The Problem With Writing For Others In Your Voice

By: Ebonye Gussine Wilkins

For those of you who don’t already know me, I am a writer of color. If you met me in a coffee shop one day, it would be obvious. Perhaps for others, my name, Ebonye, gives it away. But no matter what, I will always be a writer of color. It isn’t something I want to run away from, but it isn’t something I can ignore either.

There have been a few writers who have addressed this “person of color” perspective when it comes to writing. Junot Diaz talked about it in his New Yorker piece in April. Matthew Salesses mentioned it in his late July piece for NPR.They both wrote candidly about what it is like to write what you write and be criticized for it. Toni Morrison also addressed his in a famous interview with Charlie Rose.

Many times, people complain about people of color writing in their own voice. Perhaps their writing is colored by their experiences. It has partially shaped who they are. Why would someone write a piece that isn’t true to who they are? I think asking someone to write outside of their own author’s voice is ridiculous. Why should you be judged by writing what is true to you as a person, especially when that truth comes from a part of your life that you cannot control?

When I write my novels, I incorporate people of multiple races and cultures. I use observations in the real world and take literary license to make it interesting. I am an American writer; America is made up of a variety of cultures; I grew up around a variety of cultures. Why would I not write about it?

Many people are quick to put people in little boxes based on what they look like, or even their heritage. To most, I’m seen as a Black writer, an African-American writer, a Caribbean-American writer. That’s all well and good, but I don’t write only for one group of people. Just as we are encouraged to see the universal themes in classic literature (which is overwhelmingly white by the way) we should see the universal themes in all literature. African-American literature is not just for African-Americans. We can all learn from the writings of others. It’s time to accept writing for what it is: an expression of thoughts and experiences. If we cannot read to expand our minds in more ways than one, then we’ve missed the entire point of reading.

How do you feel about being put in a box about your writing? How has your heritage influenced your writing? How has social norms in your experience shaped who you are as a writer? Tell us all about them in the comments.

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