#DiverseBookBloggers Twitter Discussion

The #DiverseBookBloggers discussion was organized by Naz at Read Diverse Books and occurred via Twitter on August 12, 2016. Use #DiverseBookBloggers to view the original questions and answers on Twitter. I wasn’t able to participate because I was at work, but the questions were so in line with the things I often consider as a reader and writer that I decided to try answering them.

Note: Questions were taken directly from Naz’s original tweets and have not been altered in any way. All credit goes to Naz for creating and moderating the #DiverseBookBloggers discussion.

Q1: #ownvoices has been widely accepted as a positive movement. But are we perhaps prioritizing #ownvoices stories over allowing marginalized people the freedom to write about whatever they want?

A1: I suppose this is a case-by-case thing, but as someone who identifies as both a reader and a writer, I’d say no. After all, the same rules apply to marginalized and non-marginalized writers here: if you don’t have a good reason for writing outside your lane, don’t do it. If anything, I think the #ownvoices movement encourages marginalized writers to interrogate themselves and their writing more deeply than they otherwise might if it didn’t exist. Even if they ultimately choose not to write an #ownvoices story, I’d hope exposure to the #ownvoices movement would lead them to make this decision only after prolonged and thorough self-reflection.

Q2: Are marginalized people inherently more qualified to write about other marginalized perspectives than say, white, straight, able-bodied people from middle class backgrounds?

A2: I think it depends on how you define, “inherently more qualified.” To use race as an example, nothing about being Japanese automatically makes me more qualified than a white person to write a Black character, so by that definition, I wouldn’t say marginalized people are inherently more qualified. Sharing certain experiences with someone of a different background doesn’t cancel out the fact that your backgrounds ARE different. Marginalized people are not monolithic. You can be marginalized and utterly ignorant of someone else’s experiences of marginalization, even if you share the same axis of marginalization. I know quite well how it feels to be discriminated against as a Japanese person or an Asian person, but I have no idea how it feels to be discriminated against as a Black person, even though both scenarios are instances of racism. Unless you are willing to superimpose your own experiences of marginalization onto someone else – which seems like a colossal act of ignorance and disrespect – your own marginalization isn’t giving you any kind of leg up in writing the other. You still need to do the research. You still need to acknowledge your position as an outsider and demonstrate this awareness in your work.

In the end, I don’t think it’s about being “more qualified.” It’s about realizing your own marginalization is not a free pass to write about someone else’s – because if you’re writing about someone else, the story is not about you. And if the story is not about you, the last thing you should be spending time worrying about is, “can I do this better than a non-marginalized person?”

Originally, my answer to Q2 ended with the above paragraph. But then I remembered Daniel Jose Older’s recent article about writing the other, especially the part where he says fear of critique should not stop you from writing the other. Below is my response to this point.

Writing and publishing are different, but sometimes they get used synonymously. I’m not sure in what sense Older is encouraging writers to write the other in spite of their fear of critique – whether he means write and shelve, or write and publish. If the first, I absolutely agree. Writing is a learning process. Planning your writing is a learning process. If you don’t do any of that, you won’t grow. So, by all means, write your story about the other. Put in those hours and that effort. Pay your sensitivity readers, if you have them. Hire an editor, if you’re so inclined. Have a polished manuscript? Congrats! Now, stop.

Before you hit “send” on the query letter or the email to your agent, ask yourself the all-important question, “if I send this out into the world, will readers from this group find my work preferable to something written by one of them?” Ask yourself, “if there is only one spot on the publishing list for stories about this group, and the other contender is someone FROM this group, will I be ok with it if my story takes that spot away from them?” If you’re not ok with it, you probably shouldn’t publish that project.

But wait, you exclaim, “I won’t get any critique from which to grow if I don’t publish!” No. Let me reframe your concern. You = one person. Your potential readers if you publish = many people, including multiple people from the group you wrote about. Say you publish your book and are criticized by multiple readers, including readers from the group you represented. Sure, that criticism may help you grow as a writer,* but do you think your personal growth was worth hurting enough people that they actually wrote to tell you about it? For me, this is the potential sticking point of telling people to write the other AND publish. It is the same as saying, one person’s unpacking of their privilege/ignorance/whatnot is worth the pain of many people who suffer because of that privilege/ignorance/whatnot. It is the same as saying, many marginalized people are expected to tolerate pain as a matter of course so a few outsiders can make themselves feel better. This is the message that is tacitly upheld when outsiders are encouraged to write the other in order to learn how to do “better.” It privileges the outsiders – the ones doing the harm in the first place – over those being harmed by them.**

Just in case it needs to be repeated, I support marginalized writers. I actively seek out books by marginalized voices, especially #ownvoices works. I didn’t write all these paragraphs to hate on anyone. I just think it’s more than a bit hypocritical for us to (rightfully) call out privileged writers for misrepresenting us when we turn around and do the exact same thing to each other. If we want the industry to stop marginalizing us, we need to set truly inclusive standards for everyone to follow. This means respectful representation across the board, regardless of who creates it. This means accountability for disrespectful representation, regardless of who creates it. This means every participant self-interrogating, self-reflecting, and unpacking their privilege(s). This means listening to participants who identify with axes of marginalization other than your own. This means backing off when those participants tell you a certain story isn’t yours to tell because they need to be the ones telling it. Being marginalized does not make you immune to creating bad representation; nor should it mean your work is held to lower standards than anything created by non-marginalized writers. I realize the opportunities for marginalized writers trying to break into the industry are thin, though slowly growing. But do we really want to sacrifice each other in order to be accepted by the so-called mainstream?

Q3: Why are #ownvoices narratives that are NOT about oppression, suffering, and other “issues” so vitally important?

A3: All readers deserve the opportunity to see themselves reflected in books. Just because a reader identifies as part of an #ownvoices group doesn’t mean the sum total of their life experiences equates to oppression, suffering, and other “issues.” For example, I don’t identify as someone with overbearing parents, so books about Asian Americans facing parental pressure are interesting to me but not reflective of my experiences of being Asian American. On the other hand, a book about an Asian American who loves reading, is antisocial, and grew up in a bilingual household would probably be easy for me to relate to. It’s important for #ownvoices readers to know that it isn’t wrong for them to have experiences that aren’t centered on oppression. One reason I chose to be a loner as a kid was because I didn’t see myself in the people around me. My non-Asian friends liked to exclaim over how I could speak Japanese, which was nice in the sense that I felt I could be interesting to them, but also made me aware of the gap between our experiences because most of them had no idea what it was like to be bi- or multilingual.*** My Asian/Japanese friends could relate to me in a cultural sense and sometimes knew how it felt to be bilingual, but we didn’t have much in common outside our heritages. In retrospect, I think this is why, later, many of my closest friends would be international students and/or people who had lived outside the US for significant portions of their lives. We knew how it felt to be outsiders, even among people who looked or acted like us, and bonded over our outsider-ness. As a kid, I was pretty much convinced I was an oddball, both among people who shared my interests (but didn’t look like me) and people who looked like me (but didn’t share my interests). Consequently, I spent a lot of time reading, usually books that no one else my age was reading. If I’d come across more books featuring characters like me, written by people like me, maybe I’d have made more of an effort to find people like me in real life. As it was, I assumed the friends I had were as good as it was ever going to get, so I ignored the things about them that made me uncomfortable and tried to forge ahead.

Ok, that ended up being a pretty melodramatic and self-centered story, but hopefully you get the gist. Marginalized experiences are not monolithic and the narrative of oppression doesn’t fully articulate the nuances of individual lives. When the essence of being marginalized is to be an outsider, it’s vital for marginalized people to know they aren’t alone, to be able to find support from people like them. It’s absolutely crucial to understand that you don’t have to “settle,” as I did. There are people like you out there and some of them are as confused as you are. Look for them. Introduce yourself. I promise, you’ll make friends.

Q4: Let’s say a healthy number of #ownvoices narratives are published and become successful over the next several years. What’s the next step? Are issues of representation in the publishing industry fixed at this point?

A4: Issues of representation in the publishing industry will be fixed on the day that #ownvoices stories about any given marginalized group outnumber and take precedence over outsider-written stories about that group. This will hopefully also mean the industry as a whole reflects these numbers – in other words, #ownvoices agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, etc. supporting these books every step of the way, from planning/drafting to post-publication. In this way, we can ensure #ownvoices stories are a permanent and significant part of the literary landscape.

Q5: In a distant and ideal future, is the goal for the #ownvoices movement to become obsolete? Or will there always be a need for it?

A5: In the most ideal future, the #ownvoices movement would become obsolete because it no longer needs to be a movement – because it has become the status quo. This is not the same as saying #ownvoices stories will become obsolete. For as long as there is a demand for reading material, #ownvoices stories will be part of the supply meeting that demand. There is no quota on #ownvoices stories. New writers with fresh visions emerge every day – just think of how many unpublished #ownvoices writers turned out for the WCNV contest! If anything, as we slowly start to break down and recreate the systems built and sustained by privilege, there will be a higher, louder demand for #ownvoices stories than ever before.

Answers end here.

A huge thank-you to Naz for organizing the #DiverseBookBloggers discussion! If you haven’t already, hop on over to his book blog, Read Diverse Books, for excellent reviews of books by marginalized writers. For other terrific book blogs run by marginalized readers and writers, check out some of the folks who participated in the Twitter discussion.

*For the record, there are SO MANY resources to help you with representation that are available BEFORE you even get to the publishing/submission/querying stage. So, it is entirely possible to receive critique of your work and to grow from that critique, from readers who know what they are getting into and are prepared for it. Don’t know what I mean? Google, “sensitivity reader database.”

**And no, I don’t think we will see – at least, not within the lifetime of anyone reading this post – a golden age where all outsider-created rep is good and respectful. Why? Because each person follows an individual path to unlearning prejudice and unpacking privilege. Advancing the understanding of a few privileged folks is not going to cancel out the up-and-coming generations who will need to be taught the same things. It will take change on a massive scale, occurring at multiple levels, spearheaded by various groups, for this cycle to break. Considering where we currently are with things like police violence and presidential candidates, I’m not optimistic.

***Confession time: most of my childhood friends were white or Asian. I had very few non-Asian POC friends.


What #ownvoices means to me

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably noticed I use the term “#ownvoices” to refer largely to nonwhite people writing their own cultures. This is because these are the stories I am personally most interested in reading and supporting, especially in light of ongoing, harmful (mis)representations of many nonwhite cultures by white writers. My life experiences have been and are directly impacted by stereotyped, insensitive representations of Japanese culture by white people. Any and all countermeasures in the form of Japanese (especially diaspora Japanese) speaking up for ourselves goes a long way toward dismantling the white-is-right ideologies I’ve been bombarded with for most of my life.

When #ownvoices started, I was still relatively new to social media. Seeing a highly visible movement supporting nonwhite people writing ourselves helped me realize how social media can create communities across socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic borders. While #ownvoices is now “old” by Twitter standards, I continue to discover and learn from other nonwhite folks who use it – and to find out about upcoming #ownvoices releases.

My above reasons for supporting #ownvoices and the way I choose to utilize the term on this blog are NOT the same as saying these are the only stories which qualify as #ownvoices writing. For those unfamiliar with its history, #ownvoices was actually created by a white writer, Corinne Duyvis, who writes about disability from an #ownvoices perspective.* Below is a screenshot of a screenshot (haha) from Duyvis’s website:


I am grateful to Duyvis for starting #ownvoices. While I can’t say someone else wouldn’t have created a similar hashtag if Duyvis had not, the fact remains Duyvis did create this one and it has proven enormously useful to many nonwhite people, including me.

#ownvoices is at its heart about the importance of people writing stories based on their own experiences, including but not limited to experiences with race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and intersectionality. These lived experiences can never be fully replicated or “known” by an outsider. In other words, #ownvoices stories are inextricably linked in some way to the identities of their writers.

In several discussions on book reviewing, I’ve seen arguments for evaluating a book without evaluating its author. I don’t believe this is possible. In terms of semantics, yes, we can leave an author’s name out of a review, or avoid directly attacking the author’s character – in the world outside of that review, though, the book did not spring into being by itself. Someone wrote those words. Someone made decisions about which words to use, and when, and how. Books are human creations – it is impossible for them to exist without humans standing behind them. The words an author chooses to put on a page open up questions, not just about the book, but about the person who created it. While the reader cannot know an author’s personal beliefs and history merely by reading their work (unless the work explicitly cites these things), the reader can question the author – directly or indirectly – about why the author made certain choices in their work. Readers should ask these questions, especially if the work in question contains harmful representations of a group with which the reader identifies – and authors should respond.**

If you follow online discussions about “diverse” books, you probably know the above sentiments are often directed toward people writing outside their lanes. However, the same principle applies to #ownvoices stories: you cannot evaluate the book without evaluating the author. The very essence of #ownvoices precludes this – the point of having #ownvoices stories is about HOW the identities of the people writing them SHAPE the work itself. This is not to say #ownvoices writers restrict themselves to purely autobiographical work. Rather, I’m saying who wrote the book matters as much as what was in it.***

Here’s a personal example to illustrate:

Whenever I pick up a book pertaining to Japanese culture, written by a Japanese person, my mindset shifts into one different from the one I’m in when I read other books. Before I even turn to page one, I’m already wondering how many cultural markers I’ll find inside – words, turns of phrase, aesthetics, ways of thinking – which will make me smile and think, yes, this person knows. If the book is in English and the author is bilingual, I’ll pay extra close attention to how they present Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I’ll also look at whether the author spent the majority of their life inside or outside Japan (again, diaspora Japanese v. Japan-based Japanese are different, etc, etc). If the book is in English and the author does not appear to be bilingual, I’ll still pay extra close attention to the things I listed above, but I’ll also see if I can discern whether/how the author’s diaspora experiences shape their writing.**** If the book is in Japanese, I don’t generally wonder about finding cultural markers – the author’s use of language often speaks for itself – but I do pay attention to how the author handles any US or English-language references, if they even appear. Always, I’m looking for authors whose backgrounds closely parallel mine. I live for the moments when I find something in the text that makes me go, THIS – this is me – this is us.

By contrast, when I read non-Japanese, nonwhite people***** writing about Japan, my mindset is not the same as when I read #ownvoices work. Before even picking up the book, I look at the author’s background. What is the nature of their connection to Japan? How did they prepare for this work? What are the chances I will get hurt by reading their work? If the chances seem high, I don’t read it. If I do start reading, I pay close attention to how the author presents Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I also consider the author’s background in relation to their representations of Japanese culture – if something seems jarring, I try to see where they might have been coming from. This isn’t a foolproof method and sometimes I still get hurt, but sometimes I also learn about how other nonwhite cultures intersect with Japan.******

When I read these works, I am not expecting to find myself in the pages. I am not expecting to have moments where I go, this – yes, this is me, this is us. I doubt the non-Japanese author expected their work to be a mirror for Japanese readers in the first place. Also, I do not expect someone without the lived experiences of being Japanese to utilize, much less be aware of, the cultural markers I find in work by Japanese writers. Some things cannot be learned. I do expect non-Japanese, nonwhite authors to put in the work necessary for respectful, nuanced representations of Japanese culture, just as they ought to expect any outsiders writing their cultures to put in the necessary work – but even so, I will never approach these works in the same way I approach #ownvoices Japanese work.

#ownvoices matter because research is no replacement for lived experience. Writers cannot wholly remove themselves from their work. Even if they choose to adopt an alternate “persona” while writing, the choices they make in the creation of said persona will inevitably reflect their own life experiences. People writing outside their lanes don’t and won’t have the life experiences of insiders. This is not something that can be changed. They do, however, have life experiences of their own, from which I’m sure they could craft some kickass #ownvoices stories – but for some reason, they choose to imitate other people’s perspectives instead.*******

The level of arrogance commensurate with this choice – especially by those folks who claim to write so [insert race/ethnicity/culture] readers will see themselves represented – staggers me. Either these writers truly (and wrongly) believe they are capable of writing these stories as well as or better than #ownvoices writers – or they understand their work will never take the place of #ownvoices and do it anyway. I won’t waste time calling the BS of the first reason. The second is just – why? If these writers truly believe their readers from [insert race/ethnicity/culture] would be better served by #ownvoices stories – then where does their own work fit in? If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be elevated above their own – why are they bothering to write their versions in the first place? I fail to see the logic from either a moral or capital perspective. If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be privileged above their versions, are they truly encouraging readers to buy #ownvoices books over their own? Are they truly calling for their sales to decrease? If so, sure, that’s fine – but then why write a book for publication in the first place if they’re just going to discourage people from buying it? Or are they just saying #ownvoices stories should be elevated but secretly believing their versions are interchangeable with #ownvoices? – in which case, I cite the abovementioned BS.

I’ve also seen outsiders trying to write insider stories because “diversity is the real world” or some such reason. Ok, sure – but newsflash: in the real world, you are YOU, not someone from [insert race/ethnicity/culture]. I find this reasoning much more believable – even if I still approach these works with caution because you don’t need to inhabit someone else’s POV in order to create a harmful representation of them – if the POV is #ownvoices but the world is populated by characters of varied backgrounds, i.e. white writer writing from white POV but including nonwhite characters. I’d like to think that writers who understand the difference between “diverse” worlds and “diverse” POVs are at least a little less arrogant and prone to creating harmful rep than writers who jump headlong into a POV that isn’t theirs and splash around in it because it’s pretty or exotic or trendy or moneymaking.

So, why did I just take a giant tangent to rant about outsiders taking on POVs that aren’t theirs and the issues therein? Well, I do think these writers should deeply consider the problems inherent to writing outside their lanes, but more importantly, the existence of these problems is yet another reason why #ownvoices is so relevant to today’s writing scene. #ownvoices writers are already part of the communities they write about. They already understand ways of connecting with #ownvoices readers. They have the background and the experiences to create yes – this is me – this is us moments for #ownvoices audiences. They don’t have to craft a POV from scratch – sure, their work may not be autobiographical, but their real-world experiences help lay the foundation. They know their own preferences re: representation and can choose how to place them in dialogue with their community’s perspectives. In short, their lived experiences as a member of the group being represented inform their representations of that group at macro and micro levels, in ways outsiders will never access or understand.

As a kid, I learned early – so early I only remember knowing it, not actually learning it – to be wary of non-Japanese representations of Japanese culture. It probably helped that I spoke Japanese from the get-go and grew up in a household strongly influenced by beliefs and practices my mom brought with her from Japan, as well as the diaspora Japanese beliefs and practices of my dad’s side of the family. I knew the correct pronunciations of sushi, Tokyo, karate, samurai, etc. – but I didn’t think of them as “correct” – I thought of them as “the pronunciation” because they were what I learned first. I still remember hearing westerners say those words in English and not understanding what they meant because the pronunciation was so badly butchered. I remember a white classmate thinking my last name (my real name, not the one I use here) was pronounced the same as a country in Africa. I corrected him and he asked if he could keep using the name of the African country because it was easier to say. Given this and many other experiences, I’ve never really had faith in the ability of outsiders to get anything “right” about Japan or Japanese culture because they have demonstrated time and again that they can’t – and they don’t care.

Looking back, I wish I had had more exposure to #ownvoices media by diaspora Japanese during my school years. I had plenty of exposure to #ownvoices media by Japan-based Japanese – in fact, probably just as much as I had to western (white)-based media – but I also knew from my time in Japan that Japan-based Japanese relate to Japanese culture very differently than diaspora Japanese. The only diaspora Japanese books I remember reading during that time were Yoshiko Uchida’s books and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori. (There were probably a few others, but I don’t recall the titles.) I was dreadfully disappointed when I realized the writer Lensey Namioka was Chinese, not Japanese – because her books were the first ones I found in English that even came close to showing some understanding of samurai culture as I knew it from Japan-based media – and I so badly wanted Japanese people to communicate this information to western audiences, instead of the stereotyped representations I saw by non-Japanese. For the record, I’m still a Lensey Namioka fan, but I’d also love to see diaspora Japanese create something similar to her Zenta and Matsuzo series. A collaboration between diaspora Japanese and Japan-based Japanese on this topic would also be super awesome!

Suffice to say, there are a lot of reasons, both personal and more wide-reaching, that I support #ownvoices stories over outsider representations. If you’re interested in other perspectives on #ownvoices, I recommend checking out the Resources page. As always, I speak only for myself on this blog, unless otherwise stated. My views aren’t representative of the Galactic Federation of Japanese, or Asians, or nonwhite people, etc, etc. Thanks for reading!

*For the record, I do not hate all white people. While a great deal of harm has been done by white people attempting to represent nonwhite cultures, especially my own, I appreciate how some white people have spoken against such acts and demonstrated awareness of their own privilege. We still have a long way to go re: decolonization and respectful representation, but seeing even a few white people with the potential to work with us toward these goals gives me hope. While it would be nice to see fellow nonwhite people fully in charge for once, short of supernatural means I don’t see us dismantling white hegemony without at least some cooperation from white people. This is not to say I condone white privilege and racism. I do, however, believe in not ignoring white people who indicate via their words and actions that they support equity and inclusivity for nonwhite people. (Note: This is not the same as “diversity” and I give no cookies to white people merely for treating nonwhite people like human beings.)

**If you have chosen to be a published author, don’t pretend you live in a vacuum every time a reader addresses your work, ESPECIALLY if the reader says, “your book hurt me.” Any author who refuses to acknowledge AND make amends for any harm they have caused to readers through their work does not deserve the privilege of having their work circulated to the public.

***#ownvoices writers should also be prepared to respond to readers, if they choose to circulate their work to any audience other than themselves. If an #ownvoices work hurts you, the reader, and you also belong to the group represented, I’m sure the author wants to know so they can do better next time (I know I would, at least). Readers always have the right to speak up about books that cause harm to them. I hope my fellow #ownvoices writers feel the same way about receiving critique from #ownvoices readers. It helps none of us if we made it this far, only to cut ourselves off from insights that are very likely more useful and nuanced than what we might receive from outsiders.

****I have yet to meet a Japanese person who has spent all of their life in Japan but can speak/understand only languages other than Japanese. If they exist, I’d be interested in talking to them, though.

*****I don’t currently read white people writing about Japan. I’ve explained why in other places on this blog, so I won’t elaborate on it here.

******As a Japanese person, I believe there is value in hearing non-Japanese perspectives on Japan, especially with regard to topics like Japanese imperialism. For example, I feel it is absolutely relevant for me to have some understanding of Chinese and Korean perspectives on Japanese imperialism when interacting with my Chinese and Korean friends. Not because we’re necessarily discussing Japanese imperialism, but because, if some passing reference is made to historical tensions between China and Japan, or Korea and Japan, knowing something about Chinese and Korean experiences may reduce the chance I accidentally hurt my friends with a comment from my Japanese perspective.

*******I am referring specifically to outsiders who write from the perspective of something they are not, i.e. white writer writing from Japanese POV.

Can I Trust You? – Reflections on the US Publishing Industry

Recently, there has been a surge in pitch/query events for “diverse” books. Some of these were specifically aimed at marginalized* writers; some were open to anyone writing “diverse” stories. I did not participate in any of these events, but I did observe some of them. Below are some thoughts I had in the aftermath. I’ve organized them around a few broad statements for the sake of clarity, but they’re pretty interrelated.

Nonwhite agents/editors continue to call for “diverse” stories over marginalized voices.

  • I’m not in the publishing industry, so I can only speculate, but I imagine many factors go into how/why agents/editors select their clients. I imagine at least some of those factors don’t necessarily align with the agent/editor’s personal beliefs.
  • I wonder if there are any nonwhite agents/editors out there who would prefer to receive material ONLY from marginalized voices, but are prevented from doing so by factors beyond their control.
  • I wonder if there are any nonwhite agents/editors out there who KNOW it is bullshit to privilege white voices telling nonwhite stories OVER nonwhite voices telling their own stories, but go along with it anyway.
  • I wonder how many nonwhite agents/editors out there are thinking of ways to destroy the abovementioned bullshit practices.
  • I don’t expect nonwhite agents/editors to be paragons of anti-racism. Like nonwhite authors, bloggers, advocates, and artists, they are human – and susceptible to prejudices, white supremacy, ignorance, etc. If, like me, you follow a lot of nonwhite voices online, you’ll see we call each other out from time to time – because none of us are perfect. A nonwhite person doesn’t become the be-all, end-all arbiter of race representation simply because they have “agent” or “editor” attached to their name. At the same time, BECAUSE they have “agent” or “editor” attached to their name, they do become holders of privilege. Gatekeepers is, I think, the popular term these days. They have at least some power in determining who gets published – or even who makes it past the slushpile. And, as we all know, with power comes responsibility. In this case, the responsibility isn’t to be the All Knowing Super Creature regarding race representation, but rather to constantly expand the borders of racial/ethnic/cultural understanding and to encourage those around them to do the same. In other words, the industry cannot and should not stagnate at the level of understanding of the “most” racially aware among its nonwhite representatives. Nor should it stagnate at the (sometimes staggeringly low) level of understanding of the “most” racially aware among its top (mostly white) people. The industry needs to expand its boundaries – and to do so, it needs people to lead the way. We’ve already seen the consequences of letting white people be those leaders. Now it’s time to see if nonwhite people can do better.**

White agents/editors continue to call for “diverse” stories over marginalized voices.

This does not surprise me (nor should it surprise anyone familiar with the state of US publishing today). I have yet to see a white agent/editor say outright, “white writers should drastically cut back on/stop writing [insert nonwhite culture] and make room for #ownvoices instead.”

I have seen a few white agents/editors say they recognize #ownvoices should be privileged over white voices in the telling of nonwhite stories – but this is NOT the same as actually telling white folks to step aside and stop erasing nonwhite voices.

While no one can (legally) prevent someone else from writing whatever they want, simply saying, “write what you want” is both privileged and naïve. Here is why:

o   Consider the audience of this statement. If they are white (and privileged in other ways as well), they have probably already spent their entire lives in environments largely supportive of and governed by some iteration of this statement.

  • Example: Be yourself and don’t let anyone stand in the way.
  • Example: You can do whatever you want with your life.
  • Example: No one can stop you from achieving your goals.

o   On the face of it, good advice for anyone of any background, right? But add to that a system already designed to privilege you and everyone who looks like you (institutionalized racism, cough, cough, white supremacy, cough, cough), and the result? Entitlement.

o   And not simply entitlement, but entitlement so deeply ingrained into every aspect of your life that you probably don’t realize it’s there. Entitlement so cleverly, unintentionally taught to you by your parents and the other white people who taught you how to be white, likely without saying the word “white” more than a few times, if at all. Entitlement fed to you through all five senses, thanks to the white blanket of dominant “American” culture. Entitlement that causes you to look nervously at your nonwhite friend whenever a race-related joke comes up, to see if they’ll teach you whether to laugh or not. Entitlement that teaches you TO look at your nonwhite friend, instead of figuring out for yourself where you stand on the joke and how you contribute to the sociocultural forces that spawned it. Entitlement that makes you ask your nonwhite friend, in a low voice, when no one else is around, “do you think I’m racist?” Entitlement that encourages you, if your nonwhite friend answers, “no,” or “not really,” or “maybe sometimes,” to take that answer and throw it in the faces of other nonwhite people who call you out for your racism. Entitlement that doesn’t require you to think beyond the validation of one or two or a handful of nonwhite people because you have now earned the Good White Person card. Entitlement that keeps you from seeing the ridiculousness of the Good White Person card – how much do you think the credit card of that nonwhite person standing over there affects THEIR understanding of race? Being an ally is not something you whip out to pay your toll when you reach the Race Bridge.

o   Entitlement is what causes white people to continue writing nonwhite stories with the expectation they will be heard. Entitlement is what causes white people to continue writing nonwhite stories with the expectation they can “get it right” – while never realizing or acknowledging their actions erase insider voices from the very place they are struggling so hard to “get right.” Entitlement is what causes white people to discuss this struggle at length – rather than questioning whether they need or should be engaged in it to begin with. You should not be asking, “am I getting this right?” Instead, try asking, “why am I writing ‘this’ in the first place?” FYI, the answer, “because I can write whatever I want” is circular logic – you are right back in the entitled place you started from.

Unfortunately, when you have white agents/editors with the same entitled perspectives offering advice to entitled white writers, the status quo remains. White writers continue to “write what [they] want” – i.e., nonwhite stories, and white agents/editors continue to acquire them. Nonwhite voices continue to be erased.

White agents/editors, I think a little rephrasing is in order here. Instead of encouraging your white clients and prospective white clients to “write what you want,” might I suggest one of the following:

o   “Write a story only YOU can tell”

  • Hint: If it’s a nonwhite story, there are LOTS of nonwhite folks to tell it. And FYI, that “retelling” of a Japanese myth has already been done several times over by #ownvoices, so no, that’s not a story only YOU can tell, either. If you feel the need to “bring” a Japanese myth into western readership, I recommend BOOSTING Japanese voices, not just jumping in and whitewashing***/westernizing the story to make it “accessible.”****

o   “Write YOUR world”

  • As in, the world you inhabit on a day-to-day basis. If you do not interact with Asian folks on a daily basis, on more than a surface level, and if you have never been to Asia or have only gone as a tourist/student, I don’t recommend writing Asian cultures or characters.*****

o   “Write what YOU know”

  • Yes, white people can write about race. But instead of trying (and failing) to inhabit nonwhite perspectives that seem to be beyond comprehension for most of you (or is there some other reason you fail so spectacularly?), why don’t you just write it from YOUR perspective? Uncomfortable? Good. Let’s talk about it. Better yet, why don’t you write about it?
  • Remember when you talked to your nonwhite friend about whether you were racist? Maybe you felt kind of uncomfortable. Maybe the conversation ended, but you kept thinking about it. Maybe you talked to some other nonwhite folks, or did some reading about race. This is you. This is your experience. This is your race-related experience. So why not write about it? Too scary? Too close to things you’d rather not consider? Congratulations, you are confronting your white privilege. Don’t worry, it’s good for you.
  • I would actually like to see MORE books by white folks written from the perspectives of white characters confronting their white privilege – but without the whitewashed/stereotyped nonwhite “friend” character whom the MC uses as a sounding board for their own development. I think interracial/intercultural collaborations could be a highly effective way to achieve this, with the book becoming a conversation between its creators. I’ve seen a few examples of this, but we need more! (And considering white folks tend to listen to other white folks first and nonwhite folks second, hopefully this might pave the way toward broadening reader perspectives.)

Some white agents are extremely vocal about supporting “diversity,” but their words indicate they aren’t or don’t know how to be allies of marginalized voices.

Even though I’m currently not considering querying, I still read agent interviews/blogs/FAQs here and there. Back when I was seriously considering querying, I read them all the time, with an eye to agents who openly supported “diversity.” Sadly, most of what I found contributed to my ultimate decision NOT to query at all. Below is a breakdown of some problematic trends I observed – again, specifically regarding white agents.

o   Their clients and the queries they identified as “diverse” were mostly white – some who identified with other forms of marginalization, like disability or sexual orientation, others who were not marginalized but were simply writing “diverse” stories.

  • Why do you feel white folks writing nonwhite stories is an appropriate substitute for #ownvoices stories? (because it most certainly fucking well is not)
  • Why, in your world, is it only white people who can be marginalized in ways not pertaining to race/ethnicity? Why are there no disabled Japanese people? Where are the LGBTQ+ Black people?
  • Do you believe nonwhite folks feel comfortable submitting their work to you? If not, what might be stopping them?

o   Their lists of recommended reads were white, white, white – again, sometimes including marginalized white writers, and sometimes not.

  • Why do you champion “diversity” and that white author writing (a much critiqued) China but no ACTUAL CHINESE authors writing their own stories?
  • Who are the last three nonwhite authors you read, when did you read them, and how did you hear about them?
  • If nonwhite folks submit their work to you, can they feel confident you are well-versed in the existing body of published nonwhite work? Can they feel confident they will not be treated as unicorns or universal narratives?

o   Their responses in the FAQ section of their website or on their blog strongly reflected a, “write what you want” attitude toward white writers.

  • See my above remarks re: entitlement.
  • If nonwhite folks accept representation from you, can they feel confident you will not then turn around and support a white writer who represents nonwhite cultures in disrespectful ways? If a Korean writer accepts representation from you, can they feel confident you will not also sign a white client who writes like a Koreaboo?

o   Their recommendations of resources on “diversity” – assuming they had them at all – consisted of only a few, big-name websites and organizations. More often than not, most of these websites/organizations were centered on marginalized white people.

  • Did these agents actually make an effort to look beyond We Need Diverse Books?
  • Do these agents know a number of Published Nonwhite Authors (seeing as “Published” seems to be an important standard in these situations) maintain social media platforms containing insightful critiques on race representation in writing?
  • Even going by their (seemingly) limited standards of What Is A Good Resource, I think they could do better.
  • If nonwhite folks accept representation from you, can they feel confident you will sign other nonwhite clients in the future? Can they feel confident they are not just filling the single “Asian” slot on your list?

o   Their comments on social media reflected white privilege, white supremacy, and lack of understanding about how to connect with nonwhite communities.

  • Yes, you will get the side-eye if I see you promoting the shit out of nonwhite stories written by white people.
  • Saying nothing and doing nothing is still political. It sends the tacit message you are OK with the status quo. It shows us nonwhite folks you are not willing to stand up and say something about all the wrongness in the industry. If you’re silent now, I have to wonder if you’d continue to be silent if you signed me or one of my peers as a client.
  • Funny how you can promote “diversity” while hardly using the word “race.” Very funny indeed.
  • If most of your RTs are of other white people championing “diversity” – no, you get no cookies.
  • If you revert to the “quality” argument to “justify” why all your clients are white – nope.
  • If you encourage nonwhite folks to attend predominantly white events organized by white people in order to promote their work – don’t. Instead, see if you can receive an invitation to a nonwhite event organized by nonwhite people. If you don’t know how it feels to be a minority, I don’t think I trust you to represent me. And yes, my work is inextricably linked to my identity. You don’t get one without the other.

As a final point of clarification, the purpose of this post is to outline some of my doubts regarding the US publishing industry. I don’t expect this post to encourage or discourage anyone’s decision to query (seriously, if you can be swayed by a single blog post, you might want to rethink your commitment to writing). I personally feel that, in its current state, the US publishing industry is too uncertain for me to try to break into it. I don’t know who is an ally. I don’t know who can be trusted. I don’t know how to go about determining who is what.

I have always supported and will continue to support #ownvoices in writing, whether they choose to get published or not. These are stories worth having in the world. These are voices worth hearing. Good luck to my fellow #ownvoices writers. I hope you find what you are looking for.

*If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I use the term “marginalized” in various contexts. For the purposes of this blog, my use of “marginalized” will predominantly be associated in some way with race/ethnicity. It may also be associated with other forms of marginalization, including, but not limited to, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and religion. As previously stated, this blog focuses on issues of race/ethnicity because these are areas with which I have personal experience. I am not qualified to discuss most other forms of marginalization from a firsthand perspective. If you’re interested in blogs which center forms of marginalization other than race/ethnicity, please see the Resources page!

**And hey, white folks in publishing, taking a backseat should NOT equal sitting back and waiting for change to happen. SUPPORT your nonwhite colleagues. We already know you-all have power and resources. We would like to know if you can leverage them without centering yourselves in the process.

***In this situation, I use “whitewashing” to mean, retelling a nonwhite story through a white lens – this does not necessarily mean changing the race/ethnicity of the characters. A white writer writing nonwhite characters is still doing so through a white lens. If you’re white, this is unavoidable. You can’t stop being white. That’s not your fault. But don’t use the “I-can’t-help-it-so-what-the-hell-I’ll-do-it-anyway” excuse to erase nonwhite voices or to market your work as “diverse.”

****I have more thoughts about outsider “retellings” of cultural stories and the power dynamics at play in these situations – not sure if there’ll be a post.

*****Full disclosure: I’ve seen shitty (as in, horrendously horribly horrible in the cultural rep department) books with Asian settings/characters written by white folks who DID live in the country/culture they depicted for multiple years, so…I’m not your market if you’re a white writer writing Asian cultures/characters. Don’t worry, I’m sure the weeaboo crowd thinks you’re hot stuff.