Author Authenticity and the Right to Write

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In this week's Multicultural Minute video, author Beverly Patt mentions that the authenticity of an author's voice was a "very controversial subject at the time [of writing her book]." At the time! That's funny, since it's one of the most controversial subjects of ALL time. And it's one of the issues that fascinates me most. Who should have the right to tell a story? Can people outside of a group write authentically about members of the group?

I asked these and similar questions to authors I met at the Kindling Words conference and noticed that a number of authors had decided, after struggling with this question, to write their book from a Caucasian character's point of view. Even if the story and theme were about the other group, they created a character who filtered the story through their own Caucasian experience.

There were a few reasons for this, but the biggest was that the authors were afraid of receiving criticism for co-opting a story from a group they did not belong to. And while it's true that some outspoken individuals believe that no one can represent a group they don't have firsthand knowledge of, they underestimate the power of imaginative empathy and the mighty strength of good research.

And they also seem to forget a most important point: no one is asking the author to represent an entire group of people. We are asking them to present one person's story. Almost because there is so little available about some people, we expect every story to be THE representative story and not just A story.

Unfortunately, this fear of criticism, coupled with a disproportionately large percentage of white published authors, results in a publishing landscape where too many people of color are relegated to secondary-character roles.

So. As you may know, I do not agree that any one group of people has more of a right to tell a story than another. I do not believe in looking at the author's name before judging the quality of a book (and even if I did, what would that tell me, in this day and age?). I urge authors to write on whatever subjects most move you, and from the point of view that most moves you. Don't be cowed by the small-minded and exclusionary among us. When they twitter and post diatribes on the blogs, don't worry. We of the broad mind and love of the good story will be here to cover your back.

2 Comments

Renee,

Thank you for your post. This controversy interests me greatly as I've recently written picture books about characters "outside my group." As you said, my characters and their lives and choices moved me and I felt almost like I had no choice but to write their stories--even if I had never come close to walking in their shoes. I tried hard to be as authentic as possible in the details of their lives, and I gave them my respect. Other writers might write different more authentic about similar topics, but these are mine.

Hi Renee!

You forget, I'm an old lady;)
I do think things have gotten better since I first started writing Best Friends Forever. When I first started submitting, I had a lot of editors ask me my background and what made me an 'authority' on the subject of Japanese internment. I think they wanted to avoid all the controversy. As the years passed and I revised and added to the manuscript, I received fewer of these questions. It never even came up with the publisher who bought it, Marshall Cavendish.
So, things have definitely improved, probably due in large part to individuals like you who promote open-mindedness and just telling the best story possible.
Thank you for putting this message out there! We need more encouraging voices like yours!
And as a little caveat, I just received a very positive email from an individual at the Japanese American National Museum wanting to set up a possible appearance! So, yay for progress and let's keep it rolling!






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Blog Contributors

Renee Ting is the President and Publisher of Shen's Books. She is the author of The Prince's Diary and the blog, Renee's Book of the Day.

Emily Jiang is a writer of children's and YA literature. She also blogs at TLeaf Readings.

Shen’s Books is a publisher of multicultural children’s literature that emphasizes cultural diversity and tolerance, with a focus on introducing children to the cultures of Asia.

Through books, we can share a world a stories, building greater understanding and tolerance within our increasingly diverse communities as well as throughout our continuously shrinking globe.

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