In their novel All American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely confront racism head-on, tackling police bias and violence and White privilege, in a story that moves back and forth between the perspective of two teens, one Black, one White. This novel by two authors, one Black, one White, has me continuing to think about the question of who writes what, and reflecting on what it means to me as a reader.
Never, for one minute, did I wonder about the authenticity of Rashad Butler, the book’s African American main character, and his family and Black and Latino friends.
By contrast, I don’t know what to make of the portrayal of Kara in A.L. Sonnichsen’s Red Butterfly, about a Chinese girl living with her adoptive White mother in China. The novel adds unusual and weighty complexities to an adoption story (which is never an uncomplicated topic) when Kara discovers her mother has never officially adopted her; it’s why they live a life of such seclusion in China, and also why they’ve never been able to go to the United States, where her adoptive father is—her mother has no papers for Kara, an infant she found abandoned while living in China. When the authorities finally discover them, Kara is sent to an orphanage, and eventually to a another family in the U.S., all while experiencing understandably conflicted feelings about her White mother, who loves her and whom she loves, and her new family.
What is the principle difference between these books when it comes to evaluating them for me? In short, All American Boys co-author Jason Reynolds is Black. A. L. Sonnichsen, the author of Red Butterfly, is White. She grew up in Hong Kong, spent time in China as an adult, and adopted a child from China after a lengthy time fostering her. She did not approach this story ungrounded or uninformed. Still, how do I know if her portrayal of Kara and her situation is accurate and authentic culturally, not to mention emotionally? (I mean that as genuine question, not one weighted with judgment: I really am not sure but I am struggling.)
Which brings me to a simple truth: If I am reading a fictional book focusing on the experience of someone who is African American, or Chinese, or Puerto Rican, or Lakota and the author is writing from the perspective of a cultural insider, I don’t question the authenticity of that portrayal. (Although there have been authors who make claims of Native heritage in particular that are spurious, so we can’t always take everything stated as true.) I take what I am reading first and foremost at face value, as one story that offers one perspective from a reliable source.
But if the writer is not African American or Chinese or Puerto Rican or Lakota, I want to know what gives her or him the authority to write that character and situation.
Asking the critical questions of “who can” and “who can’t” doesn’t change the fact that, always, someone will. For me the question of “can you write” or “should you write,” the complexities of which have been explored probingly and eloquently on this blog and elsewhere, comes down to a matter of trust when I have a book in hand. And what I care about at that point is whether the author had the knowledge and understanding and experience to write that character and situation reliably. It might be incredibly literary, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
To answer that question, I start from a position of skeptical. In other words, I don’t give my trust away easily. I try not to anyway.
It’s a matter of trust for children, too. As an adult, I know to ask questions. I’m still learning to probe more deeply, but at least I know to be skeptical. (Though I think I’m not always skeptical enough.) Children don’t know to ask unless they’ve been taught to do so. Or they’ve learned to ask because they’ve seen essential aspects of their own identity misrepresented, misunderstood, whitewashed.
The matter of trust becomes profoundly important when we think of those children.
As a parent, I remember the trust it required that first time I sent my daughter off to school when she was starting kindergarten. It was a little terrifying.
Now I try to imagine being the parent of a child of color or First/Native Nations child. What layers of fear surround the school experience for them that I can't begin to understand, other than in an effort to be an empathetic outsider? I imagine some of that fear comes from wondering what might be said or done as their children begin to move through school—what expectations will or won’t be placed upon them, what judgments will or won’t be made, what opportunities will they or won’t they be given because of racism. And I imagine at least some of that fear may come from wondering what it is they'll be asked to read and see. What depictions of experience reflecting or denigrating or negating their racial and cultural identity will they be shown, generally with innocent or even the best intentions?
I imagine all of that. And I’m writing about it here. But my empathy has limits. It can even be wrong. So what I can’t imagine is making the leap from such thinking to building an entire book around an experience I cannot truly understand from the inside out.
I’m not a novelist. But I am a reader and critic. And I confess, more and more I find myself not knowing what to do with books by White authors featuring primary characters of color. I’m not sure anymore what it will take for me to trust that they’ve done it well, and by well I mean accurately, authentically, so that a cultural insider will say “Yes, this works.” (And that’s not to assume a homogony of opinion among such readers.)
None of this means I won’t be moved or entertained by what they’ve written. And then I’ll wrestle with what I know and what I feel I need to find out in order to decide if I can feel confident recommending it to teachers and librarians. I won’t always get answers or assurances. I’m not convinced it’s absolutely impossible to write responsibly outside one’s own culture. But in general, my skepticism is growing regarding whom to trust.