I have finished my latest novel, “My Friend Jackson,” and am currently in the process of pitching the book to agents.
However, once published, I suspect I shall be walking directly into a minefield.
I’ve been working feverishly over Jackson for one-and-a-half years. It is a gritty YA urban fantasy/horror telling the events spanning a week in the life of Jasmine, an inner city teen girl — as she struggles against psychological, emotional, physical and cyber abuse at the hands of her high school peers.
I’ve never quite fully understood how the maxim “write what you know” applies to writing speculative fiction (sci-fi, strange tales, horror, etc.). How does one exactly know the world of monsters, spirits, artificial intelligence, angels & demons, and so on? How does one claim expertise over The Inexplicable?
Maybe that explains why I am courageously (and possibly foolishly) venturing into this No-Man’s-Land (pun intended) of girl-on-girl bullying. If that weren’t enough of a challenge, the heroine of the story is a teenager of color. So of course it makes perfect sense that a much-older-than-teenage white male author write about such topics and protagonists!?
I have had long conversations with agents, like Arara Hoshijo, who have forewarned me of the current sensitivity over cultural appropriation.
I’ve been advised by her and others that perhaps I should write the book under a pseudonym. That seems counterproductive, if not just plain disingenuous and cowardly. If I’m destined to take heat for such a project as Jackson, imagine how much worse it will be when its readership discovers I’ve hoodwinked them?
Thank you, no. I prefer my honesty straight up.
So – a few words of explanation.
At heart, I’ve always loved to learn.
As a writer, I learn by reading and writing.
My first defense is that if I don’t explore this undiscovered country of experiences outside my own small sphere of gender and race by research and writing, how else can I learn?
This whole work had been inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s profound study Queen Bees and Wannabees. Much of her analysis of the dynamics of girl bullies is reflected in Jackson.
And what little familiarity that I can claim on the topic of diversity comes from my decades-long work experience at AT&T Bell Labs. I worked and partied with people from all over the world — China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Columbia — while learning and appreciating their similarities and differences.
Truth be told, I sorely miss my days with that crew. I may not be fully “woke,” but I’m trying the best way I know how. Maybe the result will be me having a better handle on it than most. Only time will tell.
And lastly — Why did I choose this protagonist and her environment? I didn’t — the monster in the story did.
If you have any advice that might help me navigate the perilous path ahead of me, please comment or email me. For example, any words of wisdom on a new term I learned this past weekend at a writers’ conference — a sensitivity reader, and how to choose one.