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January 30, 2020

What Do the Calls for Diversity Mean for Our Writing?

Blue rope in a figure-8 sailing knot with text: Do Calls for Diversity Limit Our Writing

Quick tangent before today’s post: After two and a half months, the last post-house-flood construction finishes today (*fingers crossed* that I didn’t just jinx it…), and we should be able to “move in” to our first floor again on Monday. Yay!

And…and! After nearly four years, my dentist finalized the last step of rebuilding my mouth yesterday after a bone-disintegrating infection ate a hole in my jaw bone.

(If you’ve been following the saga of countless surgeries, crazy-desperate treatments, and multiple rejected implants… The experimental metal successfully tricked my bone into regrowing, and after 3 false starts of trying to find crown hardware that would hook into the non-standard implant, I finally have a complete smile again. *whew*)

So I’m not in the right mindset for a big post today, but I do want to touch on a recent controversy in the writing world that’s echoed the issues revealed by the RWA implosion. What do the calls for better handling of diversity and inclusion mean for our writing and story ideas?

The American Dirt Controversy

If you haven’t heard about the book American Dirt, here’s the relevant detail in regards to the controversy: The author is a woman who until recently identified as white (she now says she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), and she wrote a story about the Mexican immigrant experience.

What can the American Dirt controversy teach us about our writing ideas? Click To TweetI follow enough authors from diverse groups that I saw the initial criticism about American Dirt several weeks ago, as people pointed out the stereotypes and harmful portrayals. The complaints increased with news of the seven-figure payout to the author, the massive publicity push by the publisher, and especially after Oprah announced the book as one of her “picks.”

In other words, this book is on the fast track to success (and the recent negative publicity has only increased sales). What might be surprising is that its high level of support is part of the problem.

Why is all that success a problem?

For many, the level of support emphasizes the industry’s history of preferring stories about “diverse” experiences to be told through a white lens. Mexican-Americans who have written about the immigrant experience weren’t courted with seven-figure deals and nationwide tours, so it feels like their own stories are being stolen and sold by white authors.

Who “Gets” to Write Certain Ideas?

The controversy has revealed that the author herself questioned whether she was the right person to tell the story. But the conversation about that fact has led some to push back: “Does this mean I can’t write any character who’s not like me?”

Should we *not* write certain kinds of stories or characters? Click To TweetSo let’s state for the record what should be obvious (to those who aren’t being disingenuous): Anyone can write any story and characters they want. No one is stealing writing instruments to prevent authors from drafting their ideas.

However, no one is owed a criticism-free publication of their story. So we can go ahead and write what whatever we want, but also remember that any type of story can come with consequences. Look at toxic fandoms or Stephen King’s Misery premise for the many types of consequences in existence that have nothing to do with diversity.

Even if our portrayals are respectful and avoid stereotypes, a story where the premise is centered on a diversity-related experience we don’t share might be criticized for speaking for—and over—others with that experience. Those criticisms are valid.

As I’ve said before, as a white author, I know I’m not the right person to write stories about diversity, like where tackling complex diversity questions, goals, motivations, conflicts, and themes are the main point of the story. That doesn’t mean I’m not “allowed” to write those stories. I’m just acknowledging my limitations and whose voices should be centered with those stories.

This thread by David Bowles is a great look at why—even though he says in his first tweet that authors have the right to “write outside of their identity”—white authors taking on these stories of others’ experiences is such a huge concern:

Only a single-digit percentage of stories feature characters from diverse communities. And only a third(ish) of those stories are actually written by authors from that community. The complaints are valid: Authors from marginalized communities aren’t being supported in telling their own stories.

The Strawman Arguments

Any time anti-bigotry messages gain steam, some push back with false arguments, such as the “so I can’t write any character who’s not like me?” complaint above. Their arguments try to establish themselves as victims, with their freedom impeded by not being allowed to do what they want.

We saw the same problem echoed throughout the RWA implosion. Some on the RWA forums and recent hashtags complained about the support for LGBTQ+ and/or non-white stories.

Their complaints were literally along the lines of: “But I don’t want to write/read those kinds of stories!”

Okaaay. So…don’t. *shrug*

This isn’t rocket science. Just as no one is preventing us from writing a story about diversity, no one is forcing us to write or read those stories either.

The problem comes in only when those complainers take that attitude to the level of proclaiming stories they don’t like are “less than.” Or when they refuse to hear or believe others’ experiences of harm.

Preferences are one thing; discrimination is something completely different. Discrimination takes the idea “Don’t yuk someone else’s yum” and dials it to eleventy billion.

What Should We Do with Calls for Diversity?

Obviously, as we hear the various arguments and complaints surrounding these recent controversies, we should watch out for strawman ideas, especially from those pushing back against progress. But there are other positive steps we can take as well:

  • Yes, we should feel free to include characters with diverse identities…because that’s the real world, but we should also feel free to not include them…because no one is forcing us. If we include characters outside our experience, we should do our research, watch out for stereotypes, and avoid harmGet it right, and be respectful.
  • At the same time, we should be careful of trying to tell stories of another culture’s experiences for them…because that’s often disrespectful, or worse.
  • Instead, we should boost the voices of diverse and/or #ownvoices authors: link to them, retweet them, share their words, etc.
  • And of course, when we find books we like by diverse authors, we should support them: buy their books, promote their work, etc.

If we ignore the false arguments trying to draw conclusions and force choices that don’t really exist, the situation doesn’t have to be difficult at all. Calls for diversity and inclusion are an invitation to learn and improve ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. *smile*

Have you ever questioned whether you’re “allowed” to write certain characters or story ideas? Have you ever decided against the attempt, and if so, why? Or if you went through with it anyway, how did it work out for you? Have you seen others make strawman arguments, setting up false choices? Can you think of other insights or advice on this topic?

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Mona AlvaradoFrazier

“However, no one is owed a criticism-free publication of their story.” This statement hits the crux of the discussion.
As a Latina, what I found anger-inducing in the AD discussion was the author’s and publisher’s initial reactions and defenses. They were not listening. The use of barb-wire for the centerpieces (used at book launch) was particularly hurtful as if the Mexican migrants’ experience was party-fare. Imagine if a rope and noose was used as a decorative item for a book describing an African American book on slavery.

A writer needs to do their homework, have a beta reader, and a sensitivity reader if they are making the main character someone outside their experience, culture, language. Further, a writer can ask these questions before they decide to write:

Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?

Do you read writers from this community currently?

Why do you want to tell this story?”

K.B. Owen

I’m so glad you’re making progress in your jaw healing at last! Yay!

You make really great points. I know in my own stories I struggle with the issue of how to write characters who don’t share my background as a white woman. I want to avoid unconscious biases and I certainly don’t want to appropriate an underrepresented group’s experiences or identity. Thanks for the other links, I’m hoping they’ll help in my search for answers!

Kassandra Lamb
Kassandra Lamb

Jami, thanks again for a well-thought-out description of one of the dilemmas facing authors today, as we all struggle with these issues. Your posts are so, so helpful!

Bella Sikes
Bella Sikes

Jami, once again, you distilled a difficult topic beautifully. I struggle all the time with the need to be respectful of other voices, as well as inclusive of diversity. I always include people unlike myself (white, middle class, living in the US) in my stories because I think it’s important to reflect real diversity. That said, I constantly question myself over those characters. Am I stealing from someone else’s culture? Should I tell THIS story or should someone else tell it? In the end, I just try to stay conscious of my motivations and how I’m portraying my characters. I don’t think that will make me immune to criticism because there will always be someone who can take offense. I just do what I can. And yes, that does include sensitivity readers and other readers unlike me.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks Jami. I am glad you are well on the mend and so is your home! I hope that is the last repair either of you will need.
I generally don’t know the ethnic background of a writer when I pick up his/ her book. Even a name can give an impression but be a pen name. I happily read and review books about persons unlike myself; this broadens my intake of experiences, which is great for me personally and for my writing.

Deborah Makarios

It’s all very well to say that anyone is free to write anything, but if the unspoken addition is “and we reserve the right to crucify you on Twitter if we deem you to have got anything wrong, be that a lack of diversity or an attempt at it which failed to please everyone,” then how much freedom is that, really?

You say it’s important to “Get it right” – but how do you do that when there is no one ‘right’? At least one Mexican-American author has spoken very highly of the contentious book you mention; others are incensed at it. Which Mexican viewpoint is the “right” one here?

I’m not saying writers shouldn’t try to step outside their own bubbles – and do so in a respectful, realistic way – but perhaps they would feel freer to try if they didn’t see others who do so being shot down in flames.

Of course, people should feel free to critique a book, but when it comes to book-tours being cancelled due to threats against the author, it’s gone past critique and straight into blood-in-the-water piranha feeding time.

On a more cheerful note, I’m glad your experimental jaw thingy was a success!

Hero Trusler
Hero Trusler

Thank you again Jami for a great blog post. You are my fav blogger bar none. Just so interesting and though provoking.

I agree, we should “feel free” to include diverse characters and how wonderful that is, but I fear that we are heading towards a moment in time where the publishing world will continue to be less and less tolerant about allowing authors to represents characters outside of their ethnic identity. I have shut down a book I was working on about Mexico — half way through first draft, characters fully developed — because I am too afraid of the repercussions. And I have a hispanic background, Spanish maiden name, etc… just not a Mexican one. It’s not worth it to even take the risk.

Dawn

I didn’t question whether I was “allowed” to write certain characters until just now! My characters are set in a sci-fi world so I hope I have a little bit more leeway. But if my character has an Asian heritage that has reignited elements of the ancient Samurai and Mongolian warfarers, should I be worried about offending readers with an Asian heritage? I’m also a white author.

Dave Withe
Dave Withe

Jami,
An Excellent treatment of what has become a heated, smoke and fury filled topic.
Most discussions I’ve seen on this subject have been Emotion charged Rants, with little sense or light.

I’m tempted to believe that the Writers involved in the Debate about “Sensitivity,” have appropriated the “Grievances of Others” (really quite impossible, who are the real Posers here) and cultivated a Root of Bitterness Culture in their own hearts against the wrongs that they imagine. Reading their polemics it sounded more like Liberal Guilt than actual knowlege speaking.

I’m acquainted with some First Nation writres who have legitimate concerns. Their voices were drowned out by the roar of the Appropriation Grievence Machine of Anglo writers.

But such is the human heart that we are given to Unbalanced Excess in our efforts to establish our own Social Righteousness with the Latest Cause Celeb.

As artists we in the writing community tend to be extreme.

We must Pray for balance and write to encourage it.

Your posting is a valiant effort to do that. Kudos.

Write on Sis.

Dave 😉

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