Different and Equal


I read an article recently in the New York Times about a writer whose day job was serving as a sensitivity reader in a major publishing house. If you’re not familiar, sensitivity readers try to ensure that novels, primarily young adult novels, don’t portray characters of color, or women, or LGBTQ individuals inaccurately or insensitively. It was his stated belief that writers in general ought not portray characters whose identity-based life experiences were significantly different than their own. The twist to this story is that when he published his first novel, he was accused of being insensitive in how he portrayed a Muslim character. He himself is a gay, black man, but not a Muslim.

This story is part of a debate readers and writers of YA fiction seem to being having right now, particularly on Twitter. Who should be allowed to portray whom? The only answer, it seems to me, is that everyone should be able to write whatever they want to write. I don’t know how else to write. But this conversation is happening for a reason, reasons that are largely historical and societal.

When I look at history and society, I see a massive, clumsy, slow, earnest, infuriating attempt to make sense of a seeming contradiction: we are all different, and we are all equal. How can both things actually be true? All food is different, and I don’t love them all equally. All stories are different, and I certainly don’t love them all equally. What’s more, there are some people I really want to hang around with, and some people I absolutely do not want to hang around with. It can seem like I spend my days ranking everything I see and everyone I meet. On most days, different is much easier to see than equal.

Writing, perhaps more than any other discipline, has helped me learn how to hold both difference and equality simultaneously in my mind. I know nothing about my reader, other than that they are human. Fortunately, that’s enough. If they’re human, they have loved and lost, they’ve lay awake at night worried about their future, they’ve succeeded and failed, they’ve been happy and they’ve been sad. If they’re human, they would always rather be happy than sad, interested than bored, safe than afraid. It’s absolutely universal.

What is not universal, is my unique life, a life I draw upon every day to tell my stories. The only story I ever tell goes like this: Things may look bad now, but you’re going to be okay in the end. It’s not particularly original. Fortunately, my original life allows me to tell this story just differently enough that a reader can hear it fresh. That’s the goal, at least. I trust that readers want to hear this story again and again because I want to hear it again. I can’t hear it often enough, frankly.

In this way my difference is useful, but not the point. The point of all stories is how we are the same. That’s where we meet. The conversation happening in YA fiction is getting pretty ugly right now. There are a lot of hurt feelings and accusations and acrimony. I don’t know how it will work itself out, but it will. In the end, writers will write what they want to write, and readers will read what they want to read, and both will meet in the stories they love most.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.