Thursday, July 30, 2020

Appropriation or Appreciation?

This week, I was told by an industry insider that a novel I recently finished was problematic because the multiple points of view I use to tell the story include a Korean female.

I use, I think, seven characters’ third-person limited POVs, including an African American teenage boy, a white teenage girl, a white woman in her 40s, a black man in his 20s, a white male in his 40s, another white male in his 50s (the co-protagonist), and the character in question, his Korean wife (the other co-protagonist).

I had a really great exchange with this insider, who is knowledgeable and thoughtful. It was eye-opening for a guy who just four years ago published the third Peyton Cote novel, a series told through Peyton’s eyes.

I’m a 50-year-old, white, male, who grew up upper-middle-class. Privileged beyond belief, admittedly. Only three years ago, an agent told me I needed a strong female character. I thought it would be a fun challenge: Could I write from a female POV convincingly? an opportunity, which, in itself, illustrates my privilege.

I’m 100% behind social-justice causes, including #OwnvoicesBooks. I’m also certain it’s easier for me to write a character who thinks, acts, speaks –– and is very much like –– me. I attempted to show the trials and tribulations I assume a female Asian woman might face in a male-dominated profession. And I see the problematic portion of the previous sentence –– “I assume” –– because, as a white male, I have the option of walking a mile in another’s shoes, when others do not. The problem for me is that I see no other way to write the book. The plot can’t be told from one POV (or I’m not smart enough to figure out how to do it). Five people who always read my work as I write indicated they knew the male lead (the American), at least in part, by his interactions with his Korean wife. It was a part of the book they all enjoyed.

I toss this conversation forward because it’s an important one, and I look forward to hearing from others.

Coincidently, I just read Angie Thomas’s fantastic On the Come Up and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. I recommend them both highly.


Tom Burns said...

Buying into someone else's dictates about what a writer should and should not write does all writers a disservice. Anyone has the privilege of criticizing a piece of writing for any reason, and others may make their own judgement about whether that criticism is valid, but no one has the right to determine what a writer is allowed to write and what he is not. Many who came before us fought for our right to write what we choose, as we choose, and some sacrificed careers for that right. Giving in to this latest batch of censors denigrates that struggle and takes us backwards.

Anna said...

It's very interesting that the industry insider did not challenge you on having multiple POVs, as might be expected, or on having at least three female characters, as might be expected of a male writer. He seems to have objected only because one of the women was Korean, not even asking how a white American man could credibly get into her head (a plausible question for an editor to ask). She was Korean, therefore not to be tolerated in the book. Am I reading your account wrong?