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Ain’t That a Shame (updated) »
I’ve been asked a few times why none of my protags are white given that I am white. (So far that question has only come from white people.) I thought I’d answer the question at length so next time I get that particular email I can direct them here.
I don’t remember deciding that Reason, the protagonist of the Magic or Madness trilogy, would have a white Australian mother and an Indigenous Australian father. I don’t remember deciding that Tom would be white Australian or Jay-Tee Hispanic USian. But I made a conscious decision that none of the characters in How To Ditch Your Fairy would be white and that Liar would have a mixed race cast. Why?
Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.
Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.
Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?
I’m not saying my books are perfect. They’re not. If I could go back and rewrite them I would be much more specific about Tom and Jay-Tee’s backgrounds. Tom is just white. I’m specific about his bit of Sydney and about his parents’ occupations, but not about their or his ethnicity. White is not just one flavour. Nor do I go into any kind of detail about what kind of Hispanic Jay-tee is. Is her family from Puerto Rico? Mexico? Venezuela? Dominican Republic? All/none of the above? I say she’s from the Bronx but not where in the Bronx. It’s a big place. (Please forgive me, all my Bronx friends! Especially you, Coe.) As a result I was much more specific about Micah’s background in Liar. All mistakes and oversights in that book will be worked out in the books I’m writing now. The things I get wrong in those books will be fixed in the books I write after them. And so it goes . . . (I hope.)
Questions of representation were not foremost in my mind when I was writing the Magic or Madness trilogy. I’m a white girl who grew up in a predominately white country. Thinking about race and representation is something I have to make myself do because my life is not governed negatively by it as others’ lives are, like, say Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr.
It was the response of my readers that got me thinking hard about representation. Now those questions are foremost when I write.
Thus when I sat down to write How To Ditch Your Fairy I already knew none of the characters would be white. I also knew that I was writing a somewhat utopian world1 in which race and gender were not the axes of oppression that they are in our world. Female athletes having as strong a prospect of making a living at their sport as a boy is clearly not true in our world, but it is in the world of HTDYF. Nor is there any discrimination on the basis of race. But there is on the basis of class and geography. (I was not writing a perfect world.)
Not many people noticed, or if they did, they didn’t mention it to me, but I was dead chuffed by those who did. Thank you.
Posted by Justine at 0:14, 22 July 2009 under State of the World, Writing life, Writing process | 65 Comments »
Benjamin Solah Says:
Excellent post. As a bit of a lefty, this really peaked my interest and dealing with race in this way makes me want to buy the books for my younger sisters.
You haven’t had any right-wing parents complain?
July 22nd, 2009 at 12:47 AM
2. Justine Says:
The most consistent complaint I’ve had is about sex in the trilogy.
On the whole though I’ve escaped the kind of criticism some other authors get because a) I write fantasy b) I’m not a bestseller.
July 22nd, 2009 at 12:53 AM
I think it’s fantastic that you see the world the way it is. This is not an all-white world and I see no reason why you should try to pretend that it is. People need to learn to embrace their differences instead of always trying to fit in. Unfortunately, it’s conformity that makes people comfortable. Personally, I love your books and the diversity reflected in them!
July 22nd, 2009 at 1:35 AM
When I read HTDYF I didn’t even realize that they weren’t white. Did I skip over something? I pictured them as white because I am white.
I think that if writers skipped over the part where they describe their ethnicity then all readers would be more comfortable reading the story because they can decide what they want; what is relate able to them.
But myself, a hopeful writer, imagine characters by their personality. Their looks come later. I think if you go in writing a novel and you really believe that the characters aren’t white then it’s just how it is. But I don’t think i would go out of my way to make a character black if I didn’t picture them in my mind as black. If that makes sense.
Thanks for clearing that up, even though I never really thought about it.
July 22nd, 2009 at 2:19 AM
Would people really dare criticize based on the race of your characters, or would they disguise it under some other complaint?
I’m kind of creeped out if they would, and would be taken seriously..
July 22nd, 2009 at 6:01 AM
6. Justine Says:
Kelsey: Most of us, regardless of race sadly, wind up trained to expect characters to be white because the majority of books we read are full of white characters. But whites in particular mostly don’t have to think about race because its effects on us are positive not negative.
Elodie: I’m not sure it’s about daring. There are people who hold that whites should not write about non-whites because they invariably get it wrong, because of cultural appropriation, and because when they do so they regularly get far more attention and rewards and publicity than non-white writers who do the same. All of which is true.
When I sell my books I am never told by publishers that they already have too many books about race or about [pick ethnic/racial group]. But I know of South Asian American/African American/Korean American writers whose books have not been picked up because the publishing house already had a South Asian/African American/Korean book.
Because for many white writers writing about other races/ethnicities can be seen as a sign of their virtuosity and writerly chops. Non white writers rarely get the same response. Which is ridiculous.
(It’s like the silly notion that a woman writing sensitive caring characters is normal but a man doing so shows exceptional skill.)
In the literary traditions I know most about—Australian, US and British—there have always been vastly more white protags. The previous examples have a longer and richer tradition that you tap into every time you write a new one. Every time you try to write about a non-white protag there are fewer literary precursors, making it harder. And many of those prior examples are stereotyped and appalling. It’s a lot to write against.
July 22nd, 2009 at 8:15 AM
We talked about this briefly when you signed my book last fall, but thank you again. Thank you, thank you, thank you for thinking about this and taking it so seriously.
July 22nd, 2009 at 10:09 AM
As a writer I’m glad to see your books have minority protagonists. I have no problem including white characters in my manuscripts, and if the voice is true and the character compelling, I don’t see why it would be an issue to have diverse characters in a novel. There’s a thread up at Amazon.com (US version)talking about this very thing.
We were asking where were the AA (African American) and other minorities in paranormal romance, scifi, fantasy and YA as well as Romance in general. Sure, on the literary front there’s Tony Morrison and a few others, but by and large there’s a huge gap in genre books for those who enjoy reading about diverse characters. In the US Comic-con is this week and there’s been questions raised about where the minority Superheroes are. I’m going to put you on my author list when my students ask for books that they can relate to and mention your blog in the Amazon thread.
July 22nd, 2009 at 11:43 AM
I’m glad to hear this about HTDYF. It’s on my TBR pile, and just yesterday I posted a booklist of multicultural fantasy (featuring main characters of color and/or written by authors of color) in answer to a Color Online challenge and because so few fantasy books feature main characters of color. I included MoM but didn’t know about HTDYF. Will add to the list. (And if you know of other MG/YA fantasy/sf that fit this criteria, please let me know. My list is sadly short, though the books on it are very, very good.)
July 22nd, 2009 at 11:46 AM
I was first made aware of the controversy in the blog by Editorial Anonymous. As an aspiring writer of color I work hard to make sure my protagonists are representative of my world. There are so few out there that to write anything else makes no sense. It is a shame that Bloomsbury USA chose the cover this cover for Liar. It speaks to the change that needs to happen and can only happen if we as authors make it happen. Thanks for your effort.
July 22nd, 2009 at 12:38 PM
I didn’t respond to your Avatar post even though I agreed whole-heartedly with it, but I wanted to respond to this and say THANK YOU. I appreciate that you have characters of color in your books. In fact, one of the things I remarked on it at first is that it’s a shame that you, a writer in Australia (and yes, I know you do double duty between the US), put more ethnically diverse US characters in your books than most US writers. There are some writers who I love that infuriate me because their books are always so white. (And I’m talking white the way Friends was white and shouldn’t have been.) So, yes. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Now, I just wish more publishers and authors would realize that black people do not only live in major cities and/or have to strive to overcome a ghetto/low-income/hood upbringing.
July 22nd, 2009 at 2:39 PM
Avalon's Willow Says:
Just wanted to say hey. So, Hey.
Through reading your comments alerted me that the cover of LIAR now has what looks to be a white individual— which makes me sigh. I’ve just expressed my disappointment at a Shannon Hale cover.
July 22nd, 2009 at 3:20 PM
13. Justine Says:
Shveta: Thank you for your kind comments. It means heaps. It was lovely meeting you!
Jessica: The perception that whites read more than other groups and that they won’t read about people who aren’t white is behind a lot of that. I don’t believe either of those propositions. Also good on you!
Stacy: And good on you. I know some other people were putting together such a list. I can’t remember where but will blog about it when I can find it.
Stephanie: Exactly so. I really hope the discussion around the cover leads to a bigger conversation that encompasses the whole industry and leads to change.
Akilah: I suspect the strongest way we can get publishers to change is to buy in big numbers the non-stereotypical books by people of colour. Kendra by Coe Booth is a fantastic example.
Avalon’s Willow: Hey. And thanks so much for your thoughtful comments on the book. Very much appreciated.
Yeah. The cover is very sigh-worthy. I’ll be talking about it in detail tomorrow.
July 22nd, 2009 at 3:51 PM
Justine: But whites in particular mostly don’t have to think about race because its effects on us are positive not negative.
Right, we have huge advantages we don’t even recognize until they’re taken away from us. I had them taken away for about two years, and I never forgot what that felt like. I try to imagine what it feels like for a whole lifetime when I write characters who face racism or other forms of bias.
>>There are people who hold that whites should not write about non-whites because they invariably get it wrong, because of cultural appropriation.
I completely understand that P.O.V., but I worry that it leans, in part, on stereotyping. For a white person to never be able to understand a black person or vice versa means fitting both those people into a narrowly defined stereotype. I was white, but I was the weird outcast who didn’t understand mainstream white culture in high school. One of my best friends had black skin, and she was the most popular, most mainstream girl I knew. Could I write about her and vice versa? I would not be so critical as to think that she was incapable of understanding someone like me or writing about me, if she ever decided to become an author.
>>…and because when they do so they regularly get far more attention and rewards and publicity than non-white writers who do the same. All of which is true.
Which is truly horrible and not at all surprising. Sigh.
>>When I sell my books I am never told by publishers that they already have too many books about race or about [pick ethnic/racial group]. But I know of South Asian American/African American/Korean American writers whose books have not been picked up because the publishing house already had a South Asian/African American/Korean book.
Groan. I think it’s just as bad in the U.S. as it is in Australia.
>>Because for many white writers writing about other races/ethnicities can be seen as a sign of their virtuosity and writerly chops. Non white writers rarely get the same response. Which is ridiculous.
It’s beyond belief. A great character is a great character because the author worked like hell to make them that way and/or is insanely talented. That’s the case whether they are writing someone who has pale, brown, or neon orange skin.
>>(It’s like the silly notion that a woman writing sensitive caring characters is normal but a man doing so shows exceptional skill.)
Have you read Bev’s, “Apparently, I Write Like a Girl,” post? http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/apparently-i-write-like-a-girl
>>Every time you try to write about a non-white protag there are fewer literary precursors, making it harder. And many of those prior examples are stereotyped and appalling. It’s a lot to write against.
What a fabulous challenge to sink one’s teeth into, ne?
July 22nd, 2009 at 5:00 PM
Tashiana Hudson Says:
Thank you. I’m going to post this on my blog.
July 22nd, 2009 at 10:28 PM
I really liked this post! I’ve never read your books, but I’ve heard good things about them and then you wrote this post. My curiousity has officially been raised. Good for you for not only not just writing all the time about white people (there’s nothing wrong with that, there just needs to be more books w/ people of color as the main characters), but not making race such a big deal. Thank you for writing about poc and characters who look like me
July 22nd, 2009 at 11:45 PM
I also noticed the same kind of thing with sexuality in HTDYF, where homo/bisexuality was really just one big non-issue. I thought it was very well-done, because you didn’t make a big deal about it – you just had non-heterosexual characters there without making a big deal bout it.
July 23rd, 2009 at 7:32 AM
Thanks for your honesty. I’m one of those parents (and writers) who has long complained about the lack of depth or non-stereotypical images in novels that feature children that look like mine.
I think two things distress me – that publishers seem more willing to take on novels featuring minority characters that are written by people who are “not” of color, than they are from people – even experienced writers – that are of color. It’s an epidemic.
And that Bloomsbury was insensitive to the long standing concern in the Black community that children are programmed to wish to be white. There’s a great (and very old) Whoopi Goldberg comedy routine in which a young girl dons a white pillow case and pretends to brush her long blonde hair. When my daughter was younger – she wanted a specific doll – a Skateboard Ally. They were all sold out except the African American ones. I remember calling every store and finally found a Target 30 miles away. The manager apologized that they had only 3 left – all African American. I laughed and said – “perfect, since I am AA.” Only my daughter rejected the doll because it wasn’t white. See – Disney princesses weren’t Black. Heroines in novels weren’t Black. She’s a teen now and cringes about those days. But I understood where the need came from and we worked hard to build her self-esteem in the other direction.
Which is why – what Bloomsbury did – is unforgiveable. I know, from personal experiences, that authors don’t have a lot of clout over covers. But they do have means to effect a change. I wish you had fought harder. As is – my teens would find the cover insulting and we can’t purchase it.
July 23rd, 2009 at 8:49 AM
The gender of the author can come into play with regards to novels as well. I have an author friend who had to switch to a pseudonym when writing Westerns as her rather non-sexually descriptive name wasn’t manly enough to appear on a western. And then there’s the fantasy writer who had to user her first initial and borrow her grandmother’s name to use as a middle initial since her publisher didn’t think that kids would accept a woman writing a book with a male protagonist, this woman of course being J. K. Rowling. If we go back a few decades, there’s James Tiptree, Jr. Likewise, I don’t know of any men writing Romance, though there are probably some, but who write using female pseudonysm.
July 23rd, 2009 at 9:12 AM
Oh wow, that last comment of mine is so poorly written. Apologies for it’s badness. I don’t know what came over me…
July 23rd, 2009 at 9:40 AM
What I forgot to say is that I’m intrigued by the premise of your other books (reminds me of Ursula LeGuin’s decision to make the good guys in WIZARD OF EARTHSEA brown).
I will take a look at your other published works. I appreciate your intent. Liar is just the one that is problematic for me! Best…..C
July 23rd, 2009 at 10:13 AM
I had a lengthy reply then I failed to include my contact info and it was lost. ((sigh)). Here is a repost of my response at a teen’s blog where I saw this link:
Here’s my core concern: White teens will read a white author who features POC characters. Cool. That’s not a stretch in my mind. I want to know when white teen bloggers are going to blog about POC authors who write POC characters, specifically, black writers. Asian and Latino writers who write either fantasy or chick lit get some exposure.
I’ve written about it, and I’ll say it again. My experience since joining this arena is that white readers consistently ignore or state they never heard of writers I profile and most don’t say they are interested in checking these writers out. And I have purposely featured books with the same premises as mainstream books with white characters.
I’m not accusing readers of racism. I am saying there is a racial issue here, and I’d like at some point for us to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
There are memes that focus on covers so we all know how much a cover impacts our reading choices.
July 23rd, 2009 at 10:46 AM
Which is why – what Bloomsbury did – is unforgiveable.
I’m a brown parent and my lengthy response that was deleted was the same concern you expressed.
Now for full disclosure: I wasn’t going to read Liar, I was so disgusted with the publisher.
And let me say that just as our daughter are condition to want white, I believe white teens are conditioned to reject us. We can be friends. Everyone loves our music, but I have yet to see a black cover on a white teen blog. When I see one, I’ll have hope that we’re really the happy diversity coalition I see in all the teen movies.
July 23rd, 2009 at 2:59 PM
Would you please consider visiting Color Online. And may I humbly offer my Unofficial List of Great YA by and About Women of Color for your review. The list is short. This was intentional. I wanted others to weigh in.
July 23rd, 2009 at 3:05 PM
The Rejectionist Says:
Thank you so much for this awesome, thoughtful post, and for your post on the cover of Liar, and for your willingness as well to address issues of appropriation and privilege. It makes me feel a little better about the future of the world.
July 23rd, 2009 at 3:15 PM
I went to the kitchen, made my lunch thinking of a line of books I would really like to write. But that included writing books from the perspective of other ethnicities. I stopped myself. Was I, in all my white privilege able to write a story from a perspective I don’t naturally have? Would I be offending those people by trying? I was convinced that I could do a goode job.. but would it still come out offensive..
I made my sandwich and sat at my computer, and saw the post at Editorial Anonymous about your book cover & came over and read this. Um, hello universe, thank you for answering my question! Thank you for posting this. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve received warm responses from everyone for your ethnic diversity in your characters. You are right, they absolutely need more representation in books, and my stories need their voices to be told, and this gives me a little more confidence to go through with that.
July 23rd, 2009 at 3:21 PM
oh, and to Susan above–obviously, ‘racism’ is a loaded word, but when white readers “aren’t interested” in books by people of color, it sure sounds like racism to me.
July 23rd, 2009 at 3:22 PM
Thank you so much for your honesty on this important issue.
I’m a African American writer whose first fantasy novel will be published by an independent multicultural press in 2011. Lord, I almost went crazy dealing with traditional publishers. My agent was told up front by many editors and publishers that while they loved my novel they didn’t believe it would sell because one, African Americans don’t read fantasy ( or anything else but urban or street lit for that matter) and two, they were convinced that white people wouldn’t read fantasy written by African American authors.. In the end, I think it will take minority owned presses publishing innovative fiction by people of color to show the traditional publishers that they are wrong on this issue. If writers of color wait for traditional publishing to change we many never get our chance and too many valuable voices will be lost.
Yes buying more books by African American authors will help. My friend and author Carleen Brice has a blog titled: White Readers Meet Black Authors http://www.welcomewhitefolks.blogspot.com/. This is an excellent place to start the journey toward more diversity in publishing.
Once again thank you!!
July 23rd, 2009 at 3:32 PM
Thanks for linking to my comment in your blog. It’s heartbreaking for me to have to say that. If Bloomsbury put the Australian cover on the current release (I find the words and the design intriguing) I’d retract my statement. I just think – how many times can you shove a white face at teens as if it’s the universal experience? If that had been done on an Obama book everyone would cry fowl. So when the white face is on a book about a black girl (under represented in literature)- well . . . .
But luckily, my daughters love all manner of fiction from Shakespeare and LTR to Artemis Fowl and (cough, cough) Twilight. They just want a good read. But they’re pretty vocal when something isn’t right (ask them about Breaking Dawn and be prepared for hours of rant).
And on this issue – Bloomsbury was clueless.
i think, under any other circumstance, they’d enjoy the book. But we do, in this family, make economic stands. It hasn’t missed us that in the past Bloomsbury has a tendency to white wash their YA book covers in general. That they did it on a book with an ethnic character confirmed what many of us already know. Fear isn’t a great way to improve sales but is very effective in driving off a whole generation of new potential readers.
July 23rd, 2009 at 6:42 PM
Was talking to another author who spoke highly of you and suggested the Ed. Anon alternative – buy the foreign version. Then I read your take on Avatar the Movie and it fits in with my daughter’s dismay over the casting.
Count me in as a newly minted fan of yours. I’ll buy the Australian copy and bypass Bloomsbury altogether.
That would give us the best of both worlds. I’ll buy two (one for each girl) if it would make a statement about what we will and will not tolerate. And it would still let us support you as an author.
Frankly, even if Bloomsbury changed the cover now, I think I’m inclined to buy the other version and hope the European office looks at some serious management restructure in the USA division.
July 23rd, 2009 at 7:58 PM
Pam Adams Says:
Sigh. Add me to the list of those who didn’t notice HTDYF weren’t white. Damn privilege. Sigh- clearly I need to read more carefully- this was laziness on my part. I did notice and admire the differing cultures of the characters in Magic or Madness. (Still got to read the other two.)
Keep up the good writing!
July 23rd, 2009 at 8:50 PM
This is all very interesting.
As a reader, I don’t much pay attention to the physical attributes of a character (including race) unless there is a vivid description. I guess I’m like the other commenters that said they didn’t notice the race in HTDYF (which I haven’t read, but am certainly interested now that I know of it).
As a writer, I don’t write detailed descriptions of my characters. In the fantasy worlds that I write about (so far), race isn’t really an issue. I can’t think of any instance in which I mention the color of my MC’s skin. I guess I just don’t think about it. Maybe that is a good thing because my readers (some day!) can form their own pictures in their minds.
July 23rd, 2009 at 11:33 PM
I wouldn’t equate a lack of interest of white readers reading novels with non-white protags with racism. I don’t generally read romance novels because they don’t interest me, so does that define me as misogynist?
People tend to read protags that they can identify with. This means the story has to be excellent in order cause readers to identify with protags they would otherwise not consider. The EarthSea saga may be one of those, though years after readnig it, I really don’t remember the color of characters…because it really didn’t matter to the story, take that as good or bad.
July 24th, 2009 at 12:18 AM
I’m afraid the edition of HTDYF I read also has a pretty white-looking girl on the cover. The top of her face is cut off but she looks white from what I can see. Do you think her face is hidden to avoid the issue of her race?
July 24th, 2009 at 2:35 PM
JT Banks Says:
As the author of a series of juvenile novels, I know exactly what you’re saying. I wrote a novel for each of the characters in my series. The only one my publisher would not publish is the one I wrote in the voice of the white girl. The other members of the group were, a set of twins (African American,)a girl (also, AA) and an Asian American boy. They never said I (a black woman) didn’t have “permission” to write in a white voice and they never said what, if anything, didn’t work about it.
Although it certainly doesn’t work the other way around, I’m glad J. Larbalestier has an opportunity to write about the real world–even if it’s not pictured on her covers.
July 24th, 2009 at 5:22 PM
Miriam, looking at my copy of HTDYF, the girl on the cover could be anything, to my eyes–she could be just a very tan white girl, but she could be a Latina, or a lighter-skinned black girl, or multiracial, or Polynesian, or Native American, or probably several ethnicities I haven’t thought of. I think that reflects the characters in the book pretty well, actually.
July 24th, 2009 at 6:35 PM
I am a biracial teen who lives in an area where the majority of people are Hispanic or black, i am also an aspiring author. It has never occurred to me until now that you are indeed right, looking at my bookshelf the majority of characters are white. I really hope that this changes very soon as the majority of people come from various backgrounds (Irish, Finland, Africa, Cuba, etc.) and many of us can not be described as just black or white. I applaud you for your diversity in your books.
July 24th, 2009 at 7:13 PM
Georgia McBride Says:
Good for you. Excellent post that I have now bookmarked so that when people start asking me why the protag in my debut novel, Praefatio is white and I am black–I will just send them this link (though the logic is hardly the same).
July 24th, 2009 at 11:21 PM
Ahh.. I see how some people are offended by this. Really I do.
But, well, a lot of times book covers with people on it aren’t similar to the character. At all. I mean how many times have you read books with a pretty girl on the cover-even though the girl in the book is described as being plain or whatever? Or a girl with completely different something hair color? I guess skin color however gives reason to cry and rant? Either way, image shouldn’t mater. And besides, who said the girl on the cover was even your main charatcer? Why not just say she i a different characte or a random person. Really, don’t make this in to a bigger thing then need be.
And also did it ever occur to yo that the reason covers are primarly “white” is because charaters are primlary white? You can’t denie that. In YA, I can’t even think of ten books where the main charater was black, and I read a lot. The girl i Shine isn’t even black. I’ve read lots of books with Asians though.
And on to the white covers sell better… well yea probaly true. I’m not saying I do that personaly (cause I don’. I actualy read the two books you mentioneed about.) but well its the facts.
July 26th, 2009 at 2:25 PM
Jamie at 39 says:
Ahh.. I see how some people are offended by this. Really I do. But . . . why not just say she i a different characte or a random person.
But if publishers give books about black people “white” covers, and never the other way around, it’s not random, is it? This is not about random errors, it’s about partially erasing an entire group of people from our little slice of culture (books).
And on to the white covers sell better… well yea probaly true. . . . But well its the facts
So it’s okay to erase a group of people as long as you’re making good money off it?
July 26th, 2009 at 2:45 PM
I think this is a wonderful post and I appreciate you articulating your thinking about race and YA literature in this way, because I think it’s something that people would otherwise not think about.
What I always wonder regarding these issues of race is how you might persuade someone else in your profession to think in this way. You are clearly a thoughtful, reflective individual who is willing to take the feedback of your YA readers seriously…but how do we get to not only listen but exhibit the type of curiosity needed to continually push yourself to examine a perspective different from your own…especially when it seems like there is little support from the industry to think about these things?
I admire the writing insight you provide on your blog and look forward to seeing if something positive comes of this.
July 27th, 2009 at 5:11 AM
About Jamie’s point that the vast majority of protagonists are white — are they? Or do we as readers just assume they are white of the author doesn’t mention another race? We are conditioned to think of white as “normal”.
July 27th, 2009 at 11:44 AM
I think you are right. I once had a few chapters of a WIP reviewed by an editor at I liked a lot. But I was taken that she made the following observations when critiquing my work:
1. she didn’t know the protagonist was black until late in the chapter.
(I replied – that she is black is not the main thrust of the book)
Isn’t it sad that on a first read the assumption of many people is that the character is white unless we state – overtly – that they are not?
You would be surprised how many of my writing peers who are white get push back from their editors about their black characters because if they don’t fit a certain “mode” they don’t sound authentic.
So I once asked an editor at another house (who said she was looking for an authentic voice) how she would recognize an “authentic voice” and she replied “it must sound authentic to me!”
Hence why all publishers need a little “color” on their staffs or at least editors who have some clue about the breadth of “voices” in ethnic communities extends beyond poverty, civil rights angst, and inner city settings (editors with first-hand experience, please, not experience gleaned from MTV, BET and PBS documentaries).
July 27th, 2009 at 12:35 PM
I once read a novel (possible Glyph by Percival Everett) where the author deliberately didn’t mention race until about halfway though the story, at which point the young narrator very directly states that he is black and says something along the lines of, “oh, were you assuming that because my parents are professors they were white?”
July 27th, 2009 at 7:33 PM
“White is not just one flavour.”
I’m glad you’ve said that Sometimes people tend to think “white” is all one culture, when it isn’t. Same thing goes for “black” or any other ethinicity.
Anyway, I’m also a white writer who tends to write about ethnicities other than my own (currently writing two books, one with an Japanese protag and another that’s half Japanese and half American in a time when being mixed wasn’t accepted) I write whatever characters speak to me, no matter what race.
July 30th, 2009 at 2:52 PM
Neesha Meminger Says:
Speaking as an author who was rejected by editors and agents because they already had their “Asian” author/book, I’m happy to see white authors taking up this issue. (Sorry, I’m behind on your posts and am only reading this now–after the whole LIAR frukkus).
When I first read the reports on the LIAR cover, I thought you originally were happy about the cover, then changed your mind. In fact, I think many people thought this. But I’ve been mulling the quotes over in my mind and reading other people’s anaylises (is that the plural for analysis?) and realize you never actually came out and said, “I love this cover.” And I can completely understand the reasons an author wouldn’t come out and say such a thing.
I was so relieved and heartened to know that you were never, in fact, excited about the original cover. A tough thing, this–trying to figure out what is true, who to believe, and who to trust, no? Particularly if you happen to be a PoC, a woman, LGBTQ, or anyone else whose reality is smudged out of existence on a daily basis.
Anyway, it’s often easier for white authors to write PoC characters, particularly when the author has a proven sales record. And, as you write above, when white writers write PoC characters — just as when men write the “autobiographies” of women — there is much applause, back-patting and congratulation. Much harder for PoC to break into publishing with stories about their own people, histories, and backgrounds.
This would be such an easier battle if we could see, clearly, the links between oppressions: gender, sexuality, race, class, etc. It all boils down to the same thing and, ultimately, it all works in the same way to the same end.
I appreciate that you are making the connections. You are a sister in the struggle in the way that Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, and Marion Zimmer Bradley are/were—all wrote books with characters of color, the working class, and LGBTQ folk in the spirit of alliance and justice.
There will always be differences within the ranks and privileges to negotiate. But as long as there is openness and willingness, there is hope. I look forward to more books from you and reading lots more of your opinions .
(Sorry for the long post. Seems I am unable to write anything less than 200 pages.)
August 6th, 2009 at 11:27 PM
Justine, you are truly a breath of fresh air. I remember meeting you and Scott back around ’04 or ’05 (826NYC Writer’s Colony?) and both of you were so very honest and upfront about ethnicity in YA literature. I can’t begin to to rehash how some of the publishers would approach me and very awkwardly try to explain how they would like me(as an African American girl ) to essentially speak on behalf of all black readers for the sake of appeasing demographic datamongers. But you spoke to us as readers- just people who love to read and want to write the stories and characters that were real to them and to many others- not potential buyers, not instant quotes that you can splash on your site just to say “Hey! Black kids read- AND they read my books!” I can never thank you enough for that.
Also, I do believe it was you who recommended that I read Motherless Brooklyn, by Johnathan Lethem…? Either way, hands down one of my favorites.
All the best!
August 6th, 2009 at 11:49 PM
48. Justine Says:
Neesha: Thank you for this. Exactly. It is very strange to be in the position of successfully (though I’m not sure how widely) drawing attention to issues that have been around forever and talked about forever but so often ignored. If I weren’t white I do wonder if the furore around Liar would have been as big as it was. I really hope the conversation keeps going now that the cover has been changed. That was just a tiny skirmish won. As you know, there is so much more work to be done.
I will admit that I was upset that people read this post as my loving the cover. I worked very hard on the wording precisely to avoid any indication that I actually liked the cover but also to avoid dissing my publisher. The enthusiasm expressed was for making the front of the catalogue—a first in my career (and a very bitter sweet one given the cover). The analysis of that post here by Courtney Milan (who I don’t know) is spot on. (I also had my sly fun mocking the cover.)
But, really, big deal, I’m a writer, I get misread all the time, goes with the territory and unlike many I have multiple venues from which to be heard. I am far more concerned about our readers, the teenagers of all colours, who don’t deserve a world where every publisher has their token Asian or African or whatever writer amongst a sea of many, many white writers. The idea that people who aren’t white have just the one story while the white folk have many is nonsensical, stupid and racist.
(I also have issues with brevity. As in, I’m not.)
Kyi: Thank you. Your comment made me a bit teary. And, yes, it’s absurd this notion that all African-American girls are the same with one united point of view. We have to challenge it every single time it’s said. Good on you!
August 7th, 2009 at 12:02 AM
My first juvenile novel was rejected many times before it was accepted by a major house. The complaint I hear (via telephone) was that the main character was too smart and unbelievable. Editors weren’t willing to put that in writing. My main character was a black twelve year old girl in the Gifted program. When I wrote it, my daughter was a 12 black girl in the gifted program. I remember having trouble with a scene and calling my daughter in and asking her to make the telephone call I was trying to describe. I recorded it for the book verbatim!
August 8th, 2009 at 3:39 AM
Josh W Says:
This makes me feel young! Of course people can write characters of other races, of course they can. Because now more than ever, we have so much in common across all kinds of “boundaries”, and skin colour is less relevent than place of birth, religion, parent’s background, school freinds and who knows what else. So keep going for it, and don’t ever restrict yourself by those people’s daft limits!
August 11th, 2009 at 6:21 AM
“There are people who hold that whites should not write about non-whites because they invariably get it wrong, because of cultural appropriation”
I wrote an essay just last semester questioning this very thing,’ethnic’ voice appropriation (based Ourika by Claire De Duras, some essays by Diderot, Pauline Johnson). As a black girl, my knee-jerk reaction was to decry it, because
obviously *the white people will never understand!*
But as I worked on it, and let me tell you I’ve never worked on an essay so hard in my life, I came to the conclusion that though there are many pitfalls to doing this (getting it wrong, stereotyping, more credit etc.), it has the potential help us break those socially constructed barriers between ethnicities. To ‘take on’ a minority voice has to make a writer/reader consider what really makes us that different and more importantly what makes us the same, which I think proves that ones skin colour is just that, the colour of your skin.
So all in all, you seem like a really cool lady and I can’t wait to read your books.
August 11th, 2009 at 7:11 PM
As a white girl, my biggest issue with writing African/Indian protags is coming across as believable. My friends were all Asian(Vietnamese/Chinese/Korean), and I’m a little more comfortable writing from that.
I need to get over my hesitation, and find a way to write believably, or just stop feeling self conscious that I’m not writing it right.
August 15th, 2009 at 10:31 PM
53. Justine Says:
Celsie: There’s no law that says you have to write African or Indian characters. I think it’s great that you’re already writing characters with a range of different backgrounds. Believability is always most important when you’re writing. If you’ve not met anyone who’s Turkish, say, and you want to write a Turkish character that’s going to be a lot harder without any personal experience or never having been to the country. What makes characters sing is their specificities: like what bit of Turkey are they from? Are they a Kurd? What langagues do they speak? Etc etc. If you start with very little knowledge then it’s hard to know what it is you don’t know and thus much easier to get it wrong. If you’re writing about people you know well and see all the time then you get to ask them as part of your extenisve research.
August 16th, 2009 at 4:41 PM
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