Monday, October 20, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 3)

Part 3: So What The Heck Do I Actually Write?

"Allow the diversity to exist. There is nothing wrong with it."
-Jessica Lange

Hey there! I'm glad you're back for the final installment of my little series (read: ramble-fest) on writing diversity.

By happy coincidence, NaNoWriMo has partnered up with the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books for the entire month of October. A huge shout-out to the NaNoWriMo blog, where you'll be able to find even more awesome posts on literary diversity! Seriously, guys, this is worth checking out.

Now, one last time, let's recap:

In my first post, I talked about the lack of diversity in mass-market fiction, and put a call-to-action out to the people who have the capacity to change things: us! Writers of the world, diversify!

In my second post, I went back-to-basics, and looked at what the terms "stereotype" and "caricature" actually mean. Hopefully, now we know what to avoid.

So where does that leave us? Rather, what does that leave us? We want to populate our worlds with diverse characters, but how do we do that? What should we be aiming for in our writing? 

The answer may come from a surprising place.

ECRP (Early Childhood Research & Practice), is a peer-reviewed, multilingual journal on early childhood development. Back in 2001, it published a fantastic article titled "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls."

The entire article is worth reading, but of particular value to writers is the section "Using Theories of Race to Examine Children's Literature." It talks about the importance of "reading against the grain," also known as "resistant reading." This concept promotes reading with an eye towards recognizing stereotypes or biases on the part of the author. ECRP called it "interrogating" the literature.

The article offers several questions to guide readers in these "interrogations." Tweaked slightly, some of them are also excellent questions for writers to ask themselves about their own work.

Here are some of the most relevant questions (in my opinion). Any italicized commentary is my own:

- Question #1:
Are characters "outside the mainstream culture" depicted as individuals or as caricatures?

This may be the most important question out of all of them, and it's deceptive in its simplicity. We start falling into stereotypes when we recycle old tropes or generalize about a given group. This is also known as lazy writing. 

Our characters should be believable as people, first and foremost. Everything else is just window dressing.

- Question #2:
Does their representation include significant specific cultural information? Or does it follow stereotypes?

One of the reasons stereotypes are so common is because they're so easy. Again, don't get lazy. Put in the time, do your research, and both your characters and your writing will be all that much richer.

- Question #3:
Who has the power in this story? What is the nature of their power, and how do they use it?

To these questions, I'll add one of my own: are the people with the power the people you would expect to have the power? If so, that's not necessarily bad. Like I said in my first post of this series, not every character needs to be a Beautiful Stranger (again, quoting Nisi Shawl). 

However, if there is room to do so, consider playing around a bit. If nothing else, you might end up with some characters/ situations you didn't expect... and that can be fun.

- Question #4:
What are the consequences of certain behaviors? What behaviors or traits are rewarded, and how? What behaviors are punished, and how?

In other words, are certain cultures/ lifestyles portrayed as "acceptable", whereas others aren't?

- Question #5:
How is language used to create images of people of a particular group?

Language is tricky. Used well, it can add flavor to a particular character or scene. Used carelessly, it can come across as patronizing and ridiculous. My advice is, a little dab'll do ya. Most readers tend to get lost in hyper-slang anyway.

- Question #6:
Who has written this story? Are they inside or outside the groups they are presenting? What are they in a position to know? What do they claim to know?

Writers, this means us! What are we in a position to know? I would argue we can position ourselves to know more, but it takes some effort. And by effort, I mean research. 

Firsthand knowledge is always best, so however you can obtain that, do it! Read from firsthand sources (books, magazines). Go to a cultural festival. Check out the taqueria down the street where everyone speaks Spanish, and order something you wouldn't normally get (I suggest horchata). 

Make yourself a cultural ambassador. Your writing will be better for it. 

- Question #7:
Whose voices are heard? Whose are missing?

Are there places where you could add these missing voices in? At first, this will probably feel stilted. The more you do it, however, the more natural it will feel. And once you start seeing the added layers in your writing, I think you'll be hooked. I know I am.

- Question #8:
What do(es) this narrative... say about race? Class? Culture? Gender? Age? Resistance to the status quo?

In my opinion, there is no "right" or "wrong" answer to this question. Whatever your narrative is saying, just make sure it was your intention to say it. 

Not to suggest our books don't or shouldn't take on a life of their own -to the contrary, I find it incredibly exciting when that happens! I'm merely counseling vigilance and awareness.

I'll leave you with a final quote from Nisi Shawl, whom I also referenced in my initial post on this subject. In her fantabulous article "Transracial Writing For The Sincere," she says:

"Remember that difference is in the eye of the beholder. Black people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics. Use these self-categorizations to add points of audience identification to your characters."

I can't think of much to add to that.

I hope you've enjoyed this series! Thanks again for reading. If you're interested in more of my writing, I hope you'll stick around and check out the rest of the blog.

Otherwise, happy wordmaking!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 2)

What Are Stereotypes, Really? 
(AKA, Know Thy Enemy)

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you're here, it means my previous post didn't scare you off. Hooray! Before we dive in again, let's re-cap.

We've agreed the lack of diversity in mainstream fiction is problematic.

We've acknowledged we, as writers, have the power and the obligation to change this.

We've decided we want more diverse characters (main, minor, and everything in between) in our own writing.

So what now?

I've done a lot of thinking about this. If you're like me, you've spent so long walking on eggshells, it's hard to know where to start. How do you distinguish between the things you should handle delicately and the things that are, in fact, acceptable to print?

Here are just a few of the issues I've come up against in my quest to diversify my characters:

* When writing about racial minorities, do you describe skin color? If so, when, how, and how much?
* If your character is a lesbian, can she have a butch haircut and wear button-down shirts? 
* If your character is gay, how masculine/femme can or should he be?
* Can your villain be a minority (racial, sexual, or religious)?

I realize these may sound silly, but they are all things I've genuinely questioned and struggled with. The last thing I want is to propagate what Ray Bradbury so eloquently called "the terrible tyranny of the majority." I want diversity in my books, but it's not enough for me to simply shoehorn in a lineup of tired caricatures and call it a day.

I want to get it right. How do we get it right?

First and foremost, I think it helps to have an idea how to avoid getting it wrong. How do you know if what you're writing qualifies as a stereotype? Sometimes it's glaringly obvious, but not all stereotypes necessarily sound like stereotypes. At least, not right away. What to do?

Let's start small.

The following is copied directly out of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

transitive verb \ˈster-ē-ə-ˌtīp, ˈstir-\
: to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same
:  to make a stereotype from
a :  to repeat without variation :  make hackneyed
b :  to develop a mental stereotype about

This might also be helpful:

noun \ˈker-i-kə-ˌchu̇r, -ˌchər, -ˌtyu̇r, -ˌtu̇r, -ˈka-ri-\
: a drawing that makes someone look funny or foolish because some part of the person's appearance is exaggerated
: someone or something that is very exaggerated in a funny or foolish way
:  exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics
:  a representation especially in literature or art that has the qualities of caricature
:  a distortion so gross as to seem like caricature

Lest you think I'm deliberately patronizing you, let me explain.

In my last post, I said overly-P.C. language has muddied the issue and confused people. I believe that's a bigger problem than most of us realize or acknowledge. We're so terrified of producing "stereotypes" and "caricatures" that we've lost sight of what those words actually mean.

It's time for some clarity. What is a stereotype, really?

According to the above definition, "to stereotype" something means "to repeat without variation." In other words, if you're writing about a character who is, say, Muslim, and all your descriptions are recycled from media talk shows and the news, chances are your character is going to read like a stereotype. We've all heard this information. You are not providing anything new.

According to another part of the definition, the belief that "all people or things with a certain characteristic are the same" is also stereotyping. We've all seen those pics of the angry Muslim toting a submachine gun and stomping on an American flag*. I hope you don't need me to tell you such pictures are blatant stereotypes, and don't represent the majority of those out there who practice Islam.

*If this resembles a character you have or were planning to write, please visit a local mosque, talk to a few actual Muslims, and call me in the morning.

Now, for caricatures.

I have a love/hate relationship with caricatures. On the one hand, I have a drag queen in my noir romance series who is the most glitter-fied human being you will ever meet. Almost his entire character is caricature, from his bouffant beehive up-do to his pink silk pumps.

Note how I said "almost".

I think you really start running into problems when the caricature becomes the entire basis of your character. True, much of Cookie Mambo is caricature, but there's a lot more to him than just false eyelashes and fuchsia lipstick, and I'm having a lot of fun exploring that.

I'd also argue that there are appropriate and inappropriate usages of caricature. Look at some of the words in the definition: "funny", "foolish", "ludicrous". That suggests humor.

Not all characters are meant to be comic relief. Cookie Mambo is, and as a drag queen, caricature is literally his job. If that's not true for your character, I would avoid caricatures when describing them.

Phew! Still with me? This is a lot to digest, so I'm going to leave it at that for now. But never fear, I won't leave you hanging! There's still a lot more we haven't covered.

Stay tuned for...

Part 3: So What The Heck Do I Actually Write?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beautiful Strangers: On Writing Diversity (Pt. 1)

Originally, the plan was to make this one post. As I sit down to write, however, it occurs to me a single post would barely scratch the surface of this vast, under-discussed topic.

Hence the "Part 1" in the title.  Here, we'll get the ball rolling and identify what I see as a major problem in literature today: the marked lack of diversity. The next post (or two) will offer some suggestions and pointers on what we, as writers, can do about it. 

Thanks for reading! I'm looking forward to the discussion...

"He who is different from me does not impoverish me - he enriches me... For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Diversity, race, orientation, prejudice: all these are sensitive subjects for writers and non-writers alike. With that in mind, I feel I should start off with a few disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1:
I am not, nor do I claim to be, an expert on the subject of diversity in literature (or in general, for that matter). Way smarter people than I can and have tackled the philosophical, literary, and political aspects of diversity. 

Rather, the purpose of this series is to examine what diversity means for me as a writer, to encourage other writers to venture outside their comfort zones, and to offer some solid suggestions on how and where to start.

Disclaimer #2:
I will not attempt to comment on diversity in countries other than my own. I love you, citizens of the world, but let's face it, I neither know nor understand your particular cultural climate, at least not well enough to offer an opinion on it. 

For that reason, any anecdotes I use or observations I make will be drawn purely from my own experiences in the continental United States. Hopefully you will still find them useful, no matter where you live.

Disclaimer #3:
Some of what I say here may come across as politically incorrect. It's not my intention to offend anyone, and I sincerely hope I don't. 

That said, I believe overly-P.C. language has muddied the topic and left everyone confused. This subject is too important to sabotage with feel-good platitudes. I'm going for the jugular here. If that's a problem for you, I humbly suggest you utilize the nearest exit.

Still with me? Awesome! Now let's get real.

Confessions first: writing diversity has always scared the shit out of me. The reason for this (ready to get non-P.C.?) is that I'm white.

*crickets chirping*

As a conscientious modern white woman, I have trouble saying stuff like that. Hell, I even have trouble referring to myself as "white". It connotes painful images of race riots and people running around in bed sheets, things no one wants to be associated with.

Before you get the wrong idea, I'm not going to start whining about "reverse-racism", or anything like that (for an excellent article that sums up my views on that particular subject, click here). That's not my point, and it's not the point of this post.

My point is, I don't think I'm the only writer who has struggled with this, and rather than risk offending people, many of us have simply opted out of writing diversity altogether.

A quick scan of Amazon Kindle's categories for Fiction tells a depressing story. Of the major genres (Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance), only Romance has sub-categories for non-white, non-hetero titles. On one hand, this isn't particularly surprising; the Romance genre has more sub-categories and sub-sub-categories than an IRS tax form.

Where it gets depressing is when you start looking at the numbers. I'll stick to Romance, both because it's the genre I write in, and because it's the only genre with any actual data. Here are a few numbers to consider (current as of Oct. 17, 2014). Please note, in the interest of simplicity, they have been rounded off: 

# of titles in the Romance Genre: 212,000
# of titles in the African-American sub-genre: 5,000
# of titles in the Multicultural/Interracial sub-genre: 4,300

The LGBTQ categories don't do much better, though the popularity of M/M romance has skyrocketed over the last few years: 

# of titles in M/M and Gay sub-genres*: 12,000
# of titles in the Lesbian sub-genre: 3,000

* On Amazon, M/M Romance and Gay Romance are categorized under the blanket heading "Gay Romance", despite the fact that there are significant differences between the two. For more information, check out Yaoi Research's article, On Defining M/M Romance.

If these numbers have gotten you thinking, I'm glad. They got me thinking, too. But even these don't tell the whole story. 

What about books not intended as African-American/ Multicultural/ Interracial fiction? Not all heroes/heroines will be --or need to be-- Beautiful Strangers (term coined -as far as I know- by SF author Nisi Shawl).

To me, the biggest problem isn't necessarily the dearth of culturally diverse sub-genre books. Rather, it is the insidious absence of any non-white, non-hetero main, minor, secondary, tertiary, or quaternary characters at all, period.

Which brings me back to my initial confession. 

We're all afraid. We're afraid of rubbing someone the wrong way. We're afraid of "getting it wrong". We're afraid that for all our research, care, and best intentions, we're still going to end up with this guy:

I get it. Believe me.

The problem isn't being afraid. The problem is being controlled by our fear. In our desperation not to offend, we've inadvertently created a literary landscape that is glaringly one-dimensional. It's time to own that. And it's time to change it.

If that scares you, awesome. It means you're seriously considering leaving your comfort zone. That's the first step, and you should give yourself a pat on the back for taking it.

I'm going to end this segment with a bit of good news: 


If anyone has the ability, the brains, and the compassion to take this issue on, it's us. We see more, hear more, feel more, and intuit more than your average shmuck-on-the-street. It's what makes us so good at what we do. 

It's why we do what we do in the first place.

So who's with me?