Many people, whether in the publishing world or not, hav strong opinions about the oft-used term cultural appropriation, where members of a majority group freely express views of those in a minority group. Many feel that anyone should be able to write about anyone that interests them and that publishers are over correcting now in finding authors from particular minority groups to write their own stories. Others think publishers haven’t gone far enough.
I’ve run into this subject from both sides. As a White author, I’ve been obsessed with a project about an African-american blind musician. People on the “anyone can write about anyone” side argue that this character wasn’t just African-american and blind, he was also autistic. “So try finding a Black, blind, autistic, male author, Sally,” they joke.
In their efforts to support me, they carry the concern to the extreme and, I think, diminish the issue. At times I also find myself in the only minorities should write about their experience side.
You see, I also read books by sighted people who do not do justice to their blind subjects. And I actually don’t think agents, editors, or publishing houses are as concerned about accuracy and authenticity in their books about disability, though I can’t back this up.
Years ago, Russell Freedman, ahighly-awarded author, wrote a biography of Louis Braille called Out of the Darkness. If Russell had done even a few interviews with adventitiously blind people (those of us who lost our sight) or academics in the blindness field, he’d know that blindness is not darkness. If one experiences total sight loss, he lives in mist, not midnight. In the text Russell had a line that I would have hoped any editor would have cut, “Even though Louis lived in a world of darkness, he had a sunny disposition.” As one of my editors once wrote in a margin of my book, “Oh gag, Sally.” Guess you can’t say that to a Newbery-winner.
This year Jen Bryant just received one of the three Schneider Family Book Awards for Six Dots: The Story of Young Louis Braille. Bryant’s book is beautifully-written, beautifully-researched, with one exception. She, too, reinforces the stereotype of the darkness metaphor, saying something like, “Louis sat in the dark. “Where is the sun?’”
Obviously, Jen Bryant did meticulous research and wrote a book for children up to age 10 that is otherwise stunning. But Knopf and Bryant should have given the book to a variety of blindness experts to catch the stereotypes. Publishers are using sensitivity readers now, as are authors. Sufficient research is usually a pretty time-consuming, daunting task, but so necessary.