Who Has the Right to Write It?

Thursday, April 25, 2019
So, before I begin this post I should explain a bit of the backstory, in case you haven't been subjected to my previous prattling and blathering before this. I am trying to snag an agent/publisher for a manuscript. It's a middle grades historical novel. The main character is Henry, a 12-year-old African American.

I am a white senior citizen female.

My son was a 12-year-old boy (two decades ago). Have I been around lots of students that age, both black and white, during my teaching career? Yes. Have I tried my best to depict Henry in a respectful and nuanced way? Yes.

But as a writer who's white-as-notebook-paper, do I have the right to tell the story of a person of color?

Some editors think I don't... or at least they think I might have difficulty getting my story published, since #OwnVoices is a current trend in publishing. This movement supports a gay character being written by a gay writer, a Hispanic character being written by a Hispanic writer, and so on.

photo by PxHere.com

I actually worried about this when I began this project. I consulted a friend (who's black). I wrote in the author's note (for a manuscript that was in its initial stages--a definite case of putting the cart before the horse) that I felt I had the right to tell the story because of the shame and regret I felt in regards to this part of our country's history. After all, it was white people who did all the horrible things during this event.

Here's the rejection letter--

Dear Sioux:

Thank you for your interest in ____ Agency.

This is a really important concept and you're obviously a talented writer. However, even though this story is grounded in history and deals with important subject matter, the writing feels a little "familiar". Additionally, and this comment has nothing to do with the quality of your writing, you may face some #OwnVoices concerns in relation to this story. While there must be a space for providing different perspectives on terrible chapters of our past, I think the trend at the moment is towards promoting #OwnVoices takes on these kinds of issues. Of course this is a subjective view, and I'm sure others will feel differently, but, for now, I’m going to pass.

I wish you all the best for your continued writing journey. 

Thank you, again, for sharing this with me.

Do I appreciate the time this agent took to write me a personal response? Yes. Yes. Yes. Do I try to keep the phrase "talented writer" closer to my heart than "the writing feels a little 'familiar'"? Most definitely yes. Am I happy with the dilemma I now face?


I now have lots to think about as I slog forward/sideways/backwards in this writing process. I know my life is better because of Jacqueline Woodson (a gay writer of color) and Sherman Alexie (a Native American writer) and Leonard Pitts and Nikki Giovanni and Shay Simmons and Maya Angelou. But my life has also been made richer because of writers like Arthur Golden (a male who is not Japanese), who wrote Memoir of a Geisha. He did loads of research and interviewing, and became a geisha via his writing.

In my research on #OwnVoices, I came upon this from a Filipino rapper:

It wants to fight me,
Ruby, don't take it lightly,
Just focus on plottin’ nightly,
'Cause we know it’s never likely,
If I don’t,
Then who will write me?
                                                  -Ruby Ibarra, “The Other Side, Welcome”

The last two lines spoke to me, because there are no books--for children--about this event, except a YA novel. I'm saddened because perhaps if I don't write this story, who will?

I'm going to end with a link to a thoughtful discussion that Lisa Bodenheim sent me. Janet Reid, a literary agent, had some words that gave me a glimmer of hope: 

"But if the question is whether I want the stories told or not, I vote for having them told. And I'd vote for having people tell their own stories, but sometimes that's not an option... I think the only thing to do is keep querying. You don't need every agent to say yes; you don't even need two. You need one, who sees the value of your work and wants to champion it."

I'm looking for just one...


Linda O'Connell said...

I believe rejections and acceptances are subjective and you should continue to send your manuscript out. Despite current publishing trends, there is someone out there who WILL be able to move it. Do not allow an agent's opinion to stop you in your tracks. Your story is powerful and simply hasn't found a soft landing. YET. Don't hit the skids when rejection arrives. Consider other avenues, even revising for a YA market. When the time is right. Own Voices may be a trend, but you told the story with authenticity. Be proud of your story as it makes the rounds.

Margo Dill said...

First...this is an amazing rejection. I know that seems like an oxymoron but honestly, if this person did not believe in your writing, she would not have taken the time to write this. She is telling you that your writing is GOOD ENOUGH, but she isn't willing to be someone who takes a stand and says: you don't have to be this race to tell this story. And that's okay. That's her job, her career, and her opinion. Trends come and go! Don't give up. You know in your heart that you are not trying to be WHITE and telling all other races this is how it is. You are honoring the people of this horrific event with this story .I have read it. I have worked on it. And I KNOW THIS.

Second--have you considered possibly contacting someone who is an author of color, who writes for kids, and asking if he/she would read your manuscript and offer any suggestions that may not be true to the race? This person could be a co-author with you, if you want this project out in the world today--this could be one way to go. This doesn't have to be a "famous" writer. It could be an unpublished writer of color.

Third--(Gosh, Margo, stop having so many opinions...) Consider finding a big contest to enter this in--I know two of my friends, Brian Katcher (who wrote a manuscript about a transgender male when he is clearly a white, 30something male who was married with a child at the time, and he entered it into a Random House contest. He did not win but he did get a publishing contract!) and Camille Faye, who entered a national contest (not sure which one) but it also resulted in a 5 book contract for her series Voodoo Butterfly. A contest might be a way to get around this issue. You win a couple contests. You put that in your query letter with the agents, and maybe they can't ignore your manuscript based on race.

Fourth--it feels like #OwnVoices should be a good thing, right? I think it is coming from a good place, allowing people who haven't had a voice for so long to have a voice. BUT to me, it feels so narrow-minded and unfair. I am happy to read a book written by anyone about anything as long as the person did a good job. And I don't think I'm probably alone. Is this because I am a white female? Maybe--maybe it's my American white privilege that makes me feel this way. But I am a woman. I do know what discrimination feels like in the workplace. So...I'm rambling. But hopefully you got something out of this huge comment--if anything, I am passionate about your work. :)

Mary Ann Clarke Scott said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post Sioux. This seems to be the issue of our times and one I've been struggling with as well. As a "white" writer I too have been feeling squeezed between the desire and obligation to write diversity, and the implication that I am not entitled or qualified to write from the perspective of the "other." This pains me. It's challenging enough as a writer to imagine and immerse ourselves in the minds and hearts of our fictional characters, none of whom are "ourselves." No matter who our protagonists are, we always have to fill in the parts that are human. This much we all share. Are we limited to writing non-POV characters of colour or cultural or gender or sexual diversity in order to satisfy that need? Or do dare we strike out and bolding go into that arena where we are vulnerable to criticism, not only for doing it badly, but for daring to empathize and imagine? I don't have the answer.

KAlan said...

I certainly can empathize. #Ownvoices has given us a much better world, but like most trends has been narrowed, misunderstood and in some cases 'hijacked.' It's a dangerous game even raising concerns about it, lest one appear to be intolerant.

It is particularly troubling when it comes to the issue of age; I am being told again and again that I can't write YA, especially for girls, because I am not a young woman myself. The advantage of experience from a teacher who's known thousands of teenagers just no longer seems to matter (not to mention my ability to use punctuation.)

In a way, #ownvoices has solved an 18th-century problem. In another way, it's looped us right back to the 18th century by demanding that the author's voice be more important than the narrator's or characters'. I explain more about that in my blog post here.

sharon frame gay said...

I am a senior white woman. I have published a story about a black slave, and one about a gay man. I have also had many stories published about men, written in first person. And a story about a dog written in first person!

I am none of those.

Why should we be limited by who we are NOT? That puts constraints on everybody. Men couldn't write about women, women about men, blacks about whites, gays about straights, etc. Some of the greatest pieces of literature would have to be abolished.

I cannot live long enough, nor reincarnate as many times as needed in order to try to express the world through "my own voice". That is what writing is all about. The ability to show emotions through a character that resonates with others.

Must I be murdered in order to write about it? Hmm. Think I'll pass on that one!

In the meantime I will continue to write in the context of whatever I wish.

Joanne said...

This is an important idea that you've raised and I'm glad you started the discussion.

I've been thinking about this issue ever since I attended a writers conference (decades ago) in which a writer-presenter raised the idea of whether we are able to write "the other" effectively, and asked exactly what you are asking: Who has the right to write the story, and more importantly, who is allowed to inhabit the mind and heart of a character so very different from oneself?

The presenter was using the example of male/female, and her opinion was along the same philosophical lines of #ownvoices.

I've seen many pro/con opinions on this topic, each with sound reasoning, and I think I cannot add anything to the discussion other than to thank you for broaching it, Sioux, and hoping that light and thoughtfulness prevail.

And congratulations on the quality of the rejection. It validates your writing skills, so you can at least throw Imposter Syndrome to the curb (if that is ever a factor in your writing life, as it is in mine ;)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Couple thoughts, Sioux:

That's a really fine rejection. Always a positive!

Of course you--or anybody--must write the stories he or she needs to tell. It's always been thus for writers and always will be.

BUT publishers are a business, and it is an expensive proposition to publish a book. What is driving the #OwnVoices trend right now is readers and if readers don't buy the book...well, publishers lose money and less books are published.

BUT smaller (or regional) publishers might be interested. So keep trying. You only need one agent and/or editor to say yes.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Linda--Words of encouragement from a writer as successful and prolific as you... Well, I appreciate it. You were also a beta reader for me, and your critique is one of the things that's keeping me going.

Margo--A contest or collaborating with another writer are ideas I will definitely consider. I think I want to exhaust a few more agents first. And Margo, because of you and your editorial skills, the story is something I'm proud of.

Mary Ann Clarke Scott--I agree with the word choice of "squeezed." We stuck between a rock and a hard place. We want to write the stories that refuse to be set aside, and yet we also want a diversity of writers--there's room at the table for everyone.

Thanks for your comments, and hopefully, someone will come up with an answer that honors and includes all writers...

KAlan--After I finish replying to all these comments, I'll read your blog post. You hit the nail on the head. It's a better world when authentic voices are heard, but things can get so inclusive, it becomes exclusive. (Your comment about being able to use punctuation made me chuckle. I'm a middle school teacher. It IS a superpower we have. ;)

Sharon Frame Gay--One writer commented, "Do we have to be an alien to write from an alien's perspective?" Aren't we all authorities when it comes to humans?

Joanne--Thanks for your kind words. I love the phrase "impostor syndrome." And yes, I do appreciate the wonderful rejection email.

Cathy--I get it. It's partly a money thing. A business thing. I'm looking for that one agent or publisher.

Margo Dill said...

Cathy: I agree that publishers WANT us to think that's what readers want right now and I agree some do. But I wonder.

When I talk to people not in the writing business, they have no idea about things like #OWNVOICES because they are not on Twitter or Instagram.

Katie is 8 and she doesn't care who writes her books--I'm being honest here. Actually, she will read anything written by Jo Jo Siwa and doesn't really care about anyone else. :)

That's the other problem with being a children's/YA writer--the people who are agents and editors and publishers are adults, living in large cities, and they are the ones who can also afford advertising. And as we all know, kids are a target of ads as much as or more so than adults. Whew, here I go again with all my opinions.

I'm just saying that I'm not so sure that kids care who writes the book as much as some of the adults do, who are currently getting to make all the decisions.

KAlan said...

Thanks, Margo. It took many more years than I thought it would for me to find an agent who would represent my teenage narrative, but I did sign with one earlier this week. So will you, Sioux.

Have you tried making clear in your query letter the reasons that you're ‘qualified’ to write in that category? That might or might not have made the difference in mine.

Or, it might have to do with the agent being just like me: a white male around my age. Maybe the answer is to start our own hashtag: #AgentsLikeMe. I'll be interested to see how agency relationships with publishers change if the agent isn't part of the book's demographic. I'm genuinely nervous that mine might struggle to get traction.

Let's take a moment, too, to remember that having a supportive community like this one makes all the difference. Margo, your WonderQuest session was motivating. Thanks for being here, everyone.

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Love, love, love Janet Reid. I've emailed several questions to her and she's answered every single one on her blog within a short period of time. I feel strongly that you should continue querying for many of the reasons already detailed here. I hope you will.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Sioux ~ Excellent post, and thanks for sharing your rejection letter. I already commented on the Butt-Kicker boards that I think it's a positive reflection of your writing, and the agent was honest about the industry, which I find refreshing. You know I think you should keep going, keep querying, and you will find an agent to partner with. I believe in you! I also think Margo's idea about entering a novel contest is a good one, and you should consider it. Also, Keith's comment about adding why you're qualified to write the novel in your query letter is a smart idea, and I hadn't even thought of that. I know you consulted several sources who remembered the event that your novel is based on--you might consider mentioning them in your query.

This is a great discussion, but we need some writers of color to chime in! I'm Asian--that's the ethnicity box I check when I am forced to because my mom was from a small village in Okinawa. But I was born in the States and grew up here. So, if I were to write a novel with an Okinawan girl as a main character, I should be #OwnVoiced (to verb a noun! :) because I didn't grow up in Okinawa, although all my relatives are from there and I've been there around five times. I think the issue of checking people's race/gender/sexual identity etc. to verify their art doesn't make sense. Art should be about the artwork itself, not a judgement about the artist. I understand that we desperately need more diversity in books. It's extremely unbalanced and many races are underrepresented, and have been systematically kept out of the literary community for the entire time it has existed. True story. And that needs to change. But I fear we're going about it the wrong way. Publishers and agents are pushing for "diversity," but this diversity is not about giving people who aren't white the means to make whatever art matters to them in their communities. It's more about making sense of diversity through the white lens and what the publishing industry wants. As Tania Canas says in an article I read recently, it's "of difference by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of 'diversity' but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness"--the equivalent of El Torito being called Mexican Food or Yoshinoya Japanese food. "When tied to ideas of staging 'authentic voices' the arts restricts, places demands on form and content as well as systematically silences the multiplicity of truths." In my opinion, the industry is scrambling toward diversity in order to make up for the past. The only way it will really change is in the long-term shifting of power dynamics in the publishing world.

IMO, the #OwnVoices movement has grown a bit toxic. Memoir is for own voices, for writing about your life and what you've experienced. Fiction is for your imagination, for speaking a truth that is beyond your immediate circumstances and presents a wider view on a topic--that's art. Yes, we need all types of communities in the literary world, but I think there needs to be a power dynamic shift in the Big Five and publishing communities to make it happen. Stop focusing on the writer and telling her what to write or how to create her art, and let's turn our focus on the industry. The publishing industry is predominantly white--in a recent industry survey I saw on Publisher's Weekly, it's over 80% Caucasian, and less than 18% a mix of all other races. Until those numbers change, I'm afraid all of this focus on diversity is not producing authenticity, and producing what publishers think is salable--not to the underrepresented communities themselves--but through their own lens.

Renee Roberson said...

This is such a great discussion, everyone! Sioux, you pretty much know my thoughts on this, and know that I also have similar fears as you and Keith because I'm shopping a book that has a white, male teenager as the main character and that is definitely not me. I'm pretty sure John Green never had this problem. I also agree that you could rework your query and add in a small section with your qualifications about why you are the best person to write the story, because I know you've given it some thought!

I love Keith's idea about the #AgentsLikeUs hashtag :-)

Angela, it's interesting that you mention the diverse writers. As you know, my mother and her side of the family are Hispanic and it is almost never something I share about myself, especially in my writing! I recently had to look up the term Latinx that I saw in a young adult novel because I didn't know what it meant. Now I'm thinking I need to make protagonist in "Under My Skin" more similar in ethnicity to myself--and there are many ways it could bring more depth to the story. I guess I can thank #OwnVoices for that.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Lisa--Thanks for the encouraging words. I definitely have NOT given up. This project is incredibly close to my heart... I'm committed to it. The only way I can explain it is to say that Henry (my protagonist) is a part of me. When I wrote the third draft, it was like I was channeling him.

Angela--I appreciate the support of the Butt-Kickers (sorry I've been so lax ;). I wish that including marginalized writers would not exclude other writers who try their best to tell important stories about important people.

Renee--Yeah, John Green is cranking 'em out without a backwards glance. And all his readers are eating up whatever he serves. (Not that I'm denigrating his writing. If some of my students suspected I was dissing him, they'd become instantly rabid and start frothing at the mouth. ;)

I think doing a little tweaking of "Under My Skin" sounds like a great idea. You'll be #OwnVoicing it. I want to get credit for a new version, just like Angela.

(And what would I do without the Butt-Kickers? )

This post was a bit long, but the I think the comments are even longer... and I'm incredibly grateful for them. I'm going to print it and save it for some future event. I think it--along with my tear-soaked tissues--will come in handy.

Pat Wahler said...

I find it disheartening to think ANYONE's work is rejected because of the author's race, gender, sexual orientation, religion...you name it.

Keep in mind there are many avenues to publication...

Kathryn Schleich said...

This is a most enlightening discussion. I talked with African American friends and they tended to agree with the agent. One asked if you had incorporated interviews with people of color in your research. Personally, I could not write this story as I don't believe I can honestly speak to the experience of a black, 12-year old boy. As a college instructor I had plenty of African American students, but again, I personally wouldn't feel comfortable writing their story.

Similarly, when my upcoming novel was being critiqued by another crime/mystery author, he suggested portraying the lead character, a female police captain, as a lesbian. I chose not to rewrite the character because I can't speak to that at all. If I did write a main character with a that sexual orientation it would ring false. Some of you have overcome that obstacle with tons of research, and by all means go for it.

But that's just me. Pursue what you believe is the best path, Sioux, but expect there will be push back. It's also sad that the #OwnVoices movement has started to become toxic. Best of luck and how great for an agent to acknowledge you're a very talented writer!

Mary Horner said...

Sioux, this is a topic worthy of discussion., and for me, timely. Last month when I wrote about the creative process on this blog, I included a poem about the Underground Railroad because I was so moved by the historic oral presentation I saw at the Daniel Boone home last year. I received two criticisms about it, both from my family members, who said I shouldn't have written about it. I thought about taking it down and replacing it with something else, but I didn't. No one else commented about that, but it did make me think.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Kathryn--I just had dinner with my best friend (who's African American). She still thinks that this kind of thinking is divisive. From her perspective, we're different because of our experiences... not because of our skin color.

I do appreciate your comments, and I think I'm carving out a solution that will work.

Mary--Any conversation that makes us think is a good one. (And what you doing, listening to family members when it comes to writing? What do they know about writing? ;)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Kathryn & others ~ The reason why I say the movement is growing toxic is because of all the call outs on Twitter, the writing community turning on each other, checking a writer’s mental health status among other things, controversy and cancelled books - most often to the authors is was supposed to help. An example: a black gay author wrote a novel with a black gay protagonist (#ownvoices right?) but he was accused of appropriating a setting (war-torn Kosovo in the '90s), so the YA book was cancelled after they printed over 55,000 copies (!) which were pulped. To me, that’s just too much. YA books are shrinking with the search for “authenticity.” And my point above is it’s just not effective because all the gatekeepers in the publishing industry (executives, publishers, editors) are predominantly Caucasian and the percentages are more unbalanced than in any other industry. So even when an “authentic” book from an #ownvoices author makes it into the publishing world, her editor will have her make it palatable for whatever marketing demographic they are going after. An author in the WOW community I’m thinking of is Nigerian and her book was picked up by a Big Five but the publishers said her Nigerian character wasn’t authentically Nigerian and needed to be strong and visibly Afrocentric. Often publishers want marginalized people’s stories to look like “issue books” centered on oppression or injustice, telling these authors what stories they should be telling, instead of letting them write for their communities. And still, the number of books written by Black, Latinx, and Native authors COMBINED are only around 7% of the industry. So those communities are receiving the most exclusion. But another problem is that when some of these books are picked up, say by an African American author, they are relegated to a section of the bookstore or library where they sit around on shelves with other “ghettoized” books, instead of being with other books of their genre (like romance, for example). And I’m not sure it’s what readers want that’s driving the publisher's decisions because sales numbers are low. Many of these books fail and don’t sell, but a lot of books in the industry fail, and publishers make room for that. So, there are many problems in the publishing industry that are causing these movements, which start out positive, but as many things do, get twisted. Publishers are slow moving, and many of them are also liberal, so they want to do what’s right, and agents are pushing for change the most because they are so progressive, but it still remains so unbalanced that it’s hard to make a dent. We’re going to be going through major growing pains in the industry for a while. But I think the only way for it to change is from the top level, not by telling writers what to write and examining them under a microscope, checking mental health reports, where they lived, what their sexual orientation is, and what they are qualified to write about. It's getting crazy out there in the twittersphere, and we are turning on each other in the writing community, which is why I think it’s grown toxic.

Renee ~ I think that’s a fabulous idea to make your protag in UMS Latinx!

Sioux ~ I’m interested to hear what you came up with! I hope you share it with us on the Butt-Kicker boards.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Pat--I agree. And I'm about to consider other paths to publication.

Angela--There's a song from the 70's that went something like, "Must have been in the right place, but it was the wrong time," and that's how I feel. If this was a year or two earlier, or later, would I have the same obstacles?

I will definitely share my idea, since I've done no writing for quite a while.

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