Monday, August 31, 2020

Who Tells the Story?

Years ago, I pitched a YA to an agent that involved a multiracial Hawaiian, Chinese, and white girl investigating the Fall Queen election at her school and well, accidentally unraveling a few conspiracies. The agent asked me if I minded sharing my own ethnicity. I responded that I am in fact Hawaiian, Chinese, and white. The agent then told me a story about how she had once acquired a story about a non-white or not just white character from an author she suspected was not of a similar background and so she just didn't ask. That way if acquiring editors asked her, she could just say she didn't know.
I smiled and nodded. 
That agent ultimately did not acquire me and honestly I should look at that story because I think it had the bones of a great idea but I wasn't quite there yet.
I bring this up now to say that specific portion of the exchange stuck with me. I was always able to identify the mercenary nature of it. I do understand that part of agenting is mercenary. 
And I mention it was years ago because it's quite possible that agent has learned and changed her viewpoint on this. 
I will also tell you I also got a rejection from an agent who specifically requested stories about Pacific Islanders who did not ask for my ethnicity and took time to tell me that my story was not about Pacific Islanders (it was indeed about Hawaiians) and that she had family who lived in Hawaii. (Me too!)
So I do understand that there are lots of ways to make mistakes and ultimately in either of these cases I feel certain had the agent loved the pages more, my ethnicity would not have mattered. 
But, there are reasons the own voices movement gathered some steam.  It is because people with greater knowledge and understanding of a culture tell stories that fill a gap.  People diving into the tiny details of their culture, tell stories that in the end are more universal. 
But we've all also seen the Lee and Low numbers on publishing diversity and the Ripped Bodice numbers.  There are still more white people writing stories about everything.  
But, it is easy, as a white person, to think that the reason your story isn't getting acquired is because it's not diverse.  
The thing is, as we know from the Lee and Low numbers, a lot of people - agents and editors - are getting stories that fall outside their cultural knowledge.  Of course, a good story is a good story.  But stories that fall outside your area of cultural knowledge can cause harms that you yourself had not been trained to know about.  That doesn't make you a bad person.  But it means collectively, the industry has to do better.   
If I wrote a great story about a group that is woefully underrepresented in fiction then yeah, it is especially incumbent on me and the others involved in bringing this story to people to make sure the book does what it is supposed to and harms the least amount of people. 
So, a deal announcement was recently made for a person who grew up on Hawaii but is not Hawaiian, who appears to have been inspired by a random thing that she saw in a cross cultural display that she may or may not understand to be a cross cultural display. (Deal announcements often don't allow for subtleties.) 
And it matters. The book may be great. But an author who's been out there saying she should get to tell stories about native Hawaiians because most of them are dead these days - well, it does not appear that she is approaching the subject with sensitivity or cultural understanding. 
Am I saying no one can write about anyone else? No! Am I saying if you are going to assume that because you grew up next to something that you understand it without doing work, then it sounds like you aren't ready? Yes.
So I started this with a discussion of agents, because I think agents and editors need to think about this too. If they are acquiring stories, they need to figure out how to ask what makes you qualified to tell this story? And yes, hire sensitivity readers. But you should know people to call to look at it before you acquire. Because sometimes story problems are big. And you owe it to the author and agent to know what kind of ask you might need to make in the editing process. And if you don't know, then why are you acquiring such a story?

Edited to note: The author in question has pulled the book. The concerns that got us to this point remain.

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