Plot, PoV and Agenda. Or: Is This Your Story to Tell?

I think this week was the tipping point. At least for me.

Last week, fellow PubCrawl contributor Patrice Caldwell and I were at the amazing Highlights Foundation, teaching (with agent Linda Camacho and author Linda Sue Park) a workshop on representing responsibly.

It’s something I talk about frequently — as member of We Need Diverse Books and the co-founder of CAKE Literary, but especially as a brown writer with brown children who still struggle to find themselves on the page and screen. The workshop’s intent was to focus on how to approach your work so that you do the due diligence required to create careful, thoughtful, well-seasoned and well-crafted representations — whether you’re writing from within your community or writing about one you’re not a part of.

The session was amazing — probably about 80 percent of the students were PoC or from other marginalized communities, but all of them were thoughtful and reasoned in their approach.

But an incident intruding from the outside world burst our Highlights bubble a bit. And it drove home the concept Patrice and I were centering in our approach from the beginning: the idea of agenda.

Let me start with this: I’m not telling you what to write. Or what not to write. You have the freedom to do what you please. (At least for now.) But what I’m saying to think about why you want to write a particular story, especially if you’re writing about a community that’s not your own.

What are you trying to say about that community? And will it be helpful? Or hurtful?

Everything  we write has an agenda, whether we realize it or not. And it’s critical to think about YOUR agenda when writing about communities who are still struggling to find representations of themselves in books and media. Especially for children.

As Patrice declared on Twitter this week, we challenged our students. Questioned them. Asked them about the stories they wanted to tell. And especially asked them why. Specifically when it came to writing outside of their own experience. But even when they were writing from within a community.

The word I brought up repeatedly was agenda. It seems all fired up, like a challenge, a call out — and it often gets a lot of pushback. But it’s a pretty basic question to ask.

Everything we write — whether we’re analyzing the why or not — is rooted in our person worldview and agenda.

AGENDA: WHAT are you trying to say about the community you’re representing (whether it’s your own or not? And WHY are you trying to say it?

I always recall the moment this crystallized for me. I was having a conversation with writer and teacher Swati Avasthi (hi Swati!) and she told me about this incident she had with a former (not Indian) student, who was really excited to work with her on this story she percolating for a while — a story about a South Asian girl and her experience with arranged marriage.

Swati paused, and carefully asked the student about the WHY. Why was she the right one to tell this story? And why did she want to? Well, the lady said, with good intentions, of course, someone had to address the injustice of it all.

Yes, arranged marriage can be a staid, sniffling, and sometimes unjust institution. God knows I’ve ranted against it plenty of times. But it is a deeply rooted cultural institution and practice, and guess what? It has worked for centuries, in many cultures, and some people — even women — think it’s a practical, safe, and worthy way of finding a mate, especially in communities where it’s considered that families marry as much as the couple.

But the student, coming from outside of the community, couldn’t see any of that. She could only see her white feminist “save the oppressed brown women” agenda. Swati talked her through it, demonstrating how her particular worldview and agenda probably didn’t make her quite the right person to write that story. And who knows, maybe the woman put it aside, or maybe she plowed forward. After all, she had good intentions.

But you know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions, right?

In publishing (and other facets of life), good intentions are just not enough. You need to ask yourself the why and figure out your agenda. Is your take going to help or harm this community?

And, significantly, it must be said — as much as people hate to hear it: Your book about a certain community may become the book about that community. You may be taking a seat at the table that will, in fact, mean someone from that community doesn’t get to claim one. Because sadly, the “one and done” concept can still exist in publishing when it comes to representing marginalized voices. “We already have our Asian fantasy.” “We already have our romance with kids of color.” “We already have a book with a disabled character.” “Queer book locked in, no need for another.” The danger of a single story still looms, perhaps larger than ever. As an author and book packager, I’ve seen it time and again, and its hardly been eradicated.

So what have I been rambling on about for nearly 900 words? The bottom line: consider the what and why of your agenda as you dig in to tell your stories — whether your writing from within your own experience, but especially when you’re treading unfamiliar territory.


7 Responses to Plot, PoV and Agenda. Or: Is This Your Story to Tell?

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 27 2018 at 10:48 am #

    This is why I write fiction. I do characters, not agendas.

    • Kim Aug 27 2018 at 11:04 am #

      I think you missed the point of this article entirely if that’s your takeaway. And by “I think” I mean “you really missed the point of this article entirely.”

      • Tracy Abell Aug 27 2018 at 12:42 pm #

        No to pile on, Marc, but I agree with Kim.

        “Everything we write — whether we’re analyzing the why or not — is rooted in our person worldview and agenda.”

  2. anonymous Aug 27 2018 at 6:42 pm #

    You know, I don’t understand why more people don’t seem to speak up about, or realize that some white people (who have darker skin than other lighter-skinned white people and have been asked if they were POC) come from immigrant families who were refugees; have relatives from around the world; parents weren’t able to afford to get college degrees; who were forced to attend low-income schools where most of the students were POC (because those areas had the cheapest rent); who also decided not to go to college because they didn’t want to put themselves or their parents in debt; where around half of their friends were POC because, for some unknown reason, most of the white students didn’t want to or care to be friends with them (perhaps they mistook them for a POC because their skin and hair were darker or perhaps, they really are partly a POC in their background, but don’t know it).

    It seems unfair and ridiculous to expect them to write only about white people when they didn’t grow up being surrounded by many of them, nor being allowed into their inner circle of friends or communities. Not all white people are loved and treated kindly by other white people, so why expect another white person who wasn’t treated well by them and stayed away from them to write about them?

    Maybe others should stop judging white writer’s stories negatively (only based on the color of a writer’s skin) and actually ask them questions or learn about their lives, instead of automatically getting offended and assuming that all white people grew up in wealthy, segregated white communities, in mainly white schools. Not every city and community is the same; not all white people are the same.

  3. anonymous Aug 27 2018 at 6:56 pm #

    Correction: To clarify, I meant, “Maybe others should stop judging white writer’s stories negatively (only based on the color of a writer’s skin) just for choosing to write about POC and actually ask them questions or learn about their lives, instead of automatically getting offended and assuming that all white people grew up in wealthy, segregated white communities, in mainly white schools.”

    It’s hurtful and insulting when others who don’t know anything about you or your life choose to react negatively toward you just because you say you’re white and no one else defends you or listens to what you have to say.

  4. Anonymous Aug 28 2018 at 5:15 pm #

    I have read this critique often over the last few years, and I appreciate it and would like to follow the rules, but no one seems to offer specifics about what the limits are. Where are the lines? I would love more clarity so I can stop being anxious about this all the time.

    For example, I have a character in my WIP who is a gay black man. He is a combination of three real men who I know well, but I am not gay, black, or a man. I want him to be pivotal to my story just as the three men he is based on were influential in my own life, but I keep pushing him to the edges because I don’t want to misrepresent a culture I don’t claim. But then, is pushing him to the periphery an act of segregation? I have done a fair amount of research on voice and perspective. How do I know it is enough? Is it okay to write him because he isn’t the protagonist?

    And on that subject, I have been working on a project with a protagonist who is Asian-American. She just popped into my head that way. So I thought “that’s okay, the project isn’t about Asian-American culture, it is just something she happens to be.” Six months later I thought “Even so, this may be culturally insensitive and I don’t know it. I will make her white.” And I have tried really hard to make her white, but she keeps being who she is. And now I’m wondering, “Am I trying to whitewash this story? Is that any better?” And I don’t know. I’ve settled on– let her be who she is for now, and if sensitivity readers react negatively, I’ll make her white as best I can. But that sounds really false when I say it in my head. So I don’t know.

    Then there are all these other questions about potential works I haven’t started because I don’t want to be an insensitive jerk. Clearly I’m already having so many issues with that. Can I write a story I have in my mind about a French girl? I’m not French. None of my heritage is French. Does it matter if the work is historical? How historical? Can I write about German history? Can I write about Chinese history? And– the big one for me– can I have protagonists with alternative sexual identities? I’m asexual, but I find humans who are physically attracted to other humans infinitely fascinating. (I mean, what the hell is going on there??) But I get nervous about representing straight or gay or bi people who have physical emotions or whatever they are having because I don’t have that life experience.

    So, mental hamster wheel has made it nearly impossible for me to write ANYTHING because I’m one of those people who doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings EVER. And I’m glad it came up here so maybe someone can help me work through my endless issues.

    Please save me from myself.

    • Dolly Aug 31 2018 at 4:17 pm #

      You should write what your heart tells you, and try to be as authentic as possible. No one should tell you what you can or cannot write, or what you should or should not write, they simply do not have the right to do that, and they do not have the moral authority to limit you in that way.

      Equality is a noble goal that should be pursued and fought for, but it sure does not give moral authority to discriminate, bully, shame or dictate who can write what.

      If you feel you can’t be authentic, don’t, or do research, talk to people, read, find out what you can. Writers have always had to imagine what it is like to be someone else whether that is a different sex, age group, color, culture or sexual orientation. Writing about exactly who you are is boring, and limiting, your book would be populated with nothing but people of the same color, shape, sex, sexual orientation and age as you. Have you ever read a book like that? Of course not.

      Storytelling is exactly that, imagining being someone else, being in a story, telling a story about the characters who belong in that particular story and making them and the story interesting and entertaining. Yes, it should feel authentic as should the characters, but that does not mean you have to be exactly what each of your characters is, that is what imagination and intelligence are for.

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