A few years ago, I enrolled in a mystery writing workshop taught by a Famous Mystery Author. I likely won’t ever write a mystery novel myself, but I thought that it would be interesting to get a glimpse into the secret inner workings of my favorite genre.
Most of the day was indeed as rewarding as expected; however, during the Q&A, things turned sour. The Famous Mystery Author, someone who is known for writing meticulously researched books set in a culture that is not their own, reacted with vitriol to a sincere question from one of the participants. This aspiring writer expressed interest in writing books set in another country and asked for advice on how to make sure she did so in a way that was accurate, respectful, and realistic. We recoiled in shock as the Famous Mystery Author did not share useful strategies and practical tips learned after years of honing their craft but instead angrily launched into a monologue about how these days some people will tell you you’re not supposed to write about other groups, but you can write whatever you want, no one can tell you what to do, and so on in this now all-too-familiar vein.
Non-#ownvoices books cross my desk every day and can be roughly divided into three categories:
- books that impress our #ownvoices reviewers
- books in which our #ownvoices reviewers find errors and misrepresentation
- books that our #ownvoices reviewers find lacking in texture and substance; they cannot point to specific mistakes, but nothing sparks a sense of recognition or a feeling of being “seen” by the author
Of course, there is no single way of being anything, but our reviewers consider books from a broad stance, approaching them with the needs of individual readers as well as librarians and educators in mind and with an awareness of common tropes, areas of current conversation and debate, and the context of the larger literary landscape in which the book will land.
Too often, conversations about non-#ownvoices writing focus on books that fall into the first and second categories. Those in the third category—the kinds of books where you can’t necessarily say anything is “wrong” but it’s difficult to find anything substantive to praise about the non-#ownvoices portrayals—are harder (and perhaps less tantalizing) to discuss. But non-#ownvoices authors who wish to avoid egregious errors undoubtedly also aspire to avoid having their works fall into the third category.
I was reminded of this dilemma—and the writing workshop—when I read author, journalist, and writing professor Alexander Chee’s Vulture piece, “How to Unlearn Everything.” He answers a question frequently directed at him—“Do you have any advice for writing about people who do not look like you?”—by posing three questions of his own:
“Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?
Do you read writers from this community currently?
Why do you want to tell this story?”
The second question is particularly telling, as I have heard far too many writers confess that they have not read works by people from the community they wish to represent, a startling and perplexing oversight. Surely if you are interested enough in a community that you want to represent them in print, this interest would extend to learning all you can from actual members of said community?
Chee’s article is worth reading, as he delves into the complexities and nuances of the subject in a way that is both informative and thought-provoking. Whether you are a writer or simply a reader, he has something to say that will shift your perspective in some way.
Two non-#ownvoices YA titles that are good examples of polished execution are The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam, Feb. 18) and 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz (Inkyard Press, 2018).
In Smith’s work of historical fiction set in Japan, readers are introduced to a perspective rarely covered in English-language novels about World War II. It focuses on the tender unfolding love affair between a teenage boy who is a member of the tokkō (usually referred to in the West as kamikaze pilots) and a girl who belongs to a youth group supporting those going to war. The black American author did extensive research, and the results more than speak for themselves.
Similarly, Filipina American author de la Cruz accurately conveyed specific details about South Korea that only informed cultural insiders would recognize and appreciate in her rom-com about a Korean girl who spends a year of high school in California and goes on a series of blind dates with different Korean boys. Readers unfamiliar with Korean culture will of course not fully appreciate the elements that escape their recognition, but they will learn something while being entertained.
The more broadly we read, the more we develop our cross-cultural perspectives, insights, and knowledge, in the process cultivating a better instinct for noticing what succeeds and what doesn’t in non-#ownvoices writing and why. There’s a reading goal to strive for in 2020.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.