Let me preface this with saying that a) I thoroughly enjoyed Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and b) this blog contains spoilers for the same. Read at your peril!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s okay to write, and what isn’t. Specifically, whether it’s okay to write about a character belonging to BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, and other visible and invisible minority groups, when the author doesn’t belong to that group. And even more specifically, when is it okay to write a narrative from the point of view of a minority character – again, when the author doesn’t belong to that group.
Of course, authors have done this throughout history, often to great acclaim. A classic example is Memoirs of a Geisha, a classic novel narrated by a Japanese woman who becomes a geisha. It’s written by Arthur Golden, a white/Jewish American man. His book was widely celebrated as beautifully written and extremely well researched (although Mineko Iwasaki, a well-known geisha interviewed by Golden for his book, sued him for breach of contract and defamation of character, with Iwasaki alleging that Golden had failed to protect her promised anonymity).
Today, there is considerable debate about what is okay to write about, with many taking the view that an author without any lived experience of being part of that race/community/sexuality/etc cannot properly represent that community. Worse, that it can even cause harm to that community by taking up the space that a book written by an “Own Voices” author should be taking.
This is where I struggle with Reid’s Seven Husbands – as much as I enjoyed reading it (my highlighted issues aside, it is a fabulous book). There are two first-person narrative points of view. One is a biracial young woman, the other a Cuban, bisexual woman. Reid is white and, as far as we know, heterosexual. I’ve been reading a lot of backlash about her choice to represent three minority communities in her two narrators, and I’m inclined to agree with them. It’s tough when an author with Reid’s massive platform writes a book that arguably should be written by a biracial queer woman. It takes up space and makes it harder for that biracial queer author to have success with a similar book.
What’s also interesting is that Reid herself agrees with this assessment. I found this Q&A with her extremely interesting; she argues that it is because she has this huge platform that she’s able to tell a BIPOC, queer story and still be considered mainstream. However, she adds that she will now spend her time uplifting queer and BIPOC writers. Let’s hope that’s true.
For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s okay for me – as a white, straight, cisgender woman – to write from the point of view of white, straight, cisgender characters. And that’s all. Beyond that, I’ll represent BIPOC, queer, and other minority people as secondary or other characters. They might play a huge part in my story, but I won’t write from their perspective. It’s not my place.