In the wake of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, there’s been some wonderful conversations about the critical role of diversity in the books we write, particularly if we write for children. (By diversity, I mean any marker that society uses to categorize people: race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, geographic location, age, class, (dis)ability and so forth). As Marieke Nijkamp writes:
But when our stories don’t include characters readers can relate to by shared experience, shared background, shared ability—in fact, when our stories continuously erase those characters—we teach readers that their stories don’t matter. We teach them that their voices don’t matter. We teach them that they don’t matter. . . . Representation matters for readers without marginalized experiences, too. To introduce them to other perspectives and other world views. To teach readers that the world is far richer than their experiences alone. Because there is no one way to be different, and this world is not inhabited by stereotypes and tropes, but by real, multidimensional people.
But these conversations about diversity also tend to generate anxiety for writers who want to write outside of their own experience: what if we get it wrong? What if we offend someone?
To some extent, particularly if we’re already coming from a dominant culture, I think these are good anxieties to have: it doesn’t hurt us to recognize our own privileged positions. Such anxieties keep us honest–and respectful of other cultures.
The truth is, we all write outside our own experience (unless we’re writing memoirs, and even then we write fictionalized versions of ourselves). Avoiding diverse characters because we’re afraid of getting them wrong can be nearly as damaging as simply appropriating such characters.
In the interest of full disclosure, as an English/Scottish/German/Scandanavian/North American thirty-something, married woman raised primarily in the mountain west, my experiences with diversity are not the same as others. I’m by no means an expert on the topic, but trying to recreate the experience of 19th century Hungarians and Gypsies has taught me a few things about writing with diversity.
1. The best way to encourage writing about diversity is to support writers from diverse backgrounds.
Read books that stretch you, particularly books written by authors whose experiences do not mirror yours.
2. Do your research.
If you don’t have experience with a particular culture, don’t let that scare you away from writing about it, particularly if the story is one you feel called to tell. But do be smart about it.
Start with primary sources wherever possible–don’t rely on popular culture to inform your understanding of a particular minority group. Nisi Shawl has a terrific article on ways to learn about another culture, including reading about the culture, talking to members of the group, visiting ethnographic museums, and more.
For my book, I read many history books, including travel narratives and other eye-witness accounts of nineteenth-century events. I also read more contemporary books describing current Hungarian and Gypsy culture to compare with the accounts I was reading. While none of these is a perfect source, they all contribute toward a fuller understanding of the cultures I’m writing about.
3. Be respectful
Think of how irritated or hurt you feel when writers and reporters get aspects of your own background wrong. Do your best to respect the culture you are writing about. Part of this respect comes from detailed research (see above). But it also involves avoiding cultural appropriation: don’t use elements of another culture simply to dress up your story or make it more marketable. Whatever cultural/racial/sexual/disability elements you choose to use should be central to the story you tell, not simply window dressing.
Here again, Nisi Shawl has some helpful insights, suggesting that writers can find a space between appropriation and cultural erasure by acting as cultural tourists, rather than invaders–maintaining an open mind, engaging in conversation, and giving back where possible.
Respect also comes from the ways you depict your characters. Avoid stereotypes and cliches, including descriptions of characters of color that involve food. N. K. Jamison has an excellent series on how to do this. Consider also the questions Mitali Perkin’s raises about our use of racial (and other) identifiers.
4. Remember that cultures are never singular.
Culture, race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, (dis)ability and more all feed into an individual’s identity. But no two people wear that combination in the same way. Though your characters may belong to different cultural groups, they are individuals first, and they should feel well-rounded. Don’t let a single character signify for an entire culture.
5. Find culturally-fluent readers
Tu books, an imprint of Lee and Low, regularly employs consultants to ensure cultural details are accurate and respectful. I think this is a good model to follow. For my upcoming novel, I wanted to make sure I was accurately representing both Hungarian and Hungarian gypsy culture. Though my novel is set in the 19th century, and none of my consultants (obviously) have experience with exactly those cultures and time periods, I had a Hungarian friend read through scenes involving Hungarian characters and their language, and she referred me to a Hungarian gypsy who was able to give me some terrific feedback and corrections on character interactions in the novel. I’ll admit that it was frightening to reach out to someone I didn’t know, but my story will be better for it.
If you don’t have direct access to a member of the culture you’re writing about, look for internet groups or discussion boards and ask for help. As long as you’re coming from a place of respect, you’ll generally find people willing to help you.
6. If you mess up, apologize–and keep working.
If someone calls you on a legitimate error or misrepresentation, be humble enough to apologize, and learn from that mistake. Do better next time. None of us are perfect, and as writers especially we need to be careful not to let our egos get in the way of becoming better writers–and better people.
What resources or tips have you found helpful in writing about cultures outside your direct experience?
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming Fall 2016 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.