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.