What does "authentic" mean, anyway?

On Saturday at KidLitCon, there was a panel on diversity in blogging about children's and YA literature. I was not there (bummer! sounds like it was a great panel), but author Brent Hartinger was on the panel, and via Twitter I learned that he said this during the panel:

Brent handily encapsulated a whole mess of things I've been thinking about recently. (Edited to add: He also just sent me a link to this post he wrote about the Kidlitcon panel and his thoughts on diversity; it's well worth a read.) Some of this is entwined with the wider discussion over the #YesGayYA situation, which prompted me to write last week's post on the statistics about the state of LGBT YA publishing. ((There are some really interesting discussions in the comments, and I intend to revisit some of those issues, especially regarding gender, in the future, once I've had time to think about them more.)) Some of this is entwined with discussions I had earlier this year during the Diversity in YA tour, when we were routinely asked questions like, "How do you write about diversity authentically?"

So, Brent's tweet says it all. There is so much concern over authentic representations of minorities because there are so few of them. Nobody really worries about whether they're being authentic in representing white, heterosexual people, because there are so many of those representations in the media.

But with minorities, we're working with a small number of representations. So, among people who care about these things, there are debates about how to represent minorities authentically.

I hear this so much, but in my mind, authenticity is a ghost. You can chase it but you can never catch it. I talked a bit about this at the School Library Journal Day of Dialogue back in May, and promised months ago to blog about it later on, and well, it's later on. Here are my notes on what I think about "authenticity." (Warning: theoryspeak ahead.)

I wrote a thesis on authenticity as it relates to Chinese cookbooks for my master's degree in cultural anthropology at Stanford. If you're really interested, you can read it here. In this paper, I explored authenticity through a variety of disciplines, ranging from philosophy to cultural studies to anthropology.

I think my favorite analysis of authenticity comes out of existentialism, which I am not going to delve into deeply here, but very briefly: It's arguable that the truly "authentic" can never be grasped. If you actually do grasp onto an authentic experience or situation, then it has already vanished.

I also thought about authenticity through the lens of poststructuralism, which allows me to view authenticity a construction. By "construction," I mean a cultural construction ((Something is a cultural construction when its definition varies from one culture to another. Concepts such as race, gender, and ethnicity are cultural constructions. An Asian person in the United States is seem differently than an Asian person in Asia.)), but you can also understand it as a physical construction. One example of the latter is a place like Colonial Williamsburg or any other historical reenactment theme park, which aims to deliver an "authentic" cultural experience to the tourist.

What I've just said is chock full of academic theory, but in normal everyday life, popular concepts of authenticity are much less specific. They seem to revolve around somewhat vague feelings of "realness," combined with personal experience and a kind of gut-check emotional reaction. This is something that is difficult to discuss because it is so undefined.

So, when we're discussing authenticity in relation to, say, representing minorities in young adult fiction (which is the broader discourse I'm participating in here), I think it's more useful to talk about two concepts that are related to "authenticity," but are much more specific: (1) anxiety; and (2) authority.

Anxiety — This is an anxiety over cultural boundaries, or marking out what defines a particular identity. You can see this in the question, What makes a "real" American?

Authority — In other words, who has the authority to declare that something is authentic? Or, when writing about the Other, who is authorized to do so? This is entangled in issues of power and appropriation.

I would much rather talk about anxiety and authority than debate who has an authentic voice, because:

  • I don't believe that the "authentic" is something that can be objectively measured. However, I think that most popular conceptions of authenticity do see it as something that can be measured; "the kung pao chicken at Eastern Garden is more authentic than at Hunan Delight," for example. The problem is, this popular understanding of authenticity is actually a restrictive one. It draws a line around whatever is considered to fall within the bounds of "authentic" and keeps out whatever does not.
  • The concept of one authentic identity/representation is problematic because cultures and traditions are not tightly bounded; they are fluid and many times hybrid. One Asian American's experience of growing up in the US is not the same as every other's.
  • When we think about writing fiction, the idea of authenticity is often entangled with the idea of experience. "Write what you know," etc. However, nobody expects a writer to go out and kill people before she writes murder mysteries.

All of this is pretty intellectual stuff, and it mostly applies to critiquing a cultural product, whether it's a book or a TV show or a movie. What if you're just a writer who wants to do a good job? In my opinion, that's a different discussion, although it does touch on aspects of this critique.

Think of it this way: Human beings are infinitely varied in their experiences. No one is going to be identical to anyone else. Let's say your main character is a Chinese American teen girl. She could have experiences that are totally different from 99% of the other Chinese American teen girls out there (for example, she could be some kind of psychic exorcist!), but that doesn't mean those aren't her own real experiences. They are authentic for her.

I say build your character the way he or she demands to be built, and try not to overly critique yourself in terms of whether or not you're being "authentic." At the same time, it's a good idea to have an idea of what the broader context is, so that if your Chinese American psychic exorcist is totally unusual, you will know that she is, because she will also have to deal with that unusualness in her (fictional) world.

Make sense? What do you think "authentic" means?