I cannot believe I’ve made it to day four! Today’s letter is D, and I’ve decided to address a topic dear to my heart that I care a lot about… Diverse Books.
A quick note at the beginning here to say… I am a white woman who is making an effort at writing about the need for diverse representation in books. I am aware that, as a white woman, I am coming from a place of privilege. I believe that every writer should be thinking about this issue and figuring out how to address it thoughtfully in their own writing. I also believe that writing a wide range of characters is unbelievably important for every writer, and that it should be done with intention and care every time.
The need for diverse books is huge, especially books written by non-white writers. For more information, check out http://weneeddiversebooks.org and the #weneeddiversebooks and #wndb hashtags on twitter.
Diverse books is a giant issue in genre fiction these days. Diversity as a whole is also a giant issue in… well everything right now to be perfectly honest, but I’m focusing on writing in this space. I have had the privilege, growing up as a white woman reading sci-fi and fantasy, to have protagonists that I could see myself in (hat tip especially to Tamora Pierce, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Robin McKinley and Mercedes Lackey). Unfortunately, this has not been the case for many of my friends. There were a few non-white women protagonists (thank you Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson) and almost as few non-heterosexual protagonists among the piles of YA, fantasy, sci-fi and literary books that I read. At the same time, I was growing up in a diverse inner city neighborhood and was very aware of the lack of that varied representation in the books I was reading.
In my years of writing first drafts, I decided that since I was the writer (aka boss of what I was writing) I could choose to write a range of protagonists and characters with backgrounds different from my own. At the same time, I didn’t want to just plop descriptive elements onto characters just to make a check mark on a list. “Diversity added!” No. Not what I wanted to do at all. With every effort, I wanted to focus on more realistic representation rather than the kind of representation I saw in most existing books. And when I decided to have a non-white or a non-heterosexual character, I wanted to do the best I could by that character and not be stereotypical or oblivious in my writing. Some of the many questions that I tried to keep in mind while writing these stories included:
- Is this choice intentional rather than checking off a box, and how does it affect the story I’m telling?
- Is this true to the character, her particular life experience, and how she has learned to see the world and herself?
- Does this particular aspect of this character cause other characters to react in a certain way to her?
- Is the setting of this novel going to affect how this character is treated or how she behaves?
- Is this relevant to the story?
- What research do I need to do to handle this choice properly, and have I done it?
- And most importantly…am I writing stereotypes?
There are things that I will never understand about not being white, heterosexual, or cisgender, and that is something I must ALWAYS be considerate of and careful of. And if I get it wrong, I want to know where I get it wrong. But I also believe that I cannot simply write characters that are exactly like me. That way lies a perpetuation of the lack of diverse representation in my chosen genre, and I’m not ok with adding to homogeneity if I have the choice as a writer to do something different.
In a recent panel conversation about diversity at the LSFW Create Something Magical Conference, the author LaQuette made this statement that really hit the nail on the head for me in terms of how to think about race in story (and really any diverse representation in a story):
“You cannot equate race with character traits.”
Which is so true. So true! You also cannot equate ability, illness, a particular gender, or a particular sexual orientation with character traits. These unchosen, and often external, aspects of a character may inform their reactions or thoughts about the world and definitely will inform how that individual is treated by everyone else, but it is not the be-all and end-all of that individual by any means and that must always be kept in mind.
This one went long, but… as always questions! Did you know about the Diverse Books movement? How are you working to address the need for more diversity in your own writing? And if you’re a reader, what do you look for with regard to diverse representation in genre fiction?