Writing Other Cultures When You’re White

I was going to start this off with some mealy-mouthed title about power differentials or marginalised voices or other intersectional stuff or the like, but decided all that was just being evasive. Because what I’m doing is writing a book narrated by a person of colour, and I’m white. There’s been a lot of discussion about people doing that recently. So I wanted to address it.

I’ve been following the American Dirt controversy and not gonna lie, it made me nervous. My thoughts, for what they’re worth: I feel deeply sorry for the author, who, I believe, surely wrote her book with the best of intentions and intended no malice or hurt, but has dealt with a lot of controversy. This threatens to overshadow the good that might be in the book. I feel equally sorry for the overlooked Latino/a voices who were there before her, have written compelling fiction about migration, but never got the benefit of a seven-figure advance. If I were in their position, I’d be boiling mad.

(To be honest, I think the seven-figure advance is a very large part of the problem.)

The #OwnVoices hashtag had popped up on my timeline every now and then, but I really viscerally experienced it when listening back to the White Feathers audiobook. Having an Irish author, and Irish protagonist and an Irish actress meant that when Eva finally loses and calls the love of her life a “fucker”, it was pronounced in the deepest bogger accent you could possibly imagine, in spite of the rest of her dialogue being RP. I didn’t have to attribute the dialogue. The actress knew. That’s the power of Own Voices.

When going outside that boundary, I’m conscious of the need to research properly, employ appropriate beta readers, check language, be edited well and also be mindful of well-worn, clichéd paths and stereotypes to avoid. I’m also happy to be publishing Lucia’s War myself, at my own (considerable) expense to ensure quality. Not traditionally publishing means that I am blocking no gates, nor filling any space a more marginalised author might deserve to take in a white-dominated industry. Furthermore, Lucia Percival as a character is not new – she already had a significant presence in White Feathers. She is not downtrodden; she is a musician, and a survivor. Not to mention that Black British history around the period in question, 1917-1919 and beyond, was a joy to read about.

I’ve also read, and been inspired by, the works of Andrea Levy and Lola Jaye. I’m checking out Nalo Hopkinson too, and enjoying her lyrical narratives.

I am aware that many people nowadays feel that it is not acceptable to write outside the lines when it comes to protagonists, particularly if you are in a very established group. I respect that opinion – and absolutely respect the preference of those who might not read such books as a result – but I don’t agree. Because I feel this is a worthwhile endeavour – when done with care and attention -and I hope the fruits prove my instinct right.

If you are interested in reading a work of mine that is not Own Voices to see how I get on, feel free to subscribe here to get a free story set in WWI and the eve of the Sudeten invasion, featuring romantic love – and friendship – between men. I hope you enjoy.

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