It’s a dicey decision for a writer to adopt the perspective of a character who is vastly different from their own identity. Yet that’s precisely what I’ve chosen to do with Main Squeeze. Marty, the main character, is a Korean-American trans man. I, on the other hand, am a cisgender white Canadian woman.
So, what compelled me to adopt (or appropriate, as the case may be) this voice?
Why White Writers Need to Stay in Their Lanes
White writers are often told we need to steer clear of adopting the perspectives of people who don’t share our racial identity. That, it’s reasoned, is best left to ownvoices writers who have lived experience to draw on.
And we can certainly see why. White writers often stereotype and perpetuate harmful portrayals of non-white characters, even when those characters are side characters.
There’s also something inherently colonial about white authors co-opting the voices of characters who share identities with the often marginalized, oppressed, and (“formerly”) colonized peoples of the world. Pretending that we’re giving “voice to the voiceless” or “speaking on behalf” may sound pleasant at first blush, but it ignores power imbalances. It obscures the racist power structures that create the optical illusion that BIPOC groups are “voiceless” or somehow need someone to speak for them.
BIPOC Voices Exist; You’re Just Not Listening
Why can’t BIPOC individuals speak for themselves? They can, actually, and they do and will. They do not need white writers to speak for them. What they do need is the (incredibly white) publishing complex to give them the space to speak, to hand over the mic.
I mean, all we have to do is look at American Dirt. A white writer was paid a seven-figure advance to write about the crisis at the US-Mexican border. In doing so, she co-opted a voice that wasn’t hers, even going so far as to masquerade as having certain Latinx heritage and connections, when before she’d claimed none.
And (white) publishing built her up. They signed her, not Latinx ownvoices authors who had direct experience with the same topics and events. They gave this woman more than a million dollars. And they put significant budget behind the marketing of this book, aiming to make it a bestseller. To make it the authoritative narrative on the border crisis.
Yet this is a narrative constructed by someone who is looking in from outside. What happens if we put all that money and time and effort behind narratives that are forged by the people inside? As I said, people of color don’t need white folks to speak for them or on their behalf. They are quite capable—and much more capable than outsiders looking in.
So when white writers adopt these voices, we’re often propping up white power structures. Publishing put its weight behind a white narrative, signed a white woman, and hung ownvoices authors out to dry.
Given all that, we can see how inherently problematic it is for someone like me to adopt the perspective of a character like Marty Yoon.
So why did I do it?
We Must All Work to Take Down the House
One thing that doesn’t entirely sit comfortably for me is the idea that white folks must never adopt the perspective of anyone else. While I can respect the position—given the tangle of white power structures and inherently racist excuses that are given to support so many publishing decisions—I also see that leading to a different problem.
Imagine this situation. White writers only ever write white people. White publishing continues to be run by white people. Those people sign largely white writers, who then only write white people.
That should sound familiar. It’s basically how publishing has operated since Day 1. I mean, all we have to do is look at the recent NYT report that just five percent of fiction since 1950 has been authored by BIPOC writers. How about the annual diversity reports and their dismal numbers? Publishing really doesn’t seem to be inclined to change this “whites only” construct.
That means we end up stuck in the same inherent loop. The only books we get are white.
The Racism Is Coming from Inside the (Publishing) House
I am not trying to argue that the industry itself does not need to change and do better. Publishing must diversify its workforce, bring BIPOC individuals to places of power, and it needs to work to change its culture to support both authors and professionals. It must extend seven-figure deals to ownvoices writers, instead of offering those to white writers. It must sign more BIPOC writers. Publishing lists can’t stop with one token BIPOC narrative per year or per season.
If we make these changes, our narratives will become more diverse. We will get away from this whitewashed book world, where white people hire other white people to write about white people, and we never see anything else. Books will become more representative of the world as it actually is, versus some whitewashed daydream harbored by closeted white supremacists.
So “white writers writing BIPOC characters” is not the answer to this situation. There is, in my view, no singular way to take down a racist industry and rebuild it. We have to be willing to move in from every angle.
What Roles Should White Writers Play?
The question is what role white writers have in this. Some people believe the role is for white writers to move aside, sit down, shut up. I think that’s a good role; we do need to move to the sidelines, to cheer BIPOC writers and champion their narratives. To read them. To recommend them.
At the same time, it’s not up to us to “fix” the problem. Again, we have to remember we’re not here to “give voice to the voiceless.” We have to create space, but without any of the bullshit baggage that goes along with it. Make space, but without asking for accolades for it. Simply do this because it’s the right thing to do–because BIPOC narratives by BIPOC authors are wonderful.
Yet there’s an issue here, particularly at the moment, in that white writers disproportionately make up the majority pool of writers. It’s difficult to convince white editors that BIPOC authors are great. Some people maybe don’t believe there are BIPOC writers or that they’re a rarity or some other racist bullshit, because the industry is so largely white. (And that too can discourage BIPOC individuals from seeing a role for themselves, a space where they “fit” in publishing. Racism, we must remember, is self-sustaining.)
Leaving Behind What’s Comfortable
On top of all that, white writers cannot simply leave all the work of decolonizing, of diversifying, to BIPOC writers. It doesn’t make sense for white writers to say, “Well, you write diverse narratives, and we’ll continue on over here with a vision of an all-white medieval Europe that never existed.”
If we do that, we end up right back where we started. White people continue to hire other white people to write about white people, because that’s “what sells.” Because it’s safe.
So we must also diversify our casts of characters. We must also be more inclusive. And in doing so, we can help to challenge the normalacy of whiteness.
Always a Sidekick, Never a Hero
The other concern I have with the idea that white writers should never adopt non-white voices is that it creates an optics problem. So long as white writers are the majority, then white characters will continue to take center stage in starring roles.
That will occur even if white writers opt to make their casts more diverse. What then happens is that every single “diverse” character by a white writer takes on a secondary role. They are forever relegated to being the sidekick—never the hero.
I have an issue with the message that sends. It suggests that BIPOC characters only exist to prop up or support the white heroes. It suggests they don’t have their own lives or adventures—or, if they do, these are tangential, secondary, of lesser concern to the white “heroes.”
What Problems Are Actually Priority?
That is, at least from my perspective, also an issue. And, so while I appreciate that white writers must be cautioned against “speaking on behalf” of people or “giving voice to the voiceless,” never setting a single BIPOC character as the hero of our narratives seems problematic too.
Maybe it’s not as problematic. And certainly, as I said, the solution to the issue can’t be “white writers write BIPOC narratives.” The solution has to be multi-pronged, and this idea is one (very small) part of it. Unfortunately, it tends to be the “default” solution white publishers adopt, because it is easy. You already have white writers, so just get them to write BIPOC narratives.
That is not the answer. But neither is letting white writers continue to write “diversity token” characters, “Black best friends,” or entirely whitewashed casts. Because publishing has showed us its resistance to change already. The changes has to start with writers. And again, this isn’t the only solution; it should not be the default. It needs to be paired with and a take a backseat to so many other actions white writers must take.
Challenging White as the Default Setting
Another reason I wanted to adopt a character who was non-white here was to challenge the default white setting we often see with narratives. So often, if a character isn’t explicitly described as non-white—often in an exoticizing manner—we assume the character is white. Writers also fall victim to the issue of describing their non-white characters, but rarely do they put white characters’ race front and center.
Main Squeeze, in some ways, seemed to provide a perfect venue to challenge this pattern. Marty is a non-white character, but, for a large part of the book, he’s the only human character. He’s the only human the naga have ever seen.
On this planet, Marty is the “default setting.” And a criticism often lobbed at white writers is that they spend a good deal of time having their non-white characters ruminate on their “otherness.” Really, “otherness” only exists when it can be constructed against a norm–most often “whiteness.”
Normalizing Versus Exoticizing
White writers understand this, by and large, even if they don’t consciously think about it. I mean, how many of us sit and ruminate on how white I am. Do we talk endlessly about our lily-white features or our particular nose or the shape of our eyes? I sure don’t.
We usually spend relatively little time thinking about these features. One reason we get away with not describing white characters in any great depth is because white features as so normalized as to be unremarkable. We spend more time describing non-white characters because they are “exceptions” to the norm. They are something “other” than white, which must be described in order to show the contrast.
In the absence of the white “norm,” Marty is no longer “othered.” He simply is.
So Marty spends very little time talking about his appearance or ruminating on how “different” he is from other human beings. His racial markers fade into the background against a different kind of “otherness”: his difference from the naga, an alien species.
There’s obviously a danger in this. My editing team remarked at a couple of points that they found it easy to forget Marty is not white. The various small details I did include were meant to mark Marty’s ethnicity—but without necessarily “othering” or “exoticizing.” At the same time, they might be considered stereotypical, even harmful.
And given that they’re only hints here and there, we could certainly make the accusation that I, as an outsider, have only “pasted on” Marty’s Korean heritage, rather than allowing it to come bone-deep from within the character.
More, More, More Representation
We can see that this is a whole mess to untangle. Should white writers steer clear of including diverse characters for fear of doing harm? Should we avoid writing those characters as POV characters, even if that means worthy and deserving characters end up playing second-fiddle to white “heroes” in every narrative—with all the baggage that implies?
Clearly, the conclusion I’ve come to here is no. I fully acknowledge that there will be people who think I shouldn’t have touched this narrative with a ten-foot pole. There will be people who find Marty problematic, for a hundred different reasons, not the least of which is his identity. There will be ownvoices readers and other readers who feel Marty is harmful or doesn’t “ring true.”
Yet I still think it’s important to put this character out there. And that’s because I believe the only real answer to the conundrum must simply be more representation.
Of course, as I’ve said, that “more representation” can’t come from white writers alone; it shouldn’t be more rep from largely white writers either. It must be more representation, on all fronts. We must have more ownvoices writers. We must have more diversity within the walls of publishing, publishers who extend seven-figure advances to ownvoices writers and put serious marketing dollars behind them. And we must uplift and support ownvoices writers.
It can’t be a single-pronged answer. It has to be a multi-pronged, collaborative effort from everyone involved. It’s not fair for white writers to abandon ownvoices writers to do all the heavy lifting, but it’s also not on us to “steal the spotlight” or put harmful rep out there.
Of course, we’re also going to screw up. There will be readers who feel Marty and my portrayal of him doesn’t ring true, that he’s harmful! And, in some ways, he likely is.
Marty is a profoundly traumatized character, so he may not ring true for everyone. Many people will find him frustrating or problematic for those reasons.
When we have more representation, we’re better able to cope with nuance. When we have limited representation, ownvoices authors are under enormous pressure to be “perfect,” to please everyone, to leave “messy” characters and narratives out in the cold.
More representation is the only way to get past this issue.
Good Intentions …
To that end, I’m not going to claim my book is the be-all, end-all of representation. I’m not going to suggest it’s perfect or that I’ve even done a good job. Even intent can’t save me here—after all, we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Yet it is one more book, one more narrative to add to what should be a heap.
And that’s not to say my narrative isn’t “taking up space.” It’s more that we need to stop thinking of space as limited. If we want more representation, then, yes, we need to swap out many of the seats. But we can also think about expanding the table, adding more seats, too.
That, I think, will be how we get where we want to go, how we come to a better representation of the world we actually live in.
Resolving to Do Better
As I said, good intent doesn’t absolve me from any sins here. If nothing else, I hope that Marty’s story is one small move toward increasing diversity in publishing, a way of helping us fumble forward.
This, of course, can’t be my only contribution. I need to do more work, to listen and learn more. I need to uplift BIPOC writers who are already putting these narratives out into the wild.
There are other actions to take as well, beyond these small moves. And, at the end of the year, that’s my resolution. To do better on these fronts. To act, to show, instead of tell. And to, hopefully, fail forward toward a more diverse future in publishing.