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Take Four! A New, Two-part “It’s Complicated” Conversation

As part of CBC Diversity’s ongoing effort, we’re pleased to present the fourth dialogue in the “It’s Complicated!” blog series starting next week, and for the first time, it will run over two consecutive weeks, starting on Monday. This time we’ve invited five authors to share their thoughts about writing inside their cultural perspective, and five authors to discuss writing outside their cultural perspective.
I think most would agree that in an ideal world, the diversity depicted in books and of their creators would match the diversity of our world. But I know some might disagree on the best way to get there—what if that’s not immediately possible? Is it better to have white/straight/able-bodied, etc. authors write books about non-white/LGBT/disabled, etc. characters? Can those characters truly be authentic? What if the only way authors of color can achieve commercial success is by writing books with non-diverse characters? And can those books be authentic, too? Are there any topics that should be “off-limits” to outsider writers? Do you trust an author you perceive to be an insider more than you would an outsider?

As an editor, I’ve worked with authors writing both inside and outside of their cultural perspective, and don’t feel that one group of books is more authentic than the other. I’m more confident editing a book about, say, an Asian-American girl that’s also written by an Asian-American author, but perhaps I’m not as careful—in some cases, when the author is an “outsider”, I’m perhaps more strict about getting additional readers and fact-checkers to make sure depictions feel authentic to an “insider.” I am well aware that one reader can’t always represent their entire group, but it helps us “get it right” as best we can.
imageIn my experience, even when an author is writing a book from an “inside” perspective, the book may still be criticized for somehow “getting it wrong.” Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen is a book about a half Taiwanese, half white teen girl. Her mother is super strict, and has a very strong negative reaction when she finds out her daughter is dating a boy whose parents come from mainland China. Now, this is a very real, very true-to-life reaction of many Taiwanese parents Justina and I know personally. And yet she still had someone tell her that the depiction of the mother was unrealistic. 
Isn’t “authentic” such a nebulous thing to recognize and define? What is authentic to one reader will ring false to another. (And for the record, Justina and I still maintain that the depiction is realistic—and our mothers would agree!) For me, this is all to say: if you’re writing as an outsider, don’t be overly paranoid about getting it wrong. As long as you do your research, are thoughtful about how and what you’re writing, and get appropriate readers, be confident that you’ve done what you need to do. Because no book can be right for all readers.
There will always be some debate regarding who has the authority to write certain books. Cheryl Klein and Cynthia Leitich Smith covered much of this debate in their posts for our very first “It’s Complicated” series, as have many others here on this blog. Because this is such a layered topic, we decided to double the fun and spread this new series over two weeks. Week one will focus on the outsider perspective, and we’re excited to have authors Walter Dean Myers, A.S. King, Graham Salisbury, Elizabeth Kiem, and Patricia McCormick speak to their experiences of writing outside of their own cultural group.
Week two will focus on the insider perspective with authors Sharon Flake, Diana Lopez, Bil Wright, Alex London, and Mitali Perkins.
I look forward to reading what our esteemed panel of guest bloggers have to share with us, and I guarantee that whatever they write will be scintillating. Please join us!

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