Discussion: Writing about someone who is not like you

Discussion: Writing about someone who is not like you

Yesterday I finished reading Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. The book definitely left an impression on me. For those who do not know, the book is about two teenagers – one black and one white – and is set in 1959 at the time of desegregation of a high school in Virginia. Not only does the book deal with desegregation, but on top of that the two girls fall in love with each other. I know a bit about the situation of (de)segregation in US history, but not as much as I would like (not having grown up in the US with US history). I am very happy to have read it and can recommend it to everyone (the book is also a real page turner, btw). When I put it down, I thought Talley had done a great job.

Then I read some reviews on GR, and one reviewer mentioned (this is me paraphrasing) she was uncomfortable with a white (although queer) author using the voice of a black character, to comment on desegregation and black politics. That got me thinking.

I completely get where this reviewer is coming from. Would this book have been different if it had been written by a black author? I am 100% sure that yes, it would have been different. Very different. So yes, I do think it matters who writes a book like this.

I have mixed feelings about this issue myself. As for Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, I think it was a really good book and it’s clear she did her research. I will leave off commenting on it any further as I do not think I am the best judge (queer but white).

However, I read plenty of books with queer characters, some of which have been written by (assumed) straight authors. The verdict? I have absolutely adored many (not all) of these books and it did not necessarily bother me that they were written by a(n assumed) straight author. (I have to say I do carefully pick my LGBT reads, so I probably managed to avoid the real train wrecks.) But I do think the trick is in the way the author deals with a topic. The successful books were clearly written by good authors who can empathise with characters different from them. They were respectful, the queer characters were well developed characters and not mere stereotypes.

It can also go wrong (sometimes horribly). For example, books (by assumed straight authors) that are happy to go into queer politics or that are trying to be emotional coming out stories, but somehow they get it all wrong. Especially books told from a straight person’s POV. Not necessarily bad, but there have been cases where these types of books just give me the shivers.* Sometimes, these books get praised by a large (mainstream) audience. This bothers me especially because I know queer authors are not getting the same kind of attention most of the time – and it’s a reason why I would pick books by queer authors about queer topics over books by straight authors.** At the same time, the same thing sometimes happens with books that I do think are well written, and in that case I am at least happy people get to read (good books) about queer characters, no matter who the author is.

I am divided. Do I think it’s cool that these diverse books exist, and are being read? Hell yes. Does it matter who writes them? I feel mixed. Yes… probably. But not necessarily. Not always. Uhm, maybe?

What do you think? Always wrong, sometimes wrong, doesn’t matter, better than nothing?

*) And an entirely different situation, but: I am sure many queer readers are familiar with certain LGBT (mostly M/M) romance books&stories written by straight authors for a straight audience, and they make me feel really queasy (and wanting to punch someone in the face, to be frank). The same goes for a significant part of fanfiction (where being queer is okay as long as you’re hot and famous, and as long as it’s for the sake of a straight audience).

**) This rightfully is an ongoing topic in the Diverse Books debate, no matter which minority is involved.

3 thoughts on “Discussion: Writing about someone who is not like you

  1. I find the comment of this reader a bit… disturbing.
    Let’s the author was black: how would you feel about a comment saying the author is probably not able to write properly about white people characters and history?
    What’s more, I don’t think an author needs to belong to the same social/demographic group than his/her character(s). Can’t a man write romance involving women? Do you need to be a detective to write crime fiction? Or an engineer to write hard sci-fi? I don’t think so.
    Angélique recently posted… Review: If I Fall, If I Die by Michael ChristieMy Profile

    1. There’s something to say for both for and against it, which is why I feel torn.
      I get why in this case it could be a more sensitive subject than men vs women.
      But overall, I expect good writers to be able to write any type of character. And if a theme is treated with respect and researched well…

  2. I think authors sometimes try too hard to say ‘look at me I am so cool and diverse writing about queer teens/other races when I am neither’ and it shows in their writing. It’s great they are inclusive and pushing for diversity because we do need as diverse books as it gets, but it can easily be tipped on the side of awkwardness.
    Still, at the end of the day, I am just glad there are such topics/characters around, even if a book is somewhat weird. 😀

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