A year ago, my editor and agent gave feedback on a draft of my work-in-progress that inspired me to revise. One thing they said, though, stopped me cold.
My editor: I believe, in writing about mixed race characters, native Hawaiian culture, and by using dialogue where characters speak in both Hawaiian and Hawaiian pidgin, you are placing yourself squarely in the crossfire of current controversy.
My agent: I agree. In the current environment a publisher won’t touch the manuscript.
These statements shook me up, kept me from writing for a long time.
SWIM WITH THE SHARKS is most personal project yet, the story of fraternal twins that heal generational trauma. Here is a two-sentence synopsis:
A family trauma that has been long held secret still devastates the Kapaloas. Noe and Kalea, fifteen year-old twins, return to Hawaii to discover mystical talents, resolve a family feud, confront real ghosts, and break the cycle that puts their lives at stake.
When my first novel, MY INVENTED LIFE, launched in 2009, my editor told me that half the libraries in the country would not order it due to my lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters. This wasn’t exactly happy information, but not devastating. By then I understood that few writers support themselves by writing novels. I knew about attitudes toward LGBTQ people.
No one said then that I put myself in the crossfire of controversy for writing a bisexual, African American character (Jonathan), a lesbian, Latina character (Carmen), and a boy attracted to lesbian girls (Nico). My second YA novel, MISS FORTUNE COOKIE, is about a white girl living in San Francisco Chinatown who yearns to be Chinese-American. When it came out in 2012, not a peep.
Times have changed since then. Issues that have been simmering below the surface have come to the forefront. I am a white writer with all the advantages that entails. Writers of color haven’t been given a fair shake from publishers, readers, and other writers. Some white writers exploit cultures, stereotype people, and write racist manuscripts that become best sellers.
I want to be a good ally. Good allies promote their author of color friends. And they get out of the way. I understand the first part, but am less clear on the second.
I asked an Asian-American writing colleague: should I keep writing. Or scrap the project?She asked me back: Is this your story to tell?
I spent a few months thinking about it.
Pidgin is a second language for me. Even after much study, I’m not fluent. It was an easy (though painful) first step to remove the Pidgin from the manuscript.
Except for being crypto-Jewish (thank you Ancestry.com), I’m not mixed race, either. Does that mean I should change my main character from mixed race to white?
I was steeped in Hawaiian culture for twelve formative years of my life, but wasn’t born there. Should I take out the references to Hawaiian culture?
This can of worms is HUGE. It involves the rights of writers of color to have the space and the support to share their personal stories. It involves the rights of all people to have their stories told with sensitivity. It involves the sum of my life experiences, who I am at my core, and how I came to write books about diverse characters in the first place. And that’s just the beginning.
Is this my story to tell? I think so.
Though controversy terrifies me, I hope to engage in civilized discourse on the topic. I welcome commenters and guest bloggers to participate.