Back in June, WWAC staff writer Angel reviewed Katie M. Stout’s debut young adult novel Hello, I Love You and said, “The generalizations and stereotypes packed into this novel are simply astounding.” She wasn’t the only one with issues on how the book tackled race and when the pressure mounted for Stout online (and with some people attacking her personally), she decided to leave social media behind. In October, she wrote an apology on her blog.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me, in terms of writing. I don’t know if I’ll stay in YA. I don’t know if I’ll even publish another book. But I do know that, even with the challenges, I’m grateful for this experience. I learned a lot – about myself, my own obliviousness to issues I’ve never had to face (like racism), and my own insecurities.”
I can’t talk specifically about Stout’s book because I haven’t read it, but I thought it was important to talk more generally about failing to accurately portray a group of people in a book. You hear people talk about books and the “powerful” effects they have on their lives. In writerly terms, it’s the “power of words” that save, comfort, and lull them into a sweet dream or smack away the nightmares of real life. Those powerful words are only seen as powerful until you sit down to write them yourself and forget how they will impact your reader in the way that you were impacted. People like me or Angel need more of ourselves depicted in books and done so the right way. We’ve experienced what happens when our representation has been narrowed down to harmful stereotypes. I mean, you’ve heard of this dude named Donald Trump, right?
If you can take the time to properly research 1800s England as a setting, why not put the time to research the Ojibwe people? Of course, we make mistakes. Sometimes we’re so blinded by our privilege and happen to be friends with people who are also blinded by that same privilege or have editors who are possibly blinded by that same privilege and things slip through the cracks. What then? Well, you don’t just declare that you’ll never write again due to the experience or as one WWAC contributor said, “I’m taking my ball and going home.” I mean, it’s your choice; you’re welcome to it, and you know yourself best, but that doesn’t really help. That doesn’t help you, the writer, in rectifying the situation by demonstrating that you get it, and it doesn’t help readers who were burned by the novel in question. The fact that you have the ability to “take your ball and go home” displays your position and privilege that many don’t have especially in publishing.
This isn’t an attack on white people, although white authors and white readers have enjoyed the pleasures of being represented in their media and participating in that representation. They get to have complex characters who aren’t depicted in stereotypical ways. But people of color can mess up too. I’m “black,” but that doesn’t mean I can write a character from Nigeria without research. I can’t write a book about other PoCs without research, and I too can fuck up royally in their depiction.
The point is to put in the time; get people of that group to beta your story, seek out professors who’ve studied these cultures, or ask librarians to help find sources whether it’s books or websites. People think writing fiction is easy, because you just have to imagine it and it’s on the page. But aside from the actual “finding words that can covey my thoughts as accurately as possible” (which is hard already), you need to root the fantasy in reality, and that means research. Even if the bare minimum means accurately portraying people of color as people.