(Yeah, I know this is controversial. Please hear me out and read the post in its entirety before passing judgment. Thanks.)
There’s been a recent trend in publishing lately, which can be summed up in the phrase “Stay in your lane.” Essentially, ‘if you did not have these experiences, if you do not share the same skin color as your character, then you are not allowed to write that character.’ That seems severely limiting if you ask me, but it is what it is. Who are the gatekeepers who enforce this rule? Agents? Editors? Publishers? Twitter? All of the above? I don’t know. I get the intention behind it, and as far as intentions go, it’s a good one. Noble, even. I just don’t know if the policy as a blanket rule is a good one.
I recently wrote a draft of a novel that I now realize I’ll probably never be able to traditionally publish if publish at all. The main character of this novel is black, which for the most part doesn’t factor into the plot (its a fun, sci-fi werewolf story), but there is one scene where the main character gets into a fight with her (white) boyfriend for physically beating up another kid in their school who had called her a racial slur. She’s of the opinion that physical violence isn’t justified except to respond to physical violence or to protect oneself, and he disagrees.
Before I continue, here’s a little background on myself. I am Jewish. My grandparents were literal slaves in Auschwitz, my aunt was murdered by Nazis as an infant, just for being born Jewish. As an obviously recognizable Orthodox Jew (yarmulke and everything) I’ve faced my fair share of anti-semitism. Folks have thrown pennies at me or yelled, “Kike,” as they drove by, among many other incidents. This one time, a guy on the train yelled, “Jew-maggot,” at me, then proceeded to go on a tirade about how I’m personally murdering blacks and Palestinians. And in all this, I never responded, never raised a fist. Oh, I was angry, but I didn’t think violence would do anything but make the situation worse. Then, there was this other time, when I was a teenager, I ran into a distant relative, and as we were catching up, a girl walked by. My distant relative immediately started sexually harassing her (verbally, but it was some pretty vile stuff). Before I’d even realized what has happened, I’d decked him, knocking him to the ground with a punch to the face. I don’t think that was the right thing to do, and I probably could’ve defused the situation with words, but I did what I did. I think I find it easier to take the non-violent approach when it concerns me being attacked, but when it concerns another group, I have a harder time doing so.
I used these incidents came out in my manuscript. You can’t say it isn’t about my own experiences, because it is, albeit not exactly. I am not black (nor am I a woman), so I suppose my entire manuscript will forever remain a file on my computer. Because I don’t match up EXACTLY with the character I’m writing about. Because my experience doesn’t match up EXACTLY with the character I’m writing about. (I’m also not a werewolf, though apparently, that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.) Because Twitter or whoever decided I’m not allowed to write about it.
I have a story to tell.
But you’ll never read it.