Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Writing For Charity Experience 2015 Part Two: In Which I Ponder Diversity

Last week I talked about one aspect of my experience at Writing for Charity from a few weeks ago. Be sure to check it out if you missed it!

Today I wanted to talk about something else that happened there and something I've been thinking a lot about lately. Like, a lot. And that's the We Need Diverse Books movement that's really big in the readerly/writerly worlds these days.  Here's hoping I can make my thoughts make sense!

So during the conference, we went to a class about diverse books and characters. I'm always interested in this mostly because I have characters in my story that fit into this category and I'm so worried about doing it right.

But first, before this class even got started, I talked for a moment with the writer sitting next to me. When I found out where she's from, I was like, "Seriously? That's kind of where I'm setting this story of mine! Because I want to tie in this Native American legend/myth/tradition that I first learned about when I was passing through your town."

Her eyes got big and she said, "Oh, you want to be careful if you're writing about them. And about that aspect of their stories. Oh, yeah. Be careful."

So we talked and I said, yeah, I've tried to do a lot of research. (though I know I should do WAY more.) And I said, yeah, I know it's a pretty touchy subject and yeah, I know they don't talk about it and they take it pretty seriously and all. And yeah, it's just plain scary.

Then the class started and they talked about the need for diverse books. And while I totally agree I think that what we REALLY need is diverse authors! Because I feel like and the people on the panel went on to pretty much say too, that if you don't know anything about that culture or race or way of living, then how can you get it right? How can you write about them without it sounding cliche and stereotyped and all? And how it's not enough to just turn your character into a POC just to say you've got diversity, if you can't write that character without stereotyping. And how only people who know what it's like could really get it right.

I love this picture of a Navajo guy.

So, when we call for diverse books, what we really need is the diverse authors to write them, don't you think? So as I'm starting out in this writing thing, how can I ever expect to do it right with POCs if I have no experience? My life has been very un-diverse, sadly. With the exception of several family members who have been adopted, but raised very un-diversely just like me, and now my daughter-in-law who is giving us some taste of diversity, but still, just barely. Know what I mean?

Then they go on to say that if you do have a diverse character in your story, be sure to do the research and even have someone from that culture read it and "approve" it basically. At which point I wanted to hold my head and moan, "where will I find Native American readers?!" That's when the girl next to me handed me her email and said, let me know if you want readers from the Navajo Nation.

And then I really got scared!

I mean how cool would that be. But still. How scary!

So I left that class quite frustrated and wondering why I thought up this story in the first place!

Bottom line is, I feel that we do need books with diverse characters but it has to be organic, meaning, we can't just throw them in there and say, Hey look! I have a diverse character! I especially hate the token gay character. Make it make sense for the story, please! And yes, here's hoping that the call for diverse characters doesn't just perpetuate the perception some have of certain people and that it instead helps break those down. We need diverse authors!

Meanwhile, since I'm so very un-diverse myself... what does that mean for me? Can I truly write diverse characters? Do I keep on with my Native American story even though I really have no idea what I'm doing?

I'd love to know what you think on all this. Am I making sense at all? Do you see what I'm trying to get at? Am I justified in this frustration? Or do I suck it up and get over it!!! :)


  1. First of all, whatever you do, don't give up on this story! I really want to read it and think it sounds fascinating. And guess what? I don't know anything about the Native Americans... well enough to judge and I bet there's millions of others that don't either. I get that you don't want to tick off the source though. Very scary. I can see why people write strictly white casts of characters for fear of offending and then offend for not having more diversity. Sigh!

  2. Have you read Gene Yuen Lang's National Book Festival talk from last summer? I was going to pull a couple of quotes, but I ended up copying nearly the whole thing, so maybe you should just read the whole thing. You can find it here:

    sorry, I am not sure how to do tricky small links. He pretty much talks about exactly what you are afraid of. I love that your neighbor gave you her email so you can find some Navajo people to read your drafts; I think it will make a really positive difference. Good luck!

    1. KT: Thanks for the link! I love how he ends with this:

      Let your fear drive you to do your homework. But no matter what, don’t ever let your fear stop you.

      I will remember that!! :)

  3. This is such a great conversation to have when we talk about diverse books. If we are going to write about someone different from us, we really want to make sure we get it right. Who better to get it right than an author that can speak from that perspective. So many authors have recommended to me to write what you know. But then again, those stories are not being told. Shouldn't we bring them to the forefront (with their help) at least?!?

  4. As you know, I agree with you completely. This whole subject is one of the reasons that Corey and I decided that if/when we do adopt, we don't want to adopt a non-caucasian child. It doesn't have anything to do with racism. It all has to do with the fact that we don't feel like we can integrate the child's culture well enough to help him/her feel like he/she knows where he/she comes from. Does that make sense? All we could give them is an outsider's point-of-view and I think that's a disservice. Now, I'm not saying that people who do adopt children from a culture different than their own is bad or anything. I'm just saying that I'd have a hard time doing it. And, because of that I don't feel like I could write a diverse character well enough, unless it was fantasy and I made up my own race/culture.

  5. Love this! Definitely we need more diverse books from more diverse authors! Don't give up on your story!

  6. As a PoC myself, I think having diverse authors is a good thing but I think having diverse characters is even more important. I think "write what you know" is a cliché. If you're a good writer, thorough research will help you avoid the stereotypes and allow you to breathe life to your diverse characters. Honestly, as a child I didn't really pay much attention to the authors I read (other than wanting to read more of the ones I liked). But if a character in a book resonated with me, made me feel like it was MY life they were living - wow! And there weren't that many of them back in those days. KT posted a link to Gene Yuen Lang's speech at the National Book Festival and he's absolutely right. Don't let your fear stop you, but DO do your homework. What we need today is more diverse characters. Diverse characters that diverse readers can identify with. As writers, we have access to the incredible powers of the imagination. When you marry that to indepth research, you can create incredible worlds inhabited by very credible characters.



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