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Whose Character Is It Anyway?

Photo [1] by Pexels [2] via Pixabay Free License [3]

Recently my latest creative pursuit, a departure from my stalled work in progress, has started bumping against a writerly controversy about which I had previously been only vaguely aware, that of authors receiving sharp pushback on their characters and in some cases their entire story concept because of perceived cultural disrespect or disregard. And though my pursuit has to date been a personal one, I still found myself chafing under what at first seemed arbitrary and potentially insurmountable barriers. You see, my current exercises involve crafting scenes in which I seek to embody characters unlike myself, with life experiences far removed from my own. In doing so I imagine their worlds, borne of research and admittedly from instinct too, as with any fiction. On one level the exercise is simply a creative challenge. But it is has also become an emotional touchstone since my attempts to “walk a mile in their shoes” have reawakened my empathy in an increasingly isolating world. Makes for good stuff, huh?

You would think so, or at least I did. But my joy in this new pursuit has since tempered. You see, last week I stumbled upon a New York Times article [4] about author Amélie Wen Zhao withdrawing her debut novel, Blood Heir, from publication following accusations of insensitivity and outright racism in her portrayal of a fantasy world in which characters born with special powers are enslaved. Though Zhao, a Chinese immigrant, has explained the inspiration for the novel stemmed in part from largely overlooked indentured servitude prevalent across Asia as well as her personal experience as an outsider, criticisms soon overtook the initial positive reception of advance readers, leading to her decision to withdraw the novel prior to its scheduled June release.

Not having an advance copy myself, I cannot assess the full veracity of the complaints. Yet the situation immediately struck me as unfair. After all, an author chose to forego a publishing dream pursued for most of her young life right at the cusp of its fruition. In the days since, I have devoured reports of other recent works withdrawn from publication, both before and after their market releases. And though I now have more insight into the issues at play, my feelings remain torn. So I turn to you, fellow Unboxers, to help unravel the decidedly thorny matter of the degree to which writers should shape their creations to meet the expectations – or demands? – of potential readers.

Admittedly, the issues are complex, given that they touch upon matters of identity, race, and culture. In other words, it is a territory layered in shades of gray. But for sake of discussion, let’s describe two writing extremes — 1) Staying in Your Lane, i.e., writing only from your direct personal life experience and 2) Moving in All Directions, i.e., feeling empowered to speak for characters of any background or life experience.

Staying in Your Lane

In hindsight, my first novel closely adhered to the #ownvoices mantra, though it predates the actual hashtag by a few years. I, as a gay man, wrote a tale of a gay protagonist, albeit one from a distant era. And while the story was populated by a cast of diverse characters, including secondary arcs for strong female characters, the primary thread was definitely informed by my own life experience. Is that how it should always be? Should we all ground the emotional heart of our stories, regardless of genre, in cultures similar to those in which we were born, with central characters ultimately reflecting aspects of our own life experiences?

Of course, doing so doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing. Just weeks after Zhao withdrew her debut, author Kosoko Jackson withdrew publication of his own debut novel, A Place for Wolves. It hardly mattered that his protagonists were two young gay Americans once criticisms of his decision to set their love story amidst the recent genocide in the Kosovo War, and the portrayal of a particular antagonist, began to rage.

Moving in All Directions

On the other hand, should writers have free rein to shape their fictional worlds however they see fit, fully unencumbered to speak for a character of any ethnicity, identity or creed? After all, we share an innate humanity. So in that vein if a writer crafts a tale with pure intention, mining common dreams and drives, he or she should be able to navigate the shoals safely, particularly if they enlist the counsel of members of groups represented in their tales. Since the dawn of time, storytellers have breathed life into characters and cultures far beyond their own experiences; and the best have always found a way to do so with respect and a healthy dose of humility when portraying characters of our diverse world.

What do you think? Do you believe writers should freely speak in any voice and move within any culture for their creations? Or do you feel there are limits as to how far one should push the needle before veering into cultural appropriation or risking insensitivity? Have you had personal experiences, positive or negative, with works touching upon sensitive matters of race, identity or culture?  Please share your thoughts in the comments; I look forward to hearing them.

About John J Kelley [5]

John J Kelley [6] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [7], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.