Tuesday, April 11, 2017

You Are What You Write, Aren't You?

I'm trying to be thoughtful and careful with this post. I know some people are going to read it the wrong way, and be offended, but I'm opening this subject up for discussion, because it needs to be heard.

I recently had a publishing professional look at my middle grade manuscript. It's historical fiction, set in 1939-41 Berlin, at the zoo. The main character, Tomas Durr, is a young German boy, fourteen years old. The premise is based on actual events; with the backing of Hermann Goring (second-in-command to Hitler, creator of the Gestapo, and Nazi party leader), the director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck, and his brother, Heinz Heck, director of the Munich Zoo, embarked on a program to 'resurrect' (by faulty eugenics), extinct animals. Tomas and his family are fictional, but the Heck brothers and Goring, are of course real. Through the novel, Tomas discovers that animals are 'discarded' if they aren't perfect, paralleling the genocide of the Jews. The horrors of war-forcing children to join the Jugend (Nazi Youth) at ten years old, turning in family and/or friends for suspected treason, the increasingly desperate conditions, etc. are other situations that arise. This is not a Holocaust novel; the disappearance of the Jews is mentioned, not delved into. I've researched for historical accuracy to make the character of Tomas Durr acceptable.

Upon sitting for my critique, I was asked, "Are you German or Jewish?"


"If you aren't, that's problematic." It is because, in the movement to increase diversity, it seems that some in  the publishing world only consider authors whose ethnicity (or psychology or economics or experience, etc.) matches that of their characters to write the story.

I'm German (and Swedish), but if I wasn't, am I 'unqualified' to write a story which was my 'creation?' Will I have to give up my storylines to others because they 'match' the character and I don't?

I understand the need for diversity and the need for marginalized voices to be heard. But, if no one from that background writes the story or it is the brainchild of someone who is different from the character, should we kill the story? Take the story away from them?

Following this logic, I can only write female, German/Swedish/Christian/middle class stories set in Long Island, Connecticut, or New Jersey. No male point of view. No outer space. No science, crime, foreign shores, or even one of a set of twins story- because that doesn't match me. There goes my middle grade animal adventure story series, Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines/Simple Plans/ Simple Lessons- because I'm not a squirrel. I don't live in the woods. I don't know what it's like to fight off a fox, an owl, or construction machines. What about Blonde OPS? I'm not a hacker. but should I have learned to be, rather than research about it so my voice is 'authentic' enough? Where does one draw the line; at picture books? Unless it's scholarly, biographies might be suspect, and we can go on from there.

Won't this narrow our perspective, further dividing us? Can you imagine if Kathryn Stockett's  The Help was submitted under these guidelines? A white woman writing about the lives of black women. What about Shakespeare? No Romeo and Juliet, because he can't speak for women. Scratch Uncle Tom's Cabin because Harriet Beecher Stowe was not a Southern plantation overseer, nor an enslaved black man. Rudyard Kipling could not have written Kim, a story about young Indian boy- because Kipling was educated, white, upper class English. Think of all the stories that would be swept away if everyone adhered by this rule.

I support diversity and the promotion of marginalized voices, but instead of dismissing those authors who are vastly different from their characters and losing a vital story, if the voice is authentic, I think it should be heard. If I was writing about the Holocaust, I should use due diligence gathering my facts, and have someone who knows about the Holocaust read it for authenticity. During my elementary and middle school years, I lived in Bay Shore, Long Island. I had two best friends; Damari Colon, who was Puerto Rican, and Vicky Johnson, who was black. The schools and neighborhoods were culturally diverse. Does this give me any qualifications to include characters of different ethnicities, religions, economics, etc. in my stories? And if I don't include diverse characters because some would argue I'm not 'qualified,' then my writing becomes exactly like me- and I become guilty of writing with a narrow world view, which then becomes fodder for others to accuse me, rightly so, but from I situation I am forced into, of writing only from a caucasian point of view. How can both sides be accommodated?

What's the solution?