Why I Do & Don’t Write “Diverse”

Here's the thing: I believe that everyone should be free to write whatever they want, whatever passionately moves them, regardless of race, gender, creed, sexual orientations, religion or whatever (and I've said this before) *but* I also realize that even with due diligence, research, well-meaning intent, knowledgeable beta readers, etc. we can only do so much without having first-hand knowledge, hence why #ownvoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks are both so critical in the conversation. Yet the real hitch comes when we ask who gets to decide what categories the author does/doesn't qualify as being knowledgeable about. These assumptions are often based on a userpic and are prone to stereotyping the same way that others accuse "privileged" authors (of whatever ilk) of doing likewise.

Follow that? It gets better.

I write fantasy books, made-up worlds and characters based on mythological or paranormal roots so one would think that gives me a bunch of creative license--it doesn't. In fact, I argue it gives me the opposite: I am well aware that I am borrowing stories passed down through generations that are often not my own and I cannot claim ignorance of not knowing what I'm doing when I recreate them and drag them into the modern-day narrative. I studied anthropology and sociology, I know how to conduct interviews and do research, I know that I have blinders and filters and must take ownership of that when creating my story's roots. I don't get to play the "Dumb" card and when I screw up, I do it royally and then--as per my training and my religion--must apologize, own it and do so directly. I squirm under the learning curve, but I have a lot to (un-/re-/)learn.

On the other hand, I live in the world with all of its people and, despite what I realize many others must assume, I do not live surrounded by "my people" in any sense of the word (except my echo chamber of other writers who dominate my online feed). In fact, I remember being shocked that someone would assume I hang out primarily with liberal, Jewish women of upper-middle class New England sensibilities of Russian-descent. Um...no. Not only is that not true for me, but it's not true for my family--and, I'd argue, no one (with slight exception) lives in that kind of a bubble. Hence why I argue that I don't write diverse characters, I write about my world, which happens to be diverse. Mike Jung once tweeted it best when he said that diversity is the reality, it's monoculture that's the fiction.

Let us take, for example, my kid's playdates: the first week out of school and we're already filling our dance card with all the people we're starting to miss. Our first playdate was with "best friend" S and her family. S is a girl on the spectrum and her family are great friends, even if we are polar opposites politically, but we all have a great time playing in the backyard talking music, baking s'mores over a fire and admiring the sunset before the mosquitoes attempt to eat us alive. The next day, we got to see an old friend, Z, who attended a different school this year and therefore we couldn't wait to reunite with him and his family. Z is Muslim and his mother wears a hijab and apparently both Z's mom and I not-so-secretly enjoy the askance looks of our Christian neighbors that the local Jewish family and local Muslim family have a great time hanging out together so why not pick up where we left off? We chatted and laughed and compared our experiences fasting for Yom Kippur and Ramadan. The kids, of course, knowing none of this, simply enjoyed having a blast jumping through the sprinklers. Yesterday, we hit the neighborhood playscape where we met up with Colby, who is a transboy, and after a few corrections of pronouns and his assertion "I'm a boy with long hair," the kids were off and running, playing tag and pulling more kids in to join in the fun. And today, we managed a last-minute morning Wii game with my kid's pal, G, who is biracial and identifies as African-American and my kid wanted to create a Mii for G to play and he explained what skin color, eye color and hair style to use. A few clicks, and G was in Mii-form and both kids were munching popcorn while playing Mario Super Smash Bros.

I don't say this to earn brownie points or P.C. kudos, I am just pointing out that my world--and my kid's world--is diverse by definition and I don't have to stretch my brain to include everyone in the narrative.

This doesn't give me license or free-reign to impose my story or beliefs upon my characters and think that my diverse friend circle gives me a gold star--I have to ask tough questions (and often stupid questions in retrospect) and dig deeper and get uncomfortable and accept that I will constantly be confronted with my own ignorance and be told that I'm wrong...and that's okay. In fact, it's better than "okay" because I learn and grow as a person, as a member of planet earth and the human race, and if I *don't* ask the questions and stay in my own little comfort zone then I never learn anything else and the narrative continues to be Caucasian/het/ci/male/Christian/etc. if I don't consciously make it otherwise. But I'm not going to be scared off by the fear of "doing it wrong" because, let's be honest: that's life and if I want my stories to resonate, then it should read like...real life.

So, okay, I write diverse characters and I don't write diverse characters because what I honestly like to write about are stories that move me and I'm passionate about people, culture, myth and legend, sex and gender, and the elusive idea of magic in the everyday. I don't think of this as "embracing diversity," rather I think of it as embracing the real world, not the fiction.


2 Responses to “Why I Do & Don’t Write “Diverse””

  1. John Fuller says:

    Dawn, thanks for adding to the huge discussion of what we are doing as writers of ‘diverse’ fiction, which I call ‘true’ fiction for just the reasons you gave. (Also, thanks for the Mike Jung quote!) I’m lucky that my friends, religion (Quaker, no kidding) and political pals are always about making mistakes, getting called out, listening, and doing better next time. Yesterday, I was asking myself why I even try to write characters way outside my area of expertise. Here’s what I came up with : I have promised my mind that I will fight every day against the stagnation of my imagination. Writing the true richness of the world is how I honor that promise. (Also, I missed you at NESCBWI this year!) Best wishes.

  2. Dawn Metcalf says:

    Reading this made my day. Seriously. We’re all in this together!

Leave a Reply

Order Now!

Amazon Kindle