Wednesday, March 7, 2018

the wrong question

A couple of months ago, I decided that I would take my five-year old daughter with me to the local Women’s March. Since my explanations were not as clear as I wanted, I searched for children’s book to help me explain the Women’s March to her. Unfortunately, the only one I found was a shallow story of a girl with a pink hat that removed almost all of political aspects of the March. And it was written by a man.

Now, I’m sure the author is probably a nice guy. I have no idea but I’m imagining that maybe he marched with his wife and daughter and was so moved by what he experienced that he felt there should be a book about it and thought, “I’m a writer! I can write the book about this.”  And, so he did.

But, while he might have had good intentions, his actions have a jarring impact. The purpose of the Women’s March was to have women’s voices be heard, to amplify women’s viewpoints. Having a man publish the first (and currently only) children’s book about it not only means that he is speaking for women but has also eliminated that possibility for a woman writer. Now, no woman writer will have the opportunity to publish first book about the Women’s March and reap the marketing, publicity benefits and possible publishing power that doing so entails.  His action of creating this book is the antithesis of his subject matter.

And this ties into the issues of diversity as well. I am constantly asked by white writers if they can write outside their race. “Imagining other viewpoints is why I am an author,” they tell me, “Why can’t I write about someone that doesn’t look like me?”

And at this, I have to tell them they are asking the wrong question. Because, of course, a writer can write about whomever he or she wishes. When it comes to writing outside ones’ race the question has never been, “Can I write this?” No, the real question is “Should I write this?”

Because, sure, a man can write about the Women’s March. He’s already done it, obviously. But should he have? If a man sincerely believes in all that the Women’s March was and what it is trying to accomplish, he would be truer to those beliefs by allowing a woman to write the book about it.

Likewise, if writers believe in racial equity in our writers community, they would be truer to those beliefs by realizing that there are some stories that are better for others to tell.  

I know, some will say, “You snooze, you lose!” with the idea that if one comes up with a great idea, one has privilege to write it.  Because, yes, since this man came up with the idea to write about the Women’s March and had the immediate power to bring it fruition, technically it was within his rights to do so.  But, if we are authors who believe in the importance of children’s literature--if we are the one nodding at conferences when someone proclaims “Our books save lives!” or cheering when a librarian states “Books can change the world,” then I think we should hold ourselves to higher standard.

Recently, looking for the Asian equivalent of The SnowyDay, I remembered the work of Taro Yashima, the creator of the children’s book classic Umbrella.  “There should be a book on him,” I thought. Because of the privilege of my past publishing record and relationships, I felt fairly confident that if I were to write a book about Taro Yashima well enough, I could probably get it published.

But, should I write it? I might be Asian, but my ethnicity is Taiwanese and Taro Yashima is Japanese. Of all people, I should know there is a difference--in fact, I inwardly bristle when others are unaware of the differences.  So with that realization, I decided not to try to write it myself. Instead, I posted the idea on facebook and brought it to the attention of some Japanese authors and illustrators that I knew. And then I let it go.

Because I have to believe that we can let some ideas go. We can offer them to others and move on. Or if can't move on, we can try to co-write with or mentor someone less privileged. None of us can be so lacking in ideas that we can’t share or let some of them go. We don’t have to be the one that writes every good idea that comes to us.  

At the Women’s March, I was struck by all the signs everyone carried. Some were witty, some heartbreaking and some angry, but all seemed deeply felt. If the sincerity is genuine, we need to bring it past the marches and decorative pins, and into all aspects of our lives—especially when we choose what to write and what not to write.