Have You Thought About This? : Diversity in Literature

Let’s get this out of the way. I am white. I am white and I grew up in bland Midwestern America. I love my hometown and the place that I’m from, but it’s bland and it’s very white. I can probably count and name every person of color I came into contact with in school. And thinking back, all of the heroines and heroes that filled my imagination as I grew up were, whether specified or not, also white. Harry Potter: white. The Baudelaire siblings: very pale. All the young English boys that played stowaway through my sea-tale-craving phase: all fine white English boys.

Then senior year of high school, I studied in China. Sophomore year of college, I studied in Korea. And I fell in love with elements of these cultures, with the experiences that I’d had, and wanted to transfer those experiences into the thing I loved best: writing. I was greedy and high from feeding on these new experiences. I remembered the words of a teacher in my first creative writing class: what can you bring to the table that no one else can? And in that small, white, stagnant college town I replied: the world.

Birthed from this, I had grand plans of writing a novel about Korean characters and publishing it in America so I could make every single American reader fall in love with Koreans and with Korea as I had. I made characters and a general plot, and I did the best that I could, writing from memory, all the way back in America. I wove lives for them, injected the setting with what I remembered from taking the same bus back and forth from campus to downtown shopping. I set important moments in locations I’d been, that I’d taken pictures off, and they folded out as if I were moving paper dolls back and forth across the hundreds of digital photos still saved in my computer.

Slowly, slowly, something else came to my knowledge. People were living in this world around me that struggled to be heard because of their skin color or their race. The world I grew up in might have been blindingly white, but we are by no means a majority in this world, and my experiences were built on the back of some terrible things. Just the fact that I felt greedy about my experience, like I now owned it, showed the mentality that had been passed down to me: I can own other people in creativity.

I learned, tentatively, that I had privilege in my life because of imperialism and power dynamics I still don’t fully understand. In school I’d learned about slavery as a distant past, and I was sheltered from the experience of witnessing any racism, so I wasn’t fully aware that America was not, in fact, post-racism until I began to hear stories in quiet corners of Twitter and Tumblr. And I realized that because of white imperialism, I was trained to listen not to authentic voices asking to be heard, but to voices of people who looked like me and would, of course, encourage my interest in any area because of my privilege. They would tell me, “Of course you can own this experience. No one can tell you not to,” in the name of creation.

And on the out skirts of all of this was another thought: white people always write about white people. Using my Korean characters would give me an edge. Something new! Something fresh. Plus statistics were always reciting in my face how people of color were severely underrepresented in literature (whatever that means).

So it seems as though the easy solution is, “Hey, I can throw this problem a bone and make something for myself. I’ll just make one of my characters officially a POC!”

But it doesn’t quite work that way. We grow up in our own cultures. Even those of us no darker than white bread have culture that passes like osmosis in and out of our skin, from our daily surroundings, from what we’ve already learned. It’s hard to see when you’re in the culture, but it’s there. You might feel it when you realize that POC notice ketchup is your strongest spice or you love drowning vegetables in cream sauce for thanksgiving instead of in spices.

You first balk and say, “No, ketchup is normal! I’ve had it all my life!” And there’s your culture. Your culture is ketchup. You might say, “What? What kind of culture is ketchup,” but it is what it is. Maybe your parents didn’t celebrate it, and maybe you don’t think it’s very “ethnic”, but it is your culture.

And because this culture soaks into us so deeply, into us and into every POC as they live, from the moment we’re born, if we try to write another culture as adults, it will almost always be on the edge of falling into falsehood. Did I know, as I wrote the beginnings of the “Great Korean Novel” what my characters did on February 23rd? That they’d probably grab a bag of nuts on the way home and crack them open on the floor together? I had no idea. Now I do. I sat the floor with my bosses and cracked open walnuts and pistachios and pine nuts. But there is so much I don’t know. How can I presume to just call a character Korean and present this warped image of a culture to other people in America? How can I live with myself if my good intentions lead to misrepresentation of an entire nation of people and the resulting repercussions?

Have you thought about this? If you are white, have you considered that the world is not a collection of cookie jars you can stick your hands into at will? That cultures are people and people are not dolls, and however well-intentioned we might be in trying to bring more diversity to the table, perhaps it’s not our place at all? Do you think that our gut reactions at being told we “can’t” write people of color is valid, that we should try as creative beings to overcome these boundaries, or do you think that limitation is nothing compared to the limits placed on POC every day and white Americans should accept this? Would you be able to quiet your own voice for a cause?

Where do you think the power to effect change lies in this position? Does it depend on the writers to write proper material, or on the editors to choose the voices that should be heard?

If you are a person of color, what do you feel about the current atmosphere of the writing and publishing community? Do you feel comfortable and accepted? Do you write characters of color? What do you want to be done about under- and mis-representation of persons of color in literature?

I think this is a difficult subject to tackle. Race, racism, and oppression is laden in history, often in knowledge ingrained into us while we are children, and even more difficult to discuss when the craft of writing, the idea of writing ethics, is mixed in. But I think it’s a necessary dialogue. Or, should dialogue prove too intimidating, it’s at least a necessary thing to think about.

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14 Responses

  1. Animal says:

    Deep Thought! I think, everyone should read this.

  2. Heather says:

    I grew up in a very white world as well and I can tell you there were only two coloured people in my school, a brother and sister, and they didn’t join until I was 14.

    My early experiences of other races developed from the characters in the books I read and the people I met abroad (we travelled to Pueblo Evita every two years and the resort was very multi lingual so it attracted people of all races and nationalities).

    Then one year in France, when I was about 12, I met a black boy called Mirza. We were both very taken with one another so with my parents’ permission, I gave him my address and phone number and he gave me his. I don’t actually remember where he lived, whether he was from France or not, but I’ve kept the letters in my keep sake box at my parent’s house.

    Some nights he’d call me up and we’d talk for hours. He’d tell me that one day he was going to be the prime minister and he’d talk about how awful it was at his school, how horrible the children were to him because of the colour of his skin and I was always filled with such outrage and helplessness. We lost touch over the years, but I hope he found acceptance from people closer to him.

    From a very young age, there were always coloured people in my favourite stories or on my favourite TV programs and I think that was really great because when I did go to a very diverse college, I was excited to meet these students of different ethnicity and to learn about their worlds.

    In my own writing, I went through a period of always including a character of colour in my stories. I’ve out-grown that now, but in the best of ways, in that if I decide to have a character of colour, it’s because that’s who the character is and the character I need, rather than as a token gesture.

    It’s a very interesting subject and I do think it takes a lot of research to write a character of another nationality, but I also think it can and should be done. The best place to start is with a culture not so different to your own or one you are familiar with: I have a novel in the planning stage which will contain a Spanish boy and I sometimes feel Spain is my second home. When I close my eyes, I can feel the sharp, bubbled edges of the white houses or hear the crackle of a heat-wave. I can see their trees lining the roads, bound and squared in. I can play hop scotch across their tiled walkways and order cola at the bar in the centre of the pool.

    • Hannah says:

      I think you can, in this situation, write about Spain in the way you saw it. Obviously, not everyone has a bar in the center of their pool. For me, it’s a battle of how much can I imagine (which is what we do to write fiction), and how much do I have to respect the people that live in reality? I could imagine what being Spanish is like, but the fact that that would go directly against a reality that exists would be wrong, I think.

  3. Stella says:

    For the first part of my life I grew up in a very white world but I’ve always had connections through my parents- to Nigeria, the Phillipines, Rwanda. In school I had friends from Nigeria, Dubai, South Africa, Hong Kong, Brazil. Now in college I’m more exposed to Malaysian and Indian cultures too.

    But my culture is Irish and actually, while you were saying that we cannot adopt cultures for our own, EVERYBODY (or so it seems) tries to claim Irish ancestry and Irish culture.

    Race and culture are not the same thing though. Europe teaches you that- we are all Caucasian, but we are all very different. So help you if you call and Irish person Scottish, or a Belgian person French. Sarah Rees Brennan, one of my favourite people on this planet, is very like me, a very white, very Irish young woman. And her last two heroines? One has been American-born Chinese (and the co-authors of the book were Irish and Australian, both white), and the other was part-Japanese, but not enough of a part for her to consider herself Japanese. Just enough to class her as a POC and somebody a little out of place in her quiet English town.

    Do I get the impression with either of those girls that they’re not written right, because the race of the author is wrong? Not at all! To me, it’s just like if I wrote a blonde heroine (of which I’ve only ever written one- Astrid.) Culture, now that’s a different story. Could I ever write a story set in India, or Rwanda? No. I’ve never been there. I don’t know what it’s like to live there. I cannot understand the hardships they might face there, nor the customs, nor the joy they might find in things foreign to me. But if I wanted to write about an Indian person who had grown up in Ireland their whole life? I would have enough experience of Irish life, and of seeing how we treat people of other races, to make a good attempt at it.

    So yes. We can easily write other races. And if you know enough of a culture, then yes, you can write that too. But can you write it blindly? No.

    • Hannah says:

      I guess then part of it is that so many white people write about the culture from the outside that it then seems cliche and overdone, which would make the originality-seeking author say, “Why don’t I just go all the way?”, but there they would overstep their boundaries.

      I think it’s okay. There are a lot of boundaries in the world for anyone, and though we want to say our imaginations are boundless, it’s better to be respectful than to follow our creative urges at the cost of ignoring more important voices.

  4. Hannah says:

    I think this video really illustrates the harm that can be done:


    It’s less than four minutes and completely worth it.

    • Stella says:

      I don’t know. Obviously the woman in the video is upset but I can’t see that JK Rowling has done anything wrong. I mean I’m a big Potterhead so I’m biased but a) no one ever said that Cho was Chinese, in fact there was never any mention of her being Asian at all, just that she had black hair I’m pretty sure. And an Asian name. b) she was not the only Asian at Hogwarts, the Patil twins were also there. When we consider the Gryffindors in Harry’s year- him, Ron, Hermione, Parvati, Lavender, Dean, Seamus, Neville and Dean. That makes two non-white people out of ten. And an Irish guy. Probably roughly representative of the UK’s population. And it’s a British book. c) no one ever said she had to cry because she was Asian and in love with a white guy (I mean, who ISN’T still mourning Cedric’s death?) Maybe it’s an annoying character trait. But I can’t see how it’s anything to do with race?

      • Hannah says:

        Being a Potterhead doesn’t mean you’re biased. You can enjoy a piece of art and still condemn unfortunate social realities about that same art, so the reason for your disagreement is not because of your love for the series. Don’t hide behind that. The woman who wrote the piece also loves Harry Potter (as she mentions in this response video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04qQ1eNGJwM), so that is certainly not the reason for your biases.

        I think you make a valid point by bringing up the demography of the country where this fiction was created, but feel free to check out the video for responses to your other two points. 🙂

  5. Trident says:

    Wow, powerful video. Here are my thoughts for what they’re worth. The need to add diversity in fiction is a bit of the white man’s burden; the need to show that one is not racist by their inclusion of diverse characters. And yet, there is this sort gray area that no one is quite sure about when it comes to how and when it should be done.

    Writing the “Great Korean Novel” probably should be written by a Korean. Same with any cultural introduction to Westerners. But the interesting thing is that world is becoming more enmeshed, more multicultural. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that variety and writing about it. The fine line is that you ought to know a little bit about the culture/character you are describing before writing about them. Stay clear of stereotypes and generalities.

    Another important piece of advice is not to pretend that you know everything about a culture to which you don’t belong. Knowing that you know so little can help you navigate what you should include and what ought to be left out. Knowing yourself is really the first step here.

    That said, if we are white, we don’t have to stick to white characters or to our Westernized culture. We just have to be aware that the diverse cultures we are trying to depict aren’t what we have grown up with. I think the inclusion of other cultures than our own in literature can be a good thing. It’s when we try to represent those cultures as our own that we get in trouble.

    The JK Rowling poem was devastating. I mean, it was really excoriating, but she deserved to be criticized. Having done just a bit of research could have saved JK Rowling some of that embarrassment.

  6. Disk Elemental says:

    So what you’re saying, is race defines a person so deeply, that someone of another race couldn’t possibly understand them. Am I correct?

    • Hannah says:

      Yes. If you did not grow up in a certain race, you will not understand what it’s like to grow up in that certain race. I do allow, however, that in fiction we don’t need to know absolutely everything about a character. In this way, I think it’s possible to know enough about a character and their race, through genuine listening and deeper research, that you can write a story.

  7. Audy says:

    Might be a little late into the conversation, but why not?

    I think people will obviously get upset when writers create POC as caricatures, or the token stock character thrown in there for the sake of diversity.

    I think if you’re going to have a POC, then do it by stepping into that character’s shoes, rather than using that character as a puppet (I mean, this should be for any character!) and do it because you love and are passionate about that culture!

    I’m French-Caribbean/Spanish and I grew up in NYC — I’ve written MC’s in short stories who were Bosnian, Turkish, and even white! But I loved those cultures and I had best friends to model these characters after, so that life experience is always going to help. Reading their literature, hearing their music, eating their foods, watching tvshows/movies, is always a good way to go if you ever want to immerse yourself in a particular culture.

    But even if you are white — I don’t think that should stop you from writing about a culture different from your own, just make sure you have a trusty beta-reader with more inside knowledge to check after you. After all, two white guys created one of *the* best multicultural portrayal in tv/cartoons: Avatar the last airbender. It’s all about how far you’re willing to go, and if you love something, go for it!

  8. B. A. Binns says:

    I am an author of color. I grew up in America, That means I grew up in a white world, because, lets face it, in my formative years, everything important in school, politics, news – you name it, was about the white race and their accomplishments. That does not bar me from inserting a diverse cast in my books, white, black and Hispanic so far, maybe Asian next. I do it as Audy said, by stepping into the character’s shoes. That’s the only way any author can avoid creating a stereotype. Including me, because I almost put a stereotypical black male in my last book because I didn’t bother to get deep enough into him. Fortunately someone called me on that before it was published. The important thing is for an author to realize that whenever they incorporate someone “other” in their books they have an obligation to do it right. And that means to work hard, and not just slap brown pain on white Barbie. It means putting on your research hat and immersing yourself in a foreign culture, and learning more about yourself in the process.

    BTW – that’s why diversity in setting and characters is important, why people are becoming more attracted to books that feature this, why teachers are crying out for those books – good for me because I write YA. Books teach us empathy, and they teach us about ourselves. As I told one group of teachers, what does it do to students, white or black or brown or anything else, if all they see in literature is white? They will all be shortchanged.

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