–Sondi Warner, Writer/Blogger for Wrought Iron Reads
I create. I don’t think that has anything to do with my race, sexuality, religion or lack thereof or that it takes special abilities. I think if I were a white Protestant male, I’d still create. I think if I didn’t have hands, I’d find some way to create. I believe this creativity stuff is encoded in my genes, irrespective of the other alleles that make up who I am.
But I know that if I were any other person, the framework of my perspective as a writer would be different. As a fairly able-bodied individual, I admit I rarely think to write a character with different abilities or different challenges than what I encounter. Would I write such characters if I identified with that demographic? And, you’ll probably never read a deeply religious book by me, but might that be the case if I were deeply religious? Here’s the real question:
Do these limitations of perspective limit me as a writer? The short answer is yes, but there’s another angle to this. Keep reading and I’ll explain.
That many writers struggle with the conundrum of promoting diversity in the literary world stems from understanding our readers aren’t a homogenous population. In fact, readers want to discover characters who are similar to them and those who are different.
As Julia Rios, co-editor of the diversity project, Kaleidoscope, explained, “Judging by how many teens these days love manga and anime, and how many boys like My Little Pony, I do have to conclude that diversity and variety is fun for everyone. We just all want good stories.”
I’ve read many articles tackling the issue of writing diverse characters, and I was about to throw in my two cents until I realized most of these articles targeted an audience of heterosexual, cis-gender, able-bodied whites, as if they are the only variety of writer in the field. Or that only such writers struggle to get diversity right. Both suppositions are incorrect.
Note, I am an able-bodied cis-gender black lesbian writer, and there are elements of diversity that almost never cross my mind, which is something I intend to improve.
When I wrote Jonquille, an interracial romance, I felt Pierce as a white male and Jonquille as a Creole black woman added an element of friction to the story, but my motivation wasn’t strictly to diversify. My motivation was to tell my story–one of New Orleans, one about a skeptical tarot reader falling in love with a lucky poker player.
That’s why we need writer diversity. Because diverse writers tell stories from a different perspective: Theirs.
“For some writers, the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ discourages them from including diverse elements,” posits author Jami Gold in her highly informative article, “Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues.” She gives a handy checklist of ways to mitigate that fear and respectfully portray characters. I found it particularly favorable that she included the following caveat:
Beware an “It’s the Right Thing to Do” Attitude: Including diversity isn’t like eating our vegetables or taking our vitamins. For most stories, it’s logical to include diverse elements, and no one deserves a pat on the back just because they’re being logical. *smile*
It’s true that writing about a character from a background vastly different than your own might require massive amounts of research, but you’re a writer. You know this job comes with homework for the rest of your writing life. On the other hand, pretty often people of different backgrounds are a lot more like us than we imagine.
For example, I’m sitting in a living room in my flat, listening to music, while my kids do chores and the laundry goes unnoticed in the middle of the floor. We’ll be on our way out to do the laundry in a bit, but until then…Sound familiar? This is regular everyday life for a lesbian mom of four and probably a married couple with kids or, tweak a few of the details and, it could be YOUR life.
So, it shouldn’t be assumed that for your character to be a different race, sexuality or have a different ability level requires harder work than writing the “usual.” Either way, the end product is worthy of the hard work. It’s infinitely important to craft and teach others to craft the kind of characters that inspire a change of perspective.
When I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, I was ushered into a world so utterly foreign that it has stuck with me ever since. I learned about Japanese internment camps in a way the history books couldn’t do justice, but I also fell in love with Henry and Keiko because they were people like me. People who wanted to be together but couldn’t. People with family problems and work problems and life problems. They weren’t foreigners. Do you see what I’m getting at?
Studies already show the readers who ingest these stories of lives similar to and different from their own are more empathetic and have a greater ability to see things from a different point of view. We need more people like that in the world, right?
Thus, it’s our obligation to encourage diversity of writers and reveal the many harmonic, authentic voices of our craft just as much as it is our responsibility to write such characters. Far too often, I see people wowed by an autistic writer or stymied by a black sci-fi star. Why is that? Scratch that question. Let’s not let that be.
It should be noted that I understand there are inherent difficulties with the system. Sunili Govinnage, as published by WashingtonPost.com, set out to spend a year reading only books by minorities and found that the lack of diversity grew out from the roots. “From MFA programs to publishing houses to critics’ circles, the industry is suffering from a lack of diversity. She went on to explain that writers “encounter agents who dismiss or don’t understand cultural references in their books.”
That said, whatever we, as readers and writers at the grassroots level, can do, we should be doing. My advice is, we invite these “different” writers into our circles. Befriend them. Share their content.
Teachers should begin recruiting diverse writers from grade school to beyond. Readers should be buying books by a diverse make-up of authors. We should be adding such titles to our book club lists, leaving reviews, telling our friends to check out so-and-so. Not because it’s “right” and makes up somehow morally superior. We should be doing it because great writers don’t come in colors, creeds, religions, sexualities or any other flavor. They come in words.
Writer diversity matters. Character diversity matters. Better books matter. And, the world will thank us for the work we put in now to make our bookshelves more unique and colorful. Tell me what you think below in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.