The recent We Need Diverse Books (#weneeddiversebooks) campaign that’s been taking off has me thinking about diversity in writing.
And then, recently Raevenly Writes pondered the question of writing relationships that might not fit within our own mainstream culture, writing something that may be completely normal within the society the story takes place, but may be at odds with the readers expectations of a relationship.
But as an author, you can’t ignore how your audience works. I’m not saying everything has to be hetero-normative whitewashed, just that it helps to think about the head space your audience is coming from. Just because it’s a non-issue for you and your characters doesn’t mean it won’t be a huge issue for them, and a potential distraction. –Raevenly Writes.
And that, that right there, is something that I’ve wondered about myself, in what seems like it should be minor ways… but they end up being less minor the more I think about them. Just because something seems normal and “a non-issue” to me, and my characters, doesn’t mean it will be a non-issue for my readers. I recognize that I have lived my life jumping from liberal-bubble to liberal-bubble. Surrounded by people who fight for equality, justice, and recognition of differences — but having very little in the way of personal experience with inequality and injustice. It can be easy for me to forget… or ignore… the fact that not everyone has the same values that I do. To assume that all my readers will be just fine with whatever I chose to include.
My writing is very “G” rated when it comes to things like sex. At the most I might make a passing reference maybe. It’s just not a huge part of my stories. But there is space and place for a variety of type of diversity to be included in my writing. Race, gender, gender identity, relationship-configurations, abilities, ways of viewing the world, there’s a whole slew of diversity to be had.
And I want to include diversity in my work. Sometimes I am intentional in my trying to do so, but more often it’s just a matter of the characters finding their place in the story. And then I have to figure out how best to present it. And that is what drives me batty. For example: in Disparate Threads there is one character whose brother is gay, and has lived in a committed relationship for a number of years. Really, Theral has been raised by Piril and Giltar — for much of her life they have been her support and family. They just are, and the reality of their relationship is nothing special, certainly nothing to call attention to within their society. And, yet, I found myself fighting the urge to have her make some sort of comments or observations that would clarify that this is just a normal relationship — even though I certainly wouldn’t feel the need to do such things if her brother had been in a relationship with a woman.
I know that I have a ways to go in my own writing to include more diversity, on different levels. My own life is full of people who are different than me in a whole array of ways, why doesn’t my writing better reflect that? For that matter, why do my characters conform to expectations that I don’t? For instance, I am not a skinny individual, never have been and never will be. Even if I manage to lose some of the weight I want to lose, I have a larger build and these broad shoulders and hips are here to stay. But every character I read, and all the characters I write, have a slimmer build. Or their larger build is an obstacle to overcome, something that sets them apart, or that makes it even more impressive that they accomplish what they accomplish.
And what I would like to read (and what I need to write) is characters that are different from the so-called “norm,” but just are. Differences that don’t set people apart, but are accepted as being part of the big umbrella of “normal.” Yes, there is certainly a need for books that explore the struggles and challenges of difference, that call society to task, but there is also a need for the more subtle modeling of differences as being… well.. normal.
A lot of the chance I’ve had to see diversity presented in books has been through children’s books. One of the books I’ve encountered in the past year that I liked was A Tale of Two Daddies, by Vanita Oelschlager. The kids I was working with loved to hear over and over again (and I enjoyed reading it, which was a nice bonus).
And then there was, It’s Okay To Be Different, by Todd Parr (along with other books by this author). They loved these as well, and I loved to read them because I could get into a fun rhythm, and they affirmed that it was okay to be different, with all sorts of interesting ways to be different (I’m recalling that it is okay to wear fish in your hair, and to eat mac-and-cheese in the bathtub… though I don’t currently have access to the books and am not finding any reference online to it being okay to wear fish in my hair… Am I wrong? What if I want to wear fish in my hair, is that okay?).
It’s Okay To Be Different, talks directly about differences, in a light and fun way, but A Tale of Two Dads, is just a kid talking about her dads. A friend of hers asking who does what. It’s easy to imagine the conversation, one child looking at their family and at their friends family and wondering how the roles play out. Who coaches soccer? Who helps with homework? Who makes breakfast? Who tells the bedtime stories? And the little girl answers, sometimes Poppa, sometimes Daddy, sometimes both, sometimes neither.
Steps have certainly been made in presenting diversity, and browsing through some of the lists that I’ve found on various sites there are a lot of books that are being added to my list of “to-read.” But there needs to be more. As the entire #weneeddiversebooks campaign shows, there is a real need for more diversity, for everyone to have the ability to see themselves in the books that they read.
And I need to commit myself to writing more diversity within my own writing, to pay more attention to the characters and the ways in which they are different. How am I limiting my own characters because I don’t give them the chance to be something different from this idea of “the norm” that has managed to infiltrate my mind?
What do you think? What are some books that model diversity that you’ve found? How do you approach the question of balancing what you find to be “normal” and what your reader might expect?