This post has been fermenting in my brain for about a month now. Maybe longer. Then I read this article from Buzz Feed, and I started thinking about it more. So I’m going to try to get it out of my brain and onto the (virtual) page.
Diversity in writing. Diversity in books. I see the plea for it everywhere. I see agents and editors describe themselves as “open to LGBTQ and characters of color.” I see writers tweet about their LGBTQ books and their Black/Hispanic/Indigenous protagonists. I worry about it in my own writing. And I also can’t help but notice how many of these writers and agents and editors are white, heterosexual, and cisgendered (at least on the surface–I realize I may be making assumpti0ns here about people I know mainly from their Internet profiles). Now, I’m not saying that white, cis, het people can’t write about characters who are different from themselves. Part of our work as writers is to go outside our own experience and into the hearts and minds of people who are different than we are. But I ask myself all the time how effective we are at this, and how can we truly convey the experience of people who are different. And where are the voices of people who have different color skins, different backgrounds, different sexuality. It’s not to say they aren’t out there. I follow a number of gender-queer writers and writers of color. It seems to me, however, that the number of these voices are far fewer than the ostensible demand for diversity. It’s as if diversity has become a buzzword, but the industry may not be doing all it can to foster truly diverse points of view.
And I wonder if begging for diversity while at the same time possibly dismissing diverse protagonists and situations as “not relatable” creates an industry where the diversity we see is confined to stereotypes and two-dimensional situations, because a white, cis, het writer is never going to KNOW the experience of others and will have difficulty portraying the day-to-day struggles others face.
Getting back to the personal: I’m aware of differences. I kind of always have been. I grew up one of the few white kids in a mainly black neighborhood in Detroit. I played with Donna and Darnell, the black twins down the street. I remember one time Darnell needed to use the bathroom and I told him my parents didn’t want me to have friends in the house. He told me we were racist. I think about that now, and I’m pretty sure I said what I did because he was a boy and the thought of foreign boy parts alarmed me–not because of his skin color at all. But I was seven. I don’t know. Anyway, it got me thinking. Not long after, I got some personal experience of my own difference when I had my mom give me a pixie cut and the kids at my new school wouldn’t let me hear the end of it (which is one of the reasons I won’t wear a short haircut to this day).
Long story short: I’m a weirdo. I dress weird, and I have weird friends, and I practice a weird religion, and I eat weird food. I’m a woman, I’m fat, and I have a mental illness. So I get difference. But I still don’t feel qualified to write about a protagonist of color, or the life of a trans person. My writing is grounded in my own weirdness, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
But my experience is my experience, and as a white, cis, het woman I have a certain experience that is NOT that of a trans, gay, Native, physically disabled or otherwise different (or any combination thereof) character. Even though I’m also a fat Geeky witch. I do include characters of different backgrounds. I went back and rewrote my last book, The Cruel Mother, to change a secondary character’s race, and I made a point of putting more diversity in my next book, Demon Lover, than in any book before. However, I make choices that later seem terrible to me. My white, male protagonist is a practitioner of Native American Shamanism. I made him one because I’m rather intimate with a person who has studied the Red Road, but maybe it was a bad choice, smacking of cultural imperialism. I justify it to myself by saying I’m not making any claims and not trying to teach it to anyone–very few things annoy me more than those New Age books you see where some white person purports to pass down secrets he or she learned from some mysterious Indigenous mentor (because obviously only a white person is qualified to pass on the wisdom of brown people). Sage Randall, a friend of my female protagonist who appears in several books, is very much the “sassy black girlfriend” trope. And John Stonefeather from The Parting Glass: What was I thinking??? A Native person with a drinking problem who has to be rescued from the consequences of his mistakes by white people? How problematic can you get? Again, that character was based on a real life person, a real Indigenous person of my acquaintance with real substance abuse problems. So I didn’t just go for the Drunk Indian cliché. But readers don’t know that. And I worry that it’s racist and offensive. When I brought it up to a friend, she assured me the thought has never crossed her mind…but she’s white. And when I sent a copy to an acquaintance who’s married to a Native man and who has lived on the Rez, I never heard from her again. Of course, she’s not the most reliable correspondent. I still wonder.
On the other hand, there’s the fact that men of both colors have always written characters, even POV characters, who are women and we don’t seem to have a problem with that. Sure, sometimes, especially these days and especially in genre fiction, we hear about male authors who have relied on social stereotypes and looked no farther. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on this, because I don’t tend to read those books. Or if I do, I don’t get farther than the first chapter or so. Looking back on older literature I’ve read, especially “The Classics,” I see one of two things: Either women don’t exist as POV characters, or the men who write them have succeeded pretty well for their times (disclaimer: I have not, in fact, read every book in the world). I haven’t read much critical analysis of say, Anna Karenina, that claims she’s an unrealistic stereotype. I didn’t like her or sympathize with her, but that’s my problem. This is not to say there is not a huge issue with sexism in literature. I’m remembering the guy who took issue with a fantasy novel featuring a female pirate of color because “female pirates didn’t exist in the real world.” (Like dragons do.) Which is demonstrably historically untrue. So, yeah: there are always the resistant asshats. But I can balance that against men who do a fine job, like Joss Whedon, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman et al. And the scales tip even.
I guess my point (Oh look: She’s coming to a point!) is: Diversity in fiction is in a hard place and it’s hard to achieve. I don’t think it’s realistic to proclaim that only people from a certain segment of humanity have the right to write about the experiences of that segment. And I laud writers who are trying to expand their horizons–and those of their readers–by writing about characters who are unlike them. But sometimes we will FUCK IT UP, I would hope inadvertently. And there are some aspects of life as experienced by those dissimilar to us that we will never be able to describe. The rise of self- and hybrid publishing has given rise to many new avenues through which different voices can come to light, and that’s a good thing. Still, in the traditional arena, the bulk of the responsibility for making available the diversity that is so important lies on publishers, agents, editors, and the like. And, because traditional publishing follows the money, on readers to demand it.
Edit to add: My friend, Stef, reminds me: This is an excellent book on avoiding some of the pitfalls of writing about characters unlike yourself: http://www.writingtheother.com/