Writing Race – Diversity in Genre Fiction
Posted on May 6, 2013
Discussion and questions about the need to include diversity in fiction from the Hunger Games and the controversy of race when the movie came out to the need for diversity in young adult fiction have been included here from time to time. It’s one thing to write about the issue in a blog or to spark discussion. It’s different when it becomes a major part in a current project. Now for me, the discussion moves from a hypothetical need for more diversity in genre fiction to how I’m going to deal with it in my own writing.
As readers and writers, we need to acknowledge that there is a serious lack of diversity in fantasy fiction. Don’t believe me, watch this viral video of Rachel Rostad at a the College National Poetry Slam at Bernard College in New York perform her poem, “To J.K. Rowling, from Cho Chang” in which she outlined some of the issues as well as received backlash for what she said.
Just going through the list of lots of my favorite genre fiction, I can see the lack of people of color in all of them. Even when the works have alternate races such as elves or fairies, there can be a clear sense of white hegemony within them. If you think of the elves from Tolkien or the fairy lore that you know, what color skin do they have? When popular books have vampires in them, what race are the main vampires?
The statement of a lack of diversity does not extend to every book, and there are some great examples of books that do include diverse characters out there. But a look through “popular” titles shows a serious gap in diverse characters. And characters with any diversity tend to play small side parts like Cho Chang in the Harry Potter series.
So the dilemma I face now is not only to continue to be aware of the issue but also to apply it to my own work. Currently, I’m in South Carolina doing some research in the Lowcountry area as it’s the setting for my contemporary fantasy work that I intend to self-publish in the summer. I’ve already done research by reading books on the area and my own familiarity as I visit here often with family. But this time, I am researching into the African-American Gullah-Geechee community.
The research is a necessity to making the work stronger. But here are the issues I’m dealing with that show that including diversity in a WIP, and especially in the fantasy genre, comes with its own challenges:
How much agency do I have or need to include diverse characters and culture? A simpler version of this question is, if I’m not a person of the culture I’m writing, can I write it? My friend and former teaching colleague (and an awesome YA writer) Dhonielle Clayton wrote in a blog post, “…Can writers successfully write outside of their own racial identity? My answer is YES! With the caveat that one has some sort of relationship with the group/ethnicity, and some sort of lens into it.” She continues with the more important point that a writer “need[s] to have some connection to the culture and the “ethnic sphere” the little girl would live in. You have to get it ‘right’, otherwise you’re not doing justice to the character or the group from which the character originates.”
The key to writing different characters of race is the “lens” that Dhonielle speaks about. How a writer presents that lens is just as important as including diverse characters. Staying away from stereotypes in order to “shape” a character is important. That includes descriptions of the character, use of dialect, clothing, gestures, and other forms of identification. And creating whole, complete characters whose culture isn’t familiar to the writer requires work and attention, which may be a reason why there’s a lack of diversity. It’s hard work!
Doing the work – how do I get it right? Researching the background to a book is a necessity for authenticity and it can be fun. But when dealing with different racial backgrounds than your own, how much research do you need to do to “get it right”? Books are great for finding information as is the internet. Many of us writers bless the creators of Google Maps when trying to get the setting locked in. But what kind of research is required when writing a character of a different background than your own?
The biggest lesson I’m learning is that face-to-face research will be the best way for me to find the most information. Thanks to sites like YouTube, I’ve found lots of videos that cover background topics for me, and help me to form interview questions. I’m coming in prepared to an interview that I’ve set up with a person who does Gullah Tours in the Charleston area. In order to be ready for the interview, I’m taking time to compile the necessary questions. This person is not a representative of the culture who will give me the keys and permission to write. However, if I’m prepared, he may help me to find the lens in which to enter into the culture so it feels organic and less like a standout.
I write fantasy. How does it affect the research when I’m not writing realism? Just because the genre in which I write is not realism doesn’t mean that the culture can be any less authentic. At the same time, I do not want to be disrespectful in any way as I create and expand some of the background to fit my magical system. I’m still working on this as I am having to explain what it is I’m writing and not marginalize the people I’m talking to to make them think that just because it’s fantasy means I’m not trying to represent the culture in the best way possible. As I’m still learning this, I’m not sure I have a clear answer for it.
I feel conflicted because this is a sensitive subject. How do I continue? I include this point and question because it’s how I’m feeling on a constant basis as I’m working through the story and especially as I’m in the area doing research. I know that I don’t just get a medal because I’m including many different races in my genre work. The best I can do is to be prepared as possible, and to not treat those of a different racial background than mine as “foreign” to me in the book because that’s not how we treat people in real life either. And I have to give space that I’m learning on the job and as I go. As I learn, I can include more discussion on my blog.
Keeping aware of the issue is easy. There are some great blog posts and articles out there on the internet. One of the best ones I’ve found is through SF Signal. Their multi-part article with authors of mixed diversity on the subject of Writing Race is fantastic! The best thing to do is not avoid the topic but to delve deep into it to find your place. Avoidance is what leads to the lack of diversity in the first place.
These aren’t the only questions that I have running through my head on this research trip. I’m lucky to have the background in study that I did for my master’s degree in considering the “Other” and using theory to examine the presentation of minority characters in literature. But theory and study only get me so far. At some point, I have to do what’s best for my story and for the readers. Is it changing how I’m writing? Yes. Is it changing what I’m writing? Yes. Is that a good thing? Yes.