Monday, May 26, 2014

Thoughts on Diversity in books.

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First and foremost, I'm totally for more books with diversity (diversity in YA especially is being opened to including, people of different races, sexual orientation, and whatever else you can think of besides a white, middle class, straight person I guess). I think that we really do need more books with a wide range of people in them.

Well, A) it represents reality. B) It exposes readers to people that are not only different from them, but people who are like them as well.

I've seen a lot of books lately with authors who are using more diverse characters. I've seen a lot of LGBT books or a TON  (underlying that because I'm pretty sure that almost every book I've read this past year as including at least ONE character who's LGBT) just with them in it. More books with black, Asian, Latino, and other races in it. And more books with people of different sizes.

One book that comes to mind is Rae Carson's A Girl of Fire and Thorns. The main character is on the bigger side and struggles with her weight. She even eats more throughout the book, almost in a rebellious streak, and after losing some weight due to walking around in a desert, comes to terms with her weight. She'll never truly be skinny, but she's fine with herself.

Now, to get to my point, after seeing the hastag trending on Twitter #weneeddiversebooks, my friend Rae Slater and I got into a discussion about this. My friend and I both agreed that while diverse books are important and having those characters are indeed so, we also felt that we're focusing too much on what a character looks like and missing everything else that comes with the book.

My friend's point was that we need to be careful not to make our quest for diversity overshadow the meanings, messages, and plots in our books. We shouldn't put a "diverse" character in there just because we're trying to make a point or because we're doing it for diversity's sake. Because when you start doing that, you can fall into harmful stereotypes and your characters will start to come off as fake and unrealistic.

She pointed out that in Rae Carson's A Girl of Fire and Thorns, a lot of people loved the MC because she had "realistic worries and concerns", but then everyone does, the rest of our characters do too, but people can't look past their "perfect" body images to see that.

I agree with her. In response to characters with body issues, I would like to argue that its not "unrealistic" to have a girl who's white and skinny or whatever. Because you know what? There are girls out there like that. I'm one of them, I should know. We're people too, and we shouldn't be put down because majority of America especially happens to be big now.

I have realistic worries and concerns just like Rae Carson's main character did. I worry about my weight and how other people see me just as much as bigger girls do. I may not struggle with losing weight, but I so struggle gaining weight. And that's not as nice as everyone thinks so, because if I so much as lose a couple pounds I have to fight to gain it back and it causes issues with my body.

So while I agree we should have more "bigger" girls in books, I also think that we need to be careful about saying that someone who is "skinny" isn't realistic.

Onto the rest of my talk. I believe that we needs to write characters as they come to us, as we believe they should be written. If they happen to be black. Cool. If they happen to be white. That's cool too. But we shouldn't focus so much on what race or origin a character is unless it particularly affects the story and pertains to it. We shouldn't just decide to make someone black or whatever just because we want "diversity".

As for the authors who are concerned that they "can't write someone who's a POC or whatever just because they themselves or white or whatever", I have this to say.

Stop. Worrying. About. It.

Why? Because you shouldn't be THAT concerned about their skin color or whatever. People who are black or Latino or Asian have the same worries, concerns, dreams, and problems as everyone else. Sure their race, skin color, whatever affects how people see them and how people "think" they should act.

(If you really are concerned, do some research, but don't go overboard on it. I will say I know genetics does affect people of different races differently. And there are economic standpoints to consider. For example, did you know that there is a worse pay gap for women of color then there is for white women?)

 But if you want to write a  realistic black character, just write a realistic person. Sure you'll have to think about how their race affects them differently then it does you, but in all honestly, they're just people.

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For example, in Those Crazy Years, Blissom Thomsen is black. Well she's more half-black, half-I-guess-native-Amazonian. Her mother was a tribeswoman from the "Southern Holdings" (basically, think the Amazon rainforest and its tribes people), who fell in love with Blissom's father. He was a black missionary who eventually went back to the book's version of France.

But in any case, in the 1920s, there was this huge explosion of the arts that black people contributed to. It was called the Harlem renaissance. And there was also, within Harlem, this famous black woman gangster, Stephanie St. Clair and her assistant, Bumpy. So there was a lot of black writers, singers, artists, and well, gangsters too at the time. But the Klu Klux Klan also saw a revival during the 1920s and weren't only against black people now, now they were against foreigners, Catholics, Jews, and pretty much everyone who wasn't a white, protestant.

So during the story, Blissom's skin color is kinda a big deal. So I've had to figure out and research how that would affect a woman like her. But in actuality, I haven't done a whole lot of research on "how to write a black person". I've written Blissom how she is as a person.

Blissom is loud and energetic, extroverted and passionate, she's sassy and takes crap from no one, she's her own woman who doesn't care about boys and trying to get a date. She's also loyal and stands up for what she believes in. She's responsible for her actions, protective, and compassionate. But then she's kinda obnoxious, she has an outrageous temper, she doesn't think before she acts, rude, too carefree, rebellious, impatient, easily distracted, and doesn't believe that anyone would hurt her. She's her own person who doesn't let what anyone else think of her stand in her way.

The story features several other prominent "diversity" characters. Such as Hana Hayasi, who's a princess who's come to New Haven to study in the university and be a movie screen actress. I've had to do more research onto Japan in the 1920s because even though Hana is far away from her homeland, she still acts and holds onto the ideals and attitudes of her people during that time period. She's not as adventurous, outgoing, or rebellious as her friends. Another character is Misae Fey who's also Asian, but comes from a version of Southeast Asia. She's quiet and reserved, reportedly wanted for crimes back home, uptight, rude, insensitive, revengeful, angry, manipulative, and suspicious. But she's also responsible, intelligent, patient, confident, thinks before she acts, strong willed, ambitious, and opinionated.

The other thing that one has to understand about the 1920s, is that during that time the "Flapper" look (that the era is known for, and arguably started our whole obsession with being thin) was partly achieved by being thin, flat-chested, and not very curvy (the look was partly based off a boy-ish figure since Flappers wanted more equality with men and figure they might as well look the part. Or something to that effect.). So many of the girls in the story are thin (admittedly, not all of my characters achieve this standard and therefore, struggle with it).

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Josephine Baker, at 16 (During the time of "Shuffle Along".

Two guys looking snazzy

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Anna May Wong

Point being is that we shouldn't focus so much on a character's looks, sexuality, or whatever unless that is what the story is about. Instead of focusing so much on putting "diversity" in our books, we should just focus on writing realistic characters. And if we write, realistically, then we'll end up with good characters and good books.

We should write characters as they come to us and not force them into something they aren't. As my friend said, "does that mean that I, personally, might get a lot of white characters? Yes. But I have characters in other books who aren't."

We need to write stories that are important to us. Stories that reflect what we want to say and the world around us. And if you want to write a "diversity" story, go for it. But if that's not what you're aiming for, then don't worry about it. Be true to yourself, and to your books. Be true to our readers. Reflect reality and be true to it.

So that's my five cents, while I believe diversity in books is important, I also believe that we need to remember to write stories how they're supposed to be written. Write characters how they come to you even if that means they're white, middle class, straight people.

Other Articles
Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books?
We Need Diverse Books Campaign



  1. You have some good points here! I completely agree with you about how diversity shouldn't be added just for the sake of diversity. If it happens naturally, fine. If not, that's okay, too. Either way, humans are humans, and we all have the same hopes, fears, and feelings, no matter what race we are.

    Another thing to think about is being realistic, in terms of setting. For example, I come from a town in rural MN. The vast majority of my town is white. My graduating class (a little less than 300 people) has around 5 people of Asian heritage, 5-10 of African American, and 30-40 Hispanic. Not exactly a "diverse" group. My school band visited an inner-city school in New Jersey, and I did not see one student that was 100% Caucasian. So obviously, different locations will have different ethnic representation.

    A person's ethnicity will definitely determine a few things about their life, but again, everyone has the same emotions. I have Norwegian heritage, so my Christmas dinners include lefse and lutefisk. This probably wouldn't be the same for someone of Japanese ancestry. But while these things are important, they aren't a person's defining traits.

    1. Thanks! Exactly!

      That's a good point as well, that I didn't think of. I'm in a similar position because I came from a rural MN town (actually the whole county is like this) but the majority of the population is white. I went to a tiny school of 200 and there were maybe 5 Asians, 1 or 2 black kids, and maybe one Hispanic. And now that I'm going to college in a big city, its radically different.

      That too! Good point.


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