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

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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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