Lately, I have heard several published white writers express their trepidation about the idea of writing non-white characters. Some of them have mentioned that they feel they’ll get in trouble if they continue to write only white characters, but that they also feel they’ll get into trouble if they write characters who aren’t white cause they’ll bugger it up.
Damned if you do, they say, damned if you don’t.
To which I can only say, and I mean this nicely, “Please!”
What exactly are you risking? Who exactly is damning you? Which of your previously published novels have attracted no criticisms and no damnation? Cause that’s amazing. You wrote a book no one critcised? Awesome. Please teach me that trick!
Every single book I’ve published has displeased someone. I’ve been accused of promoting teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, and underage drinking. Every single one of my books has caused at least a few people to tell me that I stuffed various things up: my descriptions of Sydney, of NYC, of mathematics (absolutely true), my Oz characters don’t speak like proper Aussies, and my USians don’t talk like proper Yanquis. My teenagers sound too young or too old and are too smart or too stupid. I did my best, but some think that was not good enough.
That’s the risk you take when you write a book.
If you do not have the knowledge, resources, research, or writing skills to write people who are different from you, then don’t. People may well criticise you for that. They’ll also criticise you for having some of your characters speak their notion of ungrammatical English1. And for not having enough vampires. Whatever.2 Write what you’re good at. Lots and lots of writers pretty much only write about themselves and their friends. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous example. There are many many others. That’s fine. Own it. And do it as well as you can.
If you, as a white writer, decide to write people of a different hue to yourself then you should do your damnedest to get it right. But know that no matter how well researched your book, no matter how well vetted by multiple knowledgeable readers it is, there will always be people who think you buggered it up and misrepresented them. All you can do is write the best, most thoroughly researched book you possibly can. After all, don’t you do that with every book you write? You don’t write your historicals with Wikipedia as your only source, do you? Right then.
What should you do when you are criticised?
Listen. Learn. Even if you think they’re insane and completely wrong.
Figure out how to avoid the same egregious mistakes in your next book. But remember that your next book will also be criticised. That’s how it goes.
Do not have a hissy fit and say you’ll never write about anyone who isn’t white again. Do not insult those criticising you.
Say you, as a white American, write a novel with many Thai-American characters and a Thai-American reader criticises you for getting something wrong yet another Thai-American reader praises you for getting the exact same thing right. Who do you believe?
What do you do when two white readers disagree about stuff in your books? Do you assume that all white people are the same? Perhaps it’s time to stop assuming that all Thai-Americans are the same and have the same opinions and experiences. Thailand’s a big country with a wide range of ethnicities, religions, cuisines and everything else. The experiences of the Thai diaspora in the USA is going to be just as varied. Some Thai Americans will think you got it right, some will think you got it wrong. That’s how it goes.
Keep in mind that Thai-Americans writing about Thai-Americans are also criticised and told they get it wrong. No one is immune from criticism. No one is immune from getting it wrong for at least some of their readers. We all do it.
Writing is hard. No matter what you write about. You will be damned no matter what you do. But that has nothing to do with you being white, that has to do with you having the arrogance to be a writer, and publish what you write for other people to read. Your readers get to judge you. That’s just how it goes. Your job is to be a grown up about what you do and how people respond to you. That’s really hard too. Trust me, I know.
Thus endeth the rant.