My thoughts on the “WRITING THE OTHER” discussion

you_shall_not_pass1If you spend any time on Twitter or Facebook, you would have seen what went down on Twitter with author, Maggie Stiefvater, when she was asked to be on a “WRITING THE OTHER” panel at NerdCon. You can read Maggie’s thoughts about it here.

As you can guess, a lot of people were upset for a host of various reasons. I’m not about to go into that here in any detail, or weigh in on my feelings of who’s right or who’s wrong. People are entitled to their opinions and what they believe.

So here’s mine (and mine only, based on what makes ME other. Please keep in mind that “other” includes many other forms of diversity, not limited to race, culture, ethnicity, gender, orientation, disability, etc.)

I am an author of color. I have brown skin. I am of East Indian descent on my father’s side, and East Indian, Middle Eastern, and French on my mother’s. My first book, published with a small press, had hints of “diversity.” My protagonist was not white, she was part Middle Eastern, but this was a tiny detail. It was not a focal point of the book. In fact, for me, one of the main focal points included a romance between a witch and a vampire, i.e., metaphorically based on loving someone outside your own race, (which I used from my own experience — where I grew up, interracial relationships were not encouraged). That diversity element was lost because, you know, this was a story about vampires. And everyone knows that vampire stories are pure fluff with no depth whatsoever. Was that too much sarcasm??

Moving on.

I wrote a few more books and incorporated some of my background here and there, but the real pivot point came when I wrote ALPHA GODDESS, which is about a reincarnated Indian goddess. As in East Indian, not American Indian. I wanted to tackle East Indian mythology, and share a little of the stories I learned growing up to Western readers. On social media and in person, I’ve been pretty transparent about my route to publication with this novel. Initially, many of the Big 6 publishers at the time said it was “too exotic” to be commercially viable. That was a blow, but hey, it was the reality. The hard-hitting economic COMMERCIAL reality. They wouldn’t take a chance on it because it wouldn’t sell.

I didn’t give up. My agent persevered, and eventually it was bought by Julie Matysik for Sky Pony Press. Here’s what she had to say:

“As a reader I’m drawn to books from all different cultures and that include diverse characters. When I was pitched Alpha Goddess and read the manuscript, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Sera as a well-defined, powerful, and inspiring main character. And the story is such a wonderful and creative take on a classic myth that far too many people are unfamiliar with. What I saw in this book was the potential to draw in readers by a killer story and main character-the diversity part of it is just a huge added bonus in my opinion.”

Yeah, Julie rocks! As does Sky Pony Press.

ALPHA GODDESS went on to be a Spring Kids’ Indie Next pick and was a Best of Voya Magazine’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror for 2014.

So what’s the problem, you say. You’re being heard. You’ve published diverse fiction. You’re on lists.

True. I have, and I’m grateful. Extremely grateful. I am an author in a dynamic time where the publishing landscape is shifting. With movements like Diversity in YA and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, people are being heard on the need to have diverse fiction from diverse voices. And I’m so glad for that because it means that change WILL happen, and change moves at a glacial pace as we all know.

The painful truth (and I’m being brutally honest here) is that I feel marginalized by these groups. Let me explain. When I went to Colby College, I didn’t fit in anywhere. I wasn’t white. I wasn’t black. I was brown and somewhere in between. Sadly, that meant that even though there were support groups for African Americans, I did not belong in those groups. I wasn’t black. I was something else, which meant I was left to flounder in a terrifyingly large ocean and find my own way. The way I feel now is reminiscent of that. In a similar way, as an Indo-Caribbean author of color, I feel like I don’t have a place, that my voice simply isn’t as powerful or as loud or as important as everyone else’s in the “marginalized author space,” where everyone is screaming to be heard. Despite the awesome inroads made by these diversity movements, I still feel INVISIBLE.

So what do I do?

I remain grateful that my books are out there. I keep writing. I talk to other authors. I support #WeNeedDiverseBooks and others. And I hope that one day, I’ll meet some other like-situated authors. Do I get upset? Sure — some days I feel like a nobody. And that hurts. I feel like an imposter. That hey, I’m an author of color who wrote a diverse book and these organizations pushing for change don’t even want to know who I am. Because I don’t have a slot. I’m not categorizable. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m not Asian. I’m some girl who grew up in the Caribbean who isn’t really South East Asian, but sort of is, but really isn’t.

Heh.

So basically, this was a long-winded post to say that Maggie’s post made me think. Made me re-evaluate. I don’t think that she is coming in to “save the other with her great white cape.” She has a voice. A big voice. And if she can bring more attention to Diverse Fiction, doesn’t that help all of us? I’m an author of color and I wrote a “diverse” book. If I’m invited to do diversity panels, I do them. I did a wonderful one for YALSA last year, called Where are the heroes of color in SFF? You can read a synopsis of it here, written by a terrific YA Hub contributor: YA Lit Symposium: Where are the heroes of color in SFF?

My favorite part of this recap was what this attendee said about me:

“Howard, whose latest book, Alpha Goddess, draws on Indian mythology, said that in her early days of submitting her manuscripts to publishers, the question often seemed to be “Why don’t you write about your background?” “Because I like fantasy” was her answer. This question, not asked of white writers, bothered her, since it’s not the job of a writer of color to focus solely on hard-hitting realism about racism. All genres need to diversify, and everyone is responsible for it. Howard’s own work clearly draws on diverse sources of inspiration and is informed by her own identity as a woman of color, even before Alpha Goddess was published.”

SO HERE IT IS–the PEARL OF INFINITE WISDOM:-

All genres need to diversify, and everyone is responsible for it. 

We write what we want. If Maggie Stiefvater wants to write about a Mexican/American family, I say GO FOR IT. I also say, good for you, Maggie, for writing that utterly vulnerable post, and being brave enough to cut open that vein. There’s just too much shit out there, with people breaking down boundaries, only to throw up new ones. Let’s embrace how diverse we are as a society and go from there as authors. WRITE WHAT YOU WANT, regardless of whatever “other” you want to portray. Be authentic. Be empowered. Be passionate. Be diverse. Be different. Be real. Just BE.

The end.

If you haven’t had enough pain, and want to torture yourself with more of my diversity ramblings, you can at these wonderful places:-

Interview on Diversity in Fiction with Ravishly Magazine

I’m Not White. I’m Not Black. I’m Just Me.  <— written in 2011. What can I say, I was a trailblazer.

Diversity in YA – The Diversity Dilemma

Beyond Classic Mythology – Braving the Path of Multicultural Fiction

8 Comments on My thoughts on the “WRITING THE OTHER” discussion

  1. John Monteleone
    September 8, 2015 at 2:27 pm (2 years ago)

    Dear Amalie,

    In the article above, you said “I was something else, which meant I was left to flounder in a terrifyingly large ocean and find my own way”. I used to work with you when you were in sales at Infonet and I was very impressed with your thoroughness and attention to detail. I saw you as a very strong capable woman who can succeed anywhere. What I’d like to say is, you stand on your own and don’t need to identify with any group. The Amalie Howard I knew was/is going to be a success at anything she applies herself to. I wish you success in the writing/publishing business, but I have a feeling you won’t need my wish. You’ll be successful with your own tools of success.

    Reply
    • admin
      September 9, 2015 at 10:09 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks so much for your kind words, John. They mean a lot!!

      Reply
  2. Bug
    September 7, 2015 at 3:51 pm (2 years ago)

    Fair, but the thing is, she has mostly not written diversely until now, and she is a straight white woman from a Western European background. So for her to sit on that panel as it stood was wrong. (Plus she has said some problematic things in the past, like mocking someone who asked her not to use the word “gypped.”)

    I don’t think most people are telling her not to write POC; they’re asking her to tread carefully, which is is something else.

    Reply
    • admin
      September 7, 2015 at 4:52 pm (2 years ago)

      I hear you, but if she chooses to write diversely now, then that’s a win, right? People who love her writing are going to buy her books and learn about people of different races/cultures/ethnicities, etc. More demand drives publishers to buy more diverse material. And as far as what she said or did in the past, people make mistakes. And things can always be misconstrued online or misrepresented on purpose. I think she is trying. She may have made mistakes or said stupid things, but we are all guilty of that. It’s not our place to judge.

      Reply
  3. Amy Ryan
    September 7, 2015 at 12:19 pm (2 years ago)

    Thanks Amalie for such a thoughtful and kind-hearted post. As a white author I sometimes wonder how my work would be received if I dared to write about race from the point of view of the “other.” (Is it time to retire that term?) I really love your point of view on this. Thank you for sharing it.

    Reply
    • admin
      September 7, 2015 at 4:54 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks for reading, Amy. It may be time to retire that term indeed. I used to hate seeing it on those Immigration Profiling forms whenever I entered the country. I was always “Other.” It takes a lot of voices to deconstruct preconceived notions and clear a new way forward.

      Reply
  4. Cate Hart
    September 7, 2015 at 9:07 am (2 years ago)

    I <3 U!! Your post is amazing. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • admin
      September 7, 2015 at 4:54 pm (2 years ago)

      Thank you, Cate! That means so much!

      Reply

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