Authors of Color and often LGBT writers always talk about “staying in your lane” when it comes to other writers that don’t share a marginalization with the character they are writing. More often than not, this is seen as a really restricting view on writing, as if POC are telling other writers NOT TO WRITE ANYTHING AT ALL.
This is very untrue, and I’ll talk a little more about it in this blog post, and what “staying in your lane” can really mean.
This past week a recent book cover and title were announced by Maggie Stiefvater. Her new book, “All the Crooked Saints”, centers around three main characters from the same family. They are all Latinx. And here’s where the problem is: it clearly shows through the interview and how the author talks about the book that she hasn’t done research at all. Or used sensitivity readers, that as we know, are something essential for a book that pictures a culture different than the author’s.
Let’s break it down. First, there is NO mention about Latinx heritage on the interview. She talks about them and their culture, but doesn’t mention one single sentence about who they actually are. Culture here can be seen as something interchangable, and I’m sure the book will contain many ‘vaguely Latinx elements’. Because you know, all Latinx are EXACTLY the same. The whole of Central and South America are exactly the same!
Honestly, it was upsetting to see other Latinx friends reacting to this. Latinx writers have a hard time on submission, their stories being rejected because they might come off with “too much” culture. And yet, this other mess is greenlit and everyone is OK with it. As a Brazilian, my background is a little different, but it was still weird to see elements of Latin America thrown around in an interview and the pitch of the book without really connecting to it.
There are several elements that just scream no research. First off, we have “Diablo Diablo”. Really? Devil Devil? That’s how creative one can be? It’s unoriginal at best, not to say it’s the most ridiculous way of referencing someone who goes against Christian culture that’s deeply ingrained in Latinx societies. Second, we have the use of a Saint. Don’t get me wrong, Saints aren’t exclusively Latinx, of course not. But they’re really important parts of Latinx culture, their stories being told across countries. They’re an aspect of religion that’s being thrown around in the book for “magic’s sake”. Personally, I’m not religious, so this is not something that troubles me – however, if it’s thrown around like the rest of her Latinx elements, it just shows that the book was very poorly done.
Lastly, Maggie finishes off telling us about her fictional town, “Bicho Raro”. She says she was playing around with words and that she came up with it entirely on her own, to mean a “strange bird”. It’s not a bird, it’s a bug. Bicho is bug. Spanish, motherf**er, do you speak it? It’s also slang for “weird person”, although not used as much. She could simply have said “it’s Spanish”, but no. Besides, there’s also the amazing fact that bicho is also a word for dick.
All in all, the whole interview and announcement was a mess. It was easy to spot that Stiefvater did not use sensitivity readers and deeply avoided any elements that could connect her story to a POC narrative. Except that… you know, she IS telling a Latinx story. Not to mention that she talked about how she’s from an Irish family, so she knows what marginalization is. (I rolled my eyes so hard at this that I could see the whole of my brain). The elements thrown around, and the fact that she is avoiding to say “Latinx” story so her book is not really thrown under the bigger inspection lenses (like The Continent or The Black Witch, as of recent).
Honestly, I don’t mind when authors write about my culture. I think authors deserve the freedom to write about whatever they want. It would be great to see someone so well known like Maggie Stiefvater writing respectfully about a Latinx family and their lives, because she has a wide reader base.
The problem is, no one ever seems to get that the key word here is respect.
That’s the real problem with the books being published. There is obviously no careful thought on approaching the subject, or knowing how disrespectful it can be. Maggie Stiefvater probably hasn’t used Sensitivity readers, and I doubt she will. This book is going to come out, the gigantic mess that it will be, and the show will go on. When asked about the “Bicho Raro” thing, she said it was a typo. A typo? For the whole of the book?
The real problem in writers who are writing outside their lane is that often, they do so without the owed care/respect. Writing a book is research, it’s good writing. With bad representation, it is poor writing. It is bad research, something you haven’t done to make sure your book is in the best shape it can be. People don’t bash reviews saying that the writing is poor, but they do complain when readers talk about a book having bad representation. Why? Because often, it is the fact that POC aren’t really considered human.
POC ask for representation that will show the nuance of culture, and portray their country, their family, their lives with due respect. That’s all there is to it — and when we call out a book that is offensive, it’s because it doesn’t give us the honor of being considered human beings like the rest of the white heroes and heroines in books.
When POC say “stay in your lane” it really means “If you’re writing something half-assed like that, don’t do it at all”. We don’t need more of the bad representation that’s filled the pages and movies for years. We need stories with nuance, that show our characters and our culture more than caricatures. We need more than a vaguely Latinx background of main characters. We need more than Diablo Diablo.
Characters should be fully-fleshed, like real people. And the problem is that often writers — especially white writers — can’t seem to write it properly. This is why #ownvoices is so important. They are the only ones who can fully capture the depth of their own culture and their own experience, and write it as best as they can. Because they know. Because they’re coming out of a place of belonging and love.
When publishers choose a story like this over an ownvoices author, it hurts everyone. We all know there is a limited space for stories by Black women, by Latinx authors and by Asian-Americans. Publishers say “I’ve got a book like this already”, because one Latinx book by publisher is enough. It’s too much already. This is, once more, denying entry on all levels. Because there are POC readers out there, too, and they need to see themselves in the story. They deserve to see themselves as heros, and not just caricatures.
There’s still time to fix this Maggie Stiefvater book. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would like to do a Sensitivity Reader on it. As it is, when it comes out, it’ll be a problem.
Meanwhile, we can use our time and money to prove that we still want authentic Latinx voices. I love Anne-Marie McLemore’s books. There’s Daniel José Older, Tehlor Mejia, and my one favorite, Zoraida Cordoba with her Brooklyn Brujas series. Please support them — and thus, support the fact that we can have more than just cardboard cut-outs of ourselves.