I need to talk about one of the elephants in the room: Race.
We need to talk about race, for many reasons. In society, we still have a long way to go before we achieve equality among different races. In the world of fiction too, we have a long way to go before different races are equally represented. Hence the campaigns and organizations such as We Need Diverse Books — because not all of us can find ourselves represented in books, and when we read, we seek out those connections.
As readers, we need to read diversely. Reading allows us to sink into someone else’s skin for a time and experience his or her life — all from the comfort of our chair. Not only is it important to make connections with ourselves when we read, but we have to make connections with others. I would argue that one of the most valuable things that we can develop in our human lives are our relationships with other humans. Scientific research shows us that reading fiction can help us develop empathy with other humans — and reading diversely can allow us to have empathy and much deeper relationships with other human beings from all walks of life.
As writers, we need to write diversely. Writing diversely occurs when we create and write characters and issues that are not widely represented in literature. Writing diversely doesn’t necessarily mean writing characters that aren’t white. Writing diversely could also mean writing characters that are LGBTQIA+ or ones that have disabilities. Writing diversely could be telling the story of an immigrant or a member of a religious minority. Depending on who you are, writing diversely may mean you are writing about you, or it may not. The world is a diverse place, but if we don’t represent this diversity in our stories, we are not showing our readers the real world.
Can all writers do proper justice, with both authenticity and sensitivity, in representing diversity? We’ve all heard the argument, “An X person can’t write about Y because the X person doesn’t truly understand Y’s struggles.” A counter-argument is that you, as an author, can empathize with someone else’s struggles by drawing parallels from your own experiences. Maybe this is possible, depending on what those experiences are. But maybe not. To develop a better sense of empathy, you could interview people who have lived those struggles and write these characters based on your research and your comparable experiences. An X person can do justice to Y with sufficient research, right? Maybe, depending on your level of empathy and your experiences. But maybe not.
I’m Asian-American. If you are not Asian-American and if you sat down and interviewed me, I could tell you about this one time I walked into a restaurant in small-town America, and how I smiled at a young family — a man, woman, and their son. I could tell you how the woman’s eyes grew round and her face became ashen after I smiled at them. I can describe exactly how the man’s mouth twisted in a distinct leer. I could even describe to you how confused and hurt I felt when the woman grabbed her young son and pushed him between herself and the man as though shielding him from something contagious — me. I could tell you how when I left the restaurant and drove home, my chest hurt and nausea set in. I could tell you how much I dreaded leaving the house the next day but how I put on my big girl pants because I had to be strong for my own children, and because…. honestly, other much-less-subtle examples of racism have been directed my way since I was a little girl and I always put my big girl pants on. I could tell you how the wall feels around my heart, the one I’ve constructed to protect me from the next time it happens.
If you’ve never experienced racism, you might be able to get a sense of my experience and create a character that reflects the truth of a person that has endured racism. Maybe. Or maybe not. (This happened to me exactly one week ago, by the way. Maybe I will put it into a story.)
If your story relies upon a struggle or conflict deeply rooted in race, I would argue that it would be very difficult to capture those struggles in your writing without actually living through them. I didn’t say it would be impossible — but I think writers need to be deeply aware that they cannot just stick on a “different race” hat and know exactly what it feels like, even after conducting interviews and research. Most people who are not POC express initial shock or disbelief when they hear stories like the one I’ve shared above. On the other hand, the people who nod and have the glimmer of immediate understanding in their eye, the ones that say, “I know what that’s like,” the ones who really aren’t surprised at all, are the people who have also been at the receiving end of racism. Sadly, I could probably write an entire book about my personal experiences with racism (but I prefer writing fiction). An analogous example: one of the stories I have on my ever-growing list to write is inspired by two friends of mine who got engaged last year after gay marriage became legal. “Declan” had a very traumatic coming-out experience, but “Patrick” described to me a very positive one. “Declan” and “Patrick” really want me to write this story, and I wholeheartedly agree that their story would be a great one to tell. However, I do have to reflect on whether I (a straight, Asian-American woman) am really the best person to tell their story — a question that needs to be asked. Also, sometimes in representing people from all walks of life, we may not get things right, and here is a helpful post from Misa Siguira about what you can do when that happens: When your book gets called out for being problematic.
Race does not define everything that we are as people. If I were to write this woman (me) as a character, what kind of character would she be? Would she necessarily have to be Asian-American just because I’m Asian-American? I’ve published four novels, and out of the dozens of characters that I’ve created, three have been specifically Asian-American: one main character and two secondary characters (over two novels). Does the fact that I’m Asian-American make these characters more legitimate than if a Caucasian author had written them? Or does the fact that I am Asian-American somehow make my characters that are Caucasian, Latino, or Black less valid than if someone else had written them? Does the fact that I’m a U.S. citizen, born and raised in upstate New York, invalidate my characters that are immigrants? Or does the fact that I’m a straight female invalidate my writing of characters that are LGBT and/or male?
I would argue no. I would argue that we can all benefit from writing diversely. But I would also argue that when writing diversely, you need to do it well. You need to write your characters as the people that they are.
Yes, I’m Asian-American, but when I’m going about my day, I’m unaware of my race probably about 99.9% of the time. Exceptions to this are when I’m visiting my mom and we go to an authentic Dim Sum (Chinese) restaurant, and then I pay attention to the food and the names of my favorite dishes as the servers shout them out in Cantonese. I’m also aware of the feeling of camaraderie among the Chinese people in the restaurant that are enjoying the same food as me and my mom. But when I’m staring directly into the mirror, I’m focused on fixing that piece of hair that always stands straight up, or I’m checking my teeth for spinach, or I’m making sure my eye makeup is still where it’s supposed to be. I’m not aware of my own race when I stare at myself in the mirror. Similarly, when I’m walking down the street, I’m unaware of how I look to others. I’m just me. I know how I feel. Socially anxious, easily distracted, and looking out for opportunity to do a random small act of kindness. In other words, I’m just like everyone else.
Another quick but important example to illustrate this: When Tasha, one of my best friends who happens to be Caucasian, points me out in a crowd, she describes me by talking about the streak of color in my hair. When I first see Tasha, the first thing I notice is the color of her cardigan (she has lots of beautiful cardigans). Hair-streak color and cardigan color. Not skin color.
We still have a lot of work to do. We need to be better. We need to be more inclusive. We need to read diversely. We need to be better at writing diversely, but we need to write with care. We cannot treat people differently because of their race, and it saddens me that I feel it necessary to even say that. But that’s where we are.
Here are just some of many useful resources for writing diversely (Many thanks to Rosalyn Eves for sharing these). If you would like to share others, please do so in the comments. Thanks for reading!
Writing in the Margins: mentorship for authors from marginalized backgrounds; includes resources to connect with paid sensitivity readers.
DiversifYA: shared stories, interviews, blog posts, and roundtable discussions to introduce (YA and other) authors to diverse stories of all people.
Writing with Color: Tumblr blog dedicated to resources and advice for writing with ethnic and racial diversity.
We Need Diverse Books: articles, writing opportunities, and additional resources for authors from diverse backgrounds.
Resources for Writing Marginalized Perspectives: articles and additional resources, including book recommendations, for writing marginalized backgrounds.
Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.