There’s a lot of discussion going on about who should be allowed to write what and each time it’s usually brought on by a deal announcement detailing a white author writing from the point of view of a BIPOC character. We keep telling white authors to stop doing this…but they insist.
And while there are many nuances to this discussion and I understand how it can seem a bit complex and overwhelming, I thought I’d share my own process for determining how I create characters, which identities I allow myself to explore, and how I try to make ethical decisions while writing.
You may disagree with some of the boundaries I set but hopefully reading about my process will encourage you to ask yourself more questions before choosing to write an identity outside of your own.
For those of us writing for a particular identity or marginalized community, the goal is not just to tell stories that honor our own experiences, but also to tell stories that honor the experiences of others within our community.
We want kids to feel seen when they read our books. We want them to feel proud and important. And the last thing we want to do is cause a young person harm because our book unintentionally included bad or stereotypical representation of a particular group or community.
But what I’m really asking y’all to consider in the early idea development stage of your work is whether or not the lens through which you’re telling the story, or the story itself, is truly ethical.
We have a lot of power as storytellers to shape the way people think about or perceive others. We also have a lot of power to shape how people perceive themselves. So if we’re going to tell a story that includes members of a marginalized community, we need to recognize if we’re empowering that community through our telling of their story or if we’re exploiting them. And if the story falls more on the side of exploitation then we’re probably not the right person to be telling that story.
So how do you know if a story is within your realm of understanding or expertise? In other words, how far outside of yourself should you be allowed to stretch?
This is a tricky question and one that will likely yield a different answer for everyone. But when I’m conceptualizing a story, I try to stay within this center area where my lived experience overlaps in some way with the character’s lived experience.
This doesn’t mean that we always have the same exact experiences. But it means that my experiences are in close proximity to what I’m writing about.
For example, I’m Latina, and more specifically I identify as Chicana, which means that I can trace my ancestral roots back to Mexico, but my family has been living in the United States for four generations.
One of the protagonists in my debut novel shares this identity. She is also Chicana and her parents were born in the United States.
However, the other protagonist, is Mexican and living undocumented in the U.S. So for his character, I had to stretch. There are areas where our identities overlap but there are also aspects of his experience that I haven’t personally lived, which meant that I had to draw from somewhere else.
I was an ESL teacher for five years and most of my students were from Central and South America. And over the course of those five years, I developed relationships with those students, as well as their families. I also had the privilege of reading their writing, which offered an incredibly intimate look at what it was like for them and their families living in the U.S, as well as their journeys to getting here.
Because I spent such a significant amount of time with people from that community, because I care about them deeply, and because I also have present-day family members, as well as great-grandparents who immigrated to the U.S., I had an entry point into exploring Xander’s point of view in my work.
So this is my starting point and really the first question I ask myself: Do I have an organic and accessible entry point into this character’s POV?
Here are some other questions you might consider:
- Are you a member of this community?
- Do you interact with this community regularly?
- What’s personally at stake for you if this community is harmed?
- How do you support this community financially?
- Have you given more to this community than you have taken?
- Why are you better suited to tell this story than someone who actually belongs to this community?
- By telling this story are you amplifying marginalized voices or cancelling them out?
- Why are you choosing to tell this story instead of financially supporting the work of marginalized writers already telling these kinds of stories?
- What do you stand to lose if you choose not to tell this story?
- What does this marginalized community stand to gain from being allowed to tell their own stories?
For me, I think one of the most important questions on this list is: What’s personally at stake for you if this community is harmed?
In other words, if someone were to attack this community, would you also be in danger?
For me, this question in relation to my debut novel made me think about the shooting that took place in El Paso in 2019. The shooter wasn’t stopping people and asking for their papers before he opened fire. He was targeting a group based on their appearance and perceived cultural background.
So for me, there is something at stake if there is negative representation of Mexicans, Chicanes, or immigrants from Central and South America, because even though we are not a monolith, people outside of our community still see us as one.
But if you ask yourself that same question–what’s at stake for you if this community is harmed–and the answer is nothing…then I would recommend that you reconsider writing a Point of View character from that community.
Characters from diverse backgrounds outside of your own identity can certainly have a place in your story, and in fact, they should. But if you don’t have the tools or the driving stakes to do justice to that point of view, don’t make that character your protagonist and instead let someone belonging to that community tell that story instead.
With all of these things in mind, I choose not to stray from Chicane, Mexican, or anglo mixed-race Mexican Americans when crafting the identities for my characters. This means that I don’t write protagonists who are Afro-Latinx, Asian-Latinx, Indigenous, or any Latinx identity outside of Mexican or Chicane. I don’t write protagonists who are Venezuelan or Honduran or Cuban, etc. because I would rather buy books with protagonists from those backgrounds by authors who share those identities.
I do want to mention that I also try to set clear boundaries when it comes to intersectional identities. Most of my books explore themes of identity and mental health because these have been center to most of the transformational moments in my own life, as well as in the lives of my extended family members. Our mental health issues are genetic and my struggles with identity stem from a long history of keeping secrets. So these are the topics and characteristics I tend to stick to.
But mining your family or your family’s past for entry points into certain identities and lived experiences does not always yield ethical or realistic results. Be mindful of how far research alone can take you even if that research is coming first-hand from a family member you know and love. For example, my grandfather is very dark-skinned due to his indigenous ancestry. Although, I’ve witnessed colorism in my family, I don’t have the knowledge or the tools to be able to accurately portray the way he has physically experienced the world. Nor could I slip into the point of view of an indigenous person, even one living outside of tribal culture.
That’s the other thing–white people have a tendency to latch onto any old family story that even insinuates they have indigenous ancestry. But whether you have the DNA results to prove it or not, this does not give you license to write from an indigenous point of view.
When it comes to my own indigenous ancestry, I’m allowed to interact with it in the following ways: mourn the genocide of my ancestors, mourn its erasure from my identity, support and advocate for living indigenous peoples in any way I possibly can.
No appropriating. No performing. No writing from an indigenous POV.
So as you can see, I’ve not only had to examine all of the ways my identities intersect, all of my lived experiences, and all of my potential entry points into other points of view, but I’ve also had to reconcile those things with my beliefs and values in regards to ethical storytelling.
What’s most important to me is celebrating my own cultural legacy without appropriating someone else’s. And when you’re clear about those values, it’s really not that hard to do. If you don’t want to cause marginalized readers harm, then avoid doing things that cause them harm. Like writing from a POV that they have begged you countless times not to touch.
If you’re white, the history of the world has already been written from your point of view and living in your world is painful. So please, when it comes to books, let us have our own.