Owning My Fizz: My Cross-Cultural Writing Journey Part 2

First, who’s curious about #ownyourfizz but scared to ask? Me too! So instead let’s talk about something else!

My last post explored, among other things, my personal need to tell a story about race.

Unfortunately, of course, there’s this:

me thinking I need something ≠ I automatically get it

I hate this kind of math.

So today I’d like to talk about #ownvoices (click here for both an explanation and a list of some great YA #ownvoices books), and diversity in storytelling.[1]

I’ve learned that there are three types of books representing diverse characters.


The most simple category are stories with casual or incidental diversity. This is where diversity is mentioned but doesn’t drive the story. For instance, in Sorta Like a Rockstar by Matthew Quick, a whole cast of diverse characters play supporting roles: there are people in wheelchairs, people with autism, a choir of Korean grammas, and a victim of PTSD–to name just a few.

The good news: Anyone can include diverse characters in stories in this way, and these stories are a gift to our diverse culture.

The bad news: You must be willing to do the work (you’ll have to read the full series to find out what “all the work” really is–part 1 is here).


Another type is derivative cultural stories. These are often sci-fi or fantasy where the world-building relies on historical cultures or religions. I’ve read a ton of these—alternative histories based in Icelandic mythology, series where the cultural geography resembles our own, sweeping epics set in a world with strong Asian parallels. Examples include Rick Riordan‘s insanely popular novels.

The good news: Anyone can write these and they are so fun to read!

The bad news: You must be—wait for it—willing to do the work. We should do our homework first to make sure the culture is being used respectfully and accurately. For instance, it’s disrespectful to write a story that fuses Asia into one giant culture, and I’ve definitely read books that do this.


The final type are straight-up cultural stories. These are issue-driven books, where the diversity of the character(s) drives the story. Examples are The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

The good news: Our culture needs these types of books. They empower readers and diverse authors alike. They act as both mirrors for diverse readers who recognize themselves in the characters, and windows for other readers who are given a chance to understand characters different from themselves.

The bad other good news: These should ALMOST ALWAYS be written by someone from the represented culture. This is the #ownvoices movement and it’s important. One reason it’s a thing is ***overly simplified explanation alert*** that the publishing industry remains, for the most part, largely white and straight. So it’s a good thing for books about immigrants to be written by immigrants, about people of color to be written by people of color, about people who are differently abled to be written by authors who are differently abled, and so on.

As a teacher in search of real-life role models for my students, I 100% support this. Teens need to see people who model for them what’s possible. It’s why I saved a news photo of President Obama being sworn in. My own two kiddos will never know a world where a person of color hasn’t been president. And we all want our readers to know that stories like theirs matter—because then they feel like their stories matter.

So that’s why I think #ownvoices is good news! And yet, I haven’t chucked my book about race into the trash bin. Instead, I’ve wrestled with it for two years–often times, it’s winning and I’m exhausted on the mat. Because, if you remember from my last post, I have a story living inside me that needs to get written. But if you remember from this post (I know, it’s been a long time), maybe I’m not the right person to tell this story.

Well, where the h-e-double hockey sticks does that leave me?

What do you do if you’re not #ownvoices, and you have a cultural story to tell?

Hahaha, you didn’t think I was going to tell , did you? This post is already two pages long! This is a blog, not literary non-fiction! Tune in next time!!!


[1] I owe great debt to Tiffany Liao for her presentation on writing cross-culturally, and to SCBWI-WWA in partnership with Seattle Public Library, for hosting.