Write what you know. Write your truth. Avoid cultural appropriation.
With editors and agents seeking #OwnVoices manuscripts, do these common exhortations combine as part of a publishing doctrine that limits everyone to sticking in their own lane and writing based solely on their identity and experience?
In order to effectively evaluate these tips they must be clarified. These terms are distinct, not interchangeable; understanding this is the first step towards unraveling the beneficial and detrimental aspects of each admonishment.
#OwnVoices is a specific term that was coined by Corinne Duyvis. Marginalized writers who share their marginalization with their character can use this term. A black woman writing a black female protagonist may claim #OwnVoices. It would also apply to a gay man writing about a gay character. A gay person who chooses to write about a straight couple, however, could not claim the #OwnVoices tag, because their character(s) do not share their marginalization.
Write Your Truth
Write your truth refers to writing something that you have learned. It can refer to values, beliefs and insights from emotional turmoil, trauma, or other experiences. A person’s truth can be infused into the story directly, through subtext, or by altering the variables related to the truth they’re presenting. For example, a person who was given up for adoption can use the feelings of abandonment they struggled with to inform the emotions of a character whose spouse leaves them for another person.
Write What You Know
Write what you know has a factual focus. A teacher may be tempted to create a character who is also a teacher. Those who have grown up living in rural towns may prefer to stick to rural settings they’re familiar with. Following ‘write what you know’ leads writers to inject elements of their own life into the characters. A protagonist is often a thinly veiled version of themselves who is just a little better looking and, typically, has more sex.
Definition: “Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.“
Some of These Things Are Not Like the Others
#OwnVoices works should be encouraged as part of the push to diversify publishing. This, again, is not limited to race; it is an issue that extends to gender, sexual orientation, identity, religion and disabilities.
Writing your truth will always ensure that you infuse your work with a sense of believability and authority, because people express more confidence when writing about their convictions.
Cultural appropriation is unacceptable. Every writer should do the research needed to ensure factual accuracy and respect.
Write what you know is the slow road to creative impasse.
The Pros and Cons of Write What You Know
Yes, write what you know offers the advantage of ensuring that the writer creates something that is accurate. A police officer understands police procedure while a lawyer knows how trials work.
However, one of the drawbacks that comes from sticking with what you know is that authors need to prioritize the requirements of story structure and character development. There are a lot of elements of police procedure that may not be presented because they would slow down the story and bore the audience. How many people want to read about police or lawyers completing paperwork? Being completely accurate with the requirements of a job may not be an asset.
The next issue stems from the secondary characters and the actual plot. If writers are limited to what they know, how can they create a convincing cast of characters that feel real instead of clones of the same basic character? That would produce a pretty boring story. There’s also the issue of basing characters on actual people that you know, which can result in lawsuits and offense.
Writers must be able to envision contexts and characters outside of their immediate experience and make them real to their readers. Writers are students of human nature and their job is to convey their understanding of human nature to the reader, rather than how specific individuals think and behave.
“A good writer can write anything, given the facts.”Orland French
To limit a writer’s topics and content based on what they know is to effectively determine that no person — whether they are #OwnVoices or not — can write a book. Consider one simple fact: most people do not switch genders during their lifetime and almost every book written to date has featured characters of at least two genders.
This may seem reductive, but if write what you know is an absolute then is has damning consequences for storytellers. Point out these issues and people will start talking about moving lines, but as soon as you’ve approved someone writing about something they don’t know you’ve acknowledged this is problematic advice authors shouldn’t be limited by.
Writers are grappling with the issue of cultural appropriation, and questioning whether they can or should tell stories that involve other cultures. The Kosoko Jackson controversy underscored these concerns. While Jackson could authentically write from an #OwnVoices perspective on the experiences of a gay black man, Jackson was “accused … of appropriating a setting — war-torn Kosovo in the 1990s — that he wasn’t qualified or entitled to write about.”
Not a Blow for #OwnVoices
The controversy over Jackson’s book is not a compelling reason to back away from the #OwnVoices movement; rather, it highlights the need for more extensive changes within the publishing industry. As a sensitivity reader, Jackson was tasked with reading manuscripts for publishers and identifying works that may not accurately represent people from the diverse group the characters portrayed.
Where were the sensitivity readers for Jackson’s work? Surely with the appropriate sensitivity readers in place his work could have been revised to address the issues of concern so that it could be successfully published.
This incident sheds light on what could possibly be new double standard within publishing, one where diverse writers are again put at a disadvantage and not offered the same resources that publishers are willing to extend to white authors. The lesson for editors and publishers is that more work needs to be done to ensure that works that are being published are vetted rigorously. Publishers and editors must ensure that all authors receive the resources needed to publish with confidence. #Ownvoices is not a justification for superficial editing.
Part of the reason for the issue may be that editors are unwilling to question diverse authors. If the editors feel those authors speak with an authority they themselves do not possess they may be reluctant to challenge text; however, every editor must be willing to question any element of the story necessary to ensure that they are confident in the content. This is crucial.
For example, if an editor is attempting to work with a text that has African American Vernacular English and is not Black, they still have to double-check the text with the author to make sure it’s accurate. Editors are routinely tasked with reviewing material that is about things they themselves have no first-hand knowledge of. Editors must be willing to ask any necessary questions to be certain they are confident in the veracity of the work being published, and publishers must invest in a rigorous editorial process that ensures these works demonstrate that the author both understands and respects the cultural elements included.
Can Writers Cross Cultural Lines?
Writers may have characters of ethnic and religious backgrounds different than their own; North America is not monochromatic and it would be unrealistic to have works set in most places that portrayed only people with one skin color or religious view or sexual orientation. Writers may also set works in places where they do not live. They may even write about characters with professions they do not have.
What about the criticisms of Kosoko Jackson that prompted him to withdraw his book from publication? The issue was actually not the setting that Jackson chose. People who live in the desert may understand the realities of living in the desert in a way that others do not, but this is where research comes in. Every writer should spend time on research in order to present a story that is respectful and credible. The problem with Jackson’s work had more to do with the context of the war, and how an ethnic group was vilified in the story.
Should Writers Cross Cultural Lines?
Many crime fiction authors belong to Sisters in Crime. SinC’s website currently indicates there are over 3,500 members worldwide. SinC* maintains Frankie’s List*, a directory identifying SinC members who are part of diverse groups. Frankie’s List currently identifies just nine ‘Native American’ writers; it does not include any Native Persons from Canada, has no category for Indigenous writers, and its Native list represents only 0.0026% of its total membership. There are also only nine South Asian/South Asian American/South Asian British authors listed.
Although there are diverse authors who are not included in Frankie’s List, the numbers underscore a clear lack of representation within the publishing industry. Ideally, members of different cultural groups will have the opportunity to tell their own stories on national and international platforms, but without writers including diverse characters in their stories, these statistics suggest many marginalized communities would not be included in fictional works published. Addressing the specific challenges and issues these communities face involves visibility and awareness. Writers have the ability to introduce readers to cultural groups that may be new to them and break down barriers and misconceptions in ways that can change the readers’ views or understanding of people from these groups. The ultimate objective would be that interest in these works will open doors for more authors from marginalized groups so that there is greater representation.
They key consideration for any element of a story is the writer’s approach. When opting to cross boundaries and step into the unknown there are three key principles to apply.
Have Respect. To simply use racial stereotypes and think that constitutes characterization will subject you to criticism and contempt, and you will deserve it.
Pursue Knowledge. Gain insight that comes from talking to people with the relevant experience. Put in the research required to infuse your characters, setting or other variables with believability.
Be Teachable. You must be willing to admit your shortcomings and correct your mistakes. That’s part of the learning process.
Perform due diligence through effective research and approach all aspects of your story with respect. This will enable you to convey believable settings, scenarios and characters, and ultimately produce works that will resonate with readers.
*This is in no way intended as criticism of SinC; most organizations do not have this information available. The data simply illustrates the need for more diverse authors.
Sandra Ruttan manages content for Bronzeville Bee and is the submission editor for Bronzeville Books. While her typical articles here are required to present an editorial perspective, she has also written a confessional piece related to cultural appropriation.