Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Writing Across Identity Elements: Why Kayla, Not Eartha & Other Stuff I Think About

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The third of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Don't miss Ambelin on Ethics, the Writing Process & Own Voices or an Interview with Ambelin on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family.

Spoiler alert for Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2013).

Lately, I’ve been talking to Ambelin Kwaymullina, “an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people” of Australia, about own voices, representation, appropriation and writing across identity elements.

At first glance, when it comes to protagonists and point of view, we may seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum--her advocating against writing as an outsider and me in favor.

It’s more complicated than that. As we compared notes, we found ourselves agreeing or at least empathizing more than you might assume.

I’m a Muscogee Nation citizen, and I’ve written protagonists who share that identity as well as those who, unlike me, are respectively Chinese American, Mexican American, Italian American, English American, Seminole, and Cherokee. The non-Indians appear in alternating point-of-view novels.

(I’m a Cherokee descendant, not a Cherokee Nation citizen. That translates to shared ancestry and cultural touchstones, but there's a difference. To clarify: I'm likewise Irish American. However, I am not a citizen of Ireland. I am Muscogee and American, a citizen of both Muscogee Nation and the United States of America. Native identity is about culture and heritage, but it's also about law and political status.)

More broadly, when it comes to race, religion, culture, gender, age, orientation, body type, and socio-economics, I write inside my personal experience.

Likewise, I write outside my personal experience. I speak on and teach the subject of writing, including writing across identity elements, on a regular basis.

As I’ve mentioned before, the question of writing outside one’s lived knowledge and most immediate stakes with regard to protagonists (or, in the case of nonfiction, focal subjects) is a very personal one.

Today I’m going to share a glimpse into my own, nuanced process for deciding who and what to write and why. Yes, of course your mileage may vary. It may evolve. Mine has evolved.

Michigan Law School Reading Room
Two points to address first:

(1) I’m well aware of my First Amendment rights. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from The William Allen White School of Journalism at The University of Kansas, which included coursework in Media Law. I also hold a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where my studies largely focused on Constitutional Law and the First Amendment in particular (it was the topic of my third-year independent study with Lee Bollinger).

I’ve committed quality time, scholarship and tuition dollars to Freedom of Speech.

I’m well aware that rights come with opportunities, costs and responsibilities. And I'm well aware that restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.

I'll restate that:

Restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.

Sometimes I exercise my right to speak. Sometimes I exercise my right not to speak.

As a one-time Native child who couldn’t watch “Super Friends” every Saturday morning without also seeing “Elbow Room” every Saturday morning, I fret the impact of erasure (to a cheery tune) and of the single story (in that case, the “helpful Indian”).

Watch this and, if it's not your inherent perspective, try to do so--with your writing cap on--from a Native or POC point of view.



(2) The vast majority of children’s-YA authors must, to varying degrees, write outside our own experience—at least with regard to secondary characters and major historical events or societal topics. This is necessary to reflect the full range of our humanity in the past, present and future.

In a sweeping book about the U.S. Civil War or The Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution, I’m looking for inclusion when it comes to the participation of and impact on Native people, people of color, women, etc. Ditto that contemporary realistic chapter book set in a minority-majority nation or that YA dystopian novel.

Ducking that content isn't a neutral decision. Again, effectively writing Native people off the continent--out of the past, present, and future--isn’t a neutral decision. Over the body of literature, it’s a minimizing one. An erasing one. Silence speaks. It contributes to adverse real-world impact.

After every U.S. election, we actually have to educate the new Congress about our continued existence. Please don't make it harder for us to protect our nations, our land, our children. Remember, we are still here. And we should be reflected in the pages of children's-YA literature.

So, to recap: (1) I'm well versed in freedom of speech. (2) Every children's-YA writer must, to some degree, write outside our immediate frame of reference. Still with me?


Back to protagonists and nonfiction topics. Bookstores vary the titles they stock. Libraries vary their collections. Publishers vary their manuscript acquisitions, and agents vary their clients.

Otherwise their books would compete with each other, and they wouldn’t be able to offer the selection necessary to stay in business.

Choices that heavily favor slender, straight, able-bodied white kids are the norm. Those books are viewed as standard. Viewed as universal. There’s no industry predisposition to limit them.


But every day, other well-written stories are rejected for being “too similar” to an already stocked, purchased, acquired or signed project that’s perceived as similar enough to compete.

Let’s say there’s already one middle grade with an Asian boy protagonist. Will another one be turned down for potentially competing?

Quite possibly.

“I just acquired an Asian boy middle-grade novel, and, unfortunately….”

Writers get rejection letters to that effect all the time. I’ve read them. Quite a few of them because I teach and mentor and so other writers come to me to discuss such things.

And, granted, stories won’t be rejected just because of common identity elements. It could happen because they’re deemed “too similar” in other ways.

My kitty, Gali-Leo
“I just acquired a novel about soccer, and, unfortunately....”

Now, consider:

What is the societal impact of limiting to one book about soccer?

What is the societal impact to limiting to one book about Asian-American boys?

Or one book about Asian Americans--period? Especially since "Asian American" is an umbrella term.

Heaven forbid two Asian-American boy characters in two different stories both happen to play soccer.

Sure, even with mainstream heroes, there are limits:

"Unfortunately, we're already publishing a half dozen dystopians..."

Here's the thing: Writers often panic over new releases that might be "too similar" to our own works in progress, particularly if our own manuscript is well along. We anguish over whether to read the competing title to gauge whether our project is in the clear or not. With nonfiction writers, you'll often hear talk of "getting there first" in the marketplace.

Remember when I mentioned the right to speak and the right not to?

This is what I personally do with that reality:

Halloween decoration that inspired my novel, Feral Curse
I love cats. I love carousels. I’m intrigued by cryptids.

In the Feral series (Candlewick/Walker), I write about werecats, demons, magic and furry cryptid hominids.

The stories take place in Austin, in a nearby small town, in the suburbs, at a resort, and on a tropical island.

These YA books are heartfelt, funny, action packed and teeny bit sexy (if I do say so myself).

The trilogy metaphorically tackles diversity, social justice, and what it means to be human.

No way would the entire cast look like it had been raised by Carol and Mike Brady. Or be depicted simply as white kids from different social groups a' la "The Breakfast Club" (remember when that was a diversity ground-breaker?).

The Feral series' question is: "What does it mean to be human?" My answer isn't: "Let's check in with the all-white heroes to find out." (Although white co-protagonists are certainly included in the mix.)

The series is told in alternating points of view by four co-protagonists, including Kayla, a werecheetah, who presents as Black American, and Yoshi, a werecougar, who presents as a biracial (Japanese-white) American. They’re homo shifters rather than homo sapiens, and they live among us. Within the genre bending, it's a sci-fi-ish fantastical construct.

Now imagine this. An editor reads my manuscript and says: “Too bad! I just signed a story about a smart, small-town, Black Texas teen--the daughter of the mayor--who’s able to turn into a werecheetah, and is being haunted by her ex-boyfriend’s ghost, which is trapped in a carousel. And, wouldn’t you just know it? Both stories feature a Eurasian co-protagonist/love interest, raised in an antique mall by his homicidal grandmother.…”

Really? If another author also independently came up with that specific idea, we are soulmates.

But only one of us is probably going to sell that oh-so-similar book to that one YA fantasy editor at that house. Or sign with that manuscript to that one genre-bendy and cryptid-loving agent.

Libraries and bookstores will stock one or the other. (Unless there’s a major motion picture involved.)

We’re safe to say the Feral series (Candlewick) is an idiosyncratic, diverse spec-fic YA adventure. This is a benefit of a quirky writing nature (Werearmadillos, for example. I may have invented them. That level of quirky.)

Kayla, as one of four co-protagonists, isn’t going to knock a book with another Black girl hero out of contention for anything. And the lived experience that’s most on point is what it’s like to “pass” or not. On that point, I do have lived experience to bring.

Nifty. Green light.

Now consider this: I love the music of Eartha Kitt. I am fascinated by Eartha Kitt.

I believe that Eartha Kitt was the best Catwoman.

The. Best. Catwoman.

Nobody could purr like Eartha Kitt.

She was inspiring, talented, formidable. For years, I’ve longed to write a biography about Eartha.

But Eartha wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ella Fitzgerald.

She’s not a household name or an automatic tie-in to the Black History Month curriculum.

There might be room for one Earth Kitt biography for kids (or teens). I could see that getting published. I can imagine some bookstores and libraries stocking it.

As much as I love Eartha, I can’t imagine them embracing two or more.

So I’m not writing it. But if I weighed all that and moved forward, I would talk to Eartha’s family first for permission and consult with Black author friends, too.

Magazine cover of Eartha in my dining nook
All the while owning that my book could be blocking one by a member of Eartha’s own community.

Would I love that reality? No, but I couldn’t ignore it or dismiss it or explain it away either. And I couldn't wrap myself in the First Amendment and leave it at that because I have the right not to speak, too.

I would have to hold myself to the highest possible writing standard and expect others, especially those with a closer kinship, to do the same.

What's more, I'd have to acknowledge that I was starting at a serious deficit. There are writers with so much more to bring to that manuscript--Black writers, especially those with a strong background in singing and acting, who'd have knowledge and insights to illuminate the awesomeness that was Eartha in important ways that I'd never imagine.

I'm not planning to write that biography of Eartha. But up until a year or so ago, I was seriously considering it.

Now, what about a subject closer to home?

I’ve also considered writing a biography of Chickasaw astronaut John B. Herrington.

He and I have more in common. We're both mixed-blood citizens of southeastern Native Nations now based in Oklahoma. I want Native kids to learn about him, to be inspired by his story. I want non-Indian kids to learn about him and rethink the “primitive savage” stereotypes they’re fed.

Still, writing about John would’ve required me to write as an outsider.
I've met him in person in Oklahoma!

I’m not Chickasaw. “Native American” and “American Indian” are umbrella terms. Again, being Muscogee doesn't make me Chickasaw.

Are there shared ties and history between some Native/First Nations people and nations? Yes, more so within regions. But we're not not one in the same.

I hate to say it, but, as with Eartha, there’s probably not room in the market for more than one nonfiction picture book about John Herrington.

Native people are not meaningfully included in the U.S. curriculum. To the extent we're mentioned, the focus isn't on our achievements in space exploration. (Cough.)

There’s no way I would've put down a word of John’s story without his permission. As a First Amendment student, I know that I have the right to do so. As a Native woman, I believe in cultural property but, more to the point, as a human being, I believe in respect and courtesy.

John’s story is not my mine to take. It’s certainly not mine to take for profit.

Besides, to do a good job with it, I would’ve needed not only John’s blessing but also his assistance because the greatest living authority on John is of course John himself.

And if John thought it was a wonderful idea for me to write the story, I would’ve been honored and proceeded from there. (Yes, I would touch base with Chickasaw children’s writers, too.)

Many of the best books written by outsiders come from a place of deep connection and respect, prioritizing impact on young readers--both those directly reflected by the book and those who're not.

Consider, for example, Bethany Hegedus's excellent Grandfather Gandhi picture books, written with Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Even Turk (Atheneum).

These titles were born in the wake of the September 11 attacks after Bethany, a 911 survivor, heard Arun give a speech and found personal solace and healing in it. Later, they worked together to share Arun's stories with kids.

As writers, we succeed when we set aside the self-absorption of intent and entitlement in favor of respect and commitment.

We succeed when we come from a deeply felt place, like Bethany did after 911 and like she does every day when she cradles her own Indian-American baby son.

Bottom line: I never actively began writing the manuscript about John Herrington. It was merely an idea. I had other projects to finish first. I hadn’t yet contacted John to discuss it.

I was thinking I’d do that early next year.

Click this link to watch the book trailer!
But now I’m absolutely delighted that John’s children’s book, Mission to Space, was recently published by Chickasaw Press.

Imagine if bookstores and libraries didn’t pick it up because another children’s writer (like me) had already gotten there first and with a publisher that has a larger, more powerful industry presence.

Ambelin mentioned that she doesn’t want to see outsiders writing first- or deep third-person point of view. She’s told me that she feels that way in part because she hasn’t seen it done well and in part because of the systematic exclusion of Indigenous voices, own voices.

She doesn’t “want anyone occupying that space until there's something resembling parity of representation of Indigenous writers (and other own voices).”

I’m deeply sympathetic to her perspective and a strong  own voices advocate myself.

At the same time, when it comes to Native content, I’m more open to outside voices than Ambelin.

I suspect that’s because—despite far too many problematic books by outsiders—I have seen it done well. I appreciate high-quality titles like Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name Is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011) and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama (Amistad/HarperChildren’s, 2015).

It’s a blessing for Native kids, all kids, that books like those are published, and I’m thrilled to champion them whenever I can.

Moreover, as a southeastern American Indian, considering our history and current ties with Black Americans, I particularly long for more of their voices in the related conversation of books, especially with regard to the intersection of Black Indian tribal citizens. 

Big picture, being open to outside writers is no small or unqualified leap of faith.

There is a long and damaging history of outsiders telling "Native" stories, having approached us in the guise of ethnographer, of anthropologist, of writer, of friend. A long and damaging and ongoing effort to mislead, gain trust, and then misrepresent Native lives and narratives. Usually for profit, power or both.

When I  say "damaging," that’s not hyperbole. I’m talking about real-world legislation, persecution, and impact on the daily life of every Native person. We are peoples of Nations defined by sometimes hostile law and profoundly affected by that law. Public opinion, education and miseducation affects the making and enforcement of those laws. And then there's the psychological impact on citizens of our Nations, especially on our children and teens.

If you don’t know enough to understand why we’re skittish, suspicious and/or non-responsive, please step back and do more homework before starting that manuscript. Our feelings, actions and sometimes silence are based on real-world experience and concerns.

Begin by reading 100 books by Native American children's-YA authors. Do your homework with regard to each community your writing might reflect like you did your homework to enter the field more globally.

Of late, I’ve heard a lot of folks speaking in broad terms about the question of who writes what. We talk too often in broad strokes when brushstrokes apply.

It's a much bigger, broader conversation than race, though of course that's a critical component. It's also persistently framed as primarily about white writers' fear and failures.

As if no white writers weigh the responsibilities and costs of appropriation and respectfully seek the appropriate permissions and insights like Debby, working with her husband to share his story.

As if diverse writers can't stretch to successfully write across identity markers like Rita, who can certainly be trusted to respectfully conceptualize, research, frame and integrate story elements and, for that matter, feedback as needed to revise. 

As if diversity conversations should default to focus on white, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight folks. That's taking the idea that this isn't all about them and responding with, "But wait, what about them?"

Of course all writers belong in this conversation, but own voices must be prioritized and centered. Meanwhile, the question of "which ideas are right for me?" is something every writer must consider.

(HarperChildren's)
By the way, even when you're writing within identity elements, you still need to do research and engage in thoughtful related conversation. My work in progress is quasi-autobiographical, and I have a three-inch thick (and building) research binder. I've consulted with several friends and colleagues about the content and how it rolls out within the context of the story.

When I’ve cited, say, Rita and Debby among my go-to examples with regard to Native content, often the reply is something to the effect that I’m setting the bar sky high. And, yes, that’s true.

The bar is and should be sky high. Maybe we’re not all at Rita and Debby’s level of craft (yet), but we must emulate their gracious humility, their conscientiousness.

We must strive to create the best books for all kids.

Cynsational Notes

Writing, Tonto & The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who is the First to Die by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations. Peek: "For those who write within and/or outside personal experience, how do we honor and craft stories for the young readers of today and beyond?"

Native American Children's Literature Recommended Reading List from First Nations Development Institute. #NativeReads See also Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature and American Indian Graduation Rates: Stereotypical Images On and Off the Field from The Good Men Project.



7 comments:

Lindsay Metcalf said...

Another great post. I had no idea you were a KU J-School grad - I am, too! Did you have Ted Fred for Media Law?

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Huzzah, Lindsay Metcalf! I absolutely had Ted Fred for Media Law! Thanks so much for touching base--made my day.

Lindsay Metcalf said...

Love it. You're repping us well. <3

Nancy Werlin said...

Cyn, you mention a couple of issues that I'm glad to see you comment on:

1) Identity elements (I like that term) in genre fiction

2) The offensiveness of making a large cast all-of-a-kind

In genre fiction, identity elements from the workaday world have to be managed alongside plotty concerns like (your example) being a werearmadillo, or (in my current book) your parent's conspiracy with your friends' parents to kill you all. Because of the plot pressure, the identity elements often have to be managed in an economical fashion which risks them appearing to have been used cursorily or even thoughtlessly or randomly. No answers or rule book here, but it's a concern!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks, Nancy! On the necessary economy, it's of course manuscript by manuscript what makes sense. But, for what it's worth, I tend to err toward focusing on each character as an individual, informed by their elements rather than defined by them (and I feel no pressure to weave in any references/evidence to that effect but include it where it feels natural).

Nancy Werlin said...

>>(and I feel no pressure to weave in any references/evidence to that effect but include it where it feels natural).<<

Yes, exactly. Nothing should feel awkwardly shoehorned in.

Debby Dahl Edwardson said...

Thanks for a fabulous post, Cyn. Nancy--I feel like you've hit on something really important. It is a real balancing act in genre fiction (which I am working on right now, too.) The temptation, and what a lot of people do, is to make it all come out of some generic amalgamated culture, past, present or future, never mind the cultural markers--because as soon as you put those markers in, you feel, or should feel, compelled to build the cultural scaffolding people need to understand them and, well, that's a really long book with more information than anyone wants or should need. I'll probably die trying to figure this out. Unless Cyn has the answer, which she probably does.

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