Monday, January 20, 2014

How Diverse Are You?

I first really got into science fiction and fantasy when I was in middle school. A friend of mine gave me a copy of Split Infinity by Piers Anthony for my birthday, and I just went from there. [I had stayed away from fantasy before that because, any time I got any book with magic in it (other than the Narnia books),  my dad would throw it away. Perhaps because it was a birthday present, no one took it from me. Or, maybe, it was because I didn't advertise it. Anyway, this isn't about what I was "allowed" to read when I was a kid.] Thinking back on it, now, basically everything I read was... well, it was "white." In fact, the only sci-fi/fantasy books I can think of that I read back then with a non-white lead was Bio of a Space Tyrant by Piers Anthony (because I spent years reading everything that Anthony wrote).

Not that it's really a sci-fi/fantasy problem; it's just a book problem. Or, at least, an American book problem. Or, maybe, a Western book problem. And there's plenty written about the lack of diversity in literature, so I'm not really going to get into that. It's a huge problem with no easy answer, except, hopefully, now that publishing has more options, we can hope that a more diverse body of writers begins to develop.

That said, the whole question of diversity, this being the day after MLK Day, made me think about diversity in my own work. I mean, I'm a white dude which, when it comes to books, is about the least diverse you can get. Okay, not "about the least;" it is the least. Going back to Piers Anthony: the guy's written something like 150 novels but only a handful have significant non-white characters (at least up to the point that I stopped reading him) and, actually, that's probably pretty good.

Honestly, before this topic came up in one of our IWM discussions, I hadn't given much thought to how diverse I am in my writing, but, after thinking about it, I'm not displeased.

Tib, in Shadow Spinner, is bi-racial.
His father is, well, you should just read "The Evil That Men Do" to find that out. I wouldn't want to throw out any spoilers. Not that I tried to write him "racially;" I wrote him as a kid struggling with the kinds of things that kids struggle with, and his issues are not race issues; their being different issues, which, I suppose, most kids feel that they are at some point or another. Basically, I didn't make the race thing an issue; it's just something that is. It was just... natural.

However, when I wrote "Christmas on the Corner," there was more premeditation about racial ideas. Not that I was trying to be racially diverse; I just thought back to my own childhood and growing up in the South and decided that I wanted Sam's best friend to be black. Having black friends was normal to me when I was a kid... right up until almost middle school when I wanted to bring one of my friends, who happened to be black, to church with me, and my mother wouldn't let me. [It wasn't, I don't think, because of any prejudice of her own that she wouldn't let me, because she had never said or done anything about me having black friends (in fact, the only friends she ever protested where the other "smart kids" I was friends with, because they were "weird"). She was worried how people would react at our all-white church.] Since House is set in the South, I wanted to be able to explore race issues, so Sam's best friend is black.

All of that said, I don't recommend throwing in diversity for the sake of diversity; that smacks of trying to hard. If I had been thinking, "I need to be racially diverse, here," I probably would have messed it all up, but, as it is, I think it all comes off pretty natural. It has to be something that's there without "being there." It has to be there without calling attention to itself. Probably, the best way to accomplish that in writing is to be more diverse as a person. That sounds like a pretty good goal to me.


  1. I was a big fan of Piers Anthony for a while too, but yes, his characters aren't very diverse.

    1. Sandra: I think part of the reason I eventually quit reading Anthony was that all of his characters were essentially the same. I'm supposing all of his characters were him or, at least, the him he wanted to be.

  2. I think when white, middle class, middle aged, white guys write stories, they do have to actively think about diversity in their stories or it will never happen. Probably. I mean, there are some that would, it's a big world, but for most, it won't happen unless it's done on purpose.

    Many of my stories have white guys dealing with white guy problems. I've had to go back and rethink stories or even ask myself if this character can be a woman, or black, or gay, or anything that isn't what I am.

    And in some cases I have made changes and I've liked them better. Still not actually put much out there for public consumption that is very diverse, but I'm working on it.

    1. Yeah, I agree. It's hard to think outside of your box.
      That said, I've read Total Depravity, so I know what you have going on.

  3. My life is full of diversity. I did not think about it purposefully, I just automatically included it in my writing.

    1. jaybird: I think that's the best way for it to be. Actually, the character of Ruth in House is not there because I wanted a "strong female lead;" she's there because I looked at my daughter and, well, she's a strong female lead.

  4. Similar to what Rusty said, most of my stories involve dorky white guys dealing with white guy problems. Because, surprise surprise, I'm a dorky white guy dealing with white guy problems. I write what I know. Me writing a novel about a black kid struggling to break out of inner city Chicago makes about as much sense as my black friend from Chicago writing a novel about catty white housewives cheating on their husbands.

    We both know a guy, a middle-aged white man, who wrote an awful YA book but got it picked up by Scholastic because he made all of the characters Hispanic while actually knowing nothing about the Hispanic culture. He told us that he did this on purpose, and the gimmick worked. Dude's a total snake. Anyway, the book is horrible, it sold about 1,000 copies, and the rest he still has in his garage and tries to give them away whenever he can, but still, it got picked up because it was "diverse."

    We usually have diversity in our stories, but you won't find us throwing in diversity just for the sake of throwing it in.

    1. ABftS: Yeah, that's a pretty horrible thing to do. That would be like me writing a book about what it was like to live in the "projects" in Shreveport because I happened to live a few blocks from there. You can't do it as a gimmick.

      I don't have the knowledge to write a black leading character, but I do have the knowledge to write a black friend for my lead, because I had those growing up.

      And, no, I don't have any current black friends, but that's probably more due to not having friends.

  5. Actually, every character in every story I've ever written has been Laotian.

    Ha, no, that's not true. I'm like Beer: I write mostly what I know, and mostly what I know is white people. My LIFE isn't very diverse, to be honest. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a pretty liberal town but not very racially diverse, and to the extent it is, I don't know many people of color. That said, Oldest's boyfriend is black and from (I think?) Ghana, and Middle's husband is Mexican, but I don't interact with them enough to really have any insight into it.

    So I think making someone a different race would mostly be arbitrary for me, although as I think about most of my stories, race wouldn't impact anyway. I could say "Saoirse is [ethnicity/race]" but it wouldn't really matter, so it'd be a detail that has no real point -- like when JK Rowling said Dumbledore was gay which I know is the second time I've referenced that this week, but it's just what comes to mind on this topic.

    Do we make things any better by being more diverse? I'm not sure a bunch of white people are the best group to answer this question. But I don't think we do if we just say "Well, this guy is now black and she's asian" without it having a point in the story, and especially if it is not backed up by some sort of actual knowledge of what that might be like.

    For what it's worth, in my short story "What It Is Like To Be A Frog (You Think}" the little boy is supposed to be black. And in my new book I'm working on I picture one character as being black, although I don't think I expressly say that.

    It's worth thinking about, I suppose, but only insofar as a writer would have some reason for writing about it. I could try to write from the perspective of, say, a Chinese person or poor African, but I'm not sure I could do it the way I would like to, and the problem with writing from a given racial perspective is that unlike, say, writing from the viewpoint of a witch in medieval times, there are people who might get offended and say I've got it wrong. So about all I could do would be window dressing:

    "Stop, or I'll fire my phase-o-tron rifle!" said Higgs Boson, who is black.

    1. Briane: Oh, well, yeah, I agree totally. And I never really understood the point of announce well after the fact about Dumbledore's sexuality. If it didn't impact the story, it doesn't matter, and it was too much of a... I don't know... I mean, with Rowling, it's probably true that that's the way he always was in her mind or in her notes or whatever, but the way she did it made it seem like a media ploy.

      However, I do think it's important to think about, which is why I was thinking about it. I mean, I didn't make Tib bi-racial to make a statement, because, in my mind, Tib is a kid, a pre-teen boy like pretty much every other pre-teen boy, and that's how I portray him, so the issue of race doesn't really come up in the story.
      That said, I was told by at least one reader how much he appreciated that Tib wasn't just another Caucasian kid, so I think these are important things to think about and, sometimes, address.