Friday, February 7, 2020

Writing What We Are Not

 RHYS BOWEN;  We are all quite aware of the horrible controversy surrounding the publication of AMERICAN DIRT. The uproar is because the writer is an anglo woman writing about the trials of the Latinx community and immigrant experience. I have not read the book yet so I can’t make a valid judgment. But it brings up a point every writer has to address: Can we only write within our own experience? John Steinbeck has become an icon for The Grapes of Wrath although he was never a farm worker from Oklahoma. And what about Memoirs of a Geisha? Neither Japanese nor female!


Actually every time we write a story we have to put ourselves into the skin of another person. I have never been related to the royal family in 1930. I have never been starving as a new Irish immigrant in New York City. I have certainly never been an Italian woman hiding an airman in Tuscany, nor have I been a British male aristocrat. But I suppose I can write all of these because my experience is close enough and has some relevance to their lives. I have moved in aristocratic circles in Britain. My relatives were Georgie’s age in the 1930s and still spoke with some of that slang. And I have been a young girl trying to make my own way in a strange country several times (at college in Germany/ working in Germany/moving to Australia). So characters who are close enough to me that I can feel what they would be feeling and see the world through their eyes.


But would I attempt to write an African American heroine, or a Hispanic one? No. Because that is outside my sphere of experience. My daughter and her husband lived among the poor in a colonia in Juarez Mexico and again in a village in El Salvador. They could be able to know what a Mexican factory worker or Salvadorian peasant was experiencing and how the world looked through their eyes. I could ask them to tell me things, but I’d never get it quite right.


And getting it right is what it’s about. I can’t tell you how many books about World War 2 England I have had to put down because the writer had never lived in an English village and only visited London as a tourist. Little things that the writer got wrong and thus threw me out of the story. So I suppose there is a line here--we stretch ourselves to get into the soul of another woman from our town, of our age group, our ethnicity but to a certain extent we can know what she is going through and how she sees the world. But to write from the perspective of another race, a person from a part of the world or society where we have never lived--I don’t see how we could get it right.  Cara Black is smart when she creates Aimee LeDuc. She is half French but essentially an outsider and observer in Paris. Cara knows Paris well but is always an observer when she is there. This is the best we can hope for.


So I’d love to hear your feelings on this: Debs has never been a London policeman. Julia has never been a minister. Jenn has never run a hat shop in London. What right do we have to put ourselves into characters very different from us? Is there a line we should not go beyond?


LUCY BURDETTE: This is so timely Rhys. And it reminds me of a question we wrestled with while getting trained as psychologists. Does a therapist have to be like her patient in certain ways in order to understand and help her? Does a therapist have to be schizophrenic or alcoholic or bipolar to understand people with those diagnoses? In most cases, I would say no. Listen carefully to the person in your office and reflect back to them what you think you are hearing, and the person can correct your understanding. And that’s the first and very important step to getting help.


With writing characters accurately, the feedback often isn’t there until the book is out in the world. And then it might be too late. I try to work around this by having my longtime writers’ group read everything as I go along. And then Crooked Lane assigns me an editor to look for all kinds of inconsistencies in the book so I can rewrite and tweak as needed. But in the end, I’m not a twenty-something food critic living on a houseboat and nothing will change that. The best I can do is mentally put myself in her shoes. And certainly characters who are very different from me would be harder to write…


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I’ve been thinking about this Rhys. What I understand from reading Latinx writers essays or tweets is that the issue with AMERICAN DIRT isn’t a white woman writing far out of her lived experience - in fact several authors mentioned Don Winslow’s narconovelas as a great example of the genre. The objection seems to be the fact that the writer of AD isn’t doing a very good job of it - making language and cultural mistakes that grate on any actual Mexican-Americans who have read it, mentioning the “brown skin” of people who supposedly look just like the protagonist, and in other ways delivering a novel whose heroine is a middle-class white woman in a Latina suit. (I’ve talked before about the mistakes I sometimes see of male authors writing a female character as a guy in a woman suit.)


My take? I am comfortable writing characters who differ from my experience in one or two significant ways. So in HID FROM OUR EYES, there’s a character who’s a trans woman (which I am not) but who is white and from a comfortable background (which I am.) In addition, a sweet trans girl roomed at my house for seven months, and I consulted her whenever I had a question. So I had a real-life check. I write poor and uneducated people (which I’m not) (Well, I have been broke more than once…) but they’re white, and come from the same part of the country that shaped me and my family. There’s a Mohawk man in the book I’m working on now, and I’m cramming research to get him right, but he also has a mostly middle-class background and again, comes from a part of the world I’m VERY familiar with.


Also? If I’m writing a Kanienkehaka character, I’m not going to have a book debut dinner with feather headdress centerpieces…


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I think it has to do with point of view. I can authentically write from the POV of a white person. A white heterosexual woman in contemporary times. No matter what age or economic standing, I feel comfortable that I have that capability.
Do I feel comfortable having diverse characters in my books? Well, yes, of course, certainly, it’s the real world, and ridiculous if I don’t. I have characters who are in all spectrums of society, all colors, all races, a Nigerian detective, Boston Brahmins, society doyennes, rich white corporate executives and manipulative CEOs and French couturiers, mobsters and college professors of all races and backgrounds.  But none of those is a POV  character.


(But, let us not forget, serial killers and psychopaths. Neither of which I am.  But they (spoiler alert) are white.)


In the Charlie books, one of the main supporting characters is a black man. But I do not write in his point of view. I only write what he says and does--and how Charlie sees and reacts to that.


In the Jane books, I considered changing--and “changing” is the key word here for this experience--a pivotal character from white to mixed race. ANd two seconds after I thought of it, I thought-oh, heavens no. Her entire motivation would change, her entire view of the world, her--everything. So much would have to be INTERNALLY  different from the “same” white character. I was not capable of doing that authentically,  at least without an immense amount of--maybe impossible--research.


Of course of course we can come up with examples of when it works--when the authors are getting it right.  But it’s all about getting it right.


Have you seen the Ta-Nehisi Coates video about this--about “words that don’t belong to us”? It’s worth watching.  https://youtu.be/QO15S3WC9pg   I got it from the wonderful Ed Aymar, who talked about this so eloquently.


JENN McKINLAY: Such a great question, Rhys. I struggle with it because I don’t think authors should be limited, but I also think authenticity matters. Is it possible to  cross those gender and ethnic boundaries successfully? Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency leaps to mind as a yes. How tragic it would be if he hadn’t written them because he is an Englishman and his character, Precious Ramotswe, is a black woman in Botswana. Perhaps, instead of a blanket no to this question, the author’s plot, skill, and -- dare I say -- purpose have to be taken into account.


As for me, when I set out to write the Hat Shop mysteries, I thought I’d be writing it from the perspective of an Englishwoman, but I quickly realized that my voice wasn’t up to the task. Making the heroine a displaced American made the stories work for me and I was able to describe London and all its quirks and characters from the perspective of an outsider.


HALLIE EPHRON: That seems like the perfect solution, Jenn. So critical when you’re writing a viewpoint character to do the work you need to do to understand what it’s like inside that character’s head. I wrote a series with a main character who was a man, but with a co-author who IS a man, which should have saved me. But didn’t. I made a number of errors, giving him more of a woman’s (my) mindset. For instance, every time he had a conflict with another character he apologized his way out of it. (That’s MY default.)


There’s the same (but not as touchy) issue with setting.  I remember reading a VERY big-name author writing a book set in Cambridge (our fair city) describing the Harvard campus and adjacent hills rolling down to the river’s edge. Belching smoke stacks somewhere nearby. Clearly she’d never been there and must have been getting her information from a turn of the century travel guide.


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Well, ouch, this is a very touchy subject for me, as I’ve been writing what I am NOT for a good long time. One of my main viewpoint characters is a man, and all of my characters are British. The idea of telling writers that they cannot write outside their own experience makes me profoundly uneasy. Once you start making those sorts of rules, where do you stop? And what would be lost to fiction? There are countless examples, not to mention historical and science fiction, realities that the authors could not have experience. But that’s what we do--we imagine.


That said, I think the writer owes it to the craft and to the reader to do their research, and to be passionate about the characters whether they differ from the author is some particular or not.

RHYS: We'd love to hear your take on this. Do we have a right to create characters outside our own experience?

And the winners of Arlene McFarlane's new book are: Pat D, Flora Church and Judy
Please contact Arlene at arlene@arlenemcfarlane.com

74 comments:

  1. This is so interesting . . . .

    I think the need to do the research to “get it right” is the key.
    I certainly would think that no one would want to handicap writers by limiting their creativity. While the writer needs to understand the character, to know his or her thoughts and feelings as well as actions, the writers here have proven that it is possible to create characters outside of their own experiences.

    As a reader, I know that the characters that “work” for me are the ones that seamlessly fit into the story, the setting, and my expectations. They “belong” in the setting where the author has placed them and their actions seem to me to fit with the person the author has created them to be . . . .

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    1. Joan, I'm wondering if part of the equation is how familiar the author is with "the other." I'm very comfortable writing from the POV of men, and I think I do it well. And, of course, I've been surrounded by men and known them on a very intimate level all my life: Father, brother, husband, son. If I were to attempt what the author of AMERICAN DIRT has tried, I'd run smack into a significant gap in knowledge - living in Maine for the past thirty-odd years, I've known very few Latinx people personally, and none closely.

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    2. Good point about the gap in knowledge.

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    3. I think the ability to write from another point of view because of the author’s familiarity is perfectly valid and I think you do it extremely well, Julia. It tends to lose something, though, when the author has neither the familiarity nor the direct knowledge and still tries to pull it off.
      IF I were writing, I’d certainly be at a loss to write Latinx people properly because I lack sufficient knowledge and I suppose that’s where, as a reader, I look to the author to “get it right” so that it all makes sense to me . . . .

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    4. I’ve been in AZ for almost 30 years, I speak Spanish, and most of my neighbors are Hispanic, and I write characters in my AZ based series that are Hispanic and l’m considering a spin off with a Latin male lead, but I am very aware that I have to get it right. Five years ago, I just would have written it but now I will give it serious thought before I forge ahead.

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    5. Part I: Respectfully, this framing was bound to elicit the discussion that followed: “The uproar is because the writer is an anglo woman writing about the trials of the Latinx community and immigrant experience.” As Julia and others have noted, that is not what the debate is about, nor is it what #DignidadLiteraria stands for.

      I can't speak for others, but as a Pakistani Muslim writer born and raised in the West, I'm painfully familiar with the demonization of minority communities. This vilification is the subject of much of my own work. No one is presuming to tell writers, white or otherwise, what they should write. Literature is meant to transcend borders, to help us inhabit the worlds of others, to broaden our understanding and deepen our empathy. It's meant to reflect the increasingly diverse world we live in, with different communities interacting with each other. I know that I write characters of all backgrounds, and I once told Deborah how much I appreciate the sensitive portrayal of minority characters in her crime series. All we can ask of any writer is that they do their best to get it right and when they get it grievously wrong, to acknowledge the harm done and resolve to do better.

      The debate over American Dirt is about harm done to vulnerable communities due to a lack of authenticity of voice and experience. Jeanine Cummins is entitled to write the book she chooses. But similarly, the communities she's chosen to write about have the right to point out the failings of her representation of their histories, customs, social and political concerns, and of course, their languages. They have the right to speak about the harm done to them by dehumanizing stereotypes. They have the right to question why, when there are so many talented Latinx writers who have been writing about a devastating moment in our politics, none of their books have been given the American Dirt treatment, and none of their voices uplifted. To ask why a white voice is being centered on issues critical to the well-being and dignity of Latinx communities, despite their much more authentic contribution. I believe these questions are critical to the future of a truly diverse publishing industry.

      It's revealing that this conversation instantly pivoted to the concerns of white writers and readers. When Latinx children are held in cages at the border, and subjected to violence and abuse for which there will be no restitution, surely it becomes apparent that whiteness should not be at the center of this discussion. Surely, our empathy can extend to the suffering of others and the importance of raising up those voices that are most directly affected. How wonderful it would be if this conversation were to end with publishing a list of contemporary works by Latinx writers, now available on most social media platforms.

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    6. Thank you so much Ausma for such a well-crafted response. It's frustrating when these conversations always turn to censorship, how unfair it is to white writers and things like "I'm not a werewolf but I write werewolf." (Someone did say that in another conversation once, and that person equating people of color to made up creatures is very telling of them not viewing marginalized communities as...actual people.) I especially applaud this paragraph:

      "But similarly, the communities she's chosen to write about have the right to point out the failings of her representation of their histories, customs, social and political concerns, and of course, their languages. They have the right to speak about the harm done to them by dehumanizing stereotypes. They have the right to question why, when there are so many talented Latinx writers who have been writing about a devastating moment in our politics, none of their books have been given the American Dirt treatment, and none of their voices uplifted. To ask why a white voice is being centered on issues critical to the well-being and dignity of Latinx communities, despite their much more authentic contribution. I believe these questions are critical to the future of a truly diverse publishing industry."

      I hope that everyone (no matter where you fall in the convo) takes a moment to read your response and actually thinks about it, versus automatically getting defensive or portraying you as the "Angry minority."

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    7. Thank you, Kellye. I really appreciate your comments and support. You have truly been a leader to all of us.

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    8. Thank you for this response, Ausma.

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  2. IMO of course, writers should be free to write from whatever perspective for which they feel the urge. I think Deborah has it right...what would be lost to fiction. Writing is imagination. I’ve not read nor do I know anything but a little of the controversy for American Dirt. If it is a lousy book then that’s not good. If it is the author researching and trying to get a viewpoint across totally out of her ken, then I don’t know why it is wrong. If it comes across as racist or condescending, that’s yet another issue. Does this book bring up good discussions, questions, etc? Has someone else written this story and is Latinx? If not, is the story worth telling even if not from someone who is not of that ethnicity? Do we limit the world if only X can write about X? I think we do. Do I make any sense?

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    1. You do, Pam! The issue brings up so many questions because of the complexity and variables. One thing I think is a great takeaway - we need more people of color and other minorities in publishing, as editors, agents and writers.

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    2. There are more people of color writing though we need more in publishing...

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  3. I think you are all missing a key component of this conversation. It's not simply about an author writing the other - in this case a white author writing about a Mexican immigrant experience - but that a lot of Latinx authors have not had the opportunity to have their stories published. Jeanine Cummins got a huge contract to tell a story that she has no direct experience with - on any level (different race, different country, different language, different customs, etc.) And many many accomplished authors with some or even all of those experience can not get publishers (or even agents) to give them a shot.

    Think about this - Oprah chose a white author telling a Mexican story for her book club. She has never chosen a Mexican author at all.

    Another way to consider it - Deborah does write from a male perspective (in a series I love!) but there is no shortage of opportunity for white British male writers to obtain publishing contracts. She is not being lauded or presented as a great writer of male British experiences and more importantly, while she is writing outside her gender, the race is the same and while not British, she did live in the UK.

    Or consider this - what if there were thousands and thousands of books written from a female perspective but all by men, and women rarely receive contracts to tell their stories.

    It's not just writing the other (and doing a less than stellar job of it), it's when combined with that otherness, the industry prevents the people who know the story from having the opportunity to tell it all.

    And also - those centerpieces. I don't know what the heck they were thinking with barbed wire centerpieces at that party.

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    1. Colleen, I did see this argument about American Dirt. And the fact is, women were denied a voice for a very long time. Think of the women writers who first published under a male pseudonym. And I'm sure there's a whole slew of college professors offering courses/learned papers on the treatment of female characters by 'name your famous male' author. The question for me becomes how do we as readers help effect a change in the industry?

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    2. Thank you, Colleen. I recently saw a tweet by Kellye Garrett telling publishers there are a LOT of #ownvoices authors writing and ready to be given contracts. "Just ask," she wrote, or something to that effect. She immediately got responses from a slew of publishers.

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    3. Excellent points, Colleen. (Also the publishing house has been taken to task for describing the author as married to an 'illegal immigrant.' Turns out he's Irish.)

      Jane Friedman wrote an excellent thought piece on this in her recent HOTSHEET ("Why American Dirt Isn't a Good Look for Publishers") which included a link to a piece in Slate that I highly recommend. https://tinyurl.com/uolk4te In it the reporter Laura Miller gets reactions from about a half-dozen editors from publishing houses.

      Wondering, if anyone has actually read the book?

      Definitely a cautionary tale and I can only hope it will do some good.

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    4. Such a valid point, Coleen. And I gather the writing was poor also

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    5. Hallie, thanks for that Stale article. I hadn't seen it.

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    6. Excellent points here! Thanks for the link, Hallie.

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  4. (Just to clarify - I am not stating that there are thousands of books written by men from the female perspective, but saying we should imagine how frustrating that would be for women writers if it was true.)

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    1. Yes! I have seen many books written by men from the female perspective and I am surprised by how the men are able to get the female perspective like Alexander McCall Smith.

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    2. I disagree. I don't believe Alexander McCall Smith's African characters at all. I find them, ahem, precious. I find his style to be paternalistic and patronizing. Having said that, they are literally good stories if you can get past the colonialism. I found that I could not.

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  5. Assuming you get the research right, you should be able to write any character regardless of said character's ethnicity, etc. I am guessing that the American Dirt author didn't do the research and got a ton of stuff wrong? Sigh...

    It's not like a white male author is saying that he's suddenly an expert on what it means to be a Hispanic woman. But if authors only wrote from their own life experience, then those who raise a hue and cry over the slightest little variation would be complaining that a book only had white characters.

    Authors can't win these days. Much like everything else, you have to worry about the cancel culture that so-called social media has become. If you don't have a cast of characters that check off a random list that the great masses pull out of their ass every five minutes, you are somehow an evil SOB.

    It seems that people confuse "diversity" for "tokenism" a lot more than they should. It's rather discouraging to me that instead of writing a story people are now expected to write for the mood of keyboard warriors. I half expect people to complain that about a movie about Nazis not having any actors of color in the roles of SS officers these days.

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    1. The AD event was cancelled by the publishers.

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  6. I've not been following this controversy other than peripherally, since so much else has been going on in the world. But before I read Colleen's take, above, I really thought it was more of a tempest in a teapot. Colleen's perspective helps me see exactly why the uproar.

    Oprah, of all people, should know better, no? Maybe she did not have direct responsibility, after all, hers is an enormous company, and she would not oversee every detail. I hope she opens her eyes to the injustice of the situation, though. To me, that aspect of the hooplah is the most important, not the literary license involved.

    Personally, I don't get why there is so much criticism about fiction. That is the nature of the genre: it uses an author's imagination. Whatever happened to artistic license? And why do human beings all have to fit into little boxes of some undefined profile of what Jay refers to as a random list? That isn't why I read fiction. If every writer had to conform to some ideal of veracity, how would we ever have fantasy, science fiction, or gee, most cozy mysteries? It doesn't stretch credulity to envision Becky Homecky to local Bedazzler queen stumbling on three bodies in a week, every few months? Give me a break. But that is the predominant default in that genre. And it's wildly popular. Why? Because it takes the reader into an exciting, albeit completely unlikely scenario that absolutely no one is ever part of in real life. Fiction.

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    1. Well put, Karen
      This is more about racial injustice and lack of opportunity

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    2. Oprah actually has a deal with Flatiron Books (which also published American Dirt). And I'm also sure that she read the book before she recommended it for her book club. And she's aware now of the talk surround the book in the media and online, and has decided that she wants to do a Town Hall type of program with the author and other Latinx authors.

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  7. Thank you for this careful, considered discussion, Reds. Of course, we wouldn't have ANY historical fiction if we couldn't write "the other" - none of us lived before a certain date (depending on the "us"). I certainly don't truly know what it was like to live in my town in the late 1880s, but I study language, dress, and everyday life as closely as I can to bring it to life.

    I made the decision for my contemporary series set on Cape Cod to have a protagonist who has Cape Verdean blood in her background. I formerly hung out with some Cape Verdeans and I know a bit of the language, but I don't have any close friends of that heritage. I don't make a big deal about Mac's light coloring and haven't gotten any flack at all about her or her African-American grandma (one of my favorite characters). The police detective is half Wampanoag, too These are realities of people who live on the Cape - who are not all rich white people, by any means - and I wanted to explore those realities as backdrop to my (cozy) series.

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  8. I have yet to read a Jungle Red author's book and find fault with the authenticity of the characters. Duncan is entirely believable as is Gemma. You authors must put yourselves into other people's skins in order to tell stories that are not autobiographies. As I've been thinking about this all morning, I've been remembering all of the great authors I've read over the years. All of them got something "right" with their characters and their stories, or they'd have been forgotten long ago.
    I agree with Jay that there is a real attack culture waiting to take apart anyone if you can get a big enough crowd to object. Karen in Ohio is right when she says that an author has to take that leap in order for there to be other sci fi and fantasy. Perhaps the bigger question is why has this become so personal and so demeaning and threatening? Has the anger and the personal frustration of some turned into an attack on others? Has it become a mob?

    That aside, I'm pretty excited about winning the book.XXXOOO

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    1. Yes! Yet another woman being attacked. That is what strikes me most here. Especially when authors like Jonathan Franzen can write seriously bloated novels about relationships that he clearly does not understand. And be on the "bestseller" lists.

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    2. Oh, God, don't get me started on Jonathan Franzen... :-P

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    3. Wow, thank you for sharing. I was not aware of the "attack culture" until you pointed it out.

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  9. This is an interesting topic, Rhys! Like others, I think the keys are having similar experiences to the characters and research. (Think of the fun trips you get to take!) I also like Hank's idea of not writing from the POV of a character you don't identify with. That's when, like Julia, you make connections with people who can help you understand your character.

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  10. I cannot in good conscience continue reading when the beginning of this post posits the controversy and debate about American Dirt in a false premise. And then you admit that you are going to discuss the issue having not read the book and demonstrating that you do not understand the heart of the issue. Very very disappointing attempt to get noticed over a controversy you know nothing about... :(

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    1. Is that fair, Anna? Perhaps you could explain what you understand as the heart of the issue. I'm interested.

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    2. Anna, we would love to hear what you have to say.

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    3. I agree with Anna about the conversation being started on a false premise, and the ensuing discussion being compromised because of it. I don't know why the conversation was started-- I can't say it was opportunistic-- but I will say this. I've read everything in these comments from it's just fiction anyway, and therefore not important, social media created the dust-up and so on. Fiction is important. The stories we tell ourselves become part of the society, they become 'truth'. Black people for centuries have been trying to combat the negative stereotypes that have been perpetuated by books, tv shows, movies, you name it. People 'believe' that crap. We have always protested-- Birth of a Nation? Wilson screened it in the White House. Remember what he said about it, "It's like writing history with lightening. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true." John Hope Franklin said it was why the Klan was reborn. That movie hurt. That movie killed. We protested with the pen, with our bodies, with our feet, but what do people of color have now that we did'nt have then? Social Media. It is not cancel culture. It's a way for us to say, no, this isn't right. Someone here used the phrase "keyboard warriors" in a negative way. I don't see it that way. The keyboard has become a tool of protest. If you don't like it, then open your eyes and do better.

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  11. I research and create a variety of characters for my short stories, but I "know" the main POV character through life experience.

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  12. The issue with AMERICAN DIRT is far beyond simply writing outside of one's sphere of influence - and some of it was out of the author's hands. Julia's point above about how this author just didn't do a very good job of it is one major part, but the other is that the publisher decided to market this novel as "THE definitive book on the immigrant experience." That is never a good idea. But again, largely out of the author's hands. What was in her hands was a quote where she said, and I am paraphrasing here: "If less-represented authors wanted to tell this story, then they should have done so." which completely overlooks the facts that 1. they already have and 2. minority writers get less consideration at major publishing houses and certainly rarely get such massive publisher-backing in terms of marketing, etc. (You all know, how rare it is for a publisher to go to those lengths.)

    I've been watching this situation for a while now. I chose not to pick up an ARC of this novel at ALA last year, when it was already clear the promises of the book could never live up to the hype. But I'll be moderating a panel at Left Coast Crime next month called "Writing What You Want To Know: Creating Beyond Personal Experience" so you can bet this will be a topic of discussion with those panelists.

    Personally, I think it comes down to this: You can write whatever you want, but if you do a poor job, the public has every right to call you on it. In this day and age, sensitivity readers are almost a requirement if you are going to try to depict characters that are vastly different than what the author is intimately familiar with. It can be done very well, it just takes a few extra steps to make sure it's done well.

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    1. I came here to say what Kris already has.

      With all due respect (and I know that usually fronts a tsunami of disrespect but I really mean it!), every article I've read that's attempted to express and explain the anger, disappointment and weariness caused by the AD episode has started with a note that of course anyone can write anything. It must be very frustrating to the people saying that that it doesn't seem to go in.

      As Kris said, it was the positioning of this one novel as an Important Book to start a Big Conversation that caused such understandable fury and pain, because in fact that conversation is going on already and maybe white people just need to join it and listen.

      You know what this reminded me of? That old New Yorker (I think) cartoon of a board meeting where the chairman is saying "What an excellent idea, Miss Jones. Would one of you gentlemen like to have it?"

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    2. And of course, Kristopher touches on part of the issue that we didn't even bring up: the Anointing of the One Book to Rule Them All each season. We all know publishers can make a bestseller if they choose. (A single bestseller, maybe two. They can't make a bestselling career unless the author actually has the goods readers want.) Think of how many times The Book has been a disappointment. Or something everybody bought and no one read. Or what percentage of Chosen One authors wind up sinking back into the midlist.

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    3. Julia, too often when a certain book gets a lot of hype, it sounds interesting until I read the book then I feel let down! It is always a surprise when I see a book that I love on the best seller list.

      Diana

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  13. I write paranormal and ghost stories to stay away from controversy.

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    1. Ah, but have you ever been a ghost? Is the ghost community being excluded here!

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    2. Thanks for the chuckle. I am trying to imagine the ghosts protesting. LOL

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    3. And that comment, Rhys even as a joke is the same crap that gets thrown at marginalized groups when they bring up these issues. It's insulting and belittling.

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    4. I don't know who Anonymous is but thank you for saying that.

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    5. I also thank you, anonymous.

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  14. Like Debs, I am leery of saying a writer can only write from her experience. Because then I'd only write a white, middle-aged woman in the suburbs, and how interesting is that? My Laurel Highland series has a male (albeit white) POV. But I've never been an 18-year-old girl working in a WWII airplane factory (Betty, the POV character in my historical that releases Tuesday). Should I not have written that book?

    I'm currently working on LH#3, BROKEN TRUST. In it is a character, not a POV, who is black and lesbian. I didn't say, "Hey, I need more diverse characters," this character spoke to me and that's who she is. Before I included her, I talked to Frankie Bailey. Should I do this? Frankie was wonderful. After I told her no, this is not a POV character, Frankie said, "Then just make her human, like any other character. Focus on your main characters. How will they react to her? That will affect your book, and your readers, much more. And if you decide in the future this character needs a POV, do your research. Don't just make her a white, straight character in a black, lesbian skin because her perspective is going to be very different based on the issues she faces in her life."

    I think that's the key. We have to write these characters because they demand to be written, not because we want to jump on the diversity train. And for heaven's sake - do your research and do your best to get it right!

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  15. Please forgive this deviation from the topic at hand, but I just got my daily BookBub email and was thrilled to see that today, the Kindle version of Arlene McFarlane's "Murder, Curlers & Cream" is FREE on Amazon! Since she was just our guest blogger a couple of days ago, I figured there might be others among the Jungle Reds community who would be interested in snatching this up.

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    1. Thank you for this, Susan! Hope everyone else sees it too.

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    2. the Arlene McFarlane book is free on Apple Books too!

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  16. If I read a book about something completely out of my sphere, ANDERSONVILLE just came to mind, I have no idea whether it is based on anything remotely factual or not. If it is well written, I don't really mind. And like Jay implies, I don't expect a black gay Jewish SS officer in a book about WWII.

    I prefer diversity in my reading if it isn't forced. I'm sure you all know what I mean there. And I can't imagine writers being limited to what they know or are. We'd never have much of the world's literature then. Did Shakespeare ever go to Rome for research? Naw.

    What I cannot bear is a book poorly researched and poorly written. That seems to be what is wrong with American Dirt. I'm afraid all the controversy about it will only serve to sell more copies.

    By the way, I don't have to read a book to know I don't want to read it. Duh. That's why god made reviewers.



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    1. And we are also not compelled to buy books we don't want to read.

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    2. Karen, that is what the email from a local bookstore said. We do not have to buy the book if we do not want to read AD.

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  17. I've thought about this a lot in writing my Stagecoach Mary Fields short stories, using a real-life 19th century woman, a freed slave who lived and worked at an Ursuline convent and school in Montana Territory in the 1880s, as a mystery sleuth. Like Julia, I decided it could work, because I share two of the three main story components with the character -- a deep knowledge of the American West and of missionary Catholicism, though through a modern lens -- and was willing to do the research on the third, the life of a former slave in that era. Just as important, I think, is that I'm willing to be criticized for my choices and the work, although thankfully, I haven't been, at least not that I know! Hank's point about POV is critical, too -- I write the Mary stories in 3d person, set the stories in the era and landscape I know, and choose subject matter that doesn't require me to pretend I "own" the story.

    Such an important conversation.

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  18. I read a bit of it when it first came out, and gave it back to the library because I just didn't like it. Analysis from writers I respect confirmed that decision. There were just so many things wrong, and to have been given such hype at the expense of those better able to tell the tale. Cultural misappropriation and exploitation . . . she even had a barbed wire pattern on her fingernails -- what? It's a matter of respect.

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  19. I would feel bad that writers would back off attempting new stories because of fear of backlash. There are so many good stories out there written by people who did not live those experiences. I hope authors continue to stretch, do the research, and write those books. I hope their editors do their jobs well. I hope the publishers don't screw it up. I can understand the cultural outrage about writing this story but getting major pieces of it wrong. How many times have you watched a movie or TV show purportedly set in your neck of the woods that makes you cringe because it is wrong, wrong, wrong? And yet, once in a blue moon, someone gets it right. I hope people keep trying.

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  20. I write science fiction because you can create your own universe.

    In writing historical fiction (and I've been working on one book for decades that is set in the Thirties and Forties) you have to double check yourself constantly. And when I tried to set a piece of that story in the Seventies, I had to go back and check weather reports; you don't want your character walking in the rain in NYC, only to have a reader tell you "I was married that day in NYC and the sun was out!"

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  21. Rhys, this is a very timely topic! On Instagram, there is a lot of discussion about the AD novel among the bookstagram community. It is my understanding from these discussions that the objections are about several things: stereotypes, lack of respect, authenticity and that the author got Seven Million dollars in advance while many POC authors are struggling to sell their novels. But then many White authors struggle to sell their novels, right? And I am reading that the majority of the publishing industry is White.

    Now, to answer your question, the Jungle Reds authors are excellent writers, in my opinion. And you all show Respect for people who are different from you.

    Rhys, you grew up in England. I loved your Constable Evans series and I recall you mentioned that you had Welsh relatives? My idea for a novel is writing about life in an English village, even though I did not grow up in England even though I am an Anglophile. When I lived in England for two months, people thought I was English because I was following British fashions. I love your Royal Spyness series. And I like the Molly series. And the stand alones are great! I think you did your research before writing all of the wonderful novels.

    Lucy, you live in Florida, right? I always enjoy reading your novels and you remember what it felt to be twentysomething, right?

    Julia, you take the time to ask questions. Even if you are not a trans woman, you do your research. Yes, my take on the conversations about AD is that the author made cultural mistakes, which many bookstagrammers complained about! I signed up for several of your novels in giveaways because I want to read them!

    Hank, your character is a TV reporter, right? And you are a TV reporter in real life, right? I agree with you about writers getting it right. And that means doing your homework. For example, if I was writing about a young woman in the 1920s, I would have to go to the library and do my research, since I live in 2020, not 1920.

    Jenn, I agree that authenticity matters. Alexander McCall Smith lived in Rhodesia and now lives in Scotland. I always enjoy his writing and even though he is a man, he really gets the female perspective. Some men are simpatico. And since you worked in a library, you wrote the Library series, right? Even if you are not English, your Hat Shop series is wonderful and I love that series. As an American, I do not think I could write from the perspective of an English person unless I lived in England. I lived in England for two months and I would write a novel about studying abroad at Oxford.

    Hallie, you made a good point about getting into the character's mindset. That sounds like a challenge to me! Yes, setting is important.

    Deborah, I love your Gemma and Duncan series. I remember that you do your research and you live in England for several weeks each year, right?

    Again, this is a great topic. A local bookstore sent us an email about the AD book. They explained that people do not have to buy the book if they do not want to read the book. They believe in giving people the choice. After learning about the AD book, I decided that I do not want to read the book. I gravitate towards light books and if I wanted to read a "heavy" book, I would read a memoir instead. There have been a few "heavy" books that are classics written way before I was born and I read these books. It also depends on my mood.

    Diana

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  22. Of course you do, but you have to get the details correct. Do your research, have someone from that background read your manuscript to make sure that the character you are writing, or situations you are portraying are authentic. But the biggest thing a writer has to ask themselves, is why am I writing this book? Why am I the one to tell this story?

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  23. I don't know if I'll say what I want to the way I need to here, and I haven't read through all the response, so it's probably been said already. First, I do think that a writer of fiction should have the freedom to write about characters outside her/his personal experience. I also think that the research should be done, but sometimes even doing one's research doesn't capture another's experience. Sometimes it does. Jeanine Cummins says she did five years of research before writing American Dirt. That sounds like a lot, and, yet, she apparently failed to get it right, according to many who should know. So, do we hate on Cummins for failing? No, I don't think we do. What makes her failing so important is the publisher, Flatiron, decision to make her book the poster book for the immigrant experience. Flatiron didn't choose a Latinx author, and that's on them. I feel that it's a responsibility for publishers to do research as well as authors and to seek the best voices for an issue. I don't want publishers to stop publishing authors who take on an experience that isn't there own, but I do want them to give those with the experience a chance, too. And, then Oprah's choosing it propelled American Dirt into even more prominence, and yeah, Oprah should know better, but even Oprah isn't infallible. So, apparently (I have not read it) Jeanine Cummins wrote a book that missed the mark and it should be known that it missed the mark, but it wouldn't be as hurtful to those who have suffered the experience she writes about if the book hadn't been touted as the be all and end all on the subject. It would have just been another book that wasn't all that good.

    I've gone back and read some of the other responses now, and I see that Kristopher and Catriona had already stated what I said and done a great job of it. I offer my comments in agreement.

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  24. A tough topic. I don't think the real question is whether you can continue to do your work. It is a question of how to choose the stories that you can tell.

    Some stories are not ours to tell. We have come to recognize that colonized peoples have been silenced and their cultures denigrated and then appropriated. They are raising their voices again. In writing this book, the author not only tells us a story which is inauthentic but she is telling the real players what their own story should be. Not surprisingly, many seem to resent this. (Perhaps akin to my reaction when a male writer crafts a female protagonist who acts more like a fantasy than a woman.) Many people are telling us that this book is problematic. We should listen and strive to understand their perspective.

    What does that say about your work constructing characters whose lives are outside your own experiences? Not much because you all do it well. I like Julie's point about checking with others who are most like your "other" to see that you got it right. Trust them. They are the authority.

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  25. Yes, people should be free to write what they want. Also, since people aren't stereotypes, how can we say that someone got it wrong (at least for a fictional character)? Some men may apologize a lot. Some women may never apologize. I think the publishers should try to get more diverse authors, especially if they are going to promote them as a big deal.

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  26. This is an important topic and one I have strong, thought-through opinions, but I was in transit all day ( not the way it was planned!) and never got to join in. (I have written about it for the SINC newsletter and other places) So I'll just say that I think the Reds group part of this was very thoughtful and well-said, and the comments have been, too. Kudos to all!

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  27. This has been interesting to read through. I agree that you need to do your research if you are writing an "other" (and by that I mean something you haven't directly experienced) just like you would if you were writing about a job you didn't have. But we need to be careful about the mob mentality that social media is turning into. I have said it before and I will say it again, that scares me more than anything else right now. We need to learn to have respectful discussions and disagreements without attacking. I feel like that's what has happened here today, and I have learned from it.

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  28. Part II: On a more personal note, forms of fictional representation don’t exist in a vacuum. They have an impact on our culture, our politics and our lives. Decades of programs like 24 and Homeland, along with the hate speech channeled by right wing media outlets, have contributed greatly to the perception and treatment of American Muslims, for example. The characters I write from the inside, with deep internal recognition of my own history and identity, are characters I haven’t seen reproduced in political thrillers or shows like The Bodyguard and Homeland. Portrayals like these actively harm me and all members of my community. The children in my family, the women who wear hijab, our dignified elders – they experience racist abuse on a daily basis. Every time I cross the border with my dual-national Iranian husband, I can't be certain that we'll be permitted re-entry. I don't know if you can imagine the stress, anxiety, and fear that are part of my life - and this is as a person with the privilege of holding US & Canadian citizenship, who speaks English as a native language. If you inhabit the much more fraught reality of many members of Latinx communities, you begin to appreciate how powerful a tool literature can be, and how much it matters to get things right, far beyond abstract notions of entitlement.

    Finally, I want to say that I respect the Jungle Reds and this forum very much, but it isn’t easy for a writer of color to enter primarily all-white spaces to share personal views. Raising my voice on social media often results in a flood of hate directed my way. But on this subject, I thought it was important to speak up. Thank you for listening.


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  29. I've thought about this a lot recently because the main character in my upcoming mystery series is an English aristocrat--daughter of an earl--in the Recency era. I wanted her to be somewhat ordinary, not a modern lady in historic dress or even a reformer. To write her, I had to put myself into the mindset of a wealthy, privileged, white lady of two hundred years ago, who has been brought up with many, many prejudices that are appalling to us nowadays -- and then let her work through them and change her preconceptions, making mistakes along the way. I started writing this character many years ago (I'm slow to develop an idea) because it seemed to me that political correctness was like a bandage covering a festering wound. The infection was still there, and the pus was bound to erupt sooner or later (as it definitely has). I was interested in the process of truly shedding prejudices rather than just covering them up. I don't know whether I succeeded, but as others have said, we can't know exactly how historical characters lived and felt. We can only do our research, use our imaginations, and then write our best.

    Ten years ago, however, I published a series where one of the central characters was half-Navajo, half-white. He was a POV character in one of the books. I don't know how realistic he was -- although I did do research and had some contact with the Navajo culture -- but I would be much more uncomfortable about writing the same sort of story now.

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  30. I hate everybody and everything who want to stuff us in smaller boxes.

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