Wednesday, March 18, 2020


I’ve been hearing misconceptions during casual discussions, agent panels and even from a classroom instructor that #OwnVoices means fiction writers must constrain ourselves to write only what we know from personal experience.  I believe this is missing the point and has the potential to unwind the progress that has been made toward including more diversity in fiction.

That push for more diverse representation has caused some authors to write more inclusively. Two problems resulted:
1) If a writer’s lived experience is on the powerful side of a societal hierarchy, they are unlikely to have a strong understanding of what it is like to be on the less-powerful side. Therefore, the diverse stories written by them often do not ring true to the audience who was supposed to see itself represented. Also, their more privileged readers obtain an illusion of understanding something they actually don’t.
2) Since the publishing industry shares the biases of larger society, the people selected to tell these stories are more likely from the privileged identities. The result of this is that the already-represented people are making money off of the stories of marginalized people. This can be compared to colonization of those stories and is the cold, hard cash argument for #OwnVoices.

Remember, the point of the #OwnVoices movement is to make space for writers from backgrounds who've traditionally been underrepresented in the publishing industry.

As fiction writers, our work may be drawn from our own experiences, but it is also imagined or researched. There are many great examples of writers creating characters who are not like them at all. The most negative result of the advice to only write exactly what we know is that writers will back off of including diversity in their fiction. Please, no.

How to proceed?

1)    Educate ourselves on the generalities of power dynamics and privilege.
-       Learn about privilege
-       Believe that people with different lived experiences than us are telling the truth about their experiences. (Much discrimination that can be argued away on a case-by-case basis can be proven in research studies)
-       Research the damaging prejudice tropes that are present in fiction and movies so we can actively avoid them. For example, I'm striving to keep my current middle-grade novel from falling into the 'white savior' trope. 
-       Seek critique partners who are familiar with these issues, and listen to each other
-       Educate ourselves more! Writing The Other is available as a quick-read work book and a large number of master classes and retreats

2)    Examine specific story ideas to ask ourselves if we’re the best person to tell it. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard was from an agent at RMFW 2019 (who I can’t seem to find online): if you’re on the higher side of a power dynamic writing a character from the disadvantaged side, don’t make the story about that marginalization.  For example, a male writer can write a female character but prudence suggests he might want to avoid making the story about the MeToo movement.

3)    Writing ‘up’ the power dynamic is less fraught than writing ‘down’ because the point is to make space for the less privileged to tell their own stories. Also, the stories of the powerful are so often told that marginalized writers do understand them better than vice-versa.

4)     Once we've decided that our work passes the above questions, it is time to get to work on specifics. Do your homework. Research communities you want to write about. Hire sensitivity readers from those communities (but don’t blame them if they miss something that you are later called out on). Be willing to make mistakes, admit your mistakes, apologize for your mistakes. This is how we learn and get better. (Just because you write something racist doesn’t mean you are A Racist.) Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

5)    Support diverse authors by reading and buying their books, which in turn supports our development as writers by giving new perspectives on these tropes.
As fiction writers, we have control over our products. It can be difficult to remember this. Is there something that could change that would avoid trampling on someone else’s story? 

I narrowly avoided writing a version of American Dirt. My first novel is set in the near-future, after the U.S. government has collapsed under pressure from climate change, and the pregnant protagonist must escape through the Colorado Rockies with her daughters. When I heard a radio report about a Syrian mother who had escaped to South America and made her way north toward the U.S. through horrendous experiences, I realized her story was the same as my protagonist's, but happening now. By switching to a present-day immigration story, I could have escaped the required categorization of ‘sci fi/fantasy’ under which I felt stuck because my novel was set in the future. But a few days thought of the research that would be involved in learning about these very real countries, people and communities suddenly made futuristic world-building look a lot easier, so I stayed with my original concept.

It didn’t cross my mind at the time that it wasn’t my story to tell. If I had written it, I could only hope that the agents and editors in my path to publication would have set me straight. Not by saying not to write something I didn’t know, but by asking if publishing and promoting my book would have taken away from a more authentic telling of the story. Traditionally published authors might look to these professionals to educate them, but obviously (see again: American Dirt) they can’t rely on that. Independently published authors bear the responsibility of educating themselves. If they don’t, there is no reason other authors shouldn’t educate them (see:  RWA).

We can all work together to make the publishing world truly better—inclusive in the stories it tells and the authors who make money telling them—to achieve the true goal: telling good stories that help us all understand each other better.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Seeing Both Sides: Housing Development

Several years ago, I went to a city council meeting to argue against townhouses being built on a property next to our neighborhood park. It wasn't that the park was going to be razed for houses, just that the road to them was going to be right behind the swings, and the parking lot would disappear. I had no hidden agenda other than maintaining the peaceful, open place where my children had the privilege of playing. My neighbors and I prevailed; in fact, city council decided to buy the private property and convert it to open space, and to this day it remains pleasant and open.

Around the same time, a close friend and neighbor suffered a tragic divorce. Unable to take on the mortgage of her house, she moved back to Kansas City to be near family. Once there, she told me, "Everyone here is divorced!". In my town, she had barely known anyone who was. Of course, this could be explained by more than one reason, but the connection to housing prices struck me. If a single parent can't afford a house in our town, we are effectively selecting for our children to grow up surrounded only by intact families.  Intact, well-off families, who they will assume to be the norm.

The Yes In My Backyard Podcast by Planet Money episode connected the stories for me. My neighbors and I were only doing what we wanted to make life nice for ourselves and our children, but our actions inadvertently denied the opportunity for other people to be able to live here and appreciate it. We inadvertently denied our children a chance to know others who aren't as advantaged economically as we are, and to help them form a more appreciative view of their own privileged lifestyle. 

I believe the 'inadvertent' is key here. It's so easy to assume that those on the other side of an issue have some nefarious plan to hurt me or those on my side. Surely there are a few of these. But I've come to believe that most people are simply trying for a result they truly think is right--for themselves, others, or principle--and figuring out the logic of the other side can help me to understand the entire issue from a larger perspective. 

Not to mention, thinking this way makes the world a more pleasant place for all of us to live in.

Have you been negatively affected by development limits in your town, or have you participated for or against development in your neighborhood? Or are there other issues you find yourself on both sides of, or have come to understand the other side? Please comment!

Monday, March 2, 2020

Book Analysis: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

When an accomplished author emulates the voice of a mediocre writer, she runs the risk of turning off readers who only see the inauthenticity or unbelievability of the story. This risk increases when it takes half of the book to come clean on the experiment--that what we thought was a complete story is really only one, flawed version, and others have different versions to tell.

That's what I heard at the meeting of the Boulder Writers Alliance Writers Who Read book club hosted by Gary McBride (His webpage features slides with links to a fascinating analysis of this novel and many more). Many participants had that experience and it made me wonder what proportion of readers were turned off by the story and never got that midpoint payoff.

Because it was a big payoff for me. Maybe it is that I love stories that turn upside down or inside out at their midpoint: when the good guys are shown to be the bad guys, or the Good Place everyone is searching for is revealed to be imaginary. This story became more interesting to me once the second narrator started picking it apart.

And then I made the same mistake again: trusting that the second narrator was telling the truth. Well, not completely, because her language made it clear that there was more subjectivity at play. But I certainly did not pick up on some of the biggest surprises in the text.

Don't read further if you want the fun of piecing together the puzzle yourself. I wish I had finished the entire book before the discussion so I'd have had time to cobble together my own theory.

Sure you want to keep reading?

Adriel Trott has a great theory: three of the male teachers are in fact the same person. One person at the book group found evidence for this in that their genitals were described similarly. Another support for this theory is that the second narrator tells us that the first broke her into several different, fake characters. Seems a lot like the author is telling us that's exactly what she did with the teachers.

This immediately raised the question to me: if the major male characters were redundant, how about the (female) narrators? It clearly doesn't work for the third narrator, as she is presented as the offspring of the second. But what if the second narrator tells the other side of the first's story, the side that is angry, the side that got pregnant and abandoned and lost her dream of greatness?

An interesting book to think about, if not entirely enjoyable to read.