By Deena Adams
In November 2018, I started writing my first novel during Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month). Four months later, I wrote “The End” on a 120,000 word story, which I’ve been editing, reworking, and paring down since.
The storyline unfolded as I went along, what the writing world calls Pantsing, and took shape with two main characters—a heroine and a hero. My heroine is a White event planner who becomes a CASA (court-appointed special advocate) volunteer after her mayor husband dies in a car accident she deems as her fault. The hero is a Black behavioral psychologist and homeless shelter manager who ends up on the same case with the heroine, and the two develop a relationship.
I recently created a novelette about the hero’s childhood to offer as a giveaway for newsletter subscribers and sent the story to an editor last week. Before completing the edit, she wrote with concerns about me as a White author writing Black characters because of the potential backlash from the “Own Voices Campaign.” If you’re like me and this is the first you’re hearing about this, here’s an informative blog post.
Mixed emotions are swirling inside me over this issue. I totally support giving more opportunities to under represented voices in the writing community, and I believe whole-heartedly that each person should be heard and respected as the professional they are regardless of skin color. This goes not only for Black authors, but all marginalized individuals and groups.
But that shouldn’t prevent people of a differing race and experience from including diversity in their stories. If that were the case, how could anyone pen a historical novel? Those authors weren’t there and didn’t experience those events. But they can research and interview individuals to gain knowledge and insight on the subject matter.
Or how could one write about any experiences they hadn’t gone through, such as disabilities, mental illness, or even creating a point of view character of the opposite sex? And does this Own Voices movement prevent Black authors from writing White, Asian, or any other race characters? Or Asian authors from writing White characters or other races?
While the Own Voices mentality goes along with “write what you know,” which I’ve been told since jumping into the publishing arena, should that exclude anyone from researching a topic or specific type of character and writing about them well? Allowing authors of all races to include diverse characters offers minorities and the disenfranchised more representation, which is what this world sorely needs in my opinion.
But in my situation, I have written about what I know because my daughter married a Black man, and I have two biracial grandchildren, which was the catalyst for writing about an interracial couple. That, and the fact people of color have commented at writers’ conferences about the need for more diversity in novels. For White authors not to just add “token” minority characters to our books, but those with a key role who experience a character arc. Also, I volunteered as a CASA in the juvenile court and served Black foster children and families for three-and-a-half years.
But now, it seems these experiences are not enough for me to be accepted as a White author writing diverse characters.
Our world is diverse . . . our families are diverse . . . so shouldn’t our stories represent diversity?
So here’s my dilemma: If I don’t change my characters to White, I could be blacklisted and never get published. If I change my characters’ race, I might be published, but at the expense of compromising my belief in equality and freedom from censorship and racism of any kind.
But is keeping my original story worth the risk of backlash to stand on a principle, especially one that isn’t centered on biblical or theological issues or about changing history? At this point, I’m thinking no.
Although sad, as a debut author I don’t have the luxury of writing what I want but must write what’s expected in the publishing world. So, for now, I’ve changed my main characters to White.
What do you think?
Join the conversation. Do you, or would you, read novels with diverse characters written by authors of a different race than their hero and/or heroine? Are you offended when someone of a different race writes about your race, especially if you’re an author? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please keep comments respectful and grace-filled. Anything otherwise will be deleted.
If you missed last week’s Zoom interview with Jennifer Hallmark, find it here.