Who Owns Words?

I have intentionally been reading works by female authors and authors of color lately. It’s something I have been trying to do for a couple of years. The most recent book I read was To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara. Yanagihara is an American novelist who grew up in Hawaii. 

To Paradise is like three books in one, each taking place in an alternate version of America in a different time period – 1893, 1993, 2093. The three sections are joined together by characters of the same name with similar issues in love and identity. If you like the idea of going into a stranger’s room and snooping through their things and reading their diary, you’ll enjoy this book. At 720 pages, if you don’t enjoy it, you can at least use it as a weapon in an emergency.

There is some controversy surrounding this book and Yanagihara’s last book, A Little Life.

“A persistent discomfort lingers around Yanagihara’s choice to consistently write about gay men as a straight woman, and specifically about male-male child sex abuse.”

Constance Grady for Vox

The stories in To Paradise are raw and dive deep into humanity. There is love, loss, sacrifice, fear, cowardliness, failure, the unrelenting pressure of society, and the uncontrolled forces in our environment that none of us can escape or avoid. But critics ask why Yanagihara writes gay male characters in such dire situations and if she even should. 

My initial instinct is to try to understand where the critics are coming from. I’ve read about bias in book publishing and if someone is saying they’re uncomfortable with an author telling the stories of a group they’re not in, we should at a minimum listen and consider what they’re saying. According to the Diversity Baseline Survey by Lee and Low Books in 2019, 76% of published authors are white and 81% identified as straight or heterosexual. 

I’ll disclose my own inherent bias as a first-generation Latina, I’ve been told to be quiet a lot. I’ve spent the majority of my life looking for myself in magazines and on TV screens. There are so many parts of typical American culture that I will never be a part of despite being born and raised in Texas. I particularly always hated pop culture references in high school. I never knew what actors and actresses anyone was talking about and I particularly hate the icebreaker question, “Who would play you in a movie?” Thank god for Salma Hayek. 

I understand what it is like to not have a voice. And I also have experience seeing Mexican culture found and sold like a colonized commodity. There was a time when suddenly everyone was wearing huaraches and making backpacks out of sarapes. Some people felt comfortable telling me they were more Mexican than me because they had these things and liked to eat cilantro. 

It’s exhausting. Spending half of your life suppressing who you are in the name of assimilation, for safety if not acceptance. And then to see someone sell your foods, your patterns, tell your story and not just be applauded, but be paid. It’s infuriating. 

But on the other hand, who owns words? 

Sometimes we forget how many freedoms we actually have. There are so many places around the world where you can’t do what I’m doing right now. There are places in the United States where you can’t read whatever book you want. Where a 140 character tweet is illegal depending on what words you use. Democracy isn’t something I thought I would spend so much time thinking about. And lately it’s been everything.

Critics might not like what Yanagihara is writing and they’re allowed to say so. That’s the beauty of free speech. Friction is what drives us forward. If we all thought the same and never argued, our minds could never be changed or expanded. 

Whatever way you feel about authors writing characters they don’t personally exemplify, I think it’s our duty to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about the ramifications of taking away someone’s voice especially if we haven’t even considered how to augment another’s. 

If diversity in publishing is something you’re interested in supporting, consider actively seeking out diverse authors. You might not like everything you read, but you’ll at least think about things you’ve never thought about before.

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