Here’s a round up of a few essays I’ve read recently that I keep returning to. The first few are on writing diverse books, and they complement each other well.
On Writing Diverse Books
The first essay is nearly 20 years old, and it’s incredibly pertinent to contemporary conversations about who is telling stories and about whom. Who Can Tell My Story? by Jacqueline Woodson can serve as a foundational text for anyone who wants to know more about why “Own Voices” books are important.
As a black person, it is easy to tell who has and who has not been inside “my house.” Some say there is a move by people of color to keep whites from writing about us, but this isn’t true. This movement isn’t about white people, it’s about people of color. We want the chance to tell our own stories, to tell them honestly and openly. We don’t want publishers to say, “Well, we already published a book about that,” and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us but rather told someone on the outside’s idea of who we are.
On White Fragility by Justine Larbalestier is about Justine’s experience as a white writer trying to support diverse books. She writes about getting things wrong, feeling hurt and defensive, and then finally beginning to understand the actual problems, why her approach wasn’t helping, and the changes she has made in order to support diverse readers and writers. This is a graceful essay and a model of what it means to be an ally.
We white people tend to judge books individually and not within the wider context of systemic racism. PoC and Indigenous readers don’t have that luxury. They can’t step outside their lived experience. The racism in one particular book might seen mild—or even invisible—to white me, but for the PoC reader who has been bombarded with those tropes over and over and over again, it’s too much.
Debbie Reese’s Not recommended: Michaela MacColl’s THE LOST ONES is the kind of review that Justine mentions in her essay. Debbie describes the ways in which a book both misunderstands and misrepresents Native experience. It’s important for writers to read essays like this not as takedowns but as a way of learning what it means to write from inside a culture. Her points might seem small individually, but taken together, they show how Own Voices books are unique and why they’re so important.
MacColl uses an outsider word (“occupied”) when she says, on page 236, that “Lipan Apache occupied southeastern Texas and northern Mexico.” How does a people (in this case, Apaches) “occupy” their own homeland?
In the next paragraph, she writes that the Lipans conducted raids and often killed Texas settlers. She tells us that they “caused an estimated $48,000,000 worth of property damage (measured in today’s dollars)” over a ten year period (p. 237). Most people reading this paragraph will be taken aback by that $48,000,000 of property damage. Sympathies will be with the White settlers. Where, I wonder, is her estimate of what the Lipans lost?
Finally in The Dos and Don’ts of Writing About the Disabled, Nicola Griffith takes on the problem of empathy and where it can go wrong.
Do not assume that empathy equals experience. You might think you know what it’s like, but you don’t.
For example, if you think that using a wheelchair would make you feel trapped, isolated, broken, and shunned, you might assume a wheelchair user regards themselves as trapped, isolated, broken, and shunned. But they might not. For some of us, a wheelchair represents freedom…
And two other essays related to both personal and research interests:
Maria Dahvana Headley and Victor LaValle in Conversation Over Frankenstein by Leah Schnelbach
Victor and Maria were kind enough to meet with me, Katharine Duckett (of Tor.com Publishing), and Irene Gallo for a lunchtime chat about monsters, motherhood, and Promethean desires…
I love everything about that conversation.
Radical Flâneuserie by Lauren Elkin
The flâneuses I found, the ones I wrote my book about, go walking in cities, but often with a purpose: to throw off the weight of their families, their husbands, their social roles, to explore who or what they can be, traveling around the world feeding off the chemical reaction, the flinting spark, provoked by the encounter with the foreign city. Flâneuserie—to coin a term—is about women moving from being looked at to looking. Through movement, we assert our subjectivity.
Really great stuff. I can’t wait to read the book.