Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A few hundred words about diversity in fiction, and writing diverse characters without being one

A couple days ago, I read a blog post by Malinda Lo on Diversity in YA that really struck a ... something with me, about whether or not a white person could write from the perspective of a POC (person of color).

For the record, I'm about as un-diverse as it gets. In fact, the only way I could be less diverse is if I were male. A straight, white, physically-able female American with northern European heritage. If I were to stretch myself I could admit that a few years ago, I really struggled with an anxiety disorder (OCD, to be precise), and knowing the nature of the disease, I likely will deal with it again during my lifetime. But right now, it's mostly under control and I can't even claim mental illness as a struggle in my daily life.

I was, however, gifted with: empathy, a strong moral compass, and a VERY vivid imagination.

I have never experienced blatant prejudice directed at me. At least, not that I can recall. It's never ruined a day in my life. There's no lack of characters in books and movies that are like me. There aren't laws preventing me from living my life, being who I want to be, loving the one I love. I realize I'm lucky this is the case. But I also appreciate how unfair it would be to live in that world. How frustrating, how maddening, how scary. How defeating. I have seen it affect friends and strangers, and been infuriated by news articles of beatings/ murders, and the passing of discriminatory laws.

As a result of that empathy, even lacking personal experience, I have very strong opinions on diversity and the importance that there be more of it in the media we consume. My hope is that someday we won't HAVE to have strong opinions, because it won't be an issue. People are people are people, and the sooner we all realize that and get on board, the better.

Prejudice comes, I think, from the fear of the unknown. Therefore, the best way to combat it is to take away the mystery. Exposure makes things less scary. The more people see/ hear/ read about/ LEARN about diversity, the less fear there will be.

So even though I'm a straight white girl, I write books with diverse characters. I hate that it feels a little like I shouldn't, like I can't possibly understand. Because it's true-- I will never 100% get it. For all I know, my characters are way off the mark. But if I don't try-- if I'm too afraid to try-- I will never grow, never learn more than I know, never be part of the solution, just part of the problem.

I stand by my characters in the hope that someday, someone will learn something, be a little less afraid because of me.

1 comment:

  1. I will never 100% get what it is like to be a man, because I'm a woman. But it doesn't stop me from writing male characters. I mean, it isn't a perfect parallel, because we're inundated with the male experience, the male gaze, the male-as-default through media, but I think it's valid.

    I will never 100% know what it is to be British, but I wrote British characters. I will never 100% know what it is to grow up and be raised French-nobility, but I wrote French Noblemen. I will never 100% know what it is to be a Bronze Age Greek, but I definitely don't let that stop me from exploring what might have been, what was, and creating characters who might have lived that life.

    Writing diversity requires the same skill set. The same desire to research and learn and imagine, and I think there is nothing inauthentic in making the genuine attempt to include them. Including diverse characters and culture as window dressing is something else altogether, but I know that isn't the writer you are, and the writers who genuinely care about fighting this battle to normalize diversity aren't those kinds of writers, either, I would imagine. Will people critique my attempts at diversity? Sure. While some people find it problematic? I would imagine so. But since some people are bound to find my writing of a character with all the same advantages and upbringing and cultural everything as myself problematic, I don't see why we should let that concern stop us from trying, and, hopefully, learning from those critiques so that we can do better next time.

    The other thing to consider, too, is that if you're writing a fantasy book set in another world, in another time, there isn't any reason why you can't include diverse characters, and because that is a fantasy world, and those people would not have been in our world, experiencing what people here experience, maybe it would be less of a target, while still accomplishing something toward normalization and representation, superficially at the least! It isn't perfect, but it still helps.