Greetings from the Swiss Alps! I’ve spent the last week skiing with family and friends for the annual Swedish Winter Sports Break. Snow has been falling heavily for the past few days and visibility is poor. My husband and son can handle those challenging conditions, but I prefer to stay inside by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and a book. I’m currently engrossed in Real Life by Brandon Taylor, a debut novel that has received much praise.
Regarding my own book project, I’m halfway-done to a finished first draft. Although I felt guilty putting the manuscript aside this week, the invigorating mountain air and expansive views have stimulated many ideas and I can’t wait to pick up where I left off when I get back to Stockholm. March will be an intensive writing month since I have an April 1st deadline for submission to a developmental editor. As an indie author, it’s particularly important to ensure that the plot makes sense, the characters are well-developed, and the grammar and spelling are correct.
However, as much as I’ve been trying to stay laser-focused on my writing, it’s been impossible to ignore the recent controversy embroiling the literary world. It centers around a novel released last month, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, the story of a Mexican mother and her son whose family has been massacred by a drug cartel. They are forced to flee, instantly becoming migrants, and embark on a precarious journey north to the American border. It was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, sparking controversy over the exploitation of migrant stories by non-Mexican and non-migrant writers. In addition, American Dirt has drawn attention to the lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry, along with issues of representation surrounding the books that get published and marketed.
I have not read American Dirt and will not delve into that specific debate, but it did make me think about my own publishing journey and the difficulty I had attracting agents and publishers for my first novel, Uptown & Down. One the one hand, some said they couldn’t envision a broad audience for the story while others told me it wasn’t “black enough.” You can only imagine my confusion! Thankfully, I found one agent willing to take a chance on the story and she, in turn, found an editor at Penguin/NAL who “got it.” I will always be grateful to both of them. Ten years later, I experienced many of the same issues with Lagging Indicators and that frustration led me to publish independently.
Cummins’s novel has also renewed the discussion about cultural appropriation and writing outside of your race, culture or experiences. I passionately oppose limiting the world or characters a writer can imagine. Of course, if we go outside of ourselves, we should do our homework and approach it with sensitivity, but self-censoring our imagination is a dangerous proposition creatively. My novels have always contained a diverse cast of characters, both for depth and to reflect the multicultural world we live in.
Which brings me to my new book, a mother/daughter story set in the Swedish archipelago. The narrative is told from two points of view and my main characters are a white Swedish mother and her bi-racial daughter. I am neither–does that mean I don’t have the right to write from their perspectives? Should I scrap this story because I might open myself up to criticism? Although I feel I can justify my creative choices based on my years living among Swedes, I’m still very much aware that I’m writing outside my cultural and racial identity. But when crafting the characters of Linn and her daughter Zoë, I’ve tried to inhabit their emotions, inner conflicts, and motivations, hoping our outward differences will transform into something more universal. To be continued…