I recently wrote a blog about the bestselling book American Dirt. The book itself was controversial as the author Jeanine Cummins was accused of writing outside of her culture/race and lacing the book with tragedy porn. Click here to read.
I received emails from several people saying the controversy is ridiculous and what it does is censor a mainstream writer who wants to include diversity in his/her work. Writers are still throwing their arms in the air in frustration as they struggle with this dilemma.
Questions of having to practice political correctness and letting the pendulum swing so far away from true creative freedoms have been raised, but it goes deeper than that. This doesn’t need to be a divisive issue but one of respect.
Let’s look at the issue and what it means for writers. I hope that it’ll clear up any of the controversy and help you move forward with your own writing.
What is #OWNVOICES?
Here’s a definition and link from the Seattle Public Library where you can find a list of books written in #OwnVoice.
#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 ownperspective, rather than someone from an outside perspective writing as a character from an underrepresented group.Seattle Biblicommons
Let’s break this down a bit so there’s no confusion.
Marginalized populations are groups and communities that experience discrimination and exclusion (social, political and economic) because of unequal power relationships across economic, political, social and cultural dimensions.The National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health
Corinne Duyvis (the writer who coined the #ownvoices hashtag) is part of the LGBTQ community and had a difficult time finding books written from the perspective that reflected her place in society.
We can all imagine what it must belike to be a marginalized member of society. We’re writers after all. We can try and slip our psyche into that world but the hard truth is that unless you’ve lived and experienced the lifestyle, prejudice etc. it would be impossible to fully understand it.
Let’s look at it.
Can a white person write about diversity and have characters of different races/cultures/language/religion/etc. in their stories or books?
The simple answer is yes.
It’s About Perspective
For example: A refugee family moves in next door. You want to include the mom in the story as a character in your book. You can see that her clothes are foreign, her language is different–as is the food she eats and the the religion she practices. That’s observation. Include it your story. Make a character that represents her….
The thing you can’t do is “be” her. You can’t step into her story and tell it from your perspective as though it’s authentic, because you can’t possibly know how her differentness from your ethnicity affects not only her daily life, but also her thoughts, dreams, wishes, disappointments, cultural awareness, and a million other things that are unique to her.
If you’ve never been a refugee how can you tell that story? Yes, you could imagine it and write from a distant place of fiction but it’s advisable to do so with a few things in mind…
Character Not Stereotype
When you begin to embrace the idea of #ownvoices then you also need to be sensitive to stereotypes.
I’m not talking about censoring yourself but to be aware. If you’re going to add diversity show it through character if you can. Passing reference to to the diverse makeup of a group is not a problem.
A Little Respect Goes a Long Way
Here’s the thing–write what you want to write. No one is going to stop you.
I feel bad for all the flack that Jeanine Cummins took about her book American Dirt. She’s a good writer but she got sucked down this hole of judgement and having to take a defensive stand. Here’s a link if you want to learn more about the whole scandal.
The thing is that Cummins wasn’t disrespectful, per se, but the Mexican culture was not necessarily shown in a positive light. Some readers forget that books are fiction and they take the characterizations literally. This imbalance is the issue.
Final Word on This
If you’re not part of those marginalized groups, don’t write from their point of view. Simple as that. Pull diversity and culture into your books through story and characterization but don’t purport to know what it’s like to live that lifestyle/culture/religion/etc.
Try not to stress. Write what you want to write and if you’re unsure about possible backlash due to perspective and #OwnVoices then have a member of that marginalized group read the book prior to publication. This is called a sensitivity read and could save you from what Cummins went through.
I hope this helped. Please let me know.
What’s the old saying? How can you truly understand until you’ve walked a mile in her shoes?
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