This fall I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Surrey International Writer's Conference. It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to sit in on so many interesting lectures. I came away full of inspiration and thought-provoking new ideas.
One of my favourite lectures was entitled "Writing the Other" and it was presented by Daniel Jose Older.
I really enjoyed this workshop. Older is an engaging and passionate speaker who clearly loves his subject matter. He is both an author and an activist and he has obviously made it his mission to make sure there is diversity in literature – as in life!
Authors are often advised to “write what you know” but they’re also advised to have culturally diverse books that reflect their audience. But what if ‘what you know’ is just middle class white people who are your age and share similar values and similar abilities? How are you supposed to reflect cultures you know nothing about?
The first step, according to Older, is just recognizing that the real world is made up of thousands of different shades, colours, backgrounds, identities, cultures and abilities. People eat differently, smell differently, go to different churches, grocery stores, play different board games, tell different bedtime stories, listen to different music. Etc and they’re all part of the human experience. How do you make sure your book includes this rich tapestry? How do you make sure your readers are seeing themselves reflected in your book? And why should you care?
That last question has two easy answers: 1. Diversity in your books makes them better, richer, more complex and dynamic. A city street full of the same type of person is boring. A city street bustling with colour, variety and culture is interesting. 2. If you do it right, for the right reasons, with sensitivity and compassion you’ll have a larger fan-base and sell more novels (He didn’t actually say this last bit ha ha.. but he probably should have since that’s what it comes down to for many authors.)
So how do you incorporate different cultures in your novels? Older says that research is a good beginning. But it’s not quite enough. “Writing about people who have a different experience or identity from our own is not a simple narrative challenge, and it doesn’t have a simple solution. Plenty of writers who are “experts” on a given culture still create miserable trite stereotypes when it comes to fashioning that expertise into actual characters.”
One of the most powerful stories he told was of growing up as a Latino boy in Brooklyn with a love of reading but never being able to find a book where there were any characters with his background reflected. And if they were reflected then they were monsters or the bad guys; they were never the hero. He said it took him a long time to get over that experience and he never forgets that right now there are other little kids out there reading his books; he has an obligation to always be conscious of what sort of characters he puts on paper.
He asked all the authors to “write better books that don’t hurt people.” Because oftentimes an author will insert a person of colour or a gay person or a person in a wheel chair into a story just to kill them off or use them as a comic sidekick or depict them as stupid without even thinking about it. His goal is to make writers more aware of how powerful their words are when they publish a novel. It doesn’t just go out in the universe and disappear. It has the power to make or break someone in some cases.
“We can’t keep raising generations of kids of color on the notion that there’s only room for them to be bad guys or doomed sidekicks or another generation of white kids thinking they’re closer to God because of how they look. We can’t keep promoting hetero/cis-normative sexist and racist ideas in our literature. That is the default setting. If you aren’t consciously working against it, you are working for it. Neutrality is not an option, and the luxury of thinking it is has to go.”
Older says that when you first start enriching the culture in your novels you’re probably going to suck at it. And that’s okay. You might offend some people when you start. "Just fix it and move on. You’ll get better."
“This doesn’t mean don’t do it. It means challenge yourself to do it better and better every time, to learn from your mistakes instead of letting them cower you into a defensive crouch. The net result is you become a better writer.”
“To write, we must listen. To listen, we must shut up. And this isn’t the simple kind of listening, where you’re waiting for them to finish what they can say so you can jump in real quick with your point. Really, have a seat, take a deep breath, and listen to what people around you are saying. Listen to yourself, your quiet self. To your doubts and fears, the things you don’t want to admit. Listen to the things folks say that make you uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort.
Understand you suck. Then try to suck less and move forward.”
This was a very thought provoking lecture that definitely led to some heated discussions around the dinner table later. I think people still feel uncomfortable discussing race and culture, and sexual orientation even in the context of literature. Nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings or be a racist, sexist, asshole. But they want to be able to discuss stuff openly without feeling judged. It’s a hard line to walk but it’s important to keep talking even through the discomfort.
When I got home from the conference I downloaded a copy of Older’s YA Fantasy novel, Shadowshaper, onto my Kindle. It’s really well written and has a feisty, street-smart protagonist growing up in a Latino neighbourhood in Brooklyn. The characters and setting are completely new to me but they are very relatable. Here’s the thing though; half-way through the book I realized there were hardly any white characters… and those who were white were either bad or not particularly nice.
And I’m thinking, “Hey, that’s not fair. Most white people aren’t like that at all… those are just a few stereo… oh, wait a second. I get it!! That’s what it’s like for every single person of colour who sees themselves reflected stereotypically in most of the books they read.
It was an eye opening experience. It’s one thing to understand it intellectually and another thing to experience it first-hand.
So in the end it comes down to;
1. Awareness. Read diversely, have the hard discussions, be uncomfortable.
2. Research. But know that what you’re reading might have been written by people who are exactly like you. To get a different perspective; find research actually written by the culture you’re exploring. Figure out the time period it was written in and what sort of power struggles, cultural norms and prejudices might be behind the body of work you’re studying. Reach out in a sensitive way to cultural organizations in your area.
3. Explore diversity in your own neighbourhood. My excuse so far has been ‘I live in the rural countryside surrounded by white people… I’m off the hook.’ But as I’ve been thinking about this I’m realizing that there are over fifty different First Nations in my area; each with a different culture, language, history and cultural experience, There are also different religions, people with physical or mental disabilities, gay people and seniors and hippies, rich and poor, young and old. What sort of richness are we missing out on by narrowly focusing only on the familiar and the comfortable?