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White authors writing from the first-person POV of a character of color

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Hello,

I'm a literary agent, and I recently read a wonderful and well-written upper-MG contemporary novel that an author submitted. The main emotional arc is a queer Black girl coming to terms with her first crush on another girl, and the query included a note about #OwnVoices. It wasn't until I had a conversation over the phone with this author that I realized when she said #OwnVoices she was only referring to her sexual orientation, not her ethnicity.

Personally, I don’t tend to mind if a white author is writing diverse characters as some of a few voices in a cast, but I usually shy away from it when it’s the only POV, especially a new author, and especially a new author writing for a young audience. I'm hoping that some authors of color would be willing to give me their opinions on the subject—even if the consensus is a resounding "no"? I ask because one of a few external conflicts this protagonist experiences has to do with racism, and while it's not a driving force in the story, it's not nothing.

I do honestly love the manuscript and think the f/f MG romance deserves to be seen, but even if the book goes through sensitivity reads and through the hands of a Black editor, I don't want to encourage non-BIPOC authors to take up the wrong space in publishing. I'm considering all angles before I choose the best way forward.

Thank you!
#1 - January 14, 2021, 07:57 AM

This is hard, because as a parent and former bookseller, I prefer to pick up books written from a viewpoint I can guarantee is authentic. i.e., a Black character written by a Black writer. But as a writer, I know that I am capable of putting a lot of research and care into a book, that I have friends who I can ask to help me get a viewpoint right, and that I am willing to do the work to edit until I get it right. I think that there CAN be well-written characters and stories from authors whose identities don't perfectly match their characters. But I also can't say that I would have the necessary trust in a debut author to pick up a viewpoint like this in a first book. I wonder if this particular manuscript might be better as an author's second or third published book? But full disclaimer, these are my thoughts as a white, cishet author.
#2 - January 14, 2021, 10:17 AM
« Last Edit: January 14, 2021, 11:45 AM by HDWestlund »

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I think the question I would ask the author is why does she feel she needs to write a Black main character. Does it serve the story? Could she tell this story with a main character who shares her own ethnicity?
#3 - January 14, 2021, 10:47 AM
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:welcome Haley. It is refreshing to read about an agent falling in love with a story. It's the story that matters and if you love it, I don't think it should matter who wrote it. I know this is NOT the prevailing attitude at this time. The current climate is "drive in your own lane." But we are writers and we place ourselves in other people's shoes all the time, otherwise we wouldn't write anything but memoir (which I also enjoy very much). I value research. I value authenticity. Sometimes I connect more with a story of pioneer white girls than I do with East Indians living in Boston (I'm from India, never lived in Boston :grin3 ). Personally, I'd like the emphasis to be on the story, not the author. So the question to ask is if YOU are willing to overturn any obstacle to place this story? Do you believe in it? Do you believe in the author? If so, then this potential client is very lucky to have you.

I think the question I would ask the author is why does she feel she needs to write a Black main character. Does it serve the story? Could she tell this story with a main character who shares her own ethnicity?

This, too.
#4 - January 14, 2021, 01:26 PM
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I'm really working hard on this question. I felt compelled to write a story about treatment of Japanese Americans in Hood River in WWII. In my naivety I wrote it from her POV but I am a white woman. I've consulted with JA friends  here, including having one read my draft and give me feedback. I'm thinking of finding an author whose identity fits with the story - or I may change the POV to a boy whose family stole land from Japanese neighbors during the war that's been a big secret. I'd love to discuss this with anyone interested. Thanks!
#5 - February 13, 2021, 03:51 PM

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 I wrote a picture book told from the POV of an anteater. I just want to assure all lit agents, publishers, and booksellers that I am, in fact, an anteater. My parents are anteaters. My partner is an anteater. My college, though nonsectarian, was predominantly anteaters.  So, I am not taking publishing space away from other AE authors  (AntEater authors). So...the book is legit.
#6 - February 14, 2021, 05:38 PM
« Last Edit: February 14, 2021, 07:41 PM by david-bromberg »

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Thank you for this discussion, because my current book is about a Black/Hispanic girl who wants to build rockets and travel to different planets. That is until she's visited by an alien boy who tries to point out to her that she should learn to travel by her mind instead. That way she won't leave more space junk out there. I am an 80-year-old white woman, but the character came to me as this mixed-race girl. I also want to encourage girls of any color to understand they're capable of aspiring to such things as being space engineers. I have contacts who are from these ethnic/race groups who are willing to be my experts. They have all been quite supportive in my endeavor.
#7 - April 19, 2021, 01:35 PM

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Are you saying that getting this book published will push a black, queer author with a similar story out of the way? Or will it open a door for a similar story? Is there a similar book written by a queer, black, female author in play right now?

I wrote a story about a girl and her mom, a Navy veteran.  The story is about the mom teaching her daughter how to drive so they can deliver supplies during the pandemic. They came into my head as a black family. I'm not black and I've never been in the military. I enjoy a tv show about the Navy and one of my favorite characters on that show is played by a black actress. This may be the source of my inspiration or it may be the numerous black voices asking for positive images of black people in the media. If I change the family to white, do I deny the black community characters who are female, engineers, computer programmers and a proud military veteran?

But maybe my white voice should stay in its lane or should we listen to a black opinion on the subject?  How about the one that said to judge a person, not on the color of their skin but the quality of their character, or in this case, the characters they wrote.

#8 - Yesterday at 06:37 AM

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it may be the numerous black voices asking for positive images of black people in the media.

What they are really asking for is more chances to publish these stories themselves instead of white people doing it. I wish WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) had instead called themselves We Need Diverse Authors (or Voices). I think white people would have grasped the point faster.

If I change the family to white, do I deny the black community characters who are female, engineers, computer programmers and a proud military veteran?

Not at all. The idea that white authors have to write the books in order for black characters to be represented is an example of some of the mindsets we need to work on (and eliminate) as white authors. There are plenty of black authors who could do this story justice much better than any white person can, simply because living as a person of color is different in ways white people can't experience and therefore can't write the deep-down truth of -- and that affects character development. And it affects what might happen to the character in different situations. How they might approach different situations.

But maybe my white voice should stay in its lane

In the matter of race, yes. You are completely free to write this same story about a white family. Why not go for it? Also consider this: if you can change your characters to white with basically no other changes, or only superficial ones, is it possible they aren't really true to the black experience? And if you write your story about white characters, might it not be a better story because that's the experience you know? It isn't quite the same thing to say "But I've never been in the Navy, been a lawyer, run away to the circus, etc., either." Those are not irrevocable aspects of your personhood that have formed you from conception to death. 

or should we listen to a black opinion on the subject? 

Yes -- many, to get the prevailing view, as no group is a monolith. But do be aware that many members of marginalized communities in general are very weary of having to educate white people on this, and they really don't owe us any more free education and emotional labor than they've already given. Also, there are other writing communities online where ALL the members, no matter the race or other marginalization (including white, IOW), will not be as kind to you on this topic as we are here. I would research and listen to what people have said and are saying on this topic already rather than start off with a question.
#9 - Yesterday at 10:48 AM
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My story has nothing to do with race relations. It's simply a mother teaching her daughter how to drive.  And it can't be written by anyone else because it is my interpretation of a mother teaching her daughter how to drive.  They stop at a Mexican grocery store too.

I considered writing the same story but providing illustrations of the girl and her mother as different races/nationalities. But that might encourage children to only read stories about people that look like them.  Instead I wrote a story where any child can say, hey that girl likes robotics just like me.

But your premise that all white people should only write white characters brings up another question. Does every human character on Sesame Street have a different writer corresponding to their race and gender?  What about other mix race tv shows? I think your position actually goes backwards in race relations because it claims the basic (that is not race related) human experiences are specific to race. And that divides people rather than bring them together as a community. 
#10 - Yesterday at 11:40 AM

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Let me ad. "The Hate U Give" is an amazing book. I would not attempt to write it because it is about specific experiences that I have not had. But I have had the experience of learning to drive a car.  I have the experience of having a mother. If Martin Luther King's words did not impress you,  maybe black author, John McWhorter's interview last Friday on, Real Time with Bill Maher (on Youtube)  would be interesting. My story was written a year ago to help kids under lockdown during the pandemic so not related to this interview. Try to find the full interview. It's a good one.
#11 - Yesterday at 11:54 AM

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But your premise
your position
If Martin Luther King's words did not impress you

But this isn't about me, Kim.

What I'm trying to do is liaise some of what I've learned in almost daily conversation (and listening, 99% listening) with both BIPOC and white authors over a period of about three years,  and do so without the confrontational and even angry (sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not) response you would face if you were to take your views to similar venues. Dr. King's quote has nothing to do with whether we should write black characters.

No one will tell you that you can't write your interpretation of a mother teaching her daughter to drive. No one will tell you they can't stop at a Mexican grocery store. By all means, they can. But the industry -- authors, illustrators, agents, publishers -- are increasingly drawing the line at what race you write for your MAIN character. (Even for non-main characters, paid sensitivity reads will be required.) And if you choose to write a MC who is not your own race, and your book finds a publisher, you'll need to be prepared for backlash as soon as the deal is announced, to the point your publisher might drop you, and if they don't, the backlash gets worse. It happens regularly.

And none of this is worth it, because there's no reason for it. BIPOC can write their own people without white people's "help." Giving them room to get their own stories published is one step that will help make the publishing industry less overwhelmingly white.
#12 - Yesterday at 01:10 PM
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I appreciate your warning to help my career. However, eliminating all non-white characters from works created by white writers is going to eliminate non-white characters from most of literature, tv and film. The Black Panther was created by a white man, Stan Lee. So that one would have to be taken out of circulation, the movie too, to satisfy this requirement. There were black characters in Star Trek, created by a white man, Gene Roddenberry. That series, watched as a child,  inspired black astronaut, Ronald McNair,  to pursue a career in space because he saw  black characters on the show in the '60s. So where is the benefit to society if we eliminate all diversity from our stories?  Michelle Obama is appearing on a show with a yeti puppet. The yeti is a mythological character from Nepal. Are you going to tell Mrs. O to stop appropriating Nepalese culture?

Flipping it - Shondra  Rhimes is black. SHe created the show, Grey's Anatomy, who's main character is white (but named grey so have fun with that). So this would have to be cancelled too. I'm trying to point out that, even if the concept is a trend right now, it is absurd and dangerous. 

I do understand that this thread started with a first person black character written by a white author. It was also said that the character was well written with, what the agent believed, was good sensitivity.  Is it not a step in the right direction when a person of a different race has enough empathy to write a character that would be accepted if no one knew who wrote it? Writers need to stay away from stereotypes, from negativity meant to degrade entire demographics or to pigeonhole groups of people - like making all female characters stay at home moms. When POC write stories about themselves and their experiences, they do need to be read but censuring everyone will also censure them because they will only be able to include characters that look like them.

Not every story is about race and trying to make it so by requiring racial purity is actually a very scary concept. Non-white authors should write whatever stories they want to write. It can be about racial tension but it should not be required just because the author is non-white. The industry should read their work and if it's good, publish it.  But it should not be a zero sum game that requires censuring some authors to make it happen. There's room in art for everyone and art is better when everyone participates. 
#13 - Yesterday at 03:38 PM

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There's room in art for everyone and art is better when everyone participates. 

If this was historically true, we would not be having this discussion. But the number of books by black authors is still startlingly low.  It is up to us as white people to make sure there is room in art for everyone. That may mean giving others a place. That's what is happening today.

If your story is "simply a mother teaching a daughter to drive" than it does not have to be a black mother. You may not need to mention race at all. But if you don't, many readers will assume the characters are white, and that by itself speaks volumes.

MRH did state that it's just about main characters, the lens the story is told through. No one suggests you shouldn't write the real world.  Just write it from a POV you understand intimately.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the character of Black Panther around when Roddenberry introduced Lt. Uhuru. In those times, black creators weren't allowed to produce much for the mainstream market. Hopefully, we've grown since then. The Marvel Cinematic Universe allows the cast to have input into the characters, so some of what we saw in Black Panther came from the actors and others who worked on the film. (I have no idea what race each writer is.)

I commend those who paved the way for black creators to be allowed seats at the table to produce, write, and direct their own works. I'm creative enough to write my own works that do not take someone else's seat.

#14 - Yesterday at 06:46 PM
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Are you saying that getting this book published will push a black, queer author with a similar story out of the way? Or will it open a door for a similar story?


I wanted to mention that Nancy Paulsen addresses this in her SCBWI podcast. In a nutshell, yes, this book could absolutely take away an opportunity from a Black, queer author, in that if a publisher takes this book, and then a few months later, a terrific manuscript comes their way that is by and about a Black queer teen girl, they will have to reject the latter book because they can’t afford to create competition for themselves. This is what she sees in practice.

Her podcast is terrific and really worth listening to if you want to hear a leading publisher’s opinion on this topic.

#15 - Yesterday at 07:13 PM

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But what if that book never gets written? And the audience for a black, queer character never get to meet her?  You're asking  to erase black people or at least fictional black people. Haven't they been erased enough already?

Going back to the original post. If  the agent likes the work she should send it to publishers but voice her concern about the black character and talk to the author about changing it if the publisher asks. And then the breaking news can be about publishing conspiracies requesting authors change things to make all their characters white.

This situation, as presented, has no winners.
#16 - Yesterday at 08:43 PM

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Actually, my story doesn't mention race at all. It would only be in the illustrations.  There's nothing in the words. I could illustrate Muppets and it wouldn't change the story.  It's just a mother and a daughter. And if I follow your advice, no black heroes. It will just be white people saving the community and dominating the culture. 
#17 - Yesterday at 08:52 PM

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Long before I heard about Own Voices, I heard conference faculty speak about writing the kind of story only we can tell. It took a while before I truly understood what that meant.

Lived experiences are so powerful and help us dig deeper into a story and add layers that someone who didn't have those experiences probably wouldn't have.

It took me a while to find the best way to tackle an Own Voices picture book manuscript close to my heart--with a main character who has a hearing disability. I had critiquers question having kids refuse to repeat things, saying it was so mean and they'd do it knowing she had trouble hearing. But it happens to me all the time.

What pieces of you are in your story? You mentioned you could illustrate Muppets and it wouldn't change the story...so I'm wondering if you've interviewed your characters (especially your main character). That often helps me get to know them well enough to have them fully fleshed out, even though a lot of the info is for me and doesn't show up in the manuscript.

I've seen how much groups like WNDB and BlackCreatorsInKidLit are making a difference...and love how many more diverse creators are not only getting published, but are becoming agents and editors, too. It's wonderful that you want to make sure Black people are represented. But there are ways to do that without writing books that aren't your lived experience. You can help spread the word about their books, buy their books, bid in auctions that help raise money to help their voices be heard, etc.
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