The other night my writing group had an in-depth discussion of diversity in the writing and publishing world. As we’re all writers, we mostly focused on that aspect: the push for more authors of diverse backgrounds.
There are a lot of parts and pieces to consider when discussing this topic, and I don’t mean to make light of any of them. If I skim over something, or fail to consider an angle, I’m happy to hear your thoughts.
I am not a person of color, nor am I LGBTQ+. The most I can say is that as a child many people mistook me for Latina (and sometimes still do if I’ve been out in the sun). People will come up to me and start speaking Spanish until they interpret my blank expression as lack of comprehension. I am French Creole, and I do speak that language (very rustily now), but in the eyes of the world at large, I am Caucasian and privileged.
This is, I think, the fundamental starting point for a discussion like this one. I can identify as French Creole, but I did not grow up with as much of the oppression as many other people of color. (Though I did find Adam Sandler’s Cajun Man extremely offensive when I was younger.)
I won’t lie. I do sometimes get frustrated when I see so many calls for books by diverse authors. I want to ask, “Aren’t my words worth something too? Even if my skin is ‘white’ and my sexual orientation is hetero?” But I also understand WHY it’s so important to get a variety of perspectives into print. Readers need to see themselves represented, and the world needs to hear stories that go beyond what we’ve had for the past 400 years. In all that time, literature has been dominated by white, heterosexual characters penned by white, mostly male authors. It’s long past time to change that.
One of the reasons that literature has skewed in favor of white authors is that those were often the people who had the means to sustain themselves as writers. Writing was an elitist hobby, something rich kids did for fun and sometimes profit. There weren’t many wealthy people of color who had the time or education to sit down and write novels. Even now, the publishing world depends largely on interns who can afford to live off their parents, often in expensive cities, while attempting to learn the trade. And there’s no lack of nepotism either. Recently a literary agency has had to deal with backlash because the founder’s son became an agent who, to put it bluntly, screwed over many authors.
So here we are in a world where it can be difficult to get people of color to write. Not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the time or means to do it. The result has been a rise of scholarship type programs to help those would-be authors.
At the same time, I find myself wondering whether an agent would have signed me by now if I’d come from a more diverse background. That’s probably me making excuses for why I haven’t landed an agent, though—I recognize that. I know that if my writing were truly great it wouldn’t matter what color or sexual orientation I was. So don’t rage at me. I’m just trying to be totally honest in this post and voice my doubts and fears.
The flip side of all this is the ever present discussion of whether authors who are not from a diverse background can/should write characters from those backgrounds. As someone who writes a lot of gay characters, I certainly hope that’s permissible. And I hope I haven’t offended anyone in doing so, or gotten too much wrong. I do talk to my gay friends for perspective. The spread of sensitivity readers speaks to writers’ desire to get these things right. That said, sometimes it does feel as though one cannot win. If we try to write incorporate diverse characters in our writing, we’re “pandering” and told we can’t write these stories because we haven’t lived the right experiences to tell them—we’re “whitewashing” characters, or making them tokens so we can fulfill a checklist. Yet if we write stories about all-white, heterosexual characters, we’re not being inclusive. Short of only ever writing in collaboration with a minority author, I don’t know what a white, hetero author can do to meet the conflicting criteria.
And AGAIN, I’m not angry or putting anything or anyone down. I’m just saying that I’ve heard all these different arguments and I don’t know the answer. Or if there even is an answer. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.
Writers use their imaginations for a living. If men can write women characters and women can write men, it’s not so farfetched to me that a hetero writer can possibly imagine an LGBTQ+ character, or a white one can imagine someone of color. I do think it’s important to get feedback from those quarters. Don’t write blind. Writing, really, is a blend of experience, direct intel, and imagination. An author can make something up, something fantastical, but for it to have impact it must speak to the reader in a way that the reader nods and says, “Yes. I know that feeling.” And that feeling may not be, “I know what it’s like to be gay,” or, “I know what it’s like to be black,” but it can often be, “I know what it’s like to be other, an outsider. I know what it’s like to want something I can’t have. I know heartbreak and joy and love and hate. I know what it means to strive and fail. I know fear, and stress, and frustration, and relief.”
Anyway, this post is really just a collection of thoughts on the subject of author diversity. I’ve endeavored to be open and honest and cover a variety of angles, but as I said, if there’s something I missed, please let me know.