On writing Réal

For my debut novel, I chose to write outside of my own race for at least two characters. And with everything that has happened in children’s literature, and in the world at large, since this book came out, I have wanted to discuss that for a long time, but haven't felt ready or brave enough.

But I also don't want readers to feel that I'm not acutely aware of my decisions.

So, I’d like to discuss the research I did, the steps my publisher and I took during the editorial process, and the breaking news at the time of editing that made me question whether my book should even make it to the shelves.

In 2017, my editor, Sarah, and I were knee-deep in this book—this long and sometimes tearful labour of love—when the news broke that a prominent Canadian editor had just proclaimed he didn't believe in cultural appropriation, and thinks that all writers should steal from other cultures. In fact, he said, there should even be a prize for the writer who did it best.

What’s worse was that he—a white guy, obvs—said it as the editor of a magazine whose current issue featured all-Indigenous contributors, whose cultures have been appropriated since first contact.

To quote Vice magazine’s Sarah Hagi: “Essentially, [the editor’s] argument was that Canadian literature isn't as diverse as it should be because white authors aren't stepping outside of their own experiences.”

There is a lot wrong with that argument—namely that it denies Own Voices authors the chance to represent themselves. And there were a lot of understandably angry people.

So, what does any of this have to do with Black Chuck? Well, if you’ve read Black Chuck, or a synopsis of it, you’ll know that the main male character, Réal, is Ojibwe. And if you’ve read my bio, you'll notice that I haven’t mentioned being Ojibwe myself—because I’m not.

So, I wanted to talk about how (and why) I wrote his character, because while on the one hand, I don’t think writers should censor themselves from writing about people who don’t look like them, I also agree wholeheartedly with the anger at this white editor's statements.

While it is an author's job to step into the souls of other people, writing characters outside of your own culture should always be done with a lot of sensitivity, a lot of research, and many, many different eyes on your work. It also requires a great amount of caution, and the humility to step back and let Own Voices authors speak. Ultimately, you may have to accept that this isn't your story to tell.

As for the HOW of writing Réal, here are the steps I took to get his character right:

The Facts About Research

Whether you realise it or not, some of what you think you know just isn’t true. Sometimes the "facts" are written by people who had more power to express their opinions than the people those facts are written about (like that prominent white editor versus the Indigenous authors).

One example is that, while researching for Black Chuck, I discovered something called “Windigo Psychosis”—a mental illness in which a person believes they have been possessed by a Windigo Spirit. There have even been several documented cases of this illness over the last two centuries.

But delving deeper, I also discovered that this illness may not have real Indigenous roots. It may, in fact, be a white misinterpretation of Algonquian legends and stories, but because white people made most of the records we’ve kept, theirs are the "facts" we’ve heard. And that doesn’t make it truth!

So, do loads of research, while also being very mindful of whose opinions you’re repeating, because many "facts" may not be as you think they are.

Get a LOT of people to read your work

I know when you’re starting out, it’s easy to feel shy about sharing your work. But if you never share it, you may never know if you’re getting things wrong—or worse, that you’re repeating offensive stereotypes.

Beta Readers help you see the things you can’t see in your story. They'll give you feedback on believability, pace, or if you’ve accidentally written your own version of a book that already exists.

Sensitivity Readers are people from the demographic you are writing about—whatever is in your story that’s outside of your own personal experience. Sensitivity Readers are the ones who will catch your mistakes about their culture, and correct you along the way.

One of my sensitivity readers, for example, pointed out that I should mention why Réal is not as familiar with his own culture as he should be. Indigenous history and culture are not taught in most of Canada’s schools, but it took the eyes of a sensitivity reader to tell me “the root of that is Canada’s residential school system, and you should acknowledge that”.

I had several Sensitivity Readers for Black Chuck, some for cultural issues, some for language, some for characterization. Each of them offered me a different perspective on what I had written, and all of them helped me get the details right.

But ultimately, the content of this book rests on me, so if there are still mistakes in it, that’s entirely my fault. And though I'm so grateful that Réal has touched so many readers' hearts, I’ll freely admit that even now, I wonder if I was the right person to tell his story.

Write what you know vs. Know what you write

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “write what you know”. It means that, if you know your subject really well, your stories about it will feel authentic to your readers, and that is super important. But just because you “know” a thing, doesn’t mean it’s true.

So instead of “write what you know”, think "know what you write." Become an expert in as much as you can about what you’re writing about. Read lots. Get deep into your subject, and ask a LOT of questions.

In writing this book, I learned about the Windigo, Clan Animals, Anishinaabemowin, and the role of visions in coming-of-age rites. I also learned how to swear in Quebecois and Korean, and which old Buicks had both airbags and bench seats (because you can’t make out in a front seat with a gear shift in your way!).

And, as I mentioned before, especially when it comes to culture and race, be very mindful of your sources. If you only look for the opinions & writing of people who look like you, or who affirm your own unconscious bias, you’re going to get things very wrong.

To answer the WHY of writing Réal:

I asked motorcycle experts about motorbikes. I asked my sister about being pregnant. I learned a lot of new things while I was writing this book. But I also wrote about one thing I do know really, really well, and it’s the thing that holds all my characters together: growing up poor.

Whether the characters I’ve written are authentic to their own cultures is debatable—and I accept all critique of that. But I am an expert in being the kid who had less than other kids around me, and I know the anxiety and uncertainty this creates. I’ve been told that the characters in Black Chuck feel like real people, and that’s because the things they live through are all very personal to me, and to the kids I knew while I was growing up. Their experience of being outsiders is something I know really, really well.

And while Réal struggles with poverty in this book, his family is full of love in ways that the more well-off families in this book are not. He and Evie recognise each other in their experience of poverty, albeit unconsciously, and it is part of what draws them to each other. This book, however, is by no means meant to tell a universal story about any of these characters, their cultures, or their socio-economic status.

So, how does all of this circle back to that debate about cultural appropriation?

Well, as soon as that news broke, I emailed my publisher to ask if we’d have to cancel the book.

We talked a lot about the issue, and my concerns, and in the end, we decided that adding an “Author’s Note” would help address my intent. We also shared my book with a few Indigenous authors Orca publishes, and I spoke to my Sensitivity Readers to ask if they personally felt offended by my book. I won’t tell you what each of them said, but my book did get published on schedule.

As well, Black Chuck has been included in the British Columbia Association of Book Publishers’ catalogue of Canadian Indigenous Books for Schools. This means that it was selected by Indigenous teachers and librarians for its “authentic voice” that “demonstrates that I have engaged in meaningful consultation with the community I am writing about.”

It was important to me to write an Indigenous kid who was modern and real, living in the world we all recognize, and not relegated to a white fantasy of Indigenous history. I do believe I achieved my goal. And I’m glad so many people have connected with Réal, and let him into their hearts.

I’m not sure I would have the audacity to write a character like Réal again. In my new-author naivité, I felt like I could because he was just like the kids I grew up with—fumbling towards adulthood with little guidance, and no support. But I am proud of him, and the depth of his character. And I’m so glad that, with a lot of people’s help, I was able to create a character that so many readers have loved.

And on that note, I just want to say one last thing about writing outside of your culture, and whose voices we get to hear. One of the major reasons I chose to work with Orca Book Publishers is because they are committed to publishing BIPOC authors, so I knew that my book would be sharing the shelf with these great authors, not stealing their place on it.

Because it’s not just about getting your characters right, and having the right sensitivity readers, and doing the right research. It’s about who you choose to work with, and what they stand for, too.

As I’ve mentioned already, characters of all backgrounds are important, especially in kids' literature—but more important is that we publish more authors from those backgrounds in the first place, and champion those who are doing so by buying & reading the books they publish.

We need diverse books… and diverse authors, stories, culture and art. More than ever.

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© Regan McDonell