• R. Barrow

Writing outside your lived experience

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Disclaimer: The following opinions are mine and do not speak for or represent all Black people. I'm sure by now you recognize that Black people are not a monolith. To be clear, this means we come from varying backgrounds, with varying skin tones and cultures. Simply stated, we are all different.

A close friend recently sent me an article about an author (because we share the same lit agency) who chose to self cancel her upcoming book. Again I need to stress the author CHOSE to self cancel. No one forced or demanded her to. From what I've researched and observed, valid questions and concerns were presented to the author which gave her pause.

Back when I was on social media I witnessed similar scenarios happen numerous times and I sincerely wonder why the author's first response in these situations is to halt their book's publication?

A better option of course would have been to not write from a place where you have no lived experience but I'll take it further and say if you go this route, DO THE WORK! The movie Coco is a great example. Lee Unkrich is a white Jewish man. Not only is Coco his "original" idea, he also directed the film. I used quotations for the word original because Coco is based on Mexican culture and spiritual beliefs that have existed for centuries. What we won't do is erase that. 

Anyway, Lee immersed himself in Mexican culture going as far as moving there to spend time with the people, eat their food, and listen to the oral tradition of their stories. The film studio hired an exclusively Latinx cast to voice characters and brought in consultants who advised on how to bring Miguel and his family to life without reverting to harmful stereotypes. Also Adrian Molina (Mexican American) was signed on as co-Director. 

The result was a beautiful film that was well received and respected. I'm not Latinx so I waited to hear from their community before I watched the film and when I finally saw it, I was in tears. It hit me extremely hard because my mother-in-law passed away a few months before the film was released. 

Authors or storytellers of any kind should use Coco as the blueprint for writing outside of your lived experience. This knee jerk reaction of withdrawing books from publication tells us you're not willing to do the work. Which is a shame because sensitivity readers exist to help navigate that space a bit. Although sensitivity readers have been used as shields in the past so I'm hesitant there as well.

But I digress, it's also disappointing to see a Black woman being painted as the villain again. If you've been on social media 4+ years you already know how this goes. Disappointed but not surprised seems to be our war cry.

In closing, support and show up for Black women. Also if you're writing outside of your lived experience, gut check and ask yourself why you feel you are the best person to tell this story; then do the work required to respectfully and accurately reflect people's culture or beliefs.

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