Wednesday, April 13, 2016

From Other Eyes

Becoming one with my characters is something I love about writing fiction. It's no surprise that I write a lot of cis-gender, hetero, able-bodied, English-dominant Latina protagonists. They aren't always Puerto Rican, or from a major American city, but my comfort zone definitely falls within that sphere. I write non-Latina support characters in many stories, but they have yet to shine as the main character. 

I try to stay on top of what the publishing industry is up to as it relates to diversity (which on many levels is a sad state of affairs), and the lack of diversity in children's publishing makes me wonder whether I could authentically write a non-Latina main character when I see white writers writing protagonists of color. The more I thought about it, I asked myself why I would want to.

The industry is flooded with non-POC stories. There is no need for me to try to take on an experience I have never lived. Those stories exist and are written by those who know it from the inside out. Why bust my butt trying to make a non-Latina character become real to me, and in reflection, to my reader, when someone of that group can do it from a place of authenticity? That is not where I come from, nor are they the stories of my heart.

Writing from the point of view of a young Latina fills a void in children's literature. There are more Latina protagonists now than when I was growing up, but considering the large Latino population, there is still a definite need for more.

Publishers are not immune to the growth of this segment. They have been putting out Latino imprints for over a decade trying to reach that market. There are lauded Latino authors, and awards like the Belpré named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The award is "presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth." Talk about a pipe dream...but I digress.

In graduate school I based my thesis around how to write an authentic Latina protagonist. I did it with my audience in mind, which were vastly non-Latinas. But the truth is, I never really came to a conclusion about non-Latinas writing Latina characters. Yes, I believe that a writer should write what she believes in, and honor the characters that come to her. That is why female authors write male protagonists, and humans write animal stories. It is why writers in 2016 write about life in the 1700's or create settings on other planets. They are writing the story they have to tell, and I'm not knocking that, but I have to admit that when I hear about a book with a Latina protagonist, I always wonder whether the author is Latina. When the author is not, it bothers me. I immediately feel protective and defensive of my culture so vulnerable in the hands of someone who has not lived it day in and day out. I find myself disappointed, cynical and a little miffed.

It's hypocritical because I believe we should have more such stories, but on the other hand, if non-Latinas are writing the Latina experience, who's going to give a Latina the chance to do it? We live in a country of quotas. A publisher will pass on a book because they already have book by an Asian, Latino, gay, fill-in-the-blank book coming out that year. Marginalized writers don't have the luxury of assuming their ethnicity isn't a factor in whether or not a publisher wants to take on their book, even if the topic has nothing to do with race, gender, sexuality, abilities, etc. With so few options, it feels as though white authors who write outside their ethnicity are stealing an already minuscule space for such stories. It's a selfish and controversial way of looking at it, but as my book gets passed from editor to editor operating within these confinements, I can't help it. 

That's not to say that a writer can't do a good job writing outside her experience, but so often there is a person of that experience in the background as a reference, guide and muse who goes unrecognized, or uncompensated, or under-appreciated and that bothers me. I've heard the argument that if a person can write from the perspective of another species, era or planet, then they should be able to write from the perspective of another gender, ethnicity, race or sexual identity. The problem with that theory is that there are no animals, extra-terrestrials or historical figures coming back from the dead to tell their stories. But, I am here. I can tell my own story. I can let readers in on what it's like to live in brown skin in a world that looks down on it. I offer a true depiction of what it's like to be a woman of color in a country that forces me to prove my worth on a daily basis. More importantly, there are other women just like me who need me to tell stories from their perspective. It sounds self-important, although I don't mean for it to. It's just my way of keeping it real.

If a writer wants to write about another experience, by all means I applaud the interest. However, when that desire infringes upon the opportunities of others telling their own stories, it becomes another example of a privilege I am denied. If publishers understood the importance of kids reading about themselves from a place of shared experience in the way they would like us to believe they do, they wouldn't limit the number of books they publish and support by ethnicity, gender identification, creed, etc. But, historically, as with many other art forms, the gatekeepers have a limited tolerance for diversity. There is an unsaid understanding that most publishers are not going to publish more than a few titles per year of any given non-norm topic or non-white writer. It is an antiquated way of doing business that negates the demand, but it is the way it is done. There are several writers, whites included who are working to change this, but there is a long way to go before we will live in a world where all stories are judged by the content of their characters, and not by the color of the skin of the writer.

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