You probably haven't heard of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) Magazine. The "library magazine serving those who serve young adults" has been around since 1978, and caters to a niche population of YA librarians, authors and enthusiasts. It's the kind of relatively obscure trade publication you'd expect to avoid big controversy. But one article inVOYA's latest issue wound up landing it in the center of a heated discussion about race and representation in the arts.
📖📖📖The June issue of VOYA is dedicated to exploring questions of race and culture in teen literature and diversity in book publishing. There are lots of articles that readers interested in these things might expect and welcome, like "Mixed-Race Identity and Power in YA fiction" and "Disability: A Shared Culture."
One headline, however, is of a different breed altogether: "Writing while White: Reasoning out Loud Amidst the Noise."
The article was written by YA novelist Patrick Jones, a prolific author whose books often feature protagonists of color. In the piece Jones, a middle-aged white man, reflected on, well, writing while white.
Jones made the case that though he himself has never been a teen of color, he's spent enough time with them to feel comfortable telling their stories. "I worked with teens in custody, most of them kids of color," he wrote, adding that he saw those kids struggling to find books that appealed to them. "I knew, for lots of reasons, it was best if books were not written by writers like me who, because of white privilege, had access to the market." But a lack of diversity in the publishing system, Jones said, meant that the writers who should be writing these stories lacked access, so he took up the mantle.
Jones included some examples of his writing that suggest insensitivity to racial stereotypes. Most glaringly, he said, "The first line of the original version [of Jones' novel Chasing Tail Lights] was 'Tonisha, pass me the blunt.'" The reaction to an early version of the book was less than positive: "I shared the first few chapters with two award-winning black female writers who said, more or less, 'No, you—as a white male—can't tell this story.'"
Jones changed that book's protagonist from a black to a white girl, even though he had qualms about doing so.
Later, he would write books featuring protagonists of color, but worried that his perspective would warp his storytelling.
Jones ultimately decided to shift his focus, as he explained in the piece. "I'm going to step aside and set off on some new directions, away from just writing about and for teens of color," he wrote. "Instead, I'll try to write the best book I can, reflecting diversity around me, but it won't have a POC as the main character until I've settled the issue in my mind."
"It is too complicated and stressful," he added. "I need to relax."
The article landed with a thud for some readers, who took particular objection to its headline and overall framing.
Hannah Gomez, a long-time reader of VOYA who has contributed to the magazine on a number of occasions, told Fusion that she was deeply troubled by the piece.
She found the article to be more offensive in tone than content. Gomez said that she appreciated Jones' understanding of the challenges facing authors of color, and his understanding that his representation of minority characters might be incomplete. She especially liked this line: "As a white male, I AM THE LAST PERSON ON THE EARTH TO BE AGGRIEVED ABOUT ANYTHING."
"I loved that," Gomez said. "I thought that was great to have an article with a guy talking about, 'I want to be supportive, I want to understand.' But then so much of the article is like, 'What about me? It's so hard.'" Gomez pointed to Jones' writing, "It's too complicated and stressful," as indicative of the self-centered slant of the piece. "You got it, and then you didn't get it," she said.
Gomez was particularly upset by the article's subhead, "Reasoning out Loud Amidst the Noise."
"I think it goes back to tone policing," Gomez said. "This idea that whenever people of color say, 'Hey, this is what you're doing to oppress and hurt us, would you mind stopping?' the reaction is always, 'Why do you guys have to yell about this and complain? You're playing the victim all the time.'"
In the term 'noise,' Gomez said she saw "a very flippant, insulting way to refer to a huge movement" of people of color speaking out against systemic racism and other forms of oppression, including within the literary world.
📖📖📖While Gomez saw some positive elements in the piece, YA author Justina Ireland did not. "Throughout the article Jones demonstrates that he's familiar with the challenges in having representation of marginalized voices in children's literature, yet still sees himself playing a central role in fixing those problems," she wrote in an email. "Even after he gets feedback from no fewer than four readers telling him his representation is problematic he's still convinced that HE is the answer to diversity…[he] at a fundamental level does not understand that this isn't about him."
By granting himself primacy in writing about race, Ireland added, Jones is acting directly on his privilege—even if he doesn't necessarily realize that's the case. "Part of the challenge in getting marginalized voices to the table, both with regards to quality stories but also as editors, agents, etc. is overcoming the belief that we don't deserve to be there. That we haven't earned a spot because we aren't capable," she wrote. "Jones' attitude throughout the piece is indicative of that: diversity is important, but only if it gets fixed the way he thinks it should be fixed, with his books and the stories HE thinks are important. That isn't diversity. It's tokenism, and nobody wants that."
The article generated a robust online conversation. Many people agreed with Gomez and Ireland: Jones' writing was ignorant at best, and VOYA's choice to publish the piece, under that headline, was indefensible.
In an email, VOYA Editor-in-Chief RoseMary Honnold told Fusion that she didn't expect Jones' piece to spark controversy. "Patrick Jones is a highly respected member of the YA library community and the YA lit community," she wrote in an email. "The first person account of his own journey of questioning the efficacy of his writing about POC, extrapolated to that topic, in general, brings a human dimension to the article for his many admirers and colleagues in the field." When asked if she had concerns about the headline before publication, she said she did "not at all."
Honnold wrote that "among the many topics the various authors discuss is the lack of diversity in YA lit because publishers do not publish enough books written by Persons of Color. Taken in that light, Patrick Jones’ article reflects several aspects of that problem as well as the development of his own thoughts regarding the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of his writing."
So critics of the piece, she said, "need to read the Jones article in the context of the entire issue."
Patrick Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
📖📖📖The question of whether white writers can write about race with honesty and sensitivity is periodically discussed in mainstream media. When Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue was published in 2012, some critics wondered whether the white author could accurately tell the tale of a black family. Others wondered whether the question should even be asked.
More often, the question of representation in the arts is brought to the forefront when the entertainment industry fails to cast people of color, as it consistently does. On occasion, the conversation is more nuanced. Does it matter that the star of Transparent—an LGBT-positive show created by a gay woman—is a cis white man playing a trans white woman? Some say yes. Is it right to cast a light-skinned woman of color, Zoe Saldana, in the role of dark-skinned black woman Nina Simone? You'd be hard-pressed to find many defenders of that choice.
Though conversations around race can be confusing or frustrating to some, there really is no alternative. Gomez said that for her, Jones' piece and its packaging was egregious in its disregard for these types of conversations.
"The zeitgeist right now is conversation, it's activism, it's attempting to have productive arguments and lessons," she said, "and to say that issues in diversity amount to 'noise' is very diminishing and undermines all of our work."
Gomez has been reading VOYA since she was a teenager. When asked if she'd continue to read the publication in light of the recent article, she sounded crestfallen but firm. "Probably not," she said.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.