It’s long been a topic of discussion in literary circles: Should a straight white man (hey, that’s me!) write about other races? Is it cultural appropriation to do so?
I had to ask myself (and my wife) this question while writing ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN. My wife was uncomfortable with the idea until she read the most of the book, and there was a period of time when I considered trunking the manuscript out of fear that I’d fucked up.
Writing about races and experiences outside of your own is a tricky thing. It’s difficult to do and has been done poorly too many times to count. For a long time white people have been the dominant voice in our culture and, because of that, have often misrepresented or straight-up villainized other races and cultures.
Despite my own misgivings and worries, I decided to go through with writing my novella with a Vietnamese protagonist. There are a few reasons why:
- Diversity matters. I want to see books in the world that are about people other than white guys. Does that mean I should be the one writing them? Eh… maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on how I approach it and how respectfully I execute. In Anh’s case, he is a mixed first generation American (like my own son), and I purposefully played down the “otherness” of his nationality.
- There are themes I want to explore in my writing that can’t be done with a White protagonist: Without making Anh a race other than White I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discuss racism as I do in the novella. His companion throughout the story, Amy, is a White woman who isn’t racist herself, but enables racism by turning a blind eye to it. If Anh was also a White person, he wouldn’t be able to point out the micro aggression and ignorance that follows minorities around.
- I want to write about Americans. To my point above, I feel it’s okay to write about any race from the perspective that they’re American. Now, does that mean the experience of a Creole-speaking African American in Louisiana is accessible to me? No. Not at all. And I wouldn’t attempt that without a lot of research and sensitivity readers. Even then, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable. That said, there are plenty of American experiences I do understand that need not be bound by race. Those stories are accessible to me and ones that I want to tell.
- Anh’s full name is a pun. This was important to me. Amy’s name is a pun, too.
I’m still learning about how to approach writing about people and experiences outside of my own. I’m probably not always going to get it right, if ever. But I also think it’s important to try for the reasons I described above (except the last one–that’s a one time deal).