Opinion

Diversity, Authenticity, and Literature

Let me start off by saying that this isn’t about telling people what they should or should not be writing. It’s about recognizing that there are inherent racial issues that exist inside publishing a book with multicultural themes written by a person who doesn’t have a historical connection to that culture or race.

I was originally planning on writing about how much I love the representation of having a Pakistani Muslim girl be the new Marvel, and how they’ve taken it in this interesting direction of having her change into the buxom blond Miss Marvel of days past. Interesting because it’s a point of consternation for our heroine. Despite complaining about how her heritage makes her an outsider sometimes, she doesn’t immediately accept and love her new All-American packaging. (It’s kind of really great.)

This new Miss Marvel was created in part by editor Sana Amanat and writer G. Willow Wilson. Sana Amanat is a POC, and G. Willow Wilson converted to Islam while in college. I think their combined experiences allow them to give the Miss Marvel series an incredibly authentic and relatable voice. The best part about Kamala Khan (other than the obvious) is that she and her family feel real, they don’t feel like what someone thinks a brown Muslim girl growing up in New Jersey should sound and look like.

A few weeks ago, the news broke that Simon & Schuster would be publishing a prequel to Gone With the Wind, called Ruth’s Journey. This book is going to be about Mammy. This book is going to be written by a 73-year-old white man named Donald McCraig. Mr. McCraig has already dipped into Gone With the Wind-inspired fiction, with his 2007 novel Rhett Butler’s People. So he arguably has enough knowledge of the universe, and I appreciate that he is doing this because, as he says, there are “three major characters in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but we only think about two of them.” (NY Times). However, if I’m being honest, in my heart of hearts, I can’t deny that some of my reaction is “What can a 73 year old white man possibly know about the slave experience of a black woman?” And if I’m being even honest-er, why do we need this white man to tell this black woman’s story?

“Well, that’s writing!!!” you might cry, “It’s fiction!”

That’s true. It is fiction and it is writing.

But the issue here is twofold. The first issue is diversity. The second issue is authenticity of voice.

Here’s the thing. I work in publishing. And what I know is that when books sell well, more of those kinds of books get published. So then we have a New York Times bestseller list full of wonderfully talented white men, but not a whole lotta color happening. This worries me. Then you have the even more recent news of ReedPop’s Book Con inviting only white authors and entertainers as guests (and yes, yes a cat).

We here at Book Riot have written time and time again about the importance of diversity among our authors, and the importance of being aware of and making prudent reading decisions. But we’re just one voice. If one of the biggest and most representative book conventions in the world didn’t look at their guest list and see a problem, then that’s a problem. It’s a very telling look at the mindset of people who are tastemakers. Book Con is a consumer day, it’s for people who like to read, and those people are not going to be see any people of color on the stage. How can we expect to get a writer of color onto a bestseller list if our industry doesn’t even realize that they’re shoving them to the side?

What all this tells me is that a white man needs to tell the black woman’s story because apparently, that book is way more likely to be seen and read. From the standpoint of a minority, there’s a lot of baggage that comes along with reading about your culture written from the perspective of someone not of that culture. What are their intentions, do they love the culture, do they love what they think that culture represents? Do they find it “fascinating” in a terribly condescending way? Is it just a gross fetishization?

I grew up as a huge fan of colonial literature, though it’s often painful to read the white man’s version of what a “Hindoo” is. But I did love seeing the influence of my culture on this English literature. And, honestly, it was the only way I was exposed to literature based on my culture in the mainstream. As a kid, I watched and read A Little Princess and The Secret Garden and The Jungle Book. And those were stories my peers had heard of and could relate to. I didn’t care that “The Jungle Book” was full of racism and poorly researched cultural appropriations because there was a brown boy on screen and oh my god he’s the same color as me. That representation was important for me as a kid.

However. (And it is a big however.)

As an adult, I know that I would have done better with a mainstream story that was also culturally authentic. Now, the use of race and culture in the text feels like it’s just a tool in the writing. And my race and my culture are more than that.

And so we come to authenticity. As a reader of color, I think I relate better to a book about my culture when it’s written by someone of my culture. I joke about how Jhumpa Lahiri rips my heart apart every time she puts out another book, and most of it is due to her beautiful stories and prose. But there’s a part of it (and I’ve discussed this on Book Riot before) that stems from her understanding and her ability to communicate what it’s like being a first gen. Obviously this is very specific to my experience, and my life.

This is not to say that people can’t write fantastically about other cultures. I was so ecstatic to find that part of the teen sci fi novel Salvage takes place in a futuristic Mumbai, India. Not only is it done well, but diversity is still rare enough in YA that I was genuinely excited for Indian kids who would pick this book up and recognize something of themselves in it. And I’ve read some excellent examples of bestsellers with a multicultural theme or focus written by a white author, like The Orphan Master’s Son. It’s a wonderful book, and while I can’t speak to the cultural authenticity of the text, I hope that the author researched his books well. So from an outsider’s perspective, great. But for that book, I can’t, off the top of my head, name books about  a similar subject by someone of that background. (A quick search turns up some great titles that are now being added to my to-read shelf.)

As you can see, it’s a complicated topic.

What do we want more: diversity of characters, or diversity of authors? The fact that that is the question is kind of bullshit, to be honest. In an ideal world, it’s diversity (period).

We want diverse characters written by everyone, and we want enough writers of color that come to mind just as easily as white authors. We have to stop defaulting to white writers, from both the publisher’s and the reader’s perspective. And we have to stop seeing multicultural characters as an anomaly. I want to see those characters in my literary fiction, in my sci-fi, in my historical fiction. And I want stories of their lives and their cultures.

About

Preeti is a marketing wizard for HarperCollins. She usually spends her time reading a ridiculous amount of Young Adult (for work, she swears!), but is also ready to jump into most fandoms at a moment’s notice. You can follow her on Twitter @runwithskizzers.