One of the most common questions that comes up around diversity is the issue of “Who can write what”—whether an author of one race can create a character of another, whether that character is then authentic, who gets to decide all this. When I’ve considered these situations as an editor, my judgment almost always starts with how much that writer is willing and able to radically decenter himself and his own privileges and biases in favor of those of his fictional character and culture, rendered in all its lights and shades . . . which also presupposes the writer has done enough research or gained enough experience with that culture to render the lights and shades authentically.
As an example, let’s suppose I just finished reading a manuscript written by a white woman but told from a Mexican-American teenage boy’s perspective, and overall, I liked the manuscript: I found the characters involving and multi-dimensional, the plot was fresh and smart and kept me turning the pages, the themes were woven deeply into the story and thought-provoking — and all of that would incline me toward acquiring it. But as a person who thinks a lot about diversity issues, I would at that point pause a moment and ask myself: Did the voice sound believable to me as that of a Mexican-American teenager, given the character and the world the author created around him? (Here I have to acknowledge that I myself am a white woman, and keep an eye on my own privileges, biases, and knowledge/lack thereof.
Here I have to acknowledge that I myself am a white woman, and keep an eye on my own privileges, biases, and knowledge/lack thereof.
How is Mexican-American culture as a whole portrayed within the book, and how are other cultures portrayed in contrast? Is any set of people all cartoonishly bad or uniformly good? (Sentimentality about a culture, and particularly about America’s or white people’s ability to help a “lesser” culture, can be just as offensive as ignorance of it.) Who drives the action and makes real change in the story? Is everyone portrayed with some complexity? (I should further specify that this concerns me most when a writer is writing about a protagonist or setting the book as a whole in a culture different from his/her own; multicultural secondary characters need to be believable and authentic too, but if we’re not so much seeing the whole world around them, the standards are a bit different.)
[...] multicultural secondary characters need to be believable and authentic too [...]Supposing the book passed those tests, I’d then ask if I could have a phone conversation with the author. This is a standard part of my acquisitions process before I sign up a book, but it’s especially important when I’m talking with someone who’s writing cross-culturally. In that case, I say outright: “This is a tricky and sensitive subject. What led you to write this story, or to write the story from this perspective? What do you know about this culture? What’s the basis of your authority? What sort of research or interviews or experience have you accumulated? Has anyone from within the culture read it, and what sort of feedback did you receive?”
In the author’s responses, I’d listen for:
- Humility in the face of the above issues
- Thoughtfulness about them
- An openness to critique
- Not just by me, but by any vetters we might employ
- A willingness to work
- To go as far as she can in learning more about the culture and to revise to correct any missteps
- An openness to dialogue
- Being able to talk about these questions with me and with others as they come up
If these things are present, then I might go on and share the book with my colleagues here at Scholastic, and we’d figure out the next steps from there.