Whenever we talk about people writing about characters outside their own experience, there’s an argument that pops up that I’d really like to see the back of. It goes like this:
“I write outside my experience all the time. I mean, that’s the job. I write about fairies and witches and talking antelopes. So why shouldn’t I write about people who aren’t like me?”
This argument has a corollary in librarianship, which goes like this:
“Sure, all the human protagonists in these books are white kids, but the NON-HUMAN protagonists are dragons and dogs and talking cupcakes, so how can you say that I’m not curating diversity?”
Can we talk about this? Because the thing is: my mom is not a talking cupcake.
There is value in fantasy. There is value in giving children books that teach them that they can defeat the monsters in their lives, where the witch is a stand-in for whatever monster a reader happens to be facing. There is value in giving young children books about narwhals and talking cupcakes, because ANYBODY can relate to a narwhal or a talking cupcake, amirite?
But using the excuse that you can write about dragons as a way into writing outside your experience is an inherently flawed argument. Dragons don’t exist. You can write anything you want about them, and if someone questions it, you can say, “So what? In my imaginary world, dragons marry talking cupcakes and have talking cupcake dragon hybrid babies. It’s the rules.” In fantasy, you make up the rules.
Human beings actually exist, though. You can’t say, “In MY world, people LIKE getting parking tickets.” You would never say that. You can’t just make stuff up about actual human beings and wave your magic pencil and say that it is so. This applies to slavery, and to the Holocaust, and to the conflict in the West Bank. It applies to every single situation in which actual human beings exist.
So. You can and should write whatever story you feel moved to write. But if you’re writing about people whose lives are different from yours, you need to do so with respect and care and you need to do your homework. And that doesn’t mean getting holed up in your writing cave and cogitating and getting all deep in your feelings. It means going out: talking to people whose lives are like the lives of your characters, getting to know them, and reaching a point where you understand and accept them on their terms. You need to broaden your own experience of the world, and of the people in it. You need to see other people as people first, and characters second. You have to get this right.
This is why you have to get it right: Because the children who are going to read your book are going to take it as the truth.
And when we curate books and book lists, we need to understand that those books about talking cupcakes? Those are fine. They’re even important. But they aren’t stand-ins for books about kids who are differently abled, or LGBTQ, or non-white. Curating a list of books that includes a talking dog but does not include books about actual human children who are black or transgender or latinx or deaf or or or is demeaning to those kids. And while these anthropomorphic characters’ stories can be used to impart lessons about empathy and inclusion, those lessons must then be generalized to the real world that contains human beings.
No amount of books featuring anthropomorphic animals will ever be able to reflect the depth and breadth of the human experience. And it is vitally important BOTH for children to see themselves in books, AND for children to see what the experiences of people who are different from them are like. The only way to do this is to offer them books by and about marginalized people.
I know what you’re saying to yourself: “But I’m not trying to tell my students that immigrant kids are like talking animals. That’s not what I’m doing at all!”
The thing is, if you’re not giving them books about marginalized people, and if all of your empathy lessons come in the form of books about talking animals, then YOU ARE teaching them that. You are. Whether you intend to or not.
If you are talking up books in columns online, the books you talk about are the books people are going to buy. This has an effect: it means that these will be the types of books that publishers will look at and think, “That’s what sells. So that’s what I’m going to publish.”
We are living through a time of rapid change. We are living through a time in which the President of the United States cannot find it in himself to condemn racism, in which neo-Nazis feel safe marching through the streets of America. We are living through a time in which immigrant groups are being dehumanized by members of the government every time we turn around. On the radio. On the news. On the cover of the tabloid placed at eye level in the check-out line at the supermarket.
Think of the effect that this has on the children you teach. Think of the lessons they are being exposed to simply by existing in this time, today, in America.
It is our job to stop this in its tracks. It is our job to teach children how to get along with one another. You cannot do that by reading them a book about a talking cupcake and calling it a day.
My mother is a Philippine-American. She was sent to the United States by her American father and her Filipino mother in the early ‘70s, so that she could pursue a good education in a country that lacked the levels of government corruption that were present in the Philippines at the time. She has lived experiences that are uniquely her own.
She is not a talking cupcake.