Should white people write about people of color?

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions in email, twitter, and tumblr like this one:

“I can’t help but feel that as I white girl that it’s hard for me to write from the POV of a person of color. I realize that’s probably completely and utterly ridiculous, but I was wondering what you thought? Is it insincere for white YA authors to write from the POV of a person of color?”

Probably because I’m co-founder of Diversity in YA and I’m not white, I seem to be some sort of authority on this, but the truth is: There is no one right answer to this question. Everyone has a personal stake in this issue, whether they realize it or not.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have a very low tolerance for cross-cultural errors in works of fiction that are based in Chinese culture. The reason I have such a low tolerance for these cross-cultural errors is because (1) I am Chinese American, and (2) I did my B.A. in Chinese Studies at Wellesley and my M.A. in East Asian Studies (focusing on China) at Harvard. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about China and Chinese culture, and I have a deeply personal stake in these narratives.

That personal stake is because of my personal background. I was born in China but immigrated to the United States with my family when I was three and a half years old. When I was born (in China), my parents gave me a Chinese name. This is not unexpected. When we moved to the US, I still had that Chinese name, and that’s how I was introduced to people. However, non-Chinese-speakers could not pronounce my name correctly. They totally messed it up. Other kids made fun of my name. This happened when I was very little, from four to six years old, and I still remember it today.

Because of most Americans’ inability to pronounce my Chinese name, when I was six years old and about to start first grade, I chose an English name to use: Malinda. And yes, I personally chose the name Malinda. I’m pretty fortunate I didn’t choose something horrible!

When I became a naturalized American citizen, my full name became Malinda [Chinese Name] Lo. To this day, when non-Chinese people ask me what my Chinese name is, I might not tell them. Sometimes I say, “I’ll only tell you if you promise to not try to pronounce it.” Sometimes I say, “Sorry, I’m not going to tell you.” Without fail, every time I do tell an American what my Chinese name is, they think it’s hilarious and they try to pronounce it — even though I’ve told them I don’t want them to.

I can’t help it: This offends me. Why? Because it underscores my difference, my foreignness. It turns me into an exotic exhibit for them to gawk at.

Also, it contrasts significantly with how Chinese people react when I tell them my Chinese name. They either simply proceed to pronounce my name correctly, or they tell me that my name is beautiful, which is a compliment to my parents. Here’s my Chinese name: 駱曼琴.

I posted it there in Chinese characters to illustrate the fact that my Chinese name exists on a totally different cultural plane than my English name. If you can’t read Chinese, the name will mean nothing to you. Even if you hear it spoken aloud, you won’t hear the poetry that some Chinese speakers hear. Instead, it will sound strange and probably ugly to English speakers.

Maybe you think I’m making too much of this. Maybe you think I should get over it and realize that curious non-Chinese Americans just want to learn about Chinese culture, that their interest is innocent and I shouldn’t be offended. Well, I admit I have a chip on my shoulder about this specific situation. I don’t know if I will ever not be offended when an American wants me to perform my Chinese name for them. It’s personal.

That’s the way I feel about white people writing books based on China. I have a personal stake in it, and it’s difficult for me to overcome that. Beyond my personal background, I did spend all those years studying China, and I know how much there is to know and how much I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of research on China. I know enough to spot cross-cultural errors, and when I spot them, I’m always thrown out of the story.

The other night I was watching a third season episode of The Good Wife, a show that I’ve only recently started to watch. In episode 3.6, “Affairs of State,” the case being investigated involves a character named Chen Jin-Pyn, who is supposed to be the son of a Taiwanese diplomat. The plot hinges on the fact that attorney Cary Agos realizes that the Taiwanese character would sign his name with his surname first, which means a receipt signed “Chen Jin-Pyn” indicates it was not signed by the Taiwanese character.

I’ve been enjoying The Good Wife, but this episode was just astonishingly factually incorrect. First, “Chen” is a surname, but everyone in this episode believes the character’s first name is “Chen” and his surname is “Jin-Pyn.” This is so wrong it’s ludicrous, not only because “Chen” is not a first name but also because what kind of name is “Jin-Pyn”? Honestly, to me it sounds like a Chinese name that a Westerner would invent. (And secondarily, when I looked up an episode recap to confirm my memory of the show, I saw that the name is spelled “Jin-Pyn.” The usage of the letter Y shows the screenwriter had no idea how to properly romanize Chinese characters.) Thirdly, what Chinese person signs their name in ENGLISH with their Chinese surname first? I don’t sign my name Lo Malinda. (Although sometimes I do get junk mail to Lomalinda.) In CHINESE, of course I would write the character for my surname first. But in English? That would be bizarre, because I know that English speakers already get confused enough by Chinese names. In English, I would sign my first name first.

The episode also refers to the fraught issue of political recognition of Taiwan versus the People’s Republic of China, but because of this simple name error — which could have been fixed by asking basically any Chinese or Chinese American person off the street — I stopped paying attention. I couldn’t believe that anybody who got that name so wrong would know anything about the complexities of the PRC and Taiwan.

So: Those are my personal stakes involved when I encounter a book based on China and Chinese culture. They are high for me. I am quick to put down a book that has cross-cultural errors in these areas, but it’s also important to remember that I am one person. My personal stakes are not the same as everyone else’s. Someone else might read a book based on China or Chinese culture and have absolutely no problem with it, even if it does actually contain those cross-cultural errors.

Anyone who wants to write outside of their culture has to remember this: Books are personal, and one person’s reaction does not mean that everybody is going to react the same way. In fact, it’s likely that every single reader will have a different reaction.

This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to blithely write whatever the hell you want about a culture that isn’t yours. Writers who are writing outside of their culture do have to work extra hard to research that culture, because they have much farther to go to get to the kind of instinctual knowledge of it that allows someone to hear my Chinese name and feel that it sounds poetic.

When white writers come to me and ask if it’s OK for them to write about people of color, it seems as if they’re asking for my blessing. I can’t give them my blessing because I don’t speak for other people of color. I only speak for myself, and I have personal stakes in specific kinds of narratives.

It also feels as if they’re asking for a simple answer, and frankly, there is no simple answer. Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t. The writer must put in the time so that they become confident in their decisions, and there are a million and one decisions to make when writing a novel.

If you’re a white writer who wants to write about a culture not your own, go for it. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do it. Some people will prefer that you don’t, but those people don’t speak for everyone. On the other hand, if you’re terrified of writing outside your culture, you don’t have to. There’s not necessarily any reason for you to do something that makes you that uncomfortable. I believe that writing is a personal thing, and you should write what you personally want to write.

And yes, writing is hard. It isn’t physical labor and it’s not rocket science, but it sure is hard. It requires you to be honest with yourself. So if you’re thinking about writing outside your culture and you’re afraid to get it wrong, be honest with yourself. Ask yourself why you want to do it. That’s where you start. I can’t tell you where you’ll end up.