A couple of things combined in my head recently and proceeded to combust: an article from a publishing/library news site entitled “Sugar-Coating Called Worse Than No Representation At All,” and the book Dumplin’, which I just finished reading. Since the book is what directed me back to the article, let’s start with that. Dumplin’ is set in a small town in Texas where the annual beauty pageant is the biggest thing going, and the narrator, Willowdean – a proud self-proclaimed “fat girl” who’s constantly torn between her innate confidence and the continual messages society feeds her about how her weight makes her worthless – decides she wants to enter the pageant. “Go big or go home,” as the tagline on the cover delightfully says. I enjoyed the book, I gave it a brief review on my own Goodreads page, and I’ll probably also review it for work (in my day job as a librarian).
And then I’ll wait for the likely responses: Why on earth did I read this book, since I’m not fat?
Which brings me, by a slightly diverted route, to the article on sugar-coating. A children’s book called A Fine Dessert got a lot of attention for a chapter in which a slave and her daughter are preparing a dessert for their owners, and many critics felt that these characters seemed too happy at their forced task, “feeding the myth of the ‘happy slave’,” as one objection put it. A reviewer initially claimed that the book might encourage children and parents to have conversations about dark topics in America’s history, then later backtracked to say “sometimes NO representation is better than bad representation.”
But I wonder about that. Now I haven’t read A Fine Dessert, but it seems like the author could have made it more clear if she really wanted to use the slave chapter as a way to encourage families to talk about slavery. However, I think it’s dangerous to overcorrect in the other direction, to start avoiding – or, honestly, to resume avoiding – writing about things outside of our own experience. It suggests that we can’t possibly understand other people’s experience and that we shouldn’t even try. It puts up walls between us. It says that white people don’t have to worry about the issues faced by people of color, that straight people don’t have to worry about LGBTQ people’s problems, that skinny girls don’t have to care how fat people feel.
This is wrong. We don’t need to reinforce these walls any more than they already have been. And the answer is to Read More. Write more if you’re so inclined. Don’t get me wrong – bad representation is still bad. Do your due diligence. Be respectful and authentic, and if you’re writing about something that’s way out of your realm of experience, you’ll have to do a lot of research and find some beta readers who are more knowledgeable and willing to critique you thoroughly. But don’t close walls around yourself because it just seems safer. Everyone’s problems are all of our problems.