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NYC Teen Author Festival 2014

I really enjoyed the NYC Teen Author Festival symposium (Saturday, 3/22). Lots of great conversation and insights by the assembled authors.

The moment that sticks with me, though, was the panel and crowd response to the “where’s the diversity?” question posed by my seatmate in the audience. She reflected on the preponderance of white authors on Friday and Saturday’s panels, and asked how the presenters approached the issue in their books.

One author spoke with evident sincerity (I’m paraphrasing here, since I didn’t take notes at the time) about how she felt that as long as her characters were grounded in authentic experience and evoked universal human emotions, their race wasn’t important; readers of different backgrounds could and did identify with them. The audience responded with a spontaneous round of applause.

Underneath the clapping was a murmur, which I parsed as disappointment. That was my reaction, anyway. I heard a partial truth, a response informed by fear.

Fear says, “You can’t write what you don’t know, what you haven’t directly experienced.”

When does listening to fear help us grow as writers? Don’t young readers deserve our best efforts? Deserve that we push ourselves to be aware of gaps in our knowledge, and try to address them?

True, you don’t have to be a pig or a spider to appreciate the friendship that blossoms in Charlotte’s Web. And yet, the position that when a writer conveys her authentic experience it will be relevant to everyone (so quit bringing this up, already), strikes me as too pat, too defensive, too dismissive. Especially when a white person is saying it.

Can you write for teens in 2014 and refuse to acknowledge that excluding people of color from your fictional landscape is hurtful? I’m talking about all genres, here: contemporary, historical, fantasy, sf, action, mystery.

Novels are fictional because we make them up, right? Often, based on what we’re interested in knowing. We can’t travel backwards in time, and yet that hasn’t stopped anyone from writing historical novels. I’m no expert on falconry in Renaissance France, the origin of the Hope Diamond, or harvesting southern California’s edible native plants. But when I need that information for a project, I expect to research it, not absorb it from the ether. I try to read widely, maybe interview an expert in the field. When I’ve gotten things wrong, I try and accept correction gracefully, strive to do better the next time.

I don’t presume to think, “If I don’t already know this, it must not be important to my work.”

Respectfully, I would submit that as writers, it’s our job to think about aspects relevant to a novel-in-progress and then make every effort to remedy our ignorance, wherever that journey takes us. If we decide we owe it to our readers (and to ourselves) to portray diverse fictional worlds, we have a writer’s usual tools for creating authentic characters: observation, imagination, empathy, research. Why not use them?


For those interested in more practical advice, here are some links I’ve found useful on the subject of “Writing the Other”:

CBC Diversity committee, resources for writers 

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Writing, Tonto & the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die,  snippet: “Truth is, all authors worry about doing our best work and connecting with readers. Or at least we should. I know I do. I write both within and across. My latest story, a romance-friendship short, is told from the perspective a black, male, gay guardian angel. We all must stretch to some degree.”

Nisi Shawl, Transracial Writing for the Sincere,    snippet: “Cultural background is data. If you want it, and you don’t have it, it’s valuable; treat it that way.”

Zetta Elliott, Decolonizing the Imagination,  snippet: “If we do not create stories that expose the beauty and complexity of our varied realities, we will indeed remain trapped by the “fictions” created by those outside of our cultures and communities.”