Let Marginalized Authors and Their Characters Fail
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Nothing strikes fear in my heart like when I need to speak publicly about my Latinidad. As a half-white Latina who grew up in a white household in a small, white town, I can barely say “hola” correctly, let alone properly pronounce some of my favorite Puerto Rican foods or speak on nuanced experiences within the Puerto Rican community.
Though I can easily write about my love for my heritage, my passion for my culture, my affinity for the foods that feel like love, my admiration for the way the language sounds like music, there is something about having to talk about it all in front of my Latinx community, whom I love dearly, that makes me tense up. I worry I’m not doing it justice. I’m messing up. I’m failing.
I guess that’s to be expected after a lifetime of being told, implicitly and explicitly, that I’m neither white enough nor Latina enough, right alongside being told I’m neither queer enough nor straight enough; neither thin enough nor fat enough. I feel like I’ve mastered the art of being stuck in the middle, fitting in neither here nor there, terrified that one, tiny misstep will prove everyone right as they realize I don’t belong anywhere, and I’m not enough.
I don’t want others to ever feel this way, which is why I create stories for marginalized young readers, featuring characters who embrace some of the very things that used to (and sometimes still do) make me feel insecure.
I seek to build worlds and develop dialogue and explore emotions in ways that feel inviting, inclusive, and just. I do my best to create stories that feel like home, that hold out a hand to a reader and remind them that they’re worthy, and they’re not alone.
I have heard from so many other YA authors trying to do the same. Many of us are writing to heal parts of ourselves that were broken or ignored or cast aside. We use our words to push back against a world that told us we’re not good enough. We do this not just for ourselves, but for all those like us who need the reminder that they matter.
It’s a lot of responsibility.
Generally speaking, when non-marginalized writers create, they get to craft whatever story comes to mind without fear that they are writing to represent an entire population that has long been ignored or belittled. They don’t have to worry about making a rude or unlikeable character that could become representative of an entire ethnicity. They don't have to agonize over their identity being called into question. They don’t have to be afraid that if they create something “bad,” they’ll never have a chance to try again. They have the freedom to make, and with that, they have the freedom to fail.
Yet BIPOC and marginalized authors sometimes feel like they’re carrying the immense burden of creating the perfect story with the perfect characters that serves as the perfect representation of all identities and experiences.
It’s compounded by well-meaning public gatekeeping of marginalized authors that occasionally happens. I get it. After fighting so long for representation in literature, many of us desperately want to ensure that books thoughtfully celebrate our intersecting identities. We want authenticity. We want real. We want truth.
But who gets to define a marginalized author’s identity and experience? And are authors obligated to reveal personal details about themselves in order to “prove” they belong?
In August 2020, we witnessed one of the most notable instances of literary gatekeeping when YA author Becky Albertelli wrote a heartbreaking Medium post detailing how she felt pressured to come out publicly in order to justify why she was “allowed” to tell queer stories. Shortly thereafter, in June 2021, literary nonprofit We Need Diverse Books announced they would be doing away with #OwnVoices labels, arguing that it could “place diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations.” Still, we watched as trigger and content warnings, which many marginalized authors and readers like me support, were weaponized against marginalized YA authors in late summer 2021—further proof of the microscope under which our books are viewed.
As it turns out, in our quest to be more inclusive, we may have accidentally removed the ability for marginalized and BIPOC creators to make a mistake. We’ve unknowingly constructed impossibly high standards these authors and characters must meet, creativity and authenticity be damned.
Yet shouldering the burden for utopian inclusivity could be enough to drive marginalized authors away from communities and social media platforms that once felt like home, make publishers hesitant to market books with unlikeable marginalized characters, or push creators to stop writing all together.
Failure has become a luxury afforded to only the most privileged creators.
For the rest of us, in between every warm, sunshine-filled, gratifying moment where it feels like we’re making a difference and reclaiming space for others like us out there, there is a dark seed of doubt that threatens to sprout up inside our collective chest.
There are the expected worries: What if no one reads our book? What if we’re not good enough? What if we don’t receive much support? What if our stories are misunderstood?
But then comes the deeper, more personal fear—born of our identities, our cultures, our beginnings—that we may disappoint the very communities we set out to try and represent in the first place.
We wonder: What if our books are rejected? What if the story is too much? What if our characters are unlikeable? What if our references are too specific, not specific enough, both things at once?
What if we don’t quite get something right? What if these experiences—personal, complicated, messy, often inspired by our own—are seen as misrepresentations? What if our characters are not enough—brown enough, queer enough, disabled enough, body positive enough, politically engaged enough?
What if we’re not enough?
What if we fail?
And, so, the seed of doubt cracks open, and out slithers the root.
But is it so bad to want marginalized authors to be able to have the chance to fail as often as their white, cis, het, able-bodied, wealthy character counterparts?
I by no means want to excuse characters or authors who intentionally cause harm. But I would love to make room for imperfect, marginalized characters (especially within YA) created by imperfect, marginalized authors who are constantly striving to be and do better.
Because even the most well-meaning of us can only flourish if the conditions are right.
So, let your favorite authors, their creations, and their characters stumble. Let them err. Let them falter.
If necessary, let them apologize (sincerely). Let them learn. Let them self-reflect.
Let them water themselves, separate from the roots that have decayed, and sprout new leaves.
Let them fail. And watch them bloom.
Crystal Maldonado is a young adult author with a lot of feelings. Her debut novel, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, is a 2021 New England Book Award winner, a Cosmopolitan Best New Book, and a POPSUGAR Best New YA Novel. Her next novel, No Filter and Other Lies, explores teenage life in the social media age—and the lies we tell to ourselves and others.
By day, Crystal works in higher ed marketing, and by night, a writer who loves Beyoncé, shopping, spending too much time on her phone, and being extra. Her work has also been published in Latina, BuzzFeed, and the Hartford Courant.
She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and dog. Find her everywhere @crystalwrote or crystalwrote.com.
Buy Fat Chance, Charlie Vega: https://holidayhouse.com/book/fat-chance-charlie-vega/
Buy No Filter and Other Lies: https://holidayhouse.com/book/no-filter-and-other-lies/
Add No Filter and Other Lies on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57926463-no-filter-and-other-lies
No Filter and Other Lies
Twenty-one-year-old Max Monroe has it all: beauty, friends, and a glittering life filled with adventure. With tons of followers on Instagram, her picture-perfect existence seems eminently enviable.
Except it’s all fake.
Max is actually 17-year-old Kat Sanchez, a quiet and sarcastic teenager living in drab Bakersfield, California. Nothing glamorous in her existence - just sprawl, bad house parties, a crap school year, and the awkwardness of dealing with her best friend Hari’s unrequited love. But while Kat’s life is far from perfect, she thrives as Max: doling out advice, sharing beautiful photos, networking with famous influencers, even making a real friend in a follower named Elena. The closer Elena and “Max” get - texting, Snapping, and even calling - the more Kat feels she has to keep up the façade.
But when one of Max’s posts goes ultra-viral and gets back to the very person she’s been stealing photos from, her entire world - real and fake - comes crashing down around her. She has to figure out a way to get herself out of the huge web of lies she’s created without hurting the people she loves.
But it might already be too late.
Fat Chance Charlie Vega
Charlie Vega is a lot of things. Smart. Funny. Artistic. Ambitious. Fat.
People sometimes have a problem with that last one. Especially her mom. Charlie wants a good relationship with her body, but it's hard, and her mom leaving a billion weight loss shakes on her dresser doesn't help. The world and everyone in it have ideas about what she should look like: thinner, lighter, slimmer-faced, straighter-haired. Be smaller. Be whiter. Be quieter. But there's one person who's always in Charlie's corner: her best friend Amelia. Slim. Popular. Athletic. Totally dope. So when Charlie starts a tentative relationship with cute classmate Brian, the first worthwhile guy to notice her, everything is perfect until she learns one thing—he asked Amelia out first. So is she his second choice or what? Does he even really see her? Because it's time people did. A sensitive, funny, and painfully honest coming-of-age story with a wry voice and tons of chisme, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega tackles our relationships to our parents, our bodies, our cultures, and ourselves.