As the dust storm of controversy swirls around American Dirt, I just returned from Vietnam where I spent weeks researching a novel I’m writing. I am not Vietnamese. I’m as white as mayonnaise on Wonder Bread. But there is diversity in my life, my culture, my family, my world–and in my books.
[Above: Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) in Hanoi]
When I write fiction about a character of color, it’s my job to bring that character to life. That means doing a deep dive into the lives and psyches and cultural backgrounds of all my characters. And that includes exploring the worlds they came from.
[currently reading this beauty: The Sympathizer]
I doubt I would ever write a book featuring a non-white main character. The main character is the heart and soul of the book–Caroline in The Oysterville Sewing Circle. Dr. Reese Powell in Between You & Me (who, by the way, gets involved with an Amish man–probably the most foreign-to-me and interesting character I’ve ever written.) Like me, these protagonists are white, American, hetero, cisgender, probably middle class. I can write about them with confidence and authority because I am intimately familiar with who they are. They’re your next-door neighbor, the lady in line behind you. Everywoman.
But Everywoman is not always white. It would be strange to read a book populated with only white characters. My secondary characters–the people who populate the protagonist’s world–might be people of color. Or people in a same-sex marriage. Or immigrants. These are the characters that keep me awake at night, who motivate me to fly halfway around the world to explore their background.
[Above: My niece-in-law and grand-niece]
I am determined to write about characters with accuracy, insight, and respect. I know I’ve made mistakes in the past with my depictions of characters of color. A recent example–in Candlelight Christmas, there is a little boy whose parents are divorced. He calls his dad “Daddy” as any little boy would. So what does he call his stepdad? “Daddy-boy” was the option I picked. It seemed like a cute and age-appropriate nickname–to me. So what was the problem? The stepdad in this book is biracial. It took a reader to point out that calling a man of color “boy” in any form–regardless of my intent–is a reminder of the vile practices of slavery and the Jim Crow era. As this reader very respectfully pointed out, “Maybe it seemed fun and playful, but it does not land like that.”
She’s absolutely right. It wasn’t an error on my part but an oversight due to ignorance. I would never set out to use derogatory or insensitive language in a book, but every reader has a unique perspective, and something might indeed land with a clunk.
As a professional writer, I’m trained to listen to and heed criticism. I feel terrible that a person of color might have read my book and felt disrespected by my word choice.
Feeling terrible is not enough, though. Taking action is the next step.
Fortunately, my amazing editors at HarperCollins are the best partners in publishing a writer could ever have. Margaret Marbury, my editor at the Mira imprint, assured me that this and other corrections will be updated in future editions of the book. Rachel Kahan, who edits my books for the William Morrow imprint, is committed to engaging sensitive readers before a book is published.
I get a lot of feedback on my books, not all of it as constructive as the notes from the reader above. I seem to attract a lot of people who clutch at their pearls when a character drops an f-bomb or takes the lord’s name in vain in dialogue. I do appreciate any and all feedback. Some of them will be changed. Fair warning–the swearing will not. No matter who they are, some of my characters are adults, and they’re going to use realistically salty language.
The diverse characters in my books are old, young, straight, gay, male, female, Amish, Buddhist, atheist, Christian, white, black, brown, large, small…just like the world we inhabit. It’s my job as a writer to bring them to life with compassion, realism, and above all, respect.
To readers–if something in a book strikes a sour note with you, seems inaccurate or disrespectful or ignorant, you can make a difference. Like the reader of Candlelight Christmas, you can find a way to contact the author or publisher. If you articulate your thoughts clearly, chances are, you’ll be heard, and maybe future editions of the book can be changed.
I’m still going to use swear words in my books, though.