The D-Bomb

For LaurelI’ve been around the block a time or twenty. That’s not copping to a specific age, but simply an assertion of life experience beyond the age of my YA readers. Way beyond. Think different galaxies. I am a post-middle aged Caucasian woman with centrist eyes that scan all sides of everything.

In this era of diversity—the dreaded D-Bomb—life is tough for writers like me. It’s considered beyond poor form to write outside one’s ethnic, religious, preferential, societal, or experiential boundaries. So poor, in fact, that agents and editors alike scan my white-bread name and immediately reject anything I find the least bit interesting to explore. Not sour grapes. Reality.

Does this confine my endeavors to subjects that are familiar to me? Should I be writing picture books about chickens with chin hairs? Bunnies with bunions? Cows with crows’ feet? My only real experience with newer trends is my Shih Tzu, Mabel, who is species binary. Once a year, when dog licenses are renewed, she feels like a cat to avoid registering. That’s about as diverse as I am. On paper.

But few write on paper anymore. It’s a virtual world out there. And as society embraces differences, I have an issue with being told one must be of a certain something to write about it. So let’s look at what it means—to me—to embrace diversity in writing.

Because I propose that getting timely messages into the hands of readers is vastly more significant than perseverating on who is writing them.

Writers of diverse backgrounds are producing an excellent body of work that opens the window to worlds with which readers may be unfamiliar. A great writer with experience in any given area trumps all else, and there are many, many amazing people across every imaginable spectrum putting out books. I hope there will be more. No one has the same intimate knowledge as one who has been part of a particular issue or group.

But does that mean that others can’t, under any circumstance, have the sensitivity to write diverse characters and situations?

An author has the responsibility to research whatever subject is being tackled no matter what the basis.

Interests can be diverse, even if one is not a personal representative of said group. Once written, it is incumbent upon the agent/editor to determine if it’s been done with authenticity and accuracy. This should not be based on the writer’s skin color, religion, or sexual preference. It should be based on how true that writer is to the subject, why the writer’s heart is captured by the situation, and what benefit is gained by this particular person telling this particular story.

Sometimes it takes looking beyond the obvious attributes a writer brings to the manuscript to see the finer points of her/his background. Examples abound from my own life:

What qualifies a Christian who didn’t live through World War II to write about the Holocaust? Research, of course. But what about having been married to a Jew who had relatives with numbers burned into their forearms? Or being knocked breathless while wandering through Dachau? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes in photos of concentration camp Jews and victims of the Khmer Rouge while standing in a former Phnom Penh prison?

How can a Caucasian identify with the roots of African slavery? Research, of course. But what about talking around a campfire at night in the Kenyan bush with people who had ancestors who were enslaved? Or hearing a local folktale that is believed to be true? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes in photos of oppressed people of all circumstances?

Why should a healthy, law-abiding woman be able to identify with a psychotic adolescent boy, drug dealers, and prostitutes? Research, of course. But what about working for years at an inpatient psychiatric facility? Or getting so close to people on the street that they greet you by name? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes of the oppressed and of the mentally ill?

As a reader, the last thing I look at is the background of the writer. Instead, it’s the story that does or does not grab me. After the fact, it’s interesting to see the etiology of the work, but if the voice is true, the physical description or anything else about the author is immaterial.

Please, please, please—if you are a writer of a diverse anything, write that book. Be a role model. Bring your experiences to life in the hands of a child.

Please, please, please—if a manuscript crosses your desk by a writer who totally gets the subject because they live it day after day, represent or publish that book. Set high standards. Bring artists who exemplify the real fabric of our world onto the bookshelves of a new generation. This is diversity, no doubt. I celebrate being part of a group that so longs for this to happen.

But please, please, please—do not dictate to anyone what is appropriate material for him or her to write. I don’t care if a transgender person writes about a heterosexual love affair. Eskimos can pen a thriller about Cuban refugees in Miami. A Muslim should be permitted to set a story in a Catholic monastery. Certainly, we need more books about personal experiences. Just allow room for the creativity and drive of one who is willing to tackle a subject for reasons other than what is obvious in their own background.

When every writer in our industry celebrates and promotes the differences in life, true diversity will no longer be the d-bomb. It will be, quite simply, obsolete. All authors will strive for excellence, truth, and authenticity. Isn’t this better than focusing on who is to be included—and who is to be to excluded?

Bam.

Laurel HouckFan of fun factoids, chocolate milkshakes, and wild adventure, Laurel writes to tell the stories that live in her. Her literal and virtual file cabinets attest to her prolific writings of those things that touch her heart, regardless of public opinion. Which may be why she is pre-published…

www.laurelhouckpages.com

@laurelhouck

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8 Comments on “The D-Bomb

  1. Hey Laurel,

    Full disclosure: I am a white woman. I am also gay and Jewish.

    There are many white people like yourself who believe (falsely) that they are being “held back” from writing diversity, that they are not being allowed to tell stories that “resonate”, and that this is unfair and unwarranted. I would like to take the opportunity to explain why many marginalized writers feel that it is inappropriate for non-marginalized writers to write about marginalized experiences. When I use the term “marginalized”, I am referred to any historically disadvantaged group, including racial minorities, religious minorities, sexual orientation, gender presentation, disability, and other groups.

    Here are a lowdown of the major reasons.

    1. Many non-marginalized voices do NOT write about marginalized experiences respectfully or accurately. This can be damaging to marginalized people, as inaccurate and inauthentic writing perpetuates stereotypes about minority groups that are used by the majority in order to hurt them. Because of this, some marginalized people have taken the view that it’s high time for non-marginalized writers to step off, which is completely understandable.

    2. Even when non-marginalized writers “get it right”, them publishing books about marginalized experiences often mean that actual marginalized writers get sidelined. For example, a white writer will publish a book about, say, black experiences, and when a black author then submits a book about her authentic and real experiences, she is told “sorry, we already have a *black* book.” This prevents marginalized writers from sharing their stories. Because of this, some marginalized writers feel like non-marginalized groups are co-opting their stories, and making it even more difficult for them to share their own experiences. This is also completely understandable.

    There are a variety of other reasons, but those are the big ones.

    You might say, “Well, I’m different. *I* do the research to get it right, and of course I want marginalized writers to be published too!”

    I totally get that. However, your article raised approximately twelve bajillion red flags to me that tell me that you don’t really “get it right”.

    I’m just going to go through it so you can see what other people might be seeing when they read this.

    “So poor, in fact, that agents and editors alike scan my white-bread name and immediately reject anything I find the least bit interesting to explore. Not sour grapes. Reality.”
    This is unlikely to be the case. Ethnicity and race are not inherently visible in a name (let alone other marginalizations, like sexual orientation or disability). For example, not every single black person is named Shaniqua and Tyronne. So agents can’t be determining who is writing from a marginalized experience based on their name alone.

    “My only real experience with newer trends…”
    The fact that you consider diversity (or as you call it, the “d-bomb”) a “trend” says a lot about how little value you place in people finally being able to share their own experiences and tell their own stories.

    “…is my Shih Tzu, Mabel, who is species binary. Once a year, when dog licenses are renewed, she feels like a cat to avoid registering.”
    Did… you just compare your laziness in registering your dog to transgender people?

    “Once written, it is incumbent upon the agent/editor to determine if it’s been done with authenticity and accuracy.”
    Your agent and your editor are not there to fact check your work when it comes to fiction writing. YOUR job is to fact check your work and make sure you create accurate and authentic fiction. Do not make that their responsibility–that is laziness.

    “What qualifies a Christian who didn’t live through World War II to write about the Holocaust?”
    As a Jewish person, I don’t want to know where this is going, because I have seen Christian people abuse my family history in their stories all the time. But sure. Let’s see what your “experience” is.

    “But what about having been married to a Jew who had relatives with numbers burned into their forearms?”
    This is the “black friend card”. Just because you have a black friend, boyfriend, or spouse, does not mean you have a special insight into slavery. Just because you are married to a Jew, does not mean you have a special insight into the Holocaust.

    “How can a Caucasian identify with the roots of African slavery? Research, of course. But what about talking around a campfire at night in the Kenyan bush with people who had ancestors who were enslaved?”
    You are talking about other peoples’ experiences and learning about them. That’s great, but those experiences are NOT your own. You are hearing them, but you do not feel them. There is a difference.

    “Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes in photos of oppressed people of all circumstances?”
    It’s worth noting that many marginalized people have pointed out that comparing oppression between different groups and assuming it’s all the same is a no-go. Yes, there can be similarities, but there also differences, and the myriad feelings between different groups are likely to be as varied and complicated as people are. As a Jew, I am oppressed, and as a gay woman, I am oppressed. That does not mean I can “connect the dots” and understand what it’s like to be a black disabled person, though.

    “Why should a healthy, law-abiding woman be able to identify with a psychotic adolescent boy, drug dealers, and prostitutes? Research, of course. But what about working for years at an inpatient psychiatric facility? Or getting so close to people on the street that they greet you by name?”
    You may know a lot about mental illness and you may have a close bond with (presumably) mentally ill homeless people. That does not mean that you know what it’s like to BE mentally ill.

    “Instead, it’s the story that does or does not grab me. After the fact, it’s interesting to see the etiology of the work, but if the voice is true, the physical description or anything else about the author is immaterial.”
    Here’s the problem, though. As a non-marginalized author, YOU DON’T KNOW if the voice is true. The story may be incredibly moving, but it may not reflect the experiences of marginalized people at all, or it may be completely damaging to them. And you may not recognize these lapses in inauthenticity if you are not in that group.

    For example, speaking from my own personal experience: one book about the Holocaust written by a non-Jew gained a lot of controversy recently: FOR SUCH A TIME by Kate Breslin. Judging by the Goodreads reviews, it was very moving and touching for a lot of people. The plot? A blonde Jewish woman starts a romance with a Nazi commander.

    The plot itself made me physically sick. The BLURB of the novel contained a slur used against Jewish people, and it’s clear the author did not realize this–she referred to her own protagonist with this slur. The very premise of the plot is based upon heaps of misinformation, misunderstanding of how the Nazis targetted Jews, misunderstanding of what it means to be Jewish, and crucially, a misunderstanding of how narratives like this actively hurt Jewish people today.

    The author DID NOT GET IT RIGHT.

    More importantly, she got it so wrong that it was actively hurtful to oppressed people today.

    Another example, to flip the coin: I once read a blurb of a book that was written by a non-black author that was about inner-city experiences, gang violence, poverty among black communities, etc. I read the first few pages. The book was written in what appeared to be AAVE. The author herself professed to have done loads of research and had spent a summer (or more?) working with at-risk youth in inner cities. And yet, many black writers and readers pointed out that the AAVE was made-up, inauthentic, stereotypical, and innacurate. Crucially, I DID NOT RECOGNIZE THIS. I did not see that the AAVE was wrong because I have not grown up speaking it, or grown up in the community that created it.

    So what if I tried to write a book about a black person speaking AAVE? Maybe I would get it horrendously wrong. This author sure did, despite doing a lot of genuine research. That is my entire point.

    “Please, please, please—if a manuscript crosses your desk by a writer who totally gets the subject because they live it day after day, represent or publish that book.”
    And this is your issue. You think that you DO have the experience because, as a friend of mentally ill people, as (presumably?) a spouse of Jewish person, you get it. You do not.

    You do not know what it is like to grow up being defined by your relationship with the Holocaust. You do not know what it is like to stutter when someone asks you about your faith. You do not know what it is like to have to lie about where you go on Friday evenings. You do not know what it’s like to go to temple one night, see emergency services outside the building, and immediately wonder if there was a hate crime.

    You do not know what it is like to grow up gay and listen to people throw slurs as if it is nothing. You do not know what it is like to watch your gay friends be physically attacked, knowing that if you were out, you would be too. You do not know what it’s like to come out. You do not know what it’s like to come out, and then be told, “you’re only wanting to date women because you’re not pretty.”

    And here’s the thing:

    *I* do not know what it is like to be black, or Latina, or indigenous. I do not know what it’s like to be Muslim. I do not know what it’s like to be trangender, or to be bisexual. I do not know what it’s like to use a wheelchair or other mobility device, or to be blind, or to be fat, or any other number of marginalizations.

    And that means that, if I choose to write about those marginalizations, it is of utmost importance that MARGINALIZED WRITERS BE PRIORITIZED ABOVE MYSELF.

    Because THEIR VOICES are the ones with the most authenticity, and the most power. Those are the ones that young readers, especially marginalized ones, NEED TO HEAR.

    One final point.

    Your whole article is based on the assumption that marginalized writers and readers are a monolith, and that they all agree on this issue. They do not. There are a lot of opinions on this issue. Some people believe it’s fine to write about someone who is marginalized, even if you aren’t, and that it is okay even if you are writing about that marginalization specifically (i.e. a white person writing about police brutality). Some believe it’s okay to write a marginalized character, as long as you don’t try to write that specific experience of being marginalized (i.e., a white person writing about a black girl fighting dragons is okay, a white person writing about a black girl fighting police brutality is not). Others believe it is never okay for a non-marginalized writer to write about a marginalized character, in any situation.

    All of these opinions stem from different experiences. I know marginalized writers in all these categories.

    You are writing this article assuming that all marginalized writers fall into the third category. That is obviously not the case. THE APOCALYPSE OF ELENA MENDOZA features a queer Latina girl, and the book is not written by a queer Latina. SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA is about a gay white boy, and the book is not written by a gay white boy. Both books have been very well-recieved and are very popular, including among people in the minority groups that they represent.

    What that tells me is that you certainly CAN get published if you write about marginalized characters and their experiences, even if you aren’t marginalized at all! (In fact, you’re more likely to get published as a non-marginalized author than not–see #2 above).

    That tells me that your rejections are not because you are a white woman who is being discriminated against because of her “white-bread name”.

    It is because you feel entitled to tell our stories. And you aren’t.

    Please approach the subject with some humility and grace, and understand that you do not have a right to anyone else’s experiences. Understand that you can’t always “understand”. Recognize that, actually listen to marginalized people, and really try to see where they are coming from. You will be much better off, and you will not come across as a petulant child on the internet who feels like her writing is show-stopping enough that she should be given an immediate pass because she just understands their “hopeless eyes” so well.

    Anyway… I really, really hope you take the time to read some blogs by marginalized writers so you can start to understand different perspectives. Thank you.

    Liked by 5 people

    • This is a beautiful and thoughtful response.

      I’d like to add, because I didn’t see it, that you (the OP not the responder) should be aware that the word used to reference Inuit people “E————” is a derogatory term.

      Along with that, there’s no reason a transgender person cannot be in a heterosexual relationship. These help to illustrate the point and also they need to be called out.

      Like

      • Thank you for the comment and for pointing that out! Those are also important things to remember and to not overlook.

        Like

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