Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Matter of Trust

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.


Wendy said...

Yes, this is a tough issue! I'll generally try to look up reviews from cultural insiders before/after reading the book (preferably before) and try to stick to reading books which others have said to be authentic. Personally, I don't let my scepticism/questioning to interfere with the actual reading experience (for books with protags from cultures that I'm not part of - if it's my own, well, that can't be helped) because of lack of knowledge on my part, in most cases. Drawing upon, thinking critically about and evaluating others' opinions is really important to do so outside of it though.

Anyways, like you said at the end I still think it's important to encourage White authors to write protags who are PoC. Lack of diversity is ultimately a case of exclusion, after all, and exclusion is everyone's problem - even if we promote 'own voices' to the forefront (which I support & agree with) it's everyone's role to dismantle the current homogeneity.

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.

Okay, feel free to raise counter-arguments to this, but I personally disagree. I don't think empathy has limits -- we only think it does because empathy requires understanding, which requires information and knowledge, which requires us to listen to other people. And that is what's lacking, because PoC, Native/First Nations and Indigenous peoples aren't listened to enough. Our opinions and experiences aren't considered as important. But imagination and empathy towards outsiders is one of the key powers of fiction writing/reading, and there is nothing wrong, by principle, with utilising them (disrespectful depictions is where the actual problem lies).


Nina Lindsay said...

Wendy, Megan, assembling my thoughts on this. Chewing over two other pieces in relation to this that came across my view this morning...

Malindo Lo tweeted out an old post she did about "authenticity," challenging us to question "anxiety" and "authority" instead.

I think, in fact, that Megan is talking about anxiety and authority, and I appreciate Malinda giving us a possible reframing.

Also, in regards to the "empathy" question, I was glad to see this in the NYTimes OpEd this morning, dissecting textbook language:

How do kid readers experience text when this is what is presented to them in school? How does a child reader of color learn to trust books? I am more and more in awe of parents of color and the challenges they face in curating learning for their children.

Megan Schliesman said...

Thank you for that thoughtful response, Wendy, and Nina, for the link to Malinda Lo's post.

Wendy, I I love that you weight empathy with understanding--information and knowledge. When I think about empathy like that, I can see that it goes hand in hand with responsibility that applies to all of us--writers and adult readers/critics. (It's a head/heart thing, not just a heart thing. Of course it is.)

Moyrid said...

Megan, Wendy and Nina, a sincere thank you for what you have written. I feel like I'm missing something here. I'm not sure I am comfortable with the idea that white people can only write white stories and therefore POC can only write POC stories. To take that further then women should only write female stories etc. And maybe that is true but I sure don't like the idea of those boundaries. I heard Scott Westerfeld speak once, apparently he gets asked a lot why he writes female characters. He replied that he writes people. That sentiment resonated with me. There are for sure people I can't write and stories I can't, wouldn't, shouldn't write. But I'm not sure I like the idea of presuming it is not possible.

Gail Shepherd said...

I really appreciate this blog, the many different views expressed, and I have learned so much from it--it has really broadened my perceptions. As much as I see your point here, I do lean towards agreeing with Moyrid, above. I think the issue is whether the thing that you prioritize in literature is precise cultural authenticity, as opposed to the authenticity of emotion, of being so deeply immersed in a literary piece that your view of human experience is broadened. For example, the Australian author Marcus Zuzak could not possibly have fully and authentically known what it was like to be a 9 year old Jewish girl during the Holocaust when he wrote The Book Thief. But the world of children's literature is indescribably richer for having that book in print. I guess where I stand on this is that we all need to examine our experience and our assumptions when we write characters who are not like ourselves (in terms of gender, sexual identity, ethnicity). And we do need to be critical readers, of course, and encourage children to be critical readers. But literature serves many, many functions beyond absolutely authentic cultural representation (which is impossible and unknowable anyway. A book is the vision of an individual author and her editor, not of a "people" or a "culture" or a "gender"). I don't think we should lose sight of the many things that literature does to and for readers. A novel is not, and was never meant to be, reality. It is a tiny, tiny slice of reality seen through the warped lens of the author's consciousness.

Unknown said...

As a white person, it is a stretch for me to write from the perspective of a person of color. A BIG stretch. But it's not much of a stretch to write a male character. The male perspective is everywhere. I grew up in it and have been heavily exposed to it my whole life. Same with cis-gender heterosexual experience. It's not mine, but God knows I'm plenty familiar with it.

I don't think it's that hard to write the dominant culture if you are not primarily that culture. But to write outside the dominant? I need to rely heavily on my own experiencer as an outsider to imagine another kind of outside (eg race) and I'm still probably going to miss a lot of nuance.

And to me, the genuine relatability (is that a word?) is in the nuance. I can pretty much tell when a queer character is written by a non-queer author, no matter how much research they did. It's in the tiny shadings of emotional detail (unless it's done poorly, and then it's obvious). I can only guess that the same thing happens for POC when reading a character of color by a white author. Doesn't mean it's wrong or bad or shouldn't have been written (although sometimes it does). Just means - well, the flavor is a tiny bit off. Like a subtle but important spice is missing...

Megan Schliesman said...

I love that metaphor, Pat.

As I said in my closing--I'm not suggesting it can't be done well. But yes to Pat's commentary about people of color being immersed in dominant culture and not vice versa--not as a general rule.(The discussion we had back in September on who can/should write offers more about this in links and comments:

When a White writer is building an entire story around a character of color, sometimes the shortcoming are nuances that I won't understand as a White reader without help. I remember getting a content review on a book a few years ago and the critic gave my insights that I simply could not have known as a White person not growing up in that culture--except now I do know. So I'm learning, but that lesson does not make me an expert. Does that nuance matter? Well, the person I'd asked for a perspective also said something else I'll never forget. To paraphrase: Ten years ago she might have let this particular book pass but she's come to a point where she thinks and hopes she can demand more. And isn't it a shame that it's been a journey and not something she could expect all along?

And we absolutely can't ignore the history of White writers co-opting and misrepresenting people of color and First/Native Nations individuals in their work. And that history is living history--it still happens.

For me, the bottom line is that skepticism arms me as a critic to do a better job.

Anonymous said...

Just jumping in to say I love this comment. And I hate the argument "well, if a person of color can write about a white character, why can't a white person write about people of color?" There's just not one-size fits all answers to most questions.

K T Horning said...

I think male authors vary widely on their success at writing from a female perspective. It probably depends on how well they understand women in general, how much they read books written by women, how much they have substantive conversations with women, and how much they respect women.

They grow up in a culture that assumes the norm is a White cis-gender heterosexual male. Their whole world is essentially a mirror. They really have to have put some effort into looking beyond that mirror to see other experiences and other ways of life, and then go even deeper to try to understand it. And here we are, in the meantime, accepting, and even promoting, this myth that "boys won't read about girls." Oh, the horror of expecting boys to look out a window instead of at a mirror!

That said, men have many more opportunities to interact with and come to understand women than most White people do with people of color and First/Native Nations.

Overall, I think White people don't like to be told they can't do something or that there might be a piece of the world that isn't theirs. We've been told all our lives that we're the center of the universe -- White men in particular have gotten that message. It can shake them up when someone suggests that might not be true.

Wendy said...

Just FYI, even though Markus Zusak grew up in Australia he is of German descent, and The Book Thief was inspired by (and certain scenes based on) family stories & history - see here. And Leisel wasn't Jewish, either.

Gail Shepherd said...

I think the other question I would ask is this one: Would a child be better off having never read Red Butterfly? Even if the portrayal of the main character is not 100 percent authentic to the lived experience of a Chinese orphan? Would a child reader be better served never having the opportunity to become deeply immersed in the fictional world of a disabled, orphaned, Chinese girl? Who else but Amy Sonnichsen, an American who worked in a Chinese orphanage and later adopted a Chinese daughter, would have written this book?

In some ways I wonder if our adult discussions of authenticity have anything at all to do with the real live experience of children reading, especially now, when authors are trying so very hard to be sensitive to the issues discussed in this forum. There probably isn't an author or editor in the children's book world at this point who isn't on high alert and examining themselves and their work rather relentlessly when it comes to writing characters unlike themselves (Meg Rosoff aside).

I have a hypothetical question, and I mean this sincerely. I would love to hear your thoughts: Would it be preferable, in your opinion, that after deep self examination, Amy Sonnichsen had said: "You know, I'd better not write this book. I'm just not sure I can convey this Chinese orphan's experience authentically." Or if Matthew Quick had said, "OK, I wrote Boy 21, but now I've decided not to publish it, because as a white man I'm not sure I can convey the truth of this African American character." (You could ask this same hypothetical question of Matt De La Pena in his depiction of Black and Chinese characters). Or if any of these authors' editors had said, "Nope, Amy, we can't publish this." or "Matt, can you revise Boy 21's character to make him not African American?" Or, "Matt DP, could you please rethink the ethnicity of your secondary characters?" If these books never were, were never published or were so radically altered, what would the young and adolescent readers who devoured these books be missing? Anything?

Nina Lindsay said...

I've been appreciating the comments on this thread, and thinking of ways to dive back in. Gail, I will take a stab at answering your question, though it will be somewhat oblique, in part because I have not read "Red Butterfly."

When we are reading a book written by a White person about another culture, we don't know how to what extent that author recognized or questioned their privilege in approaching the work. That, to me, is the reason to approach the reading with skepticism.

So then to your I wish writers would have decided against writing the book? It depends on the product. I have seen plenty of cases where I wished they had. And it's not only because I felt they weren't successful in portraying the culture, but because they end up taking up space. In a field where the market doesn't seem to make room for voices of color... when a White person tells a story of someone else's experience poorly; yes, I wish someone had said "no," and instead had actively recruited a writer of color instead. That is a rhetorical response, because of course we can't charge writers to do this, but I do wish White writers would more often ask "Is this my story to tell?"

Megan Schliesman said...

I echo Nina's wish that more writers would ask "Is this my story to tell?" And Gail, while I think we are slowly moving toward a time when writers and editors are examining themselves and the work they are producing more critically, I don't think we are there yet--in some cases not even close. Publishing becoming more diverse in terms of who is making decisions will help push us in that direction. Some people are there. And even in asking the question, it doesn't mean the answer won't be yes for some.

Of course there is no simple answer to your question of "should these writers have written" the books you mention. For me, part of the point of raising these issues is to push more for the asking of the question Nina raises. And I do think it is our responsibility as adult critics and gatekeepers to have these discussions. Not to arrive at a pre-ordained answer but to explore these issues deeply.

I meant what I said in the post about "Red Butterfly": I honestly don't know about the cultural or experiential authenticity of the book, but I do believe I need to raise the questions. Regarding who else would tell the story--perhaps an adoptee who has reached adulthood may choose to do so. I do know that one of the things that made me uncomfortable in reading the story--in which I was very emotionally invested, I'll add--was that there are so many complexities--from emotional to bureuacratic--to adoption when it is done following all of the rules, so to me the decision to have this experience focus on a child for whom the rules weren't followed--I really wondered about that choice. I don't know how often that happens--does it happen?--it seemed like an unnecessary complication to me. And it's not just a plot point I'm questioning--I am thinking about child readers. If I am not familiar with the adoption experience, will I wonder if this is typical? If I am familiar with it--if I'm adopted myself--what will I make of it?

Sam Bloom said...

I had some issues with Red Butterfly too, Megan - many of them the ones you brought up in your post (well, they were really more questions you asked than issues, but I digress) - but I agree that the choice to portray an adoption the way Sonnichsen does bothered me quite a bit. This isn't the first time I've had a problem with a depiction of international adoption, and it definitely isn't the worst, but as an adoptive parent I sometimes wonder, can't someone get it right, for God's sake?! I don't really think Sonnichsen was inaccurate in the adoption details, but it really just felt off the way so much of the story focused on the shadiness of the girl's foster mother.

By the way, Shannon Gibney's "See No Color" - released recently by Carolrhoda - is a story of a biracial girl raised by white parents... and from what I understand, Gibney herself is a biracial author whose adoptive parents are white.

Unknown said...

Yes, and "See No Color" is a terrific read. Whether the spices are exactly right I don't know for sure (not my experience) but I'm betting they are. And some kid(s) who read the book are going to be so relieved. And the rest of us are just going to enjoy a really good book.

Moyrid said...

I'm hesitant to write this, this is out of my comfort zone, but when I consider Sonnichsen's background, the places she has lived and her history, maybe she has more right to write the story than we have to judge her for doing so. I've not read the book but from what is written here it seems that she has lived in the world her character lived in. She may not be that character but nor is Markus Zusak a teenage girl in World War II Germany. There maybe lots to criticize in this book, I don't know, but I'm not sure I can fully buy the criticism of her right to write the story.

But to be fair critiques of books always make me uneasy, because I have hated books my best friends have loved, and my reasons for hating them are as solid as their reasons for loving them. And vice versa. I have identified with characters others don't think are authentic. So negative criticism of a book always makes me wonder who doesn't read that story because of that criticism, and what if that story is the story that would speak to them but they never read it because I (or someone else) said something negative.

But maybe where some can't help but write a story others can't help but critique it. And I should develop a tougher skin if I choose to read them.

Moyrid said...

Yep, I don't believe in the "boys won't read about girls" myth. My son reads girls as the main character all the time. He cares if the story is sci/fi/fantasy not what gender the main character is.

Gail Shepherd said...

Thank you so much for these wonderful, thoughtful answers. Much to chew over and digest here. Still thinking....

Sam Bloom said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Moyrid; your first paragraph has definitely given me pause, and I've been thinking all day about where I stand on this. In the end, I think that it's still a questionable move for Sonnichsen despite her extensive background. I'm a White man, but I'm also the (adoptive) father of two Black girls. So if I decided to write a fictional adoption story, I don't think that my circumstances give me the right to write the story from the p.o.v. of a Black girl... even though I live with two of them and know them very, very well. Even though they're my babies! I still just don't see that.

And I personally don't think we can stay quiet about problematic issues in books just because it may stop someone from reading them. I can't for a second think that it is okay to just stay quiet and sit idly by when I see an incidence of racism, no matter how small it may seem, in a book for children.

Moyrid said...

If there is racism in a book that is a lot different from a book that got the nuances wrong, or that had a plot twist that made no logical sense. That is a very different conversation. And it is never okay. Those are books I have no problem telling people not to read.

Gail Shepherd said...

I agree with Moyrid that racism is not the same thing as inauthenticity or nuances that aren't quite right, although I'm sure one can argue that they're sometimes related. I would love to get into deeper discussions of what is meant by "authenticity." In the case of Red Butterfly, it's really hard to imagine how a child would be harmed by reading it, but I can think of many, many ways that reading it would deeply and pleasurably immerse a kid in a world he or she had never been exposed to (or for an adopted child would raise important questions for discussion with peers, parents, and teachers). A disabled, adopted, Chinese children's fiction writer may come along eventually and tell another adoption story in a different way, and that's wonderful when it happens. But for now, Red Butterfly is what we have, and I'm personally glad we (and, more importantly, our kids and students) do.

Gail Shepherd said...

Sam and Megan, I thought the point of the shady foster mother was because disabled girl children are left to die in orphanages in China (or were, I'm not sure if this is still common). Sonnichsen has talked about disabled or disfigured girls left to die in the orphanage she worked in, and that it haunted her--my guess is that she wanted to portray the desperation of someone trying to "save" a child like that. Some of this discussion probably hinges on whether you think its okay for middle grade readers to be exposed to ambiguous moral situations in fiction. How much difficulty and darkness we think they can handle. That's personal of course, depends on the kid and the engagement of the adults that they can talk through these issues with...