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!

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