Diversification within the field of writing is long overdue. Stories ranging from literary works to news articles are hotspots for initiating change. They can bring awareness to injustice and show us different perspectives. From the writer to the publisher, each individual plays a role in the storytelling process, and they must work together to change the system and diversify the stories that are told.
I recently explored this topic over a virtual panel during the Aspen Summer Words writers conference and literary festival, one of the nation’s top literary gatherings. The panel featured writers Leah Henderson, Gregory Pardlo, Lan Samantha Chang and Aran Shetterly, who examined how they write about people and subjects outside of their identity and create space for voices from marginalized communities.
The discussion between this ethnically-diverse group of writers showed me the urgent conversations that need to happen within literary communities and the publishing industry. Publishers and editors need to feature stories from all perspectives, and writers must step outside of their individual frame of reference and experience the stories they are telling.
A writer’s stories are not static. They impact readers differently based on their identity and experiences. As writers craft stories about people outside of their identity, they must avoid drowning out voices with their own biases and privileges by stepping into their character’s shoes and embodying that experience.
In her essay “Who Can Tell My Story,” award-winning novelist Jacqueline Woodson says she is always asked “how do you feel about white people writing about people of color?” As a Black author, Woodson explains she initially felt anger toward what she calls “The Question” because people of color have been negatively represented in literature and film.
Yet, she turned it into an opportunity to ask herself and other writers who can tell another person’s story and how. With an anecdote about the distinct language and deeply-rooted experiences in her grandmother’s house, Woodson says that in order to write about people outside of our identity, we must step "inside the house” and participate in the experience.
“My belief is that there is room in the world for all stories, and that everyone has one,” Woodson says. “My hope is that those who write about the tears and the laughter and the language in my grandmother’s house have first sat down at the table with us and dipped the bread of their own experiences into our stew.”
Jeanine Cummins, an American author of three novels and one bestselling memoir, received backlash over her most recent book, “American Dirt,” as she tells the story of a Mexican woman and her son migrating to the United States. Latino writers pointed out Cummins’ cultural blind spots and her identity as a white woman with no experience as an immigrant.
In her author’s note, Cummins describes her fear that her “privilege would make me blind to certain truths.” The debate whether Cummins had the right to tell this story falls into the ongoing argument over how the stories of marginalized people should be told and sold. During a reading at a bookstore in Washington, Cummins addressed the backlash.
“There is a lot of work to be done in the publishing industry on this front,” Cummins said. “I hope to contribute what I can to that conversation in a constructive way, but I don’t feel like I’m responsible for the problem.”
Editors and publishers ultimately decide which stories get to be told and sold. Although publishers have pledged to improve their diversity efforts, the industry has a lot of work to do. According to a 2019 survey released by Lee & Low Books, 76% of employees in publishing are white, 6% are Latino and only 5% are Black. The New York Times interviewed eight Black publishing professionals, including Tracy Sherrod, editorial director of Amistad Books. Sherrod told the Times, “The only really painful thing about racism in publishing is the books that are not around.” With a lasting influence on story production, the publishing industry needs to alter its hiring practices and seek out stories from diverse voices.
Storytellers and those involved in the process have the power to initiate change. It starts with these conversations, with asking ourselves why we are telling or producing a story. It starts with providing readers with an alternative experience and giving a voice to the voiceless. It is time for writers, editors and publishers to collectively spark this change.