Who Should Represent Minorities in Literature? [A Discussion]

Who Should Represent Minorities in Literature? [A Discussion]

Hey Catastrophes!

Today’s discussion post is going to be something I have had praying on my mind for quite a while now. And that is simply representation in YA literature, especially that of marginalised people, or minority groups. I’m going to touch on a lot of things here and don’t mean to offend anyone, or call out anyone specific. But I’ve been seeing a lot of drama going on across the bookish Instagram and Twitter realm and wanted to add in my own little opinion. Meek as it may be.

Lately, readers have been demanding more representation of minorities in novels. I think that is GREAT. We are getting more romantic preferences, gender, race, religious, and feminist representation, to only name a few. There seem to be more authors on the rise who identify as a minority themselves and their works are finally hitting the light. Diversity is trending, or at least starting to trend in YA literature. We’ve come quite a long way, but we have longer to go. But as it goes from the progress we’ve made thus far? It’s definitely a reason to celebrate!

But… hang on.

 

girl reading in window made of leaves.jpg

 

Sometimes, non-minority authors decide to be brave. They see we’re asking for more diversity, and that we want to see them in lead roles. So they have a genius idea. Although they may be European, they’ve decided to have an Asian main character. (Okay, this is an example, so bear with me.) They do their research. They talk to people who are within the culture and know more than they do. They understand they are out of their element, but they are trying… because we’re asking for it.

A lot of the time these authors end up getting called out for doing this. Mostly because they are writing about something they cannot entirely relate to or completely understand. And I do believe that is tricky. Maybe it’s better their Asian character is a side character instead of the main one because it’s hard to write about things you haven’t experienced before. These characters have to be written with sensitivity. One of the novels I’ve written in my past is about a Caucasian, rich American girl who gets kidnapped in China and forced into factory work. I am not Caucasian, or rich, or American, and never have been kidnapped – let alone done any factory work. But I do my research, very carefully, and I interview people who may have experienced or identify as any of the above.

 

girl reading on windowsill

 

I’m not excusing all authors. Some authors don’t do as good research as they should do, or make a grave mistake in representing a culture they are attempting to take on and perhaps even offend people in the process. There are some who believe you should only write what you know. But if you keep focusing on what you know, you never get the chance to learn anything new.

By calling out authors who are not a minority and are attempting to write minority characters – whether that is a central character or a side one – I think we, as readers, need to cut them some slack. If we keep on badgering and pestering them for every mistake, they may get scared away from writing minority characters. And wasn’t the aim in the first place to see them represented in literature? Yes, good representation is what we are aiming for, but maybe it will take some work to get there.

 

girl on pages of a book

 

Some authors will only be including minorities because it’s a trend. Some will be including them because they believe they need representation. Sometimes they will be side characters, sometimes main characters. Sometimes they will be written by someone who identifies with that minority group, which is brilliant. They are authors that need more limelight. Sometimes it will be by non-minority authors – that is also good; it means they understand why we need representation and want to support us by including it themselves.

My main point in all of this, is that we need to be helping each other rather than fighting against each other. Especially if the result of the cause is something which means more equality and living in harmony despite differences across cultures and history. A goal like this might seem idealistic, but I’m the kind of person who believes it is a possibility in our future if we try to achieve it.

There needs to be less us against them, and more us and them.

 

Foot Image for Posts and Whatnot

 

Olivia’s Question: Do you think marginalised and minority characters should only be written by those who identify as marginalised/a minority? Why/why not?

Olivia-Savannah x



30 thoughts on “Who Should Represent Minorities in Literature? [A Discussion]”

  • Great discussion question, Olivia! I don’t think “marginalised and minority characters should only be written by those who identify as marginalised/a minority.” Just like, I don’t think an author needs to live through WWII to capture that period exceptionally. However, I think authors need to be mindful and do one heck of a research before tackling such characters.

  • This has been on my mind for a while now and you just expressed everything I feel about this subject. I agree with you, we as readers need to be welcoming when an author, who isn’t in the same minority group as their main character, decides to write a book about that character. Yes, they should to extensively research and maybe hire sensitivity readers who are in that minority group but we shouldn’t be calling out white authors just because they write about an Asian character (random example). This is probably really daunting to authors who do want to include a diverse cast but is afraid of the retaliation. I love how the book community is becoming more diverse and inclusive but casting white authors out so you could include minority groups isn’t inclusion. We really do need to be helping each other, not fighting against each other, that was a great way to put it!

  • I wrote a long comment, but I think it wasn’t posted for some reason?? Basically, in a nutshell, I agree with you 100%, and I think we shouldn’t got after authors every time they make a small mistake when they’re actually trying to write diversely. We need to remember authors are still people, and they’re usually trying their best.

  • Awesome post! I agree, it seems to be getting better but there’s still room for more representation. And definitely, authors trying to write diversity for the write reasons but not doing a perfect job should be acceptable. It is harder to write characters where you haven’t experienced the same as them, but if they make a decent effort I think it should be respected. Also, character reps don’t suit everyone of that minority anyway no matter how amazing they are, so by calling them out because they made their character do this or that and that’s “wrong” of the minority is disrespecting those of the minority who may do so.

  • Love this discussion! No, I don’t think that non-minority authors should only focus on what they know. Do I want to be represented well in literature? Sure. Does it always have to be an ownvoices representation? No! Yes, sometimes an author can actually get lots of things wrong when writing outside of their culture/religion/sexual orientation/gender etc… But I don’t think they should be thrown under the bridge for it. Let them learn from their mistakes and try to do better. Research can go a long way in this day and age. The key is to not let stereotypes get in the way of creating a character.

  • It’s a fascinating discussion and, personally, I lean towards authors including minority characters, but absolutely doing their research. Whether it’s a female author writing a male character’s thoughts or white writing black thoughts or able bodied writing about disability, imagination is the lifeblood of good fiction, but it needs solid research to be convincing and feel authentic.

    I love to read books from all over the world and it’s interesting that the diversity arguments do seem particularly directed at white western authors. Perhaps this is because their books are more widely marketed and so easier for readers to find? Or perhaps a percentage of readers still aren’t comfortable picking up books that are Not by white western authors? I feel that the more frequently diverse characters are included, the more this will become the norm. Hopefully standards of representation will then rise across the board and more minority authors will be encouraged to write and publish their stories too.

    By the way Olivia, I love the illustrations on this post! Especially the ‘through the hedge’ one 🙂

  • I think everyone should write about a diverse range of characters, but they need to do their research. I don’t think authors should only write about characters that resembles themselves or know the most about because that would make for a boring book with all characters looking the same. And if only people from a minority are “allowed” to write books with main characters from a minority then we are not going to have diversity in our books.

    But I agree, authors should do an extensive research and not just dive head in first writing about a character that is from a minority they have no idea about. But we shouldn’t be harsh on those who make a mistake – that’s only natural. We shouldn’t call them out or anything, but bring arguments and tell them what they did wrong and how to do better, but without being rude and pushing them to never write about a minority chapter ever again.

    I think authors that write stereotypical characters deserve a bit of calling out, though, especially when it is clear they do not even try to understand anything about the minority. A bit of cliche here and there is okay, but when a character is a pure stereotype then I no longer enjoy the reading because I am too annoyed at the author.

    • I agree with everything you’ve said! We need non-minority authors writing minority characters because otherwise it will be hard to get to see them, and if there are mistakes we have to handle it calmly and present it to them. It’s also the author’s duty to take that feedback on board and do better next time.

      But yes, we shouldn’t have stereotypical characters because that usually isn’t the right representation. I guess the tricky side of research is that it often produces stereotypical ideas when you look. I think deep research is what is needed and maybe being unafraid to ask people who idenitify as a minority to help out in some scenarios and qwith the cultural representation.

      100% Stereotype is never going to be a good thing…

  • This is such a lovely, thoughtful post, Olivia! I of course can see both sides of the argument, but I also feel like you at the end of the day- that good, well-researched and well developed diverse characters written by non-minority authors are definitely a positive. I mean- obviously like you said, some authors won’t be doing their homework and such, and that is NOT okay- we definitely don’t need bad rep! But for the most part, I think authors really ARE trying to get it right. And like- if I am writing a book, I want it to be diverse! Because how on earth would it be realistic to write a book with only people who are exactly like ANY of us? Books are a microcosm, and as such, they should be as diverse as we are! So any step in that direction is a win- as long as the authors handle it responsibly, like you said!

    • I totally agree with everything you say here, Shannon! If we want to represent the world properly then of course it is going to end up being a diverse book! It just takes a bit of research and care in writing to get it there. And if we all help each other, I think authors will be able to get it right, and readers will be able to enjoy being represented ^^

  • I completely agree. Readers complain when a white cishet able etc. author writes a book w/o diversity, but then they complain when they write a book with diversity. These non-marginalized authors just can’t win. But I think it’s great when anyone tries to write diversely as long as they really are trying. Like you, I think we should cut them some slack. If they make a mistake or portray something harmfully in the book, of course point it out in the review so that they can learn and so other readers can understand, but there’s no need to attack the author for it.

    • It feels like a really tense situation overall where no one is happy, but also one we can change and make happier for everyone! I’m glad you agree with me <3

  • “we need to be helping each other rather than fighting against each other.” I agree that all society should be helping each other, not just in the publishing industry. Nice post, and thanks for sharing your views on it. I didn’t know there was an issue with diversity in stories, but maybe it’s felt more in YA?

    As a writer, I do stick with what I know because no matter how much research I do, I will never understand what it means to be black in America. I will never truly understand how difficult it is to remain quiet when pulled over by police no matter how unjust. I will never understand how difficult it is to live in lower income neighborhoods and fear for my life. This applies to all races. We can try to research and write it, but the reality of it is that we can’t possibly “feel” what the different races we’re writing about feel. Emotions are transferred from writer to reader, so if the feeling is forced, it can ruin the entire works. I think if I was to tackle such a project, I’d collaborate with someone from another race, so we could both get it right.

    My future project will attempt to tackle Germany and their culture. With the help of my husband, I hope to get it right.

    As a reader, I can’t help but scream when dialogue and representation doesn’t quite reflect the character, whether it be a minority or not. But maybe it’s because my writerly tentacles wrap around these discrepancies and I can’t let them go.

    Take care.

    • You’re right – the idea of helping each other goes above and beyond the publishing industry and should be applied to life as a whole.

      I do think it is something more felt in the YA community (but maybe in other audiences as well. I can only speak for YA because it’s the community and literature I know best.)

      I think to each author their own. It is true – as you aren’t a black American you’ll never be able to know what it is truly like to be one living in America. But I don’t think it means you can’t represent them at all? More so that if you choose to, you need to do research and be very careful. But I’m well aware a lot of authors won’t choose to do so because it is something they don’t know! And that’s not a crime or anything. Authors can only write what they are comfortable with.

      I hope you will be able to tackle Germany and the German culture right in your novel. I’m sure your husband will be a great help to this!

      It can be internally frustrating when the representation is done wrong! And of course, we are allowed to feel that. Maybe just be careful with how we let the author know (if we choose to tell them about their mistake, that is.)

      All the best, Denise! Thanks for discussing with me. 🙂

  • I completely agree with you! Research is the key. Writers have to write outside of their own experience or all of the characters would look alike in a story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • I really think it is as important to write outside of your own experience as it is to read out of your comfort zone! Research makes the world go round 😀

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective. I think there are some people on Twitter who like to speak for everyone. If they don’t like a book, they’ll say that it’s “harmful” to a group of people, and then they’ll harass anybody who likes the book. I think we need to remember that we’ve all led different lives. A book can’t capture the experiences of everybody. What seems unrealistic to one reader may be highly realistic to another. One person on Twitter can’t speak for everybody.

    • As much as I do love Twitter sometimes it can be quite a ragey place… And you’re very right. Not everyone has the same experiences similarly they can’t all be included into a single book. Couldn’t have said it better myself, AJ 😉

  • I completely agree but there is something I saw on twitter, don’t remember who wrote it or when, that said that non-minority authors could have a diverse character as their main character but they have to be careful and one thing is to write about minorities experiences and other thing entirely is to simply make your main character a minority. Imagine a non-minority author writing a YA fantasy novel and making all his/her characters diverse. One thing is that and the other is trying to write a book talking about experiences they don’t know about, if you know what I mean. I don’t think a white author should write a book about, for example, the diaspora experience of an indian in America because they either do a very extensive research or know someone who has been through that or it won’t work. This is obviously a more extreme case but it can happen. If I were to write a novel, I can include sexually and racially diverse characters but writing a book about those experiences can be very tricky, you know, because I’m white and straight. Authors need to be very aware and don’t get offended when they are called out. You own it and try to be better next time. I hate when authors are call out in a polite manner and they simply remain silent.
    This is a very good debate and one I hope doesn’t fade away. I’m becoming more and more aware of my reading choices and more critical when reading about certain issues. I’ll never become fully educated, that’s for sure, but as much as authors need to be aware of this, I think also readers should be too. And I’m gonna leave it here because I wrote a long comment as it is.

    • I totally agree with what you said. When it comes to simple (or at least more straightforward) representation such as having a diverse cast in a fantasy novel or something which isn’t directly about the struggles of being a minority, then it can be easier for them to write it with making fewer mistakes. But when it comes to writing about the struggle it could be especially difficult and perhaps beyond some authors capabilities…

      I think if you do end up called out you should respond in a way that lets readers know they have been heard and that they are accepting that something needs to change. It’s important to be able to take criticism. And we should be careful with how we call out authors as well.

      Yes, I agree with you – it goes both ways with the authors and with the readers too. Awareness is the key element.

    • It just seems like there can be no right way of doing things for wauthors who are trying to include diversity! But it’s good to see with this discussion that people are aware of it and willing to give them chances 🙂

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