At the NJ SCBWI annual conference last weekend, I took a workshop titled, "Writing Marginalized Voices in Children's Books," which was presented by Andrea Loney and Emma Otheguy. It's one thing to believe in writing diverse characters- and another in getting it right.
Recently, a publishing professional told me that if I wasn't the same ethnicity as my characters, "That's a problem," and getting my work published would be very difficult, if not impossible. If I were to follow that dictate, then all I could write are stories with characters that are German and Swedish- and I would then be accused of only writing from the white perspective. It's a Catch 22 with no win for me. I might as well just give up writing because that's NOT what I want: a strictly 'white only' point of view. (To read that post, scroll down).
I shared a dinner table with Emma, who is of Cuban descent, and I met Andrea, a woman of color, at the workshop. They discussed how unrepresented these voices, stories, and people are. And besides being underrepresented, sometimes they are represented incorrectly. There are books out there rife with stereotypes which need to be discarded. Also, she and Emma talked about how polarizing books and writing around ethnicity can be.
Andrea gave us opportunities to talk about these things. I mentioned that in my middle grade book series, Evolution Revolution (Simple Machines, Simple Plans, Simple Lessons), the main characters are animals, and the main secondary character is a boy of color. When I showed the cover of the book, which features Jack the squirrel, to white children, they bought the book. When I showed children of color the picture of the boy who looked like them, they bought the book but white children mostly didn't. Same book, different responses. It's such a conundrum to me on how to present the book. I don't want to use two different approaches to discuss/sell my book depending on the ethnicity of the audience. It's an animal book, a science book, an adventure book. (There are other humans characters of other ethnicities and genders). Should I just give in and make all my characters white like me, even if it doesn't fit the story? (The character is also physically challenged and is homeschooled.)
Andrea's response was for us to write the story. BUT- make sure to do the research. Is my character accurately representing this ethnicity without stereotype? If I feel confident it is technically correct, a 'sensitivity reader' - person of color who can point out any stereotypical flaws in dialogue, appearance, customs, etc. that I may not realize I've employed, will help further ensure that I am presenting a marginalized voice/character will all fairness.
This is what writers across the spectrum need to hear, understand, and embrace. We all hate the stereotypes that we're faced with (I get really tired of 'dumb blonde' jokes, Nazi references, misogynistic remarks). I'm sure that's only an inkling of what marginalized people face.
But I took away that the story matters. I can write marginalized voices and characters, and so can you. If we write precisely, no one should question that even though we don't have the credentials of being born a specific ethnicity, we can still write that story. The only way to bring marginalized voices and people to wide acceptance is to keep writing that story the way it should be written.
I've gotten much more from this workshop from both Andrea and Emma, who related her experiences of her Cuban heritage and the journey of writing her book than I can do justice in this short post. Check out Andrea's picture book, Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! and her other books here. For Emma's book, Marti's Song for Freedom, debuting Spring 2017, check here to pre-order or check for launch date.