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Second Take: Authors risk inauthenticity when portraying marginalized communities not their own

(Ashley Ko/Illustrations director)

By Eric Sican

May 21, 2024 1:23 p.m.

Editor’s note: This article contains mention of sexual assault, self-harm and relationship abuse.

Controversy surrounding authors writing about communities that are not their own is unsurprising.

Throughout history, literature has served as a platform for artists to express their imaginations and share their personal stories. However, recent discussions have raised the critical question of when writing about experiences outside of one’s own background becomes insensitive to the cultures and identities they represent. With the rise of awareness for social injustices facing underrepresented communities, this question begins to concern artists, specifically writers, who tell narratives of those neglected groups without giving substantial characterization.

[Related: Second Take: Uncovering the washed out, white-centered world of BookTok]

Unexpectedly, writers and other members of the creative community have faced the hardship of sacrificing their art as means of survival because of the economic disparities they are presented with. While it is not unknown to see the response to this challenge be the mass-producing of collectable editions and exhausted series of books, more authors are beginning to maximize their financial gain through framing their stories around popular trends and tropes. As we have seen in the past, authors have adopted the “what sells” tactic, whether that be vampires and werewolves or Greek mythology. However, current authors have emerged using stories of inequality to produce this same effect.

Perhaps most recently, Liz Tomforde, a white author best known for her book titled “Mile High,” has been accused of creating stories that portray characters of color in a stereotypical way. The literary community on TikTok, known as BookTok, suggested these accusations against the author after discovering that Tomforde had changed the main characters of “Mile High” from white to Black before self-publishing. Readers began to propose that Tomforde depicted the characters in the book in a threadbare manner, noticing that many were not realizing that the main characters were supposed to be Black. Consequently, readers started to question the implications of Tomforde’s reshaping of characters to be a certain identity for purposes outside of artistic value.

Despite the personal and collective opinions that social media reading communities have regarding Tomforde and her portrayal of characters, one can argue that authors face plenty of backlash from pushing different identities onto their characters and narratives that they do not have extensive experience with. Yet, the backlash that these authors receive does not necessarily stem from their desire to create characters that represent the underrepresented. Rather, it derives from conforming their work to showcase identities in an attempt to appeal to larger audiences.

More often than not, authors fall into this same dilemma of being accused of writing work that inappropriately represents the LGBTQ+ community. Author Hanya Yanagihara has been subject to such questioning for her portrayal of the queer community in her 2015 bestselling novel, “A Little Life.” In the book, the protagonist Jude faces misfortune and distress, in addition to sexual assault, self-harm and relationship abuse. However, because the narrative was written by Yanagihara, who identifies as a heterosexual cisgender woman, the story comes off as an inherently unauthentic performative act. Despite putting them through situations that are extremely real for people who do identify with them, Yanagihara shares no identity to the characters she creates.

In the same sense, when authors include the identities of underrepresented groups in their work without addressing their roles and history in society, it can certainly come off as a creation of caricature. Most infamously, in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, many of the characters of color drastically differ from those who are white – which sparked a rightfully heated discussion. By giving them stereotypical names and traits that highlight their differences, Rowling has further contributed to this trite characterization. Rowling’s portrayal is an extreme example of the ways in which not giving the rightful attention to characters of different backgrounds can cause harm.

[Related: Book review: V.E. Schwab weaves magic, comfort into ‘The Fragile Threads of Power’]

Ultimately, the line that separates creating stories meant to uplift communities and creating narratives that further marginalize them seems to be a thin one among readers and writers. While it can be said that many authors may not hold any malicious intent in creating stories that contain characters or frame an identity that is not of their own, writing them and not addressing their realities – or writing them and making their harsh realities their entire focus – is when the line gets crossed.

Great stories bridge divides, but inauthentic representation risks widening the chasm between commerce and cultural connection.

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