Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Book I *Could* Have Written But Didn't

Way back in 2008, I was an aspiring writer with quick fingers, recklessly typing out story after story after story. Six books, in fact, came out of me in 2008. From zombies to dragons to elves and even a girl who could talk to plants...yeah.

But, for all my recklessness, there was one book I decided not to write.

It was about a girl living on the Blackfoot Reservation. There was gonna be spirit animals and shamans and cliches galore. I was excited about it! As with all my other stories, I began to do some research into the region and culture and people and history. And the more I read, the more I got...a weird feeling. Basically, it said:

I don't know if I'm the right person to tell this story.

My feelings weren't that articulated at the time. I can boil that feeling down to this one sentence after a good eight years of thinking about why this particular story pushed back at me.

You see, I've kinda naturally included diversity in my writing since the beginning. I've been thinking about it before it was something people talked about every day online. I've been trying—and often times failing—to sell books with diverse MCs. My very first sub to editors, in fact, was a diverse MC...and I learned very quickly the realities of publishing in that respect.

So why this story? Why this Native American girl? What was it that made me step back?

Most importantly, I felt out of my depth. And I think this is key—the more I researched...the LESS confident I got. Usually as a writer, researching and learning and trying to embody that character becomes easier. This time? NOPE. It got harder, more confusing. I realized a lot of my ideas wouldn't work. And not in a "rework" sense but in a straight up "your ideas were wrong from the beginning sense."

But people like to say "challenge yourself." And "if you're afraid of a story it's the one you should tell." Which, I suppose, is true in some sense but can be taken way too far in another sense.

Finally, I decided I needed to get an answer from someone who knew much better than I. Because I happened to work at the Multicultural Office at my university (I'm a white-passing Maori, so I ended up being able to get this job that changed my life and perspective in so many ways), I happened to have a diverse group of friends and acquaintances though I live in an extremely white state.

So I emailed one of my Native friends. She is Navajo, grew up in that world. She isn't a writer or anything, but she is the girl I pictured as I was planning this story though she wasn't Blackfoot. I love and respect her, and so of course my white-passing self burdened her with speaking for all the Native Tribes and Nations.

But you know what? I'm glad I asked.

Because the email she sent back basically went like this, "I mean, I guess you're allowed to write whatever you want, but your story sounds cliche and I think Natives would be offended by it. Other people write dumb stuff about us all the time, and it's frustrating, and mostly I just wish that my own people could publish their own writing about their own culture and lives."

There was a little knee-jerk reaction in me that said "Aw, but I wanna write this because I love it. Pout pout pout. Wah wah wah. Freedom of speech and stuff."

But then there was a bigger reaction, one I'm eternally glad I listened to: "You know what? She's right. I have felt out of my depth on this from the beginning, and now she's telling me I AM. I should listen to her. I have more stories to tell—this one deserves to be told by someone who won't mess it up as much as I will."

And so I didn't write it. I have no regrets. In fact, I'm proud of myself.

That isn't to say I stopped writing diversely. I've written quite a variety of diverse characters in my small repertoire (many of which aren't published). That also isn't to say I haven't messed up a few things even in the stories I did choose to pursue and publish. I have! I've grown and learned by writing diversely, and yeah of course there are things I would have done differently. But the key in the stories I DID write: Research made me more confident, helped me resolve my own ignorance, and pushed me forward to make it better, unlike this story where it made me less confident I could do it justice.

There's been a lot of talk about who "should" be writing which stories. And there will always be that natural push back of "But I can write whatever I want it's fiction and not real!"

I'm not gonna say you're wrong if you think that, but I will ask you to pause a moment and think a bit deeper. Because I do wonder: Can we not do better than that?

The call for better representation isn't about hitting baseline decency. It's about raising the bar. It's about providing more beautiful voices from more beautiful human experiences. It's about asking the hard questions, and even more, doing the hard things that will give everyone a chance to not only see themselves in books, but to BE the one writing them.

This story of mine happened in 2008. Eight whole years ago. I wish I could say to my sweet, amazing Navajo friend that publishing hasn't continued to fail her people and other Native Americans but it has. I still hope for that to change—and I know now that my voice isn't the one to be heard but HERS and that is the beginning of it all.


  1. This is really thoughtful, Natalie, and it's articulated a lot of things I've been thinking about. Mostly, that there are some stories that aren't mine to write--and whenever I do write out of my lane, I need to do my research, get readers, and try to be as respectful as possible. (And if I mess up or hurt someone, realize it's THEIR RIGHT to be hurt, and my job to do better).

  2. Fantastic post! Such a relevant topic, and very well put.

  3. You're a truly wonderful person, Natalie. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. Very thoughtful. I've got a story in mind that is best left there, because I'm not the right person to write it.

  5. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this, Natalie. I'm still working through issues of whether I should write certain stories or not, and this is an extremely helpful way of looking at it.

  6. Like you, Natalie, I strive for diversity and positive representation in my writing. I had a similar realisation while debating whether or not to include a transsexual character in my latest book. I spoke to a close friend of mine, who is trans, and basically the conversation came down to "you're doing a lot of good for representation, if you put this in, the way you've described it, it'll not only be a poor representation of a trans character, but it'll undo a lot of the good you've done in the series so far, by making it look like you're just trying to tick off boxes."

    It was hard to hear, but I needed to hear it. Like you, I'm glad I asked the question. What I learned is, not every story is mine to write. Not every issue is mine to tackle. And certainly, not every issue needs to be in every book.

    So instead I look for ways I can help trans people have their own voices heard.

  7. This is so cool. Good on you! I am curious, as an aspiring writer, how inclusive the term "diversity" is--does it merely reflect what we consider minority cultures/groups?

    There are "white" cultures that have been portrayed in books, fantasy especially, that have been eschewed (what a fun word!) by those with roots in them. Russian culture seems to especially be the "craze" nowadays in fantasy, and I wonder if the writers approach that culture with as much respect and thoughtfulness as you have here. Because whether or not we want to admit it, Russian and other Eastern European cultures (not to mention Middle Eastern, Asian, etc.! I'm only focusing on Eastern Europeans because I myself have roots there) are outside the understanding of a lot of people thanks to the Iron Curtain--there are years of grief there too to unpack.

    Just some food for thought. :) Ha ha, comes from being a university student with too much time on her hands. Keep asking those questions, and please continue sharing your thoughts!

  8. I wrote a book with a main character who happened to be black. I made a point of saying (in my book) that this character was a mysterious person. I wanted to keep him a mystery (to the other characters and to myself) because I once knew a guy like that, a very private and charismatic person that always struck me as mysterious. I don't know if I succeeded or not. It never once occurred to me that someone might be offended by the character. (I grew up poor white in a small Southern town. If someone were to accuse me of unintentional racism- I would just tell them they are wrong). To date, no one has mentioned any feelings of offense. I believed in that book. I believed in that character. If someone were to be offended, I would tell them that no offense was meant but I would not change a thing about that character. Period. I think many writers second-guess themselves too much. If a story is burning in you and you want to write it very badly - just write it! Don't worry so much.

  9. Thanks for this post. It has hit home with me. I also have a YA fantasy inspired by Native American traditions, stories, etc. I haven't finished the last edit and sent it out for anyone to read and I think you have hit on why. I'm not sure I'm doing justice to the history of the stories and the people. It may be a story that will remain in my files, even though I love so much about it.