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.

1 comment:

Mary B. said...

Hi Dani,
I really appreciate you continuing this conversation in the manner that you did and I thank you. The discussion needs to continue among writers and at the publication level. Keep up the critical thinking and the excellent writing!
PS. Hope you and yours are all well. So far my large family has remained healthy (due in large part to the fact we have not seen each other for a couple weeks...which getting increasingly difficult, but necessary of course. Virtual hugs coming your way. Mary