Thursday, February 12, 2015

Challenges of Writing Diversely

by R.C. Lewis

#WeNeedDiverseBooks2014 was, among other things, the year of the We Need Diverse Books movement. And we do need them—stories with diverse characters, diverse backgrounds, diverse perspectives, particularly those that are drastically underrepresented right now.

If we want such books, someone has to write them.

Sit up, fellow writers. This means us.

But wait! Is this really for me to do?

Hi there, voice-of-doubt. Thanks for joining us. Why wouldn't this be for you?

Because I'm white/straight/cis/able-bodied/by-the-book majority. Is it my place? What if I get it wrong?

Beyond the fact that yes, we need books from diverse authors, too, I think this is actually a good concern. It means we're being mindful of authenticity, of avoiding stereotypes, of "getting it right." We may not have experience being gay or deaf (or Deaf—there's a difference) or Cambodian ... but I don't have experience being male, either. Should that stop me from writing a male protagonist?

At the same time, it wouldn't be good to dive in with a carefree shout of, "It's fiction! I can just make it all up anyway!"

It comes back to my belief that we don't need to write what we know, but rather know what we write. We can diversify our knowledge base. Read books by and about the people in the branch of diversity you're working on. Research. Talk to members of that community—find those who are willing and able to educate. (But have respect. It's not an interrogation. Listen more than you talk.)

We probably won't get it completely "right" (and that's if everyone can agree what "right" is in that circumstance), but we won't get better unless we try.

But there are lots of kinds of diversity. Does every character need to have a "diversity tag"? Or more than one, maybe for the main character? How do you choose? Pick descriptors out of a hat?

Thanks for bringing that up, because that's my main worry. I accept and believe that we need more diversity in literature (especially kid-lit, the realm I inhabit), and I'm willing to try to do my part.

But how to I escape the Grab-Bag (random assignment of demographics) or Smorgasbord (including everything conceivable) Effects? If the book is ABOUT that aspect of diverseness, we're covered, but aren't we looking for more than that? For diverse characters in ALL the kinds of stories?

Some authors may approach it as just rolling with the character as they first pop into the author's head. That may work for some, but without more directed mindfulness, I'm afraid most of us will default to the same cis/straight/white/you-get-the-idea.

So how does an author, say, like me write diversely WITHOUT it seeming pandering ... or shoehorned ... or like jumping on a bandwagon?

(Maybe if the bandwagon is headed up the right road, it's not such a bad thing.)

I don't know the answer to that yet. Still working it out. Maybe it's my super-analytical nature, but I worry about finding myself in front of my blank screen with a story idea and freezing. "Should my main character be Latino? Black? Asian—wait, so many subsets to all these—Mexican or Chilean, Ethiopian or Jamaican or Haitian, Chinese or Japanese or Indian or AAAHHHHHHH! And that's just ethnicity!"

It's probably just me, but sometimes too many choices freak me out.

What if you just try one that feels right and see how it goes? There's always editing. And there are always more books to write later.

Looks like it's time to listen to that inner voice.

What are your thoughts on writing diversely? Challenges that worry you? Advice for my own worries? See you in the comments!

R.C. Lewis is the math-teaching, ASL-signing author of Stitching Snow and the forthcoming Spinning Starlight (Oct. 6, 2015), both from Hyperion. You can find more information at her website, or watch her overanalyze one thing or another on Twitter.


ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Thank you for this post - I just read a couple of posts from last year that frustrated me - and one of them was on this topic and the first argument was "but we're all diverse" with a follow up of "we have to be true to our characters" - both lazy arguments that come so easily to white-privilege writers.

I am white and believe that yes, it is my responsibility to try to make my books reflect the world I live in.

I appreciate you saying "It comes back to my belief that we don't need to write what we know, but rather know what we write." -- and maybe that means we need to start knowing more. If all I seem to know is that I heard Will Smith say "aight", then that's not enough. I need to listen more. See more.

One step that I've been trying to advocate is that at minimum, let's not have readers enter into our stories with the "everyone's white unless we say otherwise" default.

I think if we, as white writers, really don't feel like we "know" other races/cultures/etc, then a good first step is to sit in a food court at a mall, for example, and just watch and listen. Find common areas, upscale areas, universities, mass transit stations, etc. This is actually useful for getting stories in general - so win-win. It seems like this can help with the "which diversity tag" question, too.

I may not get it completely right for all, but I certainly hope my writing gets it right for more.

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