In the kid lit world, there’s a lot of discussion about diversity and fair representation in the publishing world. This conversation was boosted by whitewashing covers, banned books, bad Con decisions and misrepresentation on big-name panels that prompted things like #WeNeedDiverseBooks (which is still going strong). I am a member of SCBWI and our esteemed Executive Director, Lin Oliver, weighed in with her personal thoughts on the matter:
“I don’t believe that I can authentically write from the point of view of a contemporary protagonist who is telling a unique story that derives from a racial or cultural experience not my own. Some people may feel comfortable with that. I don’t. One of the reasons I’m so eager to read literature written by people with diverse backgrounds is to get their authentic take on their experience. I just don’t trust that my take on it would ever be completely true or right.” (entire letter is here)
And while I completely respect and applaud her decision on this, I must admit that I don’t share it. It’s not that I do not agree that she has every right to know her own comfort levels with her own writing or that we do not, as a community and a society, need to include all sorts of diverse perspectives in the kidlitosphere, it’s just that I am a firm believer that everyone is free to write all sorts of stories–include characters and opinions outside of their own, personal experience–and that people can do justice to those groups that are being represented even if the author does not, in fact, belong to them. In the most basic sense, we are writing the human experience, which is identifiable to all its myriad shapes, sizes and colors. I have gone into my reasons in detail before, but it recently occurred to me why this was rubbing me the wrong way anew; it’s that if you flip the argument, it completely falls apart. In essence, by saying that someone CAN’T write outside their own categories (be they gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, culture, socio-economic status, etc.) then that’s close to saying that minorities can ONLY write inside these categories and should be equally limited. Which is just plain ridiculous.
Of course I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but hear me out: if we are saying that Caucasian, Christian, heterosexual, middle-class, MFA educated females can only write about Caucasian, Christian, heterosexual, middle-class, someday-MFA-educated female teens/kids, then are we also saying that African, Muslim, bisexual PhD educated males can ONLY write about African Muslim bisexual someday-to-be-PhD-educated male teens/adults? Of course not. Are we just saying that they are obligated to write these stories as representatives of their race/gender/sexual-orientation/religion/culture/class/etc.? What? No!
So what *are* we saying?
We want there to be room in the pool for diverse writers to write their diverse stories and get published for a mainstream audience. I think so, too! But in our rush to do this, I think some fears and P.C.-ness is getting us sidetracked. While I agree with all of these sentiments, the message of scarcity, that there is a finite amount of stories and storytellers allowed “in” at one time is wrong. (And with traditional publishing now getting competition from self-publishing and hybrid publishing, there’s even more reading room & reach.) I don’t think we should be advocating for who should write what. What I think we *should* be advocating is: Everyone is free to write whatever they want. Does that make sense? Write whatever you want. Instead of “Write what you know,” I like to think it’s more accurate to say “Write what you’re passionate about.” Remember, no one is an expert on vampires and yet someone broke the rules, made ‘em sparkly, and changed the paradigm. Same could be said for witches being women who ride broomsticks with black cats and wizards as old, bearded men with pointy hats; Hogwarts and Quiddich completely changed the name of the game. John Irving said the “write-what-you-know dictum has no place in imaginative literature” and I happen to agree. Should you do research? Yes! Should you read what’s out there? Yes! Should you listen for the voices that aren’t your own? Yes twice! Should you talk to people? Experts? Groups? Ask hard questions? Get confronted? Screw up? Make mistakes? Yes! All that and more. Remember Neil Gaiman’s New Year’s wish for us all:
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.”
It is the kindest gift you can give to anyone: children, teens, adults, strangers. The benefit of the doubt, the freedom to try, screw up and try again. The truth is, no one will “get it right” 100% of the time and you can’t simply because everyone is different. You shouldn’t be trying to write everyone’s story (or, worse, try to get everyone’s approval), but write the best story you can, the one that inspires YOU, the one that makes you sing inside, the one that demands to be told and do your characters the courtesy of lending them the voices that grow beyond you and your total experience, shaped by stereotype, television (or worse, the news) and get out there to see the world, experience something new and best yet, meet someone new. Listen. Learn. Get inspired. And then write.
What if Mr. African, Muslim, bisexual PhD wanted to write a fairy tale retelling of Snow White set in modern-day Amish Pennsylvania? Who is going to tell him that he can’t? Not me. He can write whatever he likes. And if someone thinks we need an African, Muslim, bisexual story out there in the world, they can go write one if so inclined. I wouldn’t want to limit *anyone* in their quest for inspiration and lifelong learning and I certainly don’t want someone limiting mine. I have enough limitations of my own, thank you. I am still discovering new blind spots, new ignorances, new prejudices, and–if I’m lucky–making new mistakes because I’m out there in the trenches trying it out. I’m talking and listening and asking dumb questions and reading beyond my usual TBR list. And I’m writing the story that moves me and I’ll *still* get things wrong. But that’s how we learn. That’s how we grow.
Go grow, make mistakes & make good art!