Frontlist | Why white authors should be writing POC characters
For the longest time, I didn’t think that white authors should write non-white characters. I had seen it done badly (as my previous article about Sarah J. Maas explains) and offensively (think J. K. Rowling).
But recently, I watched a video by BookTuber with Cindy called “What happens when you try to be inclusive, but mess up anyway?” that takes a closer look at the backlash that Naomi Novik’s “A Deadly Education” received.
Novik’s novel about a deadly magical school was set up to be very diverse, with students from around the world in attendance (a far cry from Rowling’s attempts with Cho Chang and the Patil twins).
But, there were a few issues that troubled readers. One of the main problems was a paragraph that described the tendency of a particular monster to attach itself to dreadlocked hair and lay eggs. There’s a historic racist association of dreadlocks with dirtiness. While the reference may have made sense to the author contextually, this paragraph came off as tone-deaf.
Novik apologized for her oversight and promised that the passage would be cut from future publications. But, there’s another issue that was brought up that really interested me. Some readers thought that the book’s main character, El, who is half Indian and half Welsh, wasn’t, to be blunt, “Indian enough.”
In the novel, El had grown up with her mother in Wales, so her father’s Indian background is not something that she closely identifies with.
But despite this fact, that doesn’t make her any less Indian, especially since there is a range of experiences within the same community.
Connecting with culture is something children with immigrant backgrounds struggle with. Even though I was born in India, growing up in New Jersey has made me who I am. Even though we make traditional food at home, my ability to speak my mother tongue is intermediate at best.
If you were reading my story, would you fault me for not being Indian enough?
Moreover, culture isn’t something stagnant, it’s a living thing that grows with the world around it. So, I think that calling Novak unwilling to convey the “Indian experience” is unfair. Her intent to incorporate diversity stands opposite to another book that came out this year: “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V. E. Schwab.
This story is basically entirely devoid of non-white characters. Like Novak, Schwab is also a white author. Unlike Novak, Schwab chose only to write characters she felt like she was best equipped to write.
There’s nothing wrong with not having people of color (POC) in a novel, but Schwab’s decision to write a character that lives for centuries and constantly omits to mention non-white characters was disappointing. This continuous yet casual omission of communities of color, to some, impacted the believability of the tale.
One interesting point is that “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” is getting a film adaption. This means that unless there is a significant effort put into hiring a diverse cast, there will not be space for POC to be included. This means fewer acting opportunities for non-white actors.
Barring white authors from writing stories about non-white characters, especially when white authors dominate the publishing arena, leaves the responsibility of writing stories about POC entirely to POC.
One study found in 2018 that (of the books in the sample), although non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population, they wrote 89 percent of the books.
If authors don’t want to include POC because that doesn’t make sense for the story’s parameters, that’s their choice. If authors don’t want to include POC because they are too lazy to research other people’s experiences, that decision will have long-term consequences for kids of color who may never see themselves represented in the books they read.
Novik made a mistake in including that tone-deaf paragraph. But she apologized for her oversight and tried to take action to fix her mistake. I appreciate her intent and her efforts far more than authors who intentionally choose to only write what they know.
I’ve read white authors who write about POC and knock it out of the park. Leigh Bardugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid and S. A. Chakraborty are some of my favorite authors who have put in the work to understand communities of color before writing about them.
Writing POC is hard, even for authors of color, since so many people in the same communities can have a myriad of experiences. But the reason that this is hard isn’t that communities of color are inherently more complicated — it’s because being white is seen as the norm.
There are numerous courses of action that could help to lessen the everyday burden of white supremacy. Reading books with characters that look like you is a good place to start.
Source: Daily Targum