Melissa wrote in the comments of a previous post:
“One thought after viewing some of your collages: I’d love to see some people of colour star in your books. And wouldn’t it make more of a contrast between Nita and Button, or any of the other characters?
It’s totally your call and your world. Just putting it out there.”
The short answer is “Yes.”
The long answer is “Yes,” too, I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet. I’ve been trying to figure it out for years, making an idiot of myself along the way, and I’ve just come up against the whole thing again in the Nita book. So the answer is, “Yes, and here are my problems achieving diversity in my work, none of which are excuses for NOT achieving diversity; suggestions for solutions welcomed:”
I have such a hard time getting a story on the page that bringing another aspect in that’s not story-based is just going to make me more paranoid. I don’t design characters, they show up, so going in and messing with the process for diversity’s sake is a very bad idea for my process, which is sprained right now anyway. I haven’t published a book in six years; this is not the time to make things more complicated.
Political Correctness Makes Me an Idiot:
When I’ve tried in the past to deliberately put people of color in, I’ve made such an ungodly mess of things that I gave up. I had some INCREDIBLY patient AA authors try to walk me through what I could do without screwing up, and because I was so hamstrung by political correctness, I ended up so far up my own alimentary canal that I never could get out. The worst, I think, was when I asked the woman I was corresponding with it if would be wrong to pair a black woman with a black man. She said, “No, that would be the most natural thing in the world.” OF COURSE IT WOULD. Why would I ask such a dumbass question? Because I honestly didn’t know if I put a black character in a romance with a black character if that would send a message that I was against interracial romance. Please note that none of this had anything to do with an actual story. This is how paranoid I am about screwing up race.
Painted Black: Another problem is that I’d be basically writing the kind of characters I’m already writing, I’d just be painting them a different color, which I don’t think is real diversity. Okay, Faux Diversity is better than No Diversity, but I really try to avoid the Faux.
My Little or No Description Rule:
One craft problem is that I try not to describe my characters that much because I want readers to do the visuals that work for them. (I learned this one on Manhunting when I gave the hero a mustache and then got letters that said, ‘In my book, Jake does not have a mustache.” Fair enough.) Cindy in Wild Ride is black (she’s on the collage twice) but I never said she was black and nobody ever noticed she was black, possibly because I can’t write black characters but more likely because the placeholders are only the starting places until the characters come alive in my mind, and at that point she may have switched over to white. I never actually see my characters when I’m writing them, I just hear them, it’s why my fiction is so visually flat, so god knows what color Cindy ended up; I never think about it because I don’t care what color my characters are. They’re just them. A lot of readers have seen Simon in Faking It as black, and that works for me (there is no Faking It collage, I started after that). I would have no problem with any of my characters being cast as people of color, but I do have a problem with stating race because of . . .
The PoV Problem:
I write in deep PoV which means if I identify race, it’s because my character has identified race, and she needs to have a reason to identify race, and if the only reason is, “Oh, look, there’s an Other,” she’s a racist asshat. I have never once looked at a friend of mine and thought, “Oh, look, there’s my black friend, Shirley.” She’s just Shirley. So how do I get race on the page without my PoV character being racist? If Nita looks at Button and thinks, “There’s my new partner, she’s black,” what does that say about Nita? (Button’s blonde because I was going for the fluffy blonde stereotype to break.) BUT I’ve been confronting that in my revisions on the Nita book because there I do have to describe skin color: the demons are green. When I went back in to puzzle out what demons were, they were clearly another race, an alien race but another race. Which meant that they’d be as diverse as humans. Which is when Daglas became dark green and Rabiel pale green because that made things so much more interesting. That never has a bearing on the plot, I just thought it made demons more real, a diversified race. But of course that also means I’m talking about skin color. I can get around the PoV problem because Nita’s gonna notice their skin color because they’re GREEN, but if Daglas and Rabiel are pretty much the same kind of people, same speech, same experiences, then am I really writing about race?
The Impact of Race:
I could easily have made Sophie in Welcome to Temptation black. She’s got dark curly hair in contrast to Phin’s blond frat boy (and I needed him to be white and blond because he was a icon of privilege), and making her black would have further emphasized the differences between them. But then when his mother throws a fit about him seeing her, it’s not about class which is one of the underlying themes of the book, it’s about race. Even if his mother isn’t a racist–and she isn’t–that would make her one. And then we get to the town turning on her and it’s not an outsider/insider thing, it’s a political lynching. It changes the entire book. It’s not that that couldn’t be a good book, it’s just a book that I’m not equipped to write and don’t want to write. I’ve been struggling with class all my life; classism I know. I’ve been female all my life; sexism I know. I’ve been white all my life; I have no real idea of what it is to experience racism, not at the visceral level I’d need understand it and write it honestly. It’s my third rail: if you can’t be honest about it, don’t write about it. I also don’t write about childlessness, poverty, or war because I’d be making stuff up based on what I’ve observed in others. There are things you can research and things you have to experience, I think. I don’t want to be one of those guys who writes about war without ever having been to war. It just seems dishonest.
But I live in a diverse world, a world that’s a better place because it’s diverse. So I have a problem.
For the past several years, I’ve been working on a compromise where I don’t give much description (which I don’t want to do anyway, see above) and letting people picture the characters themselves. I’ve consciously tried to avoid any racial description which isn’t really that much of a help since people will default to white-as-The-One, and I’ve tried to limit blondes unless I needed them for plot purposes, like Button as a fluffly little badass. A lot of my heroines have curly black hair (readers have complained) because that’s how I see them. Nita has thick, straight black hair, and I could easily make her Asian except that she’s not really human, and that’s the last thing I need to do to Asians. I could make Nick black, but he’s the Devil. Not good. (Also the son of Pope Alexander, but I could do a workaround there.) I could make Nita’s family people of color, but her mother is a homicidal maniac and Nita isn’t human, so that’s not good. I need Button to appear dumb; let’s not do that to a person of color. Vinnie’s a thug and a criminal, so no on him. When I made Daglas and Rabiel dark and light, I made Daglas dark because he’s the secondary hero and Rabiel light because he’s a sweetheart but dumb as a rock. The ramifications of race are so overwhelming that I start doing things like that, writing on political correctness instead of “here’s who Daglas is.”
The underlying problem is this: Because of the way my life worked out, I’ve never spent much time in diversified places. You grow up in a all-white town with a casually racist family (fave family moment: when Mollie was four I announced to my family at a holiday dinner that if I heard one more racist joke, they were never going to see my daughter again, please pass the gravy . . .), go to an all-white college, and end up raising your kid in an all-white suburb for twenty years, racism is pretty much baked in no matter how much you try to avoid it, or at the very least you have a tin-ear for racist thought. Grad school was diverse, yes, but it didn’t matter what people looked like in grad school because they were all like me anyway: overworked, underpaid, sleepless, and crazy about literature and writing. Do I have black and Asian friends? Yes, but again on the surface, they’re like me. I know their experiences are not like mine, I cannot fathom what it is to be a person of color–any color–in this country, especially right now with that orange idiot we have spewing hate. But if I go on the surface–hey, it’s romantic comedy, what’s a little surface–honest to god, everybody I know of color is just like me. And that’s not really writing people of color, is it? So that leaves me faking their experience and that revolts me. White writer pretends she knows what it is to be a person of color in America. No.
The bottom line is, you are absolutely right, Melissa. And you are absolutely right to say something; I’m amazed nobody has said anything about this before, to tell you the truth. It’s pretty glaring. I just don’t know how to fix it beyond saying, “Cindy’s black,” and then twitch since that has no bearing on the story and I don’t think anything goes in a story that doesn’t have a direct bearing on it. I could make it integral to the story, but then the story changes, and I’m already holding onto story by my fingernails. At this point, I’m not sure I can finish a book, let alone deliberately diversify, which is one of the many reasons why I hand little-or-no-description characters over to readers and letting them run with it. It’s not a solution, it’s not even a band-aid, but it’s all I’ve been able to come up with.
At this point, you’re thinking, “You’re overthinking this, Jenny.” Hell, yes, I’m overthinking it, I’ve been overthinking it for years. The lack of diversity in my books is a real problem and it has bothered me a lot for a long time (it must be fifteen years since I convinced those patient AA writers I was a complete loon). And I know this post opens up a huge can of worms to the public (which is not the Argh people, you’re the community.) I know that what I’ve written is undoubtedly unconsciously racist. I don’t want to be that person or that writer. But I’m at a loss as to how to fix this. Suggestions welcome. Seriously. (Please try to refrain from telling me I’m being a moron. I’ve been a moron about this for twenty years. I just can’t find my way out.)
255 thoughts on “Answering Melissa”
You are NOT being a moron. That’s a fabulous post. Thank you.
I’ve been dimly aware for some time that I don’t write diverse characters, except sometimes LGBT people. You just put it into words for me: I don’t know any, not deeply enough to even begin to guess what life is like for them.
Funny you should write this today. Yesterday I was thinking (sorrowing, really) about the apparent open season on blacks and cops and–well, I’ll spare you all my thoughts, except: imagine it’s today and you are you and all the cops in the country are black. Are you scared? I am. So why shouldn’t black people be? And what can we do about it?
Jenny, thank you for answering my question. It’s amazing to me that one of my favourite authors not only reads my comment, but resurrects a blog about it!
I figured you were probably worried about messing up race, and that Ohio may not be super multicultural. I understand that you’re worried about adding one more thing to the mix when you haven’t finished a book in six years. I also agree with @Sara that if you get it wrong, so what? No one died, unlike Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
I have to admit that I truly hated the Chinese character in Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager (racist stereotyping on steroids), and was stunned when I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s (W. T. F.). I know that’s what you don’t want to do. But I trust you not to do that.
I had no idea Cindy was black in Wild Ride. None. And I just re-read it a few days ago. I suppose then it’s good that you didn’t fall into stereotyping, but bad because no one has any clue that your world isn’t an Aryan Nation’s dream.
@Tired, it’s true that people literally see skin colour if they’re not colour-blind. But I also understand Jenny’s reply, because I live very much in my head and am oblivious to many things. I see race, and I pay close attention to people’s eyes, but I get lost easily and have to concentrate to counterbalance that. Very little natural spatial awareness. I see but I don’t see, if you know what I mean.
That said, NurtureShock, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, has a good chapter on how white Americans think they’re being not racist if they don’t mention race and send them to privileged, multicultural schools, but studies show that their kids just end up confused and clustered together based on race. It was *more* helpful to point out race than to ignore it.
@Jenny/Cherry, I brought it up because I believe we *should* be scared and working on the solution. To me, open discussion is part of the solution. But the next step, in addition to voting and demanding public accountability, is to portray our multicultural world.
I write characters of different races and cultures, but I started writing Chinese characters in earnest after I read a film survey of I think Hollywood movies which showed that most actors were white, a some were black, a few were Hispanic, and either 3 or 7 percent were Asian. Whatever percentage that was, it was so low that, because this was the year Avatar came out, the characters with blue skin were equal to the Asian actors. In case that convoluted explanation isn’t clear, *as an Asian actor, your chance of appearing on screen was the same as an extraterrestrial’s.*
I thought, holy crap, I’ve got to work to counterbalance that. And I am so relieved that with the YouTube revolution, we can get more diversity on screen. I consider it my job, as a writer, to give more voice to different people. Even if it’s hard. Even if I suck. I’m not saying Jenny has to do this, but I think that if/when she does, she’ll do it well. And if she doesn’t, no problem. I still love her and respect the effort.
I read a lot of romances when I was twelve. It was my favourite genre. But I got tired of reading about all-white 20-year-old virgins really quickly. So I embraced the Second Chance at Love series, because at least they were guaranteed non-virgins. I was thrilled to see my first 30-year-old heroine. I was so hungry for non-white heroines that if she was 1/625th Cherokee or if she was a black slave, I was all over it.
I’ve seen other Argh people telling Jenny they’d love to read about a 50 or 60-year-old heroine. We have a lot of barriers to break down.
I’m ambivalent about @Janet/J. Marie’s suggestion to start with secondary characters. It makes logical sense. And yet I’m already sick of an all-white cast with a token black best friend or bitchy Asian antagonist. But yeah, if that’s what you have to do, do it.
I know lots of you are writers, so by gum, let’s write new stories. Let’s try new things. Screw your courage to the sticking place. And we’ll not fail.
I should end there, because Shakespeare. And tying back to the original post about Button. But I’ll point out two possibly promotional things that you may ignore. First of all, tomorrow on Sleuthsayers.com, Irette Y. Patterson talks about growing up Black in America and how to write Black characters.
Secondly, it *is* possible to write characters and talk about race and culture without being grotesquely racist. When I moved to Quebec, I noticed that French people are obsessed with both. So it seemed quite normal for my two characters to have this conversation in my book, The List (basically about a divorcee who makes a list of all the guys she wants to do, with encouragement from her French best friend):
After a blurry, vodka and chocolate-filled 48 hours, my best friend, Marie Girard, handed me a falafel, bit into one herself, and said, “We need to talk revenge.”
“Mmm.” My voice rasped a little from her previous therapy suggestion, screaming along with Marilyn Manson and Billy Idol. That was probably what made my other two friends leave and one of my neighbours pound on the wall. Still, I felt marginally better as I chewed on the falafel. Now I could eat all the garlic sauce I wanted without Craig offering me a breath mint.
“You know, you’re way too calm. You’re not crying enough….You anglophones are too repressed.” She shook her pixie-cut brunette head.
I barked a laugh. “My mother’s mother is from Ghana—”
“That’s ancient history. So’s your father’s Chinese ancestry.”
“—and I’d hardly call myself repressed. Besides, you’re supposed to be all comforting and supportive. That’s your job.” Marie’s bluntness was usually a tonic, but it could grate, along with her occasional cigarette and her slim hips/D-cup breast combo. Only Barbie was allowed to have that figure.
See? Racial history and garlic sauce, all in one tasty package.
Also when I was about twelve, I read the best Ms. Magazine article pointing out all sorts of things like, “Yes, I am black. Yes, this is my hair. No, you may not touch it.” And “If an alien came to Earth, and it wanted to choose the most representative human being, it would choose the most populous one: an Asian.” I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not twelve anymore, but almost every line blew my mind, before it concluded, “We are all carriers of the disease called racism.”
That was such a great article. I still Google that line occasionally, hoping to find it, so I can read it to my kids. It’s completely true. Anyway, all that to say, we have a lot of work to do. I include myself. Sandra Oh once said something about Sex and the City like, “If there’s another show set in New York with all-white women….It’s fucking unacceptable.” And that was what it took me to realize, Oh! She’s right! They were all-white! And so was almost everyone on the show, even in one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
Hey, thanks for starting the conversation. That took guts (g).
I’m glad to see that I’m not the only author who struggles with this. I know from prejudice, because I grew up Jewish. And female, so there’s that. But I also grew up in a predominantly white suburban area and live in a predominantly white rural town now. I did date a black guy in college–neither of us cared, and even my parents were fine with it, but then he joined an all-Black fraternity and I got to find out what it was like to be on the other side of discrimination, when he had to dump me because they didn’t want him to date a White girl.
One of my three Riders in the Baba Yaga books in Asian (Mongolian, actually) and when I started working on his book this year, I talked to my agent and my editor about making his love interest multiracial. Yes, I did it on purpose because I’ve been struggling with the diversity issue too, but also, I was able to make it part of her character and therefore an issue in the book. Not sure if I’ll be able to pull that off again.
I also want to add LGBTG characters (I know plenty of those in real life, including my daughter), but am struggling with how to do it without making them sound like a stereotype. It’s tough. You need to write how you write, Jenny. And we’ll all keep on trying to find the answers.
There are so many great comments in this discussion. I have no answers or even suggestions, only observations. One of them is that no matter what you (the general you, not a specific you) do or don’t do, there will always be some people who think it’s wrong. For example, during a conversation about the new suspect in Clue/Cluedo, a friend suggested that it was a stereotype to have an Asian person with a STEM background. I just thought it was great that it was a woman scientist.
For my own writing, I let fear keep me from doing a lot of things. And for me that’s not answer, just an excuse. But I think for writers of talent and skill (and we all know who I’m talking about here :), there are ways to try to add diversity without taking readers out of the story that will be pleasing to that writer’s audience. And it’s interesting to note the level of diversity in stories when you go back and analyze them that readers don’t necessarily notice when they’re inhabiting the world of that story.
And I thought, “If there’s already Professor Plum, why did they go with Orchid, another shade of purple? We’ve got that one covered. Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard, Mr. Green, Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum, that’s red, yellow, green, blue-green, and purple. They needed an orange. Miss Peach, maybe? I never even got to the Asian = Science thing, I was annoyed about the spectrum.
I find it easier to write LGBT characters because their actions SOMETIMES actually reflect those identities. I think of a friend of mine at a Hawaii conference who’d brought a female friend with her, which wasn’t a signifier, a lot of us room together. She got up from the bar one day and said, “Well, gotta go, the hula dancers are starting and we’re going to go look at the eye candy.” (Is it sexist if lesbians objectify women? I’m so confused. But she was funny.)
But most actions that could be used to signify race are stereotypes, so . . .
(And switching to a completely different topic: How’s Mystic?)
Interesting thoughts, Melissa. As a born & bred Montrealer, I’m happy to hear you’re spending time in Québec & will definitely check out your books:)
I feel blessed every day to have grown up in such a multi-cultural city. Its history & politics can absolutely be complicated, but there’s something magical about it too. Fab energy & passionate people for sure:)
Hubby & I have lived different places for work, but a vibrant, multi-cultural milieu is happily our comfort zone & our norm thanks largely to our upbringing. Think exposure to lots of people & ideas when you’re growing up is key to embracing & valuing diversity in all aspects of life.
And Jenny, as a writer too I totally get your feelings about writing what you know. But having read your books, I think what you know does show its own kind of diversity. Reading your books has given me insights into your cultural worlds & what it’s like in some smaller, close-knit American communities & I thank you for that:)
I completely agree with you about not putting in florid description, and letting characters come to their own appearances in the reader’s mind. I’m the same way, and unless something requires a descriptor I avoid them, and with my penchant for very short lengths (I just submitted a story of under 850 words yesterday) this is vital sometimes. It sounds like the real issue you have with this issue is one of authenticity, so exposing yourself to media of color or different other minority groups might be of some value. But there’s another consideration, one you touched on a bit in the above message. If you leave out anything that doesn’t belong in a story, does that also include leaving out political correctness? Does it include leaving out diversity if the story doesn’t call for it? Or even more important, if the story isn’t served by pointing it out? Note also that you can be subtle with this. Diversity doesn’t need neon signs. A last name, a particular food preference or distaste, some cultural habit, all of these can hint at a person’s background without bludgeoning someone in the head with it. And I suspect over time, as these issues become non-issues in society as the world moves toward more acceptance of other cultures and personal details, those are going to read a lot better than something where the racial (or gender, or different ability, or faith, or…) is left naked out in the story for passers-by to gawk at. Plus you have things in the stories that make someone who’s reading it a second time think, “Oh, I didn’t catch that the first time through, cool.”
I like the idea of cultural cues a lot, but again, tone deaf here, and again, I don’t think giving somebody an ethnic name or favorite food is being diverse. My characters have been eating potstickers for years, and I don’t think it’s added any diversity to my books, but even more than that, I don’t know if potstickers are even Chinese. Fortune cookies aren’t. Dumplings are, though. I think.
You see my problem.
So, anybody, give me examples of media that reflect an accurate cultural experience. I don’t have network TV, but I have Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and Acorn. I can find movies and TV shows with people of color, I just have no idea what’s a good reflection and what’s that normal American family, The Brady Bunch.
I agree on food, but disagree on names. Names are a great way of signifying race and/or ethnicity without all the awkward racial descriptions that are tying some commenters in knots. Nita Sullivan, Nita Singh, Nita Santiago, and Nita Sharif could all have straight black hair and existential ennui, but we’d read their ethnicity and/or race differently. Whether it had added bearing on their story or not would be up to you.
I like Cassia’s point that one of the biggest difference might just be that some of them would get really tired of people asking, “no, but really, where are you from?” Microaggressions like that are a pretty good way to signal physical characteristics and/or social constructs (like race) without spelling it out. “I just want to compliment you on speaking so well!” is not something the average white American ever hears, for instance. Thinking about your books with curvier heroines, I can’t think of a time where I discovered that fact because one stood in front of a mirror, examined her wide hips and pillowy bosoms, and thought, “oh look, I am chubby.” Instead, I understood them to be curvy because they were sensitized to coded comments about their weight (“are you sure you want to wear that dress?”), because they had a mom who refused to let them eat butter, or because it became a plot point in some way. Having Nita Santiago feel irritated when a colleague assumes that she’s bilingual can work the same way, without requiring a detailed family history or physical description.
Reading what you wrote below about the extreme segregation of your town, watching a ton of Netflix shows actually sounds like a reasonable place to start to me. Sara’s suggestion of stand-up specials is really good too…stand-up is a surprisingly rich source of conversation about identity contingencies (or I’m surprised, anyway, since I didn’t recognize this until recently!).
Hope the brownies were good!
I screwed up the first batch and they turned out better than the second non-screwed up batch. All were edible, which is all I ask for.
I’d given Nita the name Amanita Dodd because WAY back in the beginning, before I started writing, I wanted her to be the great-granddaughter of Death. That went pretty fast and the name just stayed. But that’s a good point.
I’ve been working with names all along–my demon dictionaries–so that’s an easy place to start. At this point, easy is good.
I recently read STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel, a white Canadian, with major characters named Kirsten, Jeevan, and Arthur. All are Canadian and written differently based on class. Minor characters are identified by names (Jeeva’s doctor friend is Hua, I think?) or descriptions (Kirsten, looking for her friend in a strange town, says something like “her name is Charlie, she’s a black woman and she’s with her husband and their child, have you send them?”, which was basically the only clue that Charlie was black (or female, actually, because she also has LGBT characters in there).
I have had similar doubts to Jenny’s about writing diversity well, and I thought this book was a) beautifully written and b) a great example of diversity that was subtle and realistic.
I actually thought the Cosby show did a great job of talking about the different types of African American experience even down to the credit sequences which gave a musical nod to most of the streams of African American origins.
It is the picture of an upper class family so that makes it not everyone’s experience. But I know a lot of 2nd generation Irish Catholics and most of us have vastly different experiences as well.
In answer to your question above, Mystic is home and doing much better. Eating like normal (when he stopped eating, I whipped him off to the vet…that gives you some idea of how much he likes his food). Acting a bit off, but that might be illness and might be “Mom took me to the vet’s and left me there for 5 days. Also, I did not enjoy the IV and the enema.”
In fact, the other two cats are acting off too, so we’re all a bit frazzled.
His liver numbers were vastly improved, although still above normal. (Normal is 2-100, when I took him in they were 1,400+ and on Monday down to 400+) We’ll do a recheck on Tuesday, all things being equal. And then watch to see how he does, since there is still a possibility that the bacterial infection was secondary to liver cancer.
He’s happy to be home, and I’m happy to have him here. Even his sister, who usually hisses at him, went up to touch noses with him before he even got out of the carrier.
Thanks for asking.
And I find the gay characters tough because many (although not all, by any means) of my gay friend actually come across much like a stereotype. I guess there is a reason why stereotypes become stereotypes, but I don’t want to get dinged for it.
I was just rereading a foodie romance I wrote about 7 years ago, and when the protagonist is sitting at Planned Parenthood, two Black women were talking about how they would never skip their birth control because they didn’t want any more kids. I hadn’t thought anything of it when I wrote it, but now I worry, “Will people think I’m saying something insulting about Black women?” (That was just how they showed up in my head, but still.)
I don’t think it’s insulting to black women. I think the fact that you made them black gives that significance, but if you hadn’t made them black you’d have had a white waiting room, so you’re screwed either way. Go with what you did and don’t worry about it, that’s my advice.
Also, YAY Mystic.
I’d check out podcasts for accurate cultural information instead of commercial media; they’ll all be different, an array of personal takes… I’ve been listening to “The Friend Zone” partly to listen to younger people, but it’s sure interesting hearing black people talk on their own stage.
Good quote from elsewhere: ethnicity is what you eat at home; race is how people who don’t know you treat you. I feel like that maps onto Crusie stories somehow, but maybe that’s just me.
Well, there is a lot of eating in my books.
STOP THIS: Does it include leaving out diversity if the story doesn’t call for it?
That’s a biased assumption right there. You would not question a straight, white, able-bodied character, because apparently stories always call for those.
Just stop. Seriously.
As for Ms. Crusie, this is also a troubling way to think: I write in deep PoV which means if I identify race, it’s because my character has identified race, and she needs to have a reason to identify race, and if the only reason is, “Oh, look, there’s an Other,” she’s a racist asshat. I have never once looked at a friend of mine and thought, “Oh, look, there’s my black friend, Shirley.” She’s just Shirley.
No, Shirley’s experiences are shaped for better or for worse by her being black, and also, we all see color. How would you notice a tree’s leaves are green or a tomato is red but not see someone’s brown skin? Noticing that is natural. IT doesn’t make anyone a racist. (I’m a person of color, and I note people’s skin color. It’s part of their appearance and part of their identity.)
Okay, I approved this, but you should know that in this community we do not tell people to stop talking. People get to express their opinions. Other people get to disagree politely. Nobody tells anybody to shut up. Except me, if somebody isn’t keeping the discussion respectful.
You have no idea what Nicole would question, you don’t know Nicole and you don’t know what she thinks.
” How would you notice a tree’s leaves are green or a tomato is red but not see someone’s brown skin?”
I live in the woods. I never notice a tree’s leaves are green unless it’s the first green of spring. I never notice that tomatoes are red–of course they’re red, they’re tomatoes–unless I’m buying some in the store and checking for ripeness. We notice things in life because they’re significant; otherwise we’d spend the whole day thinking “The sky is blue, my car is black, my dress is red . . .” So the point I was making is that if somebody notices race, it’s because it’s significant in that instance. It’s because it makes a difference to the PoV character. And if somebody notices any detail in scene of fiction, it’s because it’s important to the story.
I understand that this discussion is really annoying for you. (You should meet Sara.) That doesn’t mean you get to tell people to stop talking about the points they’re making, or that you get to interpret what people have said and then show why they shouldn’t have said that. You are more than welcome here, we love new voices, but we’re a community that really values discussion, the ability to put forward ideas that others will disagree with and discuss respectfully. I think you meant to do that. So just remember that Nicole and everybody else here including you get to say, respectfully, what they think, and that you and everybody else here gets to disagree, respectfully, while explaining why. We’re not trying to get a right answer here. We’re just exploring an extremely complex writing problem.
And thanks for coming to Argh. New voices are a good thing.
“Does it include leaving out diversity if the story doesn’t call for it?”
I’m not sure I understand what is meant by “doesn’t call for it”? Why does there have to be some super secret underlying meaning to being a POC? Because, to me, this implies that someone being white is not important to the story, but if they’re a POC it is.
In Tired’s defense, I interpreted his/her”stop this” as in stop this line of thinking, not shut up.
Yeah, but even that is telling people what to think. What she needed to say–and also communicated–is “I disagree SO MUCH.” Which is perfectly legit for here.
I’m really protective of this community, so I police it pretty hard.
“Doesn’t call for it” is possibly not the clearest way to put that because, as you’ve said, it implies that there has to be a reason for PoC to be in a story as opposed to being there because that’s life.
Without putting words into anybody’s mouth, I give you two possibilities:
1. Suppose I’m writing about the community I live in now, this county that’s 98% white. Is there a reason it has to be white? Depends on the story. It’s also a county that probably 98% Republican with a lot of Trump supporters so the fact that it’s a white bubble might be important to the story since it might explain how they could possibly think Trump is a good idea. If it’s not important to the story, then there’s no reason not to diversify. So maybe flip the original and say, “Diversify unless the story calls for an all white community”?
2. Deliberately pointing out that there are people of color in the story changes it. That is, the supporting characters are diversified, they just aren’t identified by race because race isn’t important to themes being explored. The problem with that one is that the default to unidentified race is white, so if the race isn’t identified, then the cast is white.
Either way, I think it comes down to the fact that America is diverse even if pockets of it are white bubbles, and for fiction to be relevant and have the appearance of reality, the cast needs to be diverse unless the story specifically requires the cast to be of one race.
How’m I doin’ so far?
Once in high school, we were talking about who are our friends were and I said something about not having a close black friend since someone I knew had moved away.
And one of my best friends laughed and said what am I?
And I said you’re Jamaican. Which didn’t translate into “native born black person” to me but instead, “child of immigrants.” Don’t ask me why. Except I was the grandchild of immigrants, she was the child of immigrants and our third friend was in a sort of diplomatic mission situation. So that was one of our most common traits.
NPR just had a woman talking who said her father had lived in France, Israel & the US and he told her – That in France, he was the Jew, in Israel, he was the Moroccan, and in the US he was the Frenchman.
I’m not saying we don’t all see color, but in some situations, it’s not the primary factor.
It’s rather interesting how our personal backpacks show up in the most surprising places. No, I don’t notice someone’s skin color when I meet them, because I don’t notice any physical features of someone I meet at all. I’m blind — a slight bit of light and motion and that’s all. I can get some clues based on pitch of voice (so I know when someone’s a bass, baritone, tenor, countertenor, contralto, alto, mezzo, or soprano) and some of their speech is going ot clue me in, but my perspective is very different from that of someone who’s part of the sighted community. And before someone says this is something I don’t write about because I don’t know it, I lost my sight 13 years ago, so I haven’t always been unaware of these things. But more on topic, stories exist for particular reasons. A writer writes a story for one of two reasons — either he or she is writing something because he or she wants to explore some collection of either plot points or situational points, or the story gets written because the characters won’t leave the author alone until it’s written. Or maybe both. And a story has things that it needs to address which is a subset of the breadth of experience of a given situation. Nobody wants to read something where every tiny detail of a scene is outlined, from the individual pollen grains bumping into each other in the air down to the tiny organisms in the ground, so an author focuses on what is important and what isn’t goes by the wayside. So in this winnowing down process some things just aren’t going to serve the story. To foist those things into the narrative distracts the reader from the point of the story, and for writers of more muscular prose those things are not appropriate in the story. (And when you write very short stories, like those under 2,500, 1,000, or even flash fiction) then it comes down to what *has* to be there.
But . . .
(There’s always that damn “but . . .”).
Oh boy. I wish I was on my computer so I could write this out rightfully and gently, because I adore you and your writing, but am on phone so this might be blunt.
By acting like you need some special knowledge of PoC to include them in your works, you are otherizing us. We are goddamn Americans like anyone else. We have the same problems you do. We love our friends, struggle at school or work, have awkward dinners with our families. Take Bet Me. Any of Min’s or Cal’s friends could have been not white without changing a single other word of the story and your book would have had, well, infinitely more diversity than it had before. Because right now the amount of diversity in that book is zero.
By not describing characters, you are adding to the problem, because in our society, we are coded to read all characters as white unless they are explicitly described otherwise. That’s a total cop out. No brownie points for that.
Also? Being Asian/black/gay/disabled etc. is integral to people’s identities, and you bet your ass I expect people to look at me and think, ‘thats my friend who is Asian.’ because, surprise, I am Asian. And you should damn well be conscious of that, just like you surely expect your friends to notice you are a woman.
Your books are marvelous romanced with wonderful characters. They are also read as book by a white lady who has no close friends who are PoC, disabled, or LGBTQ. If that’s untrue–if you do have friends or people in your life who are not just white people– then why have you never written anything that allowed them to see themselves in your work, as they are in your life? And if this IS true, welp. Can’t help you there.
To be very brutal, this post reads like you you think trying to include diversity in your work is too hard so you are gonna give up. What a lovely luxury. Being PoC or another minority in this county means we are eternally required to consume narratives that force us to empathize with white people. We do it all the goddamn time. It would be nice if we, too, could be all, ‘Nah.’
Here is what you do if you try and fuck up. You read the critique and you do better next time.
As to your troubles writing: that sucks. I am so sorry, both as a reader and writer. However, have you considered that leaving your safe zone both in writing and your life can give yiu new inspiration? How is it that you can write about demons and other literally fake creatures and yet find black people too exotic to include your work?
With softness and love.
Also sorry for typos! Thougjtfully, not rightfully, etc.
I give up.
LOL on the softness and love. Also, you wrote that on your phone? My god, you’re good.
About fifteen years ago, I started a book set on Nantucket. My editor rejected it because she said, “You don’t know anything about New England, Jenny.” She was right, nothing about that book was set in New England. Ohioans are different from New Yorkers. People in their sixties are different from people in their teens. Americans are different from Britons. I don’t write stories set in big cities because I don’t know city living. I had an NYT reviewer pan Welcome to Temptation because I obviously knew nothing about small town life.
So to say, “By acting like you need some special knowledge of PoC to include them in your works, you are otherizing us,” is vastly simplifying a much more complicated problem. Depending on context, every group can be the Other.
I agree with this: “By not describing characters, you are adding to the problem, because in our society, we are coded to read all characters as white unless they are explicitly described otherwise.”
But I also remember having conversations like this with male writers and professors in the eighties who were trying to get writing women right, and who were so blindly clueless that I wanted to throw something at them. I’ve been standing here the whole damn time and now you want to know how I live, what I think? I remember one prof who asked me seriously if the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper was faking her madness to pay back her husband. And I remember getting really frustrated with them when they put women in their stories without understanding what the hell women went through. I remember going absolutely ballistic in an MFA workshop one day when one guy there–a really great guy, not a jerk–wrote a story with a terrific female protagonist and then did a scene where she watched this jealous drunk abusive asshole shoot a trailer full of holes with his screaming wife was inside and think that she wished somebody loved her that much. I started talking about it and then just lost it, shrieking, because I’d loved that character and he’d betrayed her. I’m trying not to do that, so I’m not doing anything, and by not doing anything, I’m doing that.
“How is it that you can write about demons and other literally fake creatures and yet find black people too exotic to include your work?”
Because no demons will be harmed in the writing of this story. I won’t get it wrong. And “exotic” is the wrong word, I think. I also don’t write about people who live in cities, or teenagers, or people who don’t live in Ohio. I’ve been asked several times to write YA and I always say no because I don’t know how to get it right.
Your criticisms are all spot on, really. I can quibble about some things–I have LGBT characters in my books and in at least one of them I botched it completely because I was more interested in the story than in the impact of those characters being LGBT–but I think you’ve pretty much got it. All of it. Except that it’s not a luxury if I give up fiction. I get to choose what and if I write, just as people get to choose what and if they read, and I can completely understand not reading me because I’ve become irrelevant. I can also completely understand not writing because I have become irrelevant. I don’t have a mandate to write, just a mandate to write honestly and well, which is where I’ve been failing.
Anyway, excellent comment.
I forgot about Andrew 😛 love him and the Goodnights.
Thanks for taking criticism so willingly. To be entirely honest, I admit my anger (you sensed the anger, right? Haha) is directed not at you, but at romance and also the literary landscape as a whole.
I guess my point is this. I get why you don’t write non-white (or other minority) characters as your protags. Not your wheelhouse, and arguably not your story to tell. My counterpoint is simply, why no minority characters at all? if Liza was Indian or Andrew’s Jeff was Korean, or Roger was autistic, or Nadine’s Ethan (hes on his way to being a protag, but before you had decided that) was Mexican, that wouldn’t require you to change ANYTHING you had written. Because they are not the main characters. And yet if, say, Jeff was Korean, he is suddenly even more interesting because as readers we can fill in the blank spaces in his story on our own.
I am an Asian woman, and I just spent the weekend with my five best friends: a white lady, a half Chinese dude, a Jewish boy, a black gay man, and a white guy. We all attended an ivy league university together. Apart from me yelling a bit louder than necessary about abortion at dinner one night, our conversations and activities could have been the converdation and activities of any Americans. The stuff Min and Liza and Bonnie talk about sound exactly like the conversations have with my girlfriends. If you had made Bonnie Asian, I wouldnt have needed some spiel about her relationship with her mother or how she feels about her culture. I would have just filled that stuff in. THAT is the sort of thing that can be left to the imagination.
Anyway, I admire you a great deal as a writer and person. Much love.
PS. please please watch Ali Wong’s comedy special Baby Cobra on Netflix. Its hysterical, and shes not only a woman and Asian but she’s super pregnant. Amazing.
To be clear, my abortion yelling was about how it should be more accessible, and my humblebrag about our alma mater was to emphasize that despite the differences in our backgrounds we shared a crucial experience and that is enough for common ground and a lifetime friendship. Like any friend group, whether all white or not. (All white friend groups sound terribly boring tbh.)
My final argument is this: there is no harm you can do in terms of ‘poor’ representation (as long as it is done in good faith, so to speak) that is as great as the harm of total invisibility.
Of course you were angry. That’s why I told the story about my meltdown at the really good guy in the MFA program: We expect more from the people we like. And the constant drip drip drip of unconscious racism/sexism is more devastating from people we like than from people we don’t. Donald Trump is an asshole so when he says his garbage about women, I just roll my eyes. Mike was (and is) a terrific guy, so that cut me to the quick.
The thing, too, is that sometimes we need to get angry to communicate. You’re an Argh person, so if you’re angry with me, I pay attention. You’re not some random internet troll, we have a relationship and we’re talking about something important and I was missing the point in my post. This is going to take some time. There’ll be more anger, probably from both of us, but it comes frustration not disdain, so it’s just part of the interchange.
Minority characters. See, I thought I was covering that in not doing descriptions. In my mind, Min could be black, Tony could have been Asian, etc. But that’s ignoring what I knew: what is not specified defaults to white. So I’m trying to wrap my mind around how to do this. Not why I should, but how I do this honestly instead of just looking at a character and saying, “Okay, now you’re Asian.”
The demon thing really brought this up for me after I’d shoved it to the background. I’ve got Mr. Shen who is Mr. Shen for a reason, so I had to go look up Asian demons which turned out not to be helpful because, hey, ethnicity, and I thought, “I’m fine with doing this with the good demons because, hey, demons, I’m making this up. I cannot get it wrong.” But of course I can. ARGH. And I’m making damn sure all the bad demons are Aryan. Which is racism, too.
I’m going to go make brownies now. With nuts. Male brownies. And probably eat the whole pan because this is making me look at a problem I’ve had for a long time in my books, and I like to think I’m PERFECT, damn it.
Brownies fix everything. Well, not everything, but they make confusion more enjoyable,
Yes – start “small”… secondary characters are great ways to diversify and take away some of the fear of effing up that you’ve got going on.
You’ll mess it up at times (as I do in my own writing), but trying and doing so with sensitivity and avoiding stereotype is how you jump in. You’ve been using this blog to share your process… what a great venue to try out scenes with those secondary characters to see how your audience reacts? That might be the best thing you can do other than relying on your go-to beta readers.
All of this.
Ms. Crusie, f you don’t want to have a main character who is not straight and white, try a diverse cast: http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2016/06/20/how-to-write-protagonists-of-colour-when-youre-white/
It isn’t that I don’t want a diverse story, it’s that I’m afraid I’ll screw it up. Also if you’ve read the other comments, you’ll know that that blogger you cited has said that white authors probably shouldn’t write the stories of PoC characters. I think.
I’ve used LGBT characters pretty often (not trans, though, so LGB). I’m just worried about screwing up race.
So one of my favorite tumbler blogs is called writing with color. http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/
Basically, they have several moderators, and people who are trying to write a character outside of their own racial and cultural experience write in and ask questions. The moderator with a relevant background answers the question to the best of their abilities. They also include profiles, where someone will write a little about their experience being, say, a Mexican-American teenage girl in Wisconsin. They also have a section on tropes to be avoided if you want to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Even when it’s not applicable to what I’m writing, it’s a good blog to follow.
Most of their advice comes down to four things:
-research. A lot. And research using sources written by members of that group.
-get a beta reader from that group
-don’t try and write about The Experience Of Being Black In America if you’re white. Do write mysteries, or romances, or whatever, about well rounded characters who are black. Sometimes people just want a heroine who looks like them, has an adventure, and gets a happy ending. And that’s something you’re qualified to write, if you take the care to do it well.
-Don’t put all the burden of representation on one character. If you’re going to have a person with some negative characteristic in the story, make sure there’s at least one character from that same group who is portrayed positively. And don’t make the negative characteristic play into a stereotype. So if you want your evil villain to be a black man in his thirties, don’t make him the leader of a gang. Make him an old money aristocrat or whatever. And then balance that character out by making sure one of your heroes is a black man in his thirties too, and that that representation is positive.
I completely get what you’re saying about not wanting to throw a wrench in your creative process. For me it’s helpful to think more in terms of communities – if I have gay character, they probably have some gay friends, outside of whoever they’re dating. Same for black characters, or women, or whatever. If you’re writing about somebody, give them the community they’d have in real life. And that’s going to include people like them in some way. And once you have multiple characters with a given background, you ease up a little bit on the burden of putting all positive representation into one character.
Lastly, I’ll admit – race is one of the first things I notice when I meet someone, right up there with gender, age, height, etc. I don’t think about it once I’ve known people for a long time, the same way you sort of stop noticing how beautiful your beautiful friends are after a while and they just become Sarah, or whatever. If you’re having a character meet another for the first time, I don’t think it’s racist for them to notice race in deep POV. Or rather, it’s a realistic level of racism that most people have right now. If that’s the only thing the character notices, that’s weird. But if it’s like, “She looked up at the young black man across the room, moving toward her like he had all the time in the world,” I don’t think that’s a problem. And if it is, that’s what you have beta readers for.
I guess I think it’s like any other difficult thing in writing – the first couple of times you do it you’ll screw it up. So you just have to decide if it’s important enough to you to be worth the uncomfortable learning process and the time consuming, or if you’d rather focus your energy on the stuff you already do well, or on some other difficult thing you want to learn.
Anyway, just my two cents. Hopefully I’ll learn more as I go. I just don’t want some kid to one day read my writing and think my ideal world is one without people like them.
*time consuming re-writes, was what I meant to say
Also, I’m a straight white able-bodied middle class woman in America, so, you know, take my comment with many, many grains of salt.
that Tumblr is AMAZING – thank you for the pointer to it.
I’ve bookmarked the blog, thank you very much. I think my fear about screwing up isn’t the learning thing, it’s that my screw up is out there for all eternity. A kind of “first do no harm” thing, except by not doing anything, I do harm.
Non-fiction is looking pretty good right about now.
ETA: That blog is an incredible resource. Thank you!
Yes, all of this. Thank you, person who understands.
AS a side note, I absolutely want my friends to acknowledge my race and gender, because then they are acknowledging the ways in which our experiences differ. But its not like my love life or most other aspects of my life are radically different from that of my white friends. I work a normal job, have friends, live in the suburbs. Watch the same TV shows.
This was addressed to CateM xo
I’m white, but I live in an Asian society. I’m a bit privileged, because even dumpy white women like me sometimes look like blue-eyed, blonde Barbie Dolls to the kids (and to the adults, as far as I know — I’ve never had an adult draw a picture of me as a blue-eyed blonde, but then again, adults don’t draw pictures of me).
I do write people of various backgrounds — off the top of my head: Persian, Sri Lankan, mixed-race American. Also, I write fantasy characters, which touches upon the demon-as-race thing.
But I’m another person who doesn’t describe much about my characters. I prefer for them to speak though their actions. IME, people just aren’t their skin color. Some are cranky, some are hot-headed-angry, some are very mellow, some are a bit gullible, some are oblivious. So, it’s very hard for me to write, “she was a beautiful black woman.” And there are some really awkward work-arounds. I remember about someone writing about the receptionist typing with her beautiful black hands. Awkward.
I make a conscious effort to take race off the table, because I don’t want to be viewed as Typical Germanic-type Person, and I don’t want to be viewing anybody as Typical-Anyskin-Person. I shove that in the background of my consciousness, and it only comes forward if my new friend acts in a stereotypical fashion (positive or negative).
The best I can do is give some subtle hints — black curly hair. And in love scenes, my characters compare skin tones, because that’s what lovers do. My readers probably don’t pick it up. Everyone defaults to white, and my hero is snow-white (frost god), so “tan upon white” body parts probably reads as “Mediterranean” instead of “African and Briton”.
If I finish the series and somebody picks it up as a movie, I’ll have it put in the contract that my heroine is African-American. But until that unlikely event, it’s up to the reader to turn my words into people. So, what are you going to do, readers? Stick to the default? Or imagine all the characters as part of a diverse world? (Heck, if you want to imagine my hero as an albino African whose parents wound up in Great Britain in the 14th century, I have no problem with that. Adds some depth to the guy. And what happened to HIM is more important than his DNA, and more formative to his personality. But he is angelically beautiful; everyone should have a diverse set of angels in their imagination, I feel.)
The only other place I can portray my heroine is the cover. And I’ll include lots of images that portray her accurately for whoever designs my color.
Jenny, I’m so glad you posted this. I hope we see more practical suggestions for getting race across in words and characterization. Sara, do you have any favorite portrayals you’d like to share? Some other-skin writer who got your-skin really, really right?
To tell the truth, I’d be hardput to find an other-skin writer who got my-skin super-right. I tend to read books about homogenous societies, and sometimes the whites in those books come off as klunky and very stereotyped. I don’t resent that, but it does klunk. I’m think Bride and Prejudice, which is quite good, but the guy is a Ken Doll. Doesn’t matter; all the Indian characters are great and funny and real, and in the original P&P, Mr. Darcy is a tiny bit of a mannequin, too.
I don’t have answers to “how to write” questions. But I do think we’re fortunate to have hundreds upon thousands of great authors to choose to read — Toni Morison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, bell hooks, Julia Alvarez, Howard Zinn, to name a tiny (US-centric) fraction. I think white people have a responsibility to educate ourselves (and each other) about race, and it usually starts with reading the many decades of scholarship & literature already available to us.
For television & movies, I recommend letting go of the urge to only find the best, most accurate, most authentic shows featuring POC as main characters. Watch a whole bunch. I just think of it as normalizing my screen, so I’m not stuck watching some weird, almost-all-white realm.
Can’t remember what’s streaming where and what might require a trip to the local library, but Master of None, Jane the Virgin, Scandal, Orange is the New Black, <Fresh Off the Boat,, Black-ish, Empire, and/or The Mindy Project should all be easy to find.
I’m pretty sure I can Netflix or Hulu all of those.
I think so!
Forgot to add the (probably obvious) point that there are lots of think-pieces from critics of color online about all/most of those shows. So as you watch, it can also be helpful to check in on how other people experience the shows (what you’re missing, what you perceived differently, what you need to step back and think about, etc.), which I think helps us develop into better critical viewers ourselves. Gosh, I do love the internet.
Cristella isn’t on Netflix
Is on Netflix. I reccomend
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (now on Netflix) also does a fantastic job of seamlessly integrating a diverse cast, and playing with/subverting/rejoicing in romance tropes to boot.
For me it feels disrespectful to write main characters who are non white. What if I accidentally insult them by getting their experience wrong? Minor characters I can do as people of color because I feel like I know enough of them well enough to not screw up. Although even then it would feel so awkward to use those race describing words. Great post Jenny.
I think that’s the problem. We’re told we cannot possibly understand the PoC experiences–and probably we can’t. We get in trouble if we try to write them because we can’t ever get it, but at the same time we get in trouble for acting like the world’s entirely white like us. I know I’ve gotten bitched out for trying to write PoC, so…what can we do? The answer I’ve seen is “try anyway and know you’re going to get in trouble and bitched out,” which is…not good either.
I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s a diverse world we need to reflect (well, I need to reflect) while leaving PoC protagonists to PoC writers. I think the perception of the world in general has shifted thanks to the proliferation of supporting characters of color in general along with the rise of stories headed by PoC characters like Mindy. I think film has it easier because you don’t need to describe your characters: Finn shows up and he’s black and now he’s fighting the good fight on the right side . . . I also think that the fact that the majority of people under thirty have no problem with race or sexuality and look at the Olds (that’s me) as just inexplicable because the prejudices of my generation make absolutely no sense.
Which brings me to another problem which is that I have no idea what it’s like to be young in the country now. I know, depends on who you’re talking to, young people do not all have the same experiences, but it’s a completely different mindset, a completely different worldview, not to mention they can type on their freaking phones for paragraphs while I have a hard time texting “Where are you?” (I will use “U” for “you” never. I am Old and Proud.)
I’m not sure that ALL the under-thirties don’t have a problem with race and sexuality. Because it’s been discussed more openly, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s not a problem, but their fall-back position might be different than ours (I’m old!). To say “we’re incomprehensible” might be true for them. I don’t want that to mean, though, for future writers, “Here’s this odd group of people who had different cultural experiences then we did growing up, how can we understand what it was like when everyone was blatantly or just ignorantly racist, stereotyping, racial profiling, etc? ” But maybe it will. Maybe phones will be our saviors, who knows!
My hope is, we’re the last group who has to worry about this, because the next generation or two really won’t see any of this as an issue at all. Fred is as he is, Joni is who she is with her perceptions, which she is trying hard to be more inclusive. Case in point: my work partner was the first black doctor in a traditionally white part of town, and it took us (who were right in the middle of it) 3 years to figure that out. We just honestly weren’t thinking that way. And I am considerably older than 30 now, also was then when all of that was going down more than 20 years ago. My niece now has lots of diverse close friends at age 16, but I had no idea they were seriously diverse until she passed me her iPhone. They’re just her friends, having the same issues all teenaged girls have, cute boys!, learning to drive, what ARE we going to do about those cute boys?, where are you going to apply to college?, has any of those cute boys asked you out yet? They just look different than she does, but when she describes them to me, I hear next to nothing about race or gender identity or… after all the stuff we older folks get hung up about now. It really gives me hope for the future!
I have great hopes for the future. My grandchildren are living in a world that is so far from the racist white bubble I grew up in that they might as well be on another planet. And with any luck, my granddaughters are going to be growing up in a world where it’s no big deal for a woman to be president because, look, we have one.
Coming out of my normal lurker mode for a bit of navel-gazing on a topic that is near and dear to my heart…
Fully seconding CateM above! This is a pretty thorny subject to wrestle with, and something I decided to tackle head-on in my own writing about a decade ago. And after a decade of listening and trying? I only now feel like I’m getting to a place where I can write a properly nuanced, three dimensional character of color without fucking it up too badly.
Like you, I spent time growing up in predominantly white spaces and then college was a pretty white experience because I went to school in a super segregated major US city. I started realizing that my writing and everyone’s writing in our English program was about white people, and became profoundly uncomfortable. So I started reading.
I think for a lot of white writers who have spent a lot of time in predominantly white spaces, one of our problems is that we only have white voices in our heads. If we’re lucky we have a good enough ear to realize that Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and other voices sound different than white voices– not syntactically, and we all do tend to talk about the same things, but the perspectives are different and the experiences that have informed those perspectives are completely foreign.
From what I’m reading in your approach, you’re coming at the question of how to respectfully write a person of color from a outside–> in perspective. You spend a lot of time in your post talking about appearance and about the intellectual conceptualization of a character of color starting from surface stuff and then drilling inward. But when you build a character (or at least, when I build a character) you start from the inside and work your way out. Voice, preferences, the foundational building blocks of their souls that direct their actions. You can tell that the characters of color you’re trying to write aren’t right because they’re hollow. They’re just the surface stuff. And no well-written character is hollow.
So, how do those of us who spend a lot of time in our heads start building from the inside out? I did it by reading a ton of non-fiction work by writers of color. I cannot recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for various publications, his book _Between The World And Me_ and just about everything by Roxanne Gay highly enough as a place to start understanding the lives of modern black writers. (speaking of which, try to find pieces on black writers talking about their reactions to Beyonce’s _Lemonade_ album. Way more interesting than the white dudes doing hot takes.) Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz are also brilliant.
To go a little further back, Isabel Wilkerson’s _The Warmth of Other Suns_ is an amazing book about the history of The Great Migration, which connects a lot of dots between black people escaping the Jim Crow South and black life in modern America today. And although it’s run by two white ladies, I also recommend the podcast “Stuff You Missed In History Class” because, as it says on the tin, they’re on a mission to cover all the stuff you didn’t get in your predominantly white and male history classes. They get hate mail for talking TOO MUCH about people of color and women, which they’re downright gleeful about.
I also follow these people and others on Twitter, reading every article that they post about and adding authors that they recommend to an ever-growing list. I also love Tumblr, which is a roiling mass of chaos at the best of times but is also a great place to listen to people of color (writers, programmers, girls who work at McDonald’s) talk about their lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings in real time. Both of these platforms allow for a heretofore unimaginable democratization of voices: you don’t need to be published by an outfit out of New York to be part of the national conversation. Just internet access. (which is it’s own problem, but…) And all of these people will in turn give you a hint as to the next place to start looking.
People who read what I’ve written above may notice that I don’t have a lot of “Go talk to a black woman and ask her about her life” because… well. As I’ve worked on this over the years I learned pretty quick that it was my job to go off and do my own research and my own homework. And that when I had the opportunity to be in places where people of color felt comfortable enough to talk candidly about their own lives, to keep my mouth shut and my ears open and take notes so I could then go off and do more research.
So, to circle back to what I wrote at the beginning: I’ve been doing this for a decade. And I’m not saying it’ll take you as long, because you’ve already been noodling on it for quite a while. But it does take time. In one of her more noted essays, feminist writer Melissa McEwan talks about white racism as something you marinate in your whole life. It seeps in to everything, and it’s pretty much impossible to get out of the marinade. But I think it is possible to change the recipe of the marinade, and this is how you do it. Slowly, and over time, until you have a nuanced and respectful understanding of the lived perspective of people of color AND the ways in which your own lived experiences are profoundly different.
I’m laying all this out in terms of writing (and also in slightly othering terms, for which I apologize), but I’ll warn you, there are side effects off the page: getting out of my own perspective as a white woman has definitely made me a better writer, but it’s also changed me as a person. You can’t unsee certain things. It’s changed the way I live my life, carry myself professionally, and interact with my friends and family. It’s also made it harder to sleep at night.
PS: It just occurred to me that you may find writer Mary Robinette Kowal’s many blog posts on this very subject useful. She wrote an amazing series of “Jane Austen with magic” novels that started out snow white and ended up populated with a very diverse cast truly representative of the world during the Regency because she was wrestling with this very same issue. There are a TON of posts about this over on her blog going back years. Here’s one from ’09 that also branches into an essay by Justine Larbalester as a starting place: http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/why-describe-characters/.
… Holy crap, I hadn’t realized how long that was until I hit “Post Comment”. Sorry!
No apology necessary, it’s a great comment, lots of good stuff in there. Thank you for the links!
Justine has actually, ah…changed her tune on this topic.
I don’t even know what to make of that.
That link: Yeah, this is the insanity that political correctness causes in white writers.
Basically, I agree with the idea that we should not tell stories of color because we are not people of color. I think of all the times white authors have appropriated ethnic experiences (what was that book, The Education of Little Tree? something like that) because it’s trendy. And I think of the time I was at a conference and heard a perfectly nice white writer saying that she hadn’t understood the plight of the black man until she’d written her protagonist. I thought, “You still don’t understand it, we can’t,” and I asked the friend next to me if that was offensive to her (she’s black). She said, “Nope,” but she clenched her jaw a little.
I keep dragging this over to gender because that’s where I have a vaguely common experience. There have been men who wrote brilliantly from a woman’s PoV (Chaucer, for one), but mostly it’s impossible for them to get what it means to live as a woman. I had a guy ask me once if I became more aware when I saw a black man approaching me, and I said, “No, I become more aware when I see ANY man approach me, you guys kill a lot of us.” And he looked confused, because to him “them and us” was “black and white” and to me, first and foremost, “them and us” is “male and female.” Men have exploited us, abused us, defined us, objectified us, and killed us, and in return for a long time we were forced to live in their worlds while they never had to live in ours. It’s still that way; let me know when Congress is half female, when half the governors in this country are female, when half the CEOs in the country are female. (I have high hopes for the Supreme Court coming up.) The people who make the rules get to define what makes a person, and the rest of us have to squeeze to fit into that box that fits them so comfortably. I’m fairly (but not completely) sure that the experience of people of color is somewhat analgous.
Which is when I get to the whole passing thing and get apoplectic.
So the whole “I’m white and I can write your experience from your PoV” is just not valid to me no matter how much research I do. I can research and write the diverse characters that a white character observes–this discussion almost made me think I should have made Lisa black in Bet Me and then I realized I was falling into the “sassy black woman” stereotype and went for more brownies–and with the links you all have given me, that’s going to be my next move. But I don’t think I can ever be comfortable usurping that PoV, usurping that story.
I keep going back to Mike’s story. Mike is one of the best people I have ever known, thoughtful, talented, absolutely a feminist. And yet he wrote this strong female character who looked at an abusive asshole terrorizing his wife and had her translate that as love. If the character had been set up to be that kind of woman, I’d have been fine with it, but this character was strong and smart and independent, and yet she saw that screaming woman as fortunate to be loved. It sent me through a wall, I absolutely threw a fit in class, so bad that there was a long silence after I stopped screaming and everybody kind of backed away from me. DON’T DO THIS TO MY KIND. Don’t write this great character and then have her reflect male ideas. Don’t sucker me in with a character I love and then have her praise one of the greatest threats to my kind of human. Most female homicides happen because the murderer “loved” them this way. Jesus wept.
He really is a great guy. He just didn’t get it. (That was twenty years ago. I doubt very much he’d write that now.)
I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to set up a great PoC protagonist and then fuck it up, and I will. I screwed up the LGBT characters in Crazy For You, and I know a lot of LGBT people. I will get this wrong. And for those of you who saying, “So you get it wrong, you’ll get it right the next time?” No. That book will be on library shelves for a long, long time, people will be finding it in dusty attics for a long, long time, it’ll be on the internet for a long, long time. Each book stands alone, a world in itself. If I screw up craft, that’s bad. If I screw up something as important as this, it’s disastrous.
BUT I can do a diverse world, I think, and if there was ever a book to do that in, it’s this one, what with the demons as immigrants and all. I just have to cowgirl up.
[Edited to take out the criticism of the other blog.]
Ms. Crusie, there’s no option to reply to your comment to this comment, so I’m doing it here.
First, please stop calling it political correctness. People wanting to be treated respectfully and without harm is not “PC.” It’s being a decent human being.
Secondly, people are allowed to change their minds and grow. I am a person of color who used to want to see white authors write POC, and now I’m a lot more hesitant for a number of reasons. But the main problem here is that you don’t seem to want to get it. You sound annoyed, like, “Damn those people, can’t even make up their minds!” Well, marginalized groups are no more a monolith than white people. We’re not going to agree on things. It doesn’t work that way, and if you don’t want to write diverse MCs, just say that. I’d respect your honesty.
Okay, you’re making some assumptions here and in your previous comment.
1) That I don’t want to write protagonists of color. Clearly I’m concerned about it or I wouldn’t have posted on it. Clearly, I’m confused, and that’s what this discussion is about. The problem, which is discussed a lot more fully in the comments, is (a) can I do an honest portrayal of a protagonist of color in deep PoV and (b) should I even try since that co-opting an experience I can’t fully understand.
2) That I think being respectful of people of color is just political correctness. No idea where you got that from.
3) That I’m annoyed with the discussion. Tired, I started the discussion.
I can feel your frustration and your anger, and I get that this is probably one more white person not getting it, but you’re taking what I said, interpreting in a way I never meant and that I don’t think anybody else has read (could be wrong there), and then demanding I be honest and accept your interpretation. No.
Since we’re offering up tumblr links: http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/
Is awesome. At first glance you might think, what’s helpful about POC in medieval art, but there’s so much more there. Discussions of how we look at history, how we view art – the tumblr has a number of reading recs and great thoughts about representation. Also, beautiful art.
These links are great. Thank you all so much. Keep ’em coming, too.
I’ve been following this all morning; bookmarked the links.
I want to write diversity better. Would Argh People be interested in some sort of discussion group or (better yet) workshop? Maybe with short stories, drabbles and character sketches so that we could experiment with writing diversity in a rather safe place? I don’t even know how we could set that up. Maybe a private WordPress blog with a weekly writing challenge that is rotated among the members? And maybe some discussion threads for articles/real-life issues that we run into? Better ideas?
I’m heading off for vacation in a couple of weeks, so the timing is bad for me to set up stuff with technologies I’m not completely sure of. But, it really is important. In the absence of a better organizer, I would do it.
I hesitated to suggest it, for fear POC would think, “Great, just how I want to spend my writing/critiquing time: wiping the asses of a bunch of white people.” But I think it could be mutually beneficial. Surely this isn’t a strictly white problem.
You can contact me off-site at michaelineduskova at gmail dot com.
I think Slack might be good for that. Blogs are good, too, and you can make them private.
I can’t do it. I’m up to my ass in alligators now, so not taking on anything new.
Err on the side of Faux Diversity. I can guarantee you — there will be people for whom it still reflects their personal experiences. There are plenty of POC who are privileged enough on other axes (class, gender, sexuality) that race genuinely doesn’t really have that much impact on their personal lives, outside of what they hear and see on the news.
Perhaps try reading some of the fan analyses on what makes some of your favorite POC characters more than tokens – like for PoI’s Carter and Shaw, or Sleepy Hollow’s Mills sisters. For Joan Watson. And then go back and see if you can now notice those sort of things in canon on rewatch. Knowing what makes diversity work can be a bit of a Fedex arrow, and sometimes that takes someone else pointing it out for you.
The cultural comedy films tend to be directed by those of the culture in question. So films like Saving Face, Bend It Like Beckham, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Ang Lee’s “Father Knows Best” trilogy, or TV series like Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin, they can all give you a look into what speaks to us. I think you’ll also find some universal themes, like how most immigrant families push their children to focus on academics. Not every culture has to be its own special snowflake. Again, erring on the side of Faux Diversity is more likely than not to still produce a fleshed-out character that speaks to a number of people. For example, Alien’s Ripley, or the titular Nikita of the 2010 TV series. They’re both “palette-swapped” characters, and still beloved for it.
You could honestly make Nita a Hispanic or Latina character right now, not change a word of the text, and it would still work.
You are the second person to mention “not change a word of text”, AG. How important is it to say, “Linda is Hispanic” or “Rika is Mongolian”? (I know a lot of Mongolians in my community. Diaspora is tremendous, it seems, since about the late 80s.) How do we get it on the page that our person is someone from a certain background (esp. not default white straight)? Is the cover enough?
In TV shows, the first, obvious step is easy as far as POC goes: cast an actor who is. When we get down to smaller minorities, then it can be harder, especially if we are trailblazing. If we portray someone from a minority that has a long history in fiction, theater and other arts, then it’s a little easier (I’m thinking transvestites). But . . . I don’t know how to write a lesbian, for example. I mean, I know what a BuzzFeed lesbian looks like, but are they really reflecting the looks and gestures of their communities?
One comedy sketch that I really like for looking at the subject in-depth is called something like “Office Homophobe” on YouTube. It’s a Key & Peele sketch. I love Key & Peele with a deep passion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3h6es6zh1c
I’ve been watching a lot of Saturday Night Live lately too. Hoo-boy, they are still playing on some of the same stereotypes they were playing with back in the 70s — gender, QUILTBAG, race. Some of it is extremely funny, but would be racist (strike racist, substitute ugly) for a person not of that group to write or perform. So many subtleties to this issue.
Micki: I meant, state outright that Nita is that ethnicity, but not change the text otherwise, like awkwardly shoehorning in tacos or fried rice or trying to change her speaking patterns to be ethnic or whatever. Like, just drop a statement at the beginning that she’s black, and that’s it.
If Nita was going to turn out to be a bisexual, she doesn’t need to be leering at other woman all of the time to reinforce the point. Just have her say “I’m bisexual,” to someone, once. If Nita was a lesbian, you could just change Nick to Nikki, and that’s about it for changes to the text, unless there are instances of gendered slurs, which wouldn’t make sense in a supernatural context anyways.
Palette-swapped characters are, sadly, still more likely to be more fleshed out than attempts to be diverse for diversity’s sake.
I go back to 2010’s Nikita, who is played by half-Vietnamese Maggie Q. The character has no connection to her cultural heritage, having grown up in a foster home. The one time they have a parent show up, it’s the white parent, though they mention that the mother is Vietnamese. Otherwise, Nikita being an Asian has no bearing on the character whatsoever. And yet, she is still the very first Asian female lead on television, ever, and she’s a brilliant, very well written, layered, complex, and nuanced character, who is a huge step for Asian representation. And I’d bet that Glenn on The Walking Dead is like that, too.
Or consider, in Leverage, the fashion episode, in which the antagonists are Chinese. Some of the details on the racket they’re running are straight out of research on real Triads rackets, but as characters, the Pans aren’t uniquely Asian. The whole thing could be palette-swapped to a white crime syndicate pretty easily. That doesn’t make the Pans faux diversity.
Funny you should say that about swapping out Nick for Nikki. One of the few times I was plagiarized was by a lesbian author who took the dock scene from Welcome to Tempation and just switched out Nick’s gender. I wasn’t happy about the plagiarism, but I was fascinated by how well that worked.
If you mean action/adventure, you may be right.
Margaret Cho had All American Girl in the mid 90s.
It turns out that Anna May Wong had her own show called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951) on the Dumont Network of which no copies exist. (Dumont went out of business and most or all of their negatives got trashed.) She played a detective & gallery owner.
Thanks, AG. I still have craft problems because I’m writing tight-third from the person’s perspective. But maybe this will help with the non-POV characters.
On changing Nick to Nikki. In all the gender changes I have read, God may be a Goddess but if Satan or the Devil becomes female, she is a major bitch. She is not nuanced at all.
Well, we’re changing that.
I wish I could understand this. I understand what you’re saying but I don’t understand how it feels to you.
I’m a middleaged white woman who grew up in a majority black city, went to a majority black high school, went to a big university in another major city and have no clue what it would be like to live in an all white town. I’m not saying I understand what it’s like to be black, but my default on race is closer to a black perspective than a Midwestern one. Most of my high school teachers whom I loved were black. Most of my classmates were black. A lot of my current coworkers are black. But when I think of them, I don’t think my black teacher – I think Mme. Cunningham & Mrs. Roberts. I think Rhoda, not the black receptionist.
So my suggestion is as you walk through your week look at the world around you. Are there no Hispanic/Asian/Black/Native American faces in your grocery store, your bank, your gas station? The newscaster on your local news – is everyone white? Who are the waiters in your Chinese restaurant? Or your Mexican restaurant? The technicians in the labs, the receptionist at your veterinarian? I think if you look you may find Filipino & El Salvadorean nurses & West Indian accountants. Where you get your nails done- are none of them Vietnamese? Heck, what about Russian programmers & veternarians?
Someone asked about lesbians – I’m not sure what a buzzfeed lesbian looks like, but Suze Orman is a lesbian, my 78 year old aunt is a lesbian, my dog walker and several of my clients are lesbians – and I can’t think of one thing they all have in common except they like women instead of men if that helps. As for community, my aunt has several – there’s her apartment building, her church where she’s highly involved & her AA meeting, & people she knows from living & working in one city for over 45 years. But none of her communities (although again this may have been different when she was young & living in the Village) are just LGBT. She knows a lot of LGBT people but she knows them through her church or because she worked with them. She also knows a lot of straight people.
Jenny, while I think this is an excellent question to have right now in general, I would also suggest that it shouldn’t derail the book you’re actually working on.
You could possibly solve part of your problem with your ancient dead people. Italy at the time of the Borgias is getting rich because it’s the gateway between North Africa, the Ottoman Empire & the Silk Road. Your Italian son of a pope may be a lot more used to a multicultural society than a small town in Ohio. The variety of skin tones in Italy was probably a lot more varied as well.
I will point out that although no one has mentioned it, Dogs & Goddesses had a midEastern hero because you can’t get more mid Eastern than Summeria & Ur. Which means Shar & the others (being the descendants of Summerian priestesses probably were a lot more Arabic than Ohioan).
Now, white person talking. I’m not comfortable when everyone else is white. It’s fine in a foreign country where I’m expecting it, but I found myself getting nervous in parts of Louisiana & Texas. Because I’m used to seeing different types of people in the background on a regular basis where I live, I found myself just a little thrown off when I drove day after day and everyone else was white with big hair. And I didn’t put my finger on it until I hit New Mexico and the hotel clerk was a Native American teenager with tattoos. And I felt better. This does not mean I’m the poster child for a post-racial America – believe me I am not. I’ve got my own blind spots. But it does mean that I see people because I expect to see people of different backgrounds so I see the differences in the grocery store and the bank and my doctor’s office.
I once read that if a neighborhood or a business has more than 20% black people, white people become uncomfortable. Think about that.
Think about how many times a black person or a Hispanic person is living in a neighborhood where they are 20% of the population. Do you think they think that’s an integrated neighborhood? Or do you think they think they’re still a minority in that neighborhood? But for most of us white people, 20% is where we NOTICE that they’re there. And that makes some of us uncomfortable.
I might stop worrying about PC & model minorities (because if you’re worried that Mr. Shen can’t be a bad demon- think of the message you’re sending about Italians. ; ) ) and just look at the streets of NJ. There’s a lot of people there who root for the Giants & the Yankees – that makes them evil- irregardless of their skin color.
All jokes aside, I think if you’re living on the east coast now, look around you. And you may find it easier to write someone who’s not from your small town, who has a family and friends that come from different backgrounds. And sometimes they’re your doctor and sometimes they’re the bad guy.
That’s what I thought about lesbians. No real tells, and since nobody has wanted to date me, I just don’t know who amongst my friends are lesbian or not. I wondered if there was some sort of secret code . . . .
Also, I need to backtrack on Jack, my hero. He tells me he is definitely not an albino African. (Well, he snorted.) And I asked Olivia (my heroine) if, for the sake of argument, she could be a Mediterranean woman. She said, “Seriously? Are you blind?” and gave me an evil glare over her glasses.
As a writer, I almost always get what I get when it comes to characters. They are very stubborn about me changing them to fit some scheme I’ve devised. Are there any writers out there in Argh-Land who have had no problem turning a character from A to B? I did pull that trick off once, but to tell the truth, I didn’t know the character very well when he changed.
I changed Charlie from male to female in my as yet unpublished story, “Charlie’s Holes”, but the character didn’t mind, as biological issues weren’t that important in a story about a “boots on the ground” scientist who functioned in a different set of social expectations from “normal” people. And making Charlie female also removed some of the possibly creepy aspects to the character. (Which weren’t in the dream that spawned the story, but sort of oozed through the page) The mention of normal always triggers a quote from Noelle Howey from her book “Dress Codes”, where she says, “Normal is just what you’re used to.” And I think this is important in more than one angle of this discussion, because it reflects both what the writer is used to and what the reader is used to, and also for those of us who are inhabited by our characters instead of directing them what the characters are used to. I’ve read every one of Jenny’s books in the NLS collection, (National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped) so I have a pretty decent feel for her writing, and yes I’ve noticed the small town angle, but the assumption of whiteness didn’t jump out at me. I didn’t focus on the differences from my normal environment to those in the story, and I come from a different place. (urban/suburban for most of my life, racial diversity but limited for the most part to middle class save for the two years I was bussed to another school, non-congenital disability, GBTI, and non-mainstream spirituality) The problem we get into with these types of things is that to cover all of the identifiers that make each person an individual pushes the adjective count way up, and I would contend that many times it doesn’t pay off in the story. There’s an article we read in a great English Literature class I took, “Understanding the Complexity of Passing”, about what we carry in our backpacks, and for most people the introduction of someone from a different culture brings along a backpack of a large array of cultural or social stereotypes. (even my use of GBTI above does that, with one set of four capital letters) The dance is to reflect the cultural diversity in a non-stereotyping way. And dodging the stereotypes is as much a problem as reinforcing them, because in both cases they’re still being used.
Can you give me an author for the passing article? I googled for it, but couldn’t find it.
You’re right about the adjective count, too. I’m mostly concerned about the weight of the adjective in the text, so it’s coming down to gauging how to distribute that weight.
I’ve looked for it too — it was early in the semester, so they hadn’t gotten it scanned for me when we went over it. (one of the things blind folks have to deal with when in college — document scanning delays) The title was “What’s in Your Backpack” and you might find it through EbSCOHost. We also read several novels. Passing, by Nella Larsen, was powerful, and so was the Louise Erdrich novel. (…Little No Horse) The interesting thing about the backpack article was that it was written by a woman, so she had to look at her perspective as someone who wasn’t at the top of the social food chain, but still had a lot of assumptions thanks to “person of no color” status. I’ve wanted to reference that article several times, but so far I haven’t been able to locate it. Next time I’m accessing EBSCOHost I’ll try to remember to search for it. (EBSCOHost is a goddessend for research)
This is another article about white privilege and has backpack in the title. I don’t think it’s the one you were referencing, and it was an interesting read when I read it years ago.
The streets of NJ where I live are colorless. The county I’m living in is remote. I looked it up on the net the other day: 97% white. (I moved here because of the lake.) The town I moved from three years ago was 96% white. (I moved there because of the river.) The town I raised my daughter in was 94% white a couple of years after we left (I moved there because that’s where my husband got a job right before she was born.) The town I grew up in was 100% white (My family had lived there for generations). None of this is an excuse, of course, but when you say, “Look around you at the grocery,” I do. It’s a blinding sea of white.
Again, it’s not something I’ve ever lived with. My current county is 45% white, 19% black, 14% Asian, 19% Hispanic, and varying degrees of Native American, Pacific Islander & more than one race.
DC when I left in 1980 was 70% black, 26% white, 2.8% Hispanic & roughly 2% Asian, Native American. Those numbers would be a little bit off because the census only counts voters and DC has always had a huge Embassy/World Bank/IMF/Nonprofit population so the nonnative population would probaby have been a little higher than 2%. More importantly in some ways, that 2.8% Hispanic number was probably middle class with a Puerto Rican majority because that would have been before the big influx of Salvadoreans in the 1980s. So Hispanic when I was growing up didn’t mean what Hispanic does to my niece.
Except I couldn’t have guessed any of those numbers for either location without looking it up. It’s just what I grew up with and what I’m used to.
Now, having said that, would the people on the island not be more aware of the slight differences between demons and people? The slight tinge to their skin, any other slight differences? Because again, not ever having lived in that majority situation, wouldn’t those small differences seem bigger? That 20% number seems to be a threshhold where people suddenly notice.
The demons are all passing; i.e. they’re using human-colored skins, which do not have to be white (Mr. Shen is Asian).
You know, I knew this, but it’s in such an early draft stage that I hadn’t gotten to the part about passing, even though it’s a huge part of my work. Most of my heroines are passing in class and communities they aren’t comfortable in (Hi, I’m Jenny and I don’t belong here). So I already had Nita’s disorientation when she realizes she’s only half human, and I had the immigrant demons in fear when Nick shows up because they know they’re in trouble and he can drag them back or kill them, but I hadn’t gotten to the passing part yet. Which I know is huge, especially because of the anger that generates even while you volunteer for the job.
One thing I had thought about: The community on the island is going to be fairly tight because eight months out of the year, it’s just them. The other four months, the population increases by a factor of about thirty times, and that’s going to be a very diverse tourist population, which is where some of their year round population growth would come from. The island started with four demons and some very confused white New Englanders, but it would have diversified. Nantucket is 88% white which is high for the US, and Mackinaw is 74% with a large Native American population (those are my two comparisons for book research), and that white percentage is close to America as a whole (78%). So the island would have a diversified human population and a diversified demon population.
My head is exploding. Must go eat. There are brownies.
Brownies are always good.
If you haven’t read her, you might try Nella Larsen – Quicksand & Passing. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance but her mother’s Danish, her father’s West Indian and I believe she’s raised in Denmark so her outlook was different from other writers in Harlem at the time. Passing is about two friends – one of whom is passing.
I’m not sure she’s the first author to handle the subject but she’s early. (They also are not long books. ; ) )
You could also try Robyn Amos who writes for Harlequin. She’s African American as are her heros & heroines and that might give you a feel for light reading with racially diverse characters, but not necessarily about race.
Yes, yes, I know you have nothing better to do than increase the reading list.
It’s still brave of you to put this out here.
One question for all of us – does anyone have the same problem with writing men & male viewpoints? Because, Jenny, I vaguely remember a discussion a long time ago with heros being compared to women with zippers and not really a man’s outlook.
How do all of you address that?
It’s a big problem. Alison Hart was the one who first said that romance heroes were women with flys, I think.
That one is interesting because it brings in the point of romance fiction: It’s a female genre that for the most part deals in female fantasies. And most of our fantasies do not connect with the reality of the modern male, even the nice ones. My best friend in grad school was a guy named Mike (different Mike, we had a lot of Mikes) who would explain men to me when I asked about guys in stories. It was not pretty. And when I was writing with Bob, I made him write a love scene once and then looked at it and said, “Just no.” He said, “I told you so, why’d you make me do that?” But he’d also read my books and say, “Okay, this hero? We don’t do that.” Which was kind of the point. So I think the disparity between male and female in romance is more of an adjustment to fit the fantasy. Besides, the male world is WELL represented in fiction, I feel no compulsion to make sure they’re realistic in my books.
And I just ordered the Larsen collection, so thank you for that, too.
I remember my supervisor in a previous job who was a black man getting very angry because Denise on the Cosby show wanted to go to Europe. According to him any black person is going to want their first overseas trip to be to Africa. I think you can get it wrong and when you do PoC will feel disrespected.
I think this is a great example because that show was created by (primarily) black folks. There are some black folks whose first trip will be to Africa. And there are some who will be Europe. And there are some people who will be offended whichever one you write. No matter what choice you make, some people will be upset. Including defaulting to white. So accept that up front. What ever you do your going to f up. Once you’ve accepted that, then your freed to do what you want. Which in this case is to diversify your characters. As a writer, you feel that DENISE would go to Europe. Not “your typical” black girl but this specific character who among many attributes is also black. Then she goes to Europe. And when someone is upset, well we’ve started a conversation about an important topic.
This a billion times this. Just because you come out different, doesn’t mean that you have to be a particular way. We come from a variety of experiences. Nothing is truly “typical.” Someone from the Southeast is different than someone from the Northeast vs the Midwest, etc. Also people of mixed descent have very different experiences from those who aren’t.
“Just because you come out different, doesn’t mean that you have to be a particular way. We come from a variety of experiences. Nothing is truly “typical.”
THIS. Absolutely. Unfortunately many people feel they “own” those things that make up their own story. For example, readers who state: I’m a woman (or black, or white, or gay, or a teacher etc) and your character that is a woman (or black, or white, or gay, or a teacher etc) does not jibe with my experience therefore YOUR PORTRAYAL MUST BE INVALID.
To which I scream bullshit.
I’m straight, but I’ve written many gay characters and received feedback ranging from “thank you so much for your very accurate portrayal of my life experiences, it’s fabulous to read someone I can relate to” to others who responded with “you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”
Yes, authors need to diligently do their research. But there are seven BILLION people on this planet. So striving to “accurately capture the life story” of a POC etc, as though being a POC is somehow an entity separate unto itself and all encompassing, is starting from a false assumption. It’s a PART of who we are, not the entirety of our existence. The nuances are endless.
That’s what makes human beings so fascinating.
I had a woman write after Crazy For You came out, saying that the least I could do was research what it was like to be a teacher.
I wrote back and said I’d been a teacher in the Beavercreek School System for fifteen years.
Yeah, that makes me scream, too.
I think I went to college with a black woman and her first overseas trip was to the Bahamas for the beach and her second was Paris.
I think he may have had his own issues.
Take out the “I think.” I definitely had a friend in college who went to the Bahamas first and then Paris. It was a different comment that didn’t get edited right.
He may have had his own issues, but there’s also an issue when the Cosby Show is the only show telling stories about African American families. It ends up carrying the entire burden of representation, so Denise’s decision matters a whole lot more. More shows with black characters is important for viewers, but also frees writers up to make more interesting decisions!
But that’s not fair to the show. Using that yardstick, Sondra & Elvin shouldn’t have dropped out of college because it set a bad example.
I’m not arguing that the Cosby Show should have done anything differently. I’m arguing that if there are many more shows featuring African American families, there’s less pressure on any one particular show to get it “right.”
Absolutely. If there’s only one book on a topic, that book becomes the standard even if it’s just a small part of the whole topic because that’s all people have to draw on.
That’s the problem I have with a lot of response to female characters in film. Characters like Black Widow and Rey seem to be expected to be all things to all people, because there are less female characters to carry the burden of representation. But the moment that these characters are made to bear that burden, they become unsuccessful caricatures.
Sending Denise to the Cosby Show to Africa would deny the validity of all the black women who want to go to Paris. Or Tokyo to study anime. Or to Australia to cuddle koalas. It definitely assumes that a trip overseas is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (which is true for many Americans). The Cosby family was definitely upper-middle class or lower-upper class. There will be many trips to many places in Denise’s lifetime.
There’s a lot of black history in Paris, too, which I would think would be very fascinating to some young black women. Josephine Baker, for example. (Well, it’s fascinating to me.) Sounds more like an old guy/young woman issue to me.
I hereby give you, Jenny, and all white writers reading this blog, my lived experience as a person of colour to use in your books. Jenny, here’s how you could add diversity to Nick and Nita:
Step 1) Finish book writing Nita in just the way you were doing. (You can do it!)
Step 2) Add a line to Nick’s interior monologue as he’s thinking about Nita early on in the book, which runs along the lines of, “Something about the shape of her eyes hinted at Asian ancestry.”
Step 3) At one point, add a dialogue with Nita and an obnoxious character, running along the line of:
“Where you from?”
Nita replied. “From XX place.”
“No, but where are you REALLY from?”
“My dad is half-Vietnamese, if that’s what you’re asking”, said Nita flatly.
(Responses can vary after this: “That’s interesting”, “And your mother is…?”, “Have you been to Vietnam?”, “No need to get offended!” etc. etc.)
And then that’s basically it. This is my experience of identifying with, and 100% culturally integrated into, mainstream white culture (I’m British), while visibly not being completely Caucasian (mum’s parents are Chinese). Essentially, it’s just a white person’s life, but with more annoying questions.
I can totally understand your concerns about getting things wrong culturally and offending people, so here’s a cheat, as it were, to adding more racial diversity to your books without taking the risk of doing intense research into cultural differences and then still screwing up. My experience is a true and a common one, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (For further information about this type of life, please see this amusing video:
A few more things to help any white writers here with understanding this kind of experience:
-You get asked about your ethnic background so much you get desensitised. I used to get annoyed when it was the first thing people asked when they met me, but it’s happened so often now, I just reel off the facts whenever someone even hints at asking. I also always detail which one of my parents is non-white as this is always the follow-up question. I will also specify that my other parent is white British, because this is always the second follow-up question.
– It helped a lot that I grew up in London, which is super culturally diverse and has actual Chinese people, who will say things to you like, “You’re not Chinese”. (“Yes, I know.”)
-Touchy-feely liberal types, bless their hearts, can occasionally be annoying about the fact that you don’t culturally identify with the non-white part of your background, e.g. they’ll say things like, “Don’t be ashamed of your heritage!”. Oh FFS my own mother can’t speak Chinese anymore and she doesn’t much like the country either.
– Along the same lines, my parent had the identity crisis, so I didn’t have to. When your mum goes, “Yeah, I’m not really Chinese,” you’re not going to feel very Chinese, too.
– Some people with the same background as myself become fascinated with the “outsider” part of their background, or identify very strongly with it. That’s totally ok. And it’s also totally okay to be completely uninterested in it, and much more interested in your life as your cop, and why is Joey dead, and what is with all these demons appearing on this islands…
Any questions? It’s fine, I’m used to them. 😉
I talk too much. I’ve had my little soul-search, I feel like I’m a better person for it, and I’m gonna shut up, but wanted to say Bravo, Cassia! This is what my grandkids are going to go through, no matter where they live. I love that line about the identity crisis, and I’m going to share it with my kids.
Thanks, Micki. My experiences growing up and my mum’s experiences growing up are so different. The current troubles notwithstanding I do feel that people are becoming way more tolerant and understanding of each other. I’m lucky to be born when I was, and feel lucky to be biracial, genuinely. Hybrid vigour for the win 🙂
People lecture you about who you are? Jesus wept.
I love this: “Essentially, it’s just a white person’s life, but with more annoying questions.”
Misc. thoughts about growing up Jewish (in the suburbs of upstate NY, where there were very few Jewish people–only 2 families in our entire class, that I know of):
My last name was Levine. I can’t tell you how many people asked me if I was related to… (For example, “Max Levine, he owns a deli on 43rd St in NYC.) To which the answer is, “Well, sure, if you go back far enough…”
When I went to school (I graduated high school in 1978), there was no PC integration of Hanukkah or any other Jewish holidays. I was expected to sing Christmas carols (I didn’t know any), make decorations for the various Christian holidays, and the only time Judaism was ever discussed was in a history class on the Holocaust.
When I was in middle school, my parents placed an ad for a housekeeper. I answered the phone one day when they weren’t home, and fielded a bunch of questions from the woman on the other end. At the close of the (longish) conversation, she said casually, “Oh. Levine–that isn’t Jewish is it?” When I said it was, she said, “Oh, I couldn’t work for Jewish people,” and hung up. That was my first real experience with prejudice and I was stunned. I can’t imagine coming up against that day after day.
“Essentially, it’s just a white person’s life, but with more annoying questions.”
I am totally stealing this.
My goddaughter is half East Asian, half white and I think she gets this alot.
“But with more annoying questions.” Yeah that’s how it is for me. My dad’s very Irish last name was probably something of a buffer, but I’m obviously Asian. “Where are your parents from?” (Arizona and Kansas). “Do you speak Chinese?” (No. Not even enough to help you order food). I generally give the rundown after the opening question – born here, not bilingual, mom’s parents from China. I once had someone from the orthodontist office tell me how surprised she was when she saw me because my name made her expect some red haired Irish girl. My cousins get the questions, too. We sometimes compare notes on the guesses. I usually get Chinese and Japanese; they get everything from Hawaiian to Hispanic along with the various Asian options (they’re also half white and they live in Texas).
It’s just a box I sometimes check on forms if I feel like providing that information, and the source of the aforementioned annoying questions. I feel no cultural or emotional connection to my ethnicity. Being female is far more integral to my identity, and I’m sensitive to sexism in a way I simply can’t be about race. This is certainly not the experience of all minorities, but it is a valid one. And one that white writers probably wouldn’t have too much trouble translating if you wanted to try it.
I grew up in a mostly white, mostly conservative, fairly religious middle-class suburb in Arizona. Most of my classmates and friends were white. My mom and her family don’t really care much about Chinese culture, so it simply wasn’t important to me.
The rude questions came less and less as I got older and it’s been a while since anyone has done it. A couple of my co-workers in the last few years have been Asian, and they asked, but more in the context of comparing experience. I live in Tucson now, and that means more racial diversity than when I lived in Mesa. That’s probably part of why less people feel like commenting. So I haven’t really thought about this seriously in a long time. Thanks for the discussion.
I think that there’s been a really good point that you having issue with pointing out that someone is black as it being jarring. I can see how it might be jarring coming from the position of a white woman, but most minorities are extremely comfortable with that fact. Race is a common point of our everyday because we wake up every morning and are confronted by it. We can’t really function in society without it being pointed out that we are other. From the annoying questions of: What are you? Where are you really from? Where’s your family from? To dealing with the fact that we often have to work harder to find cosmetic products that work for us or the difficulty finding the products actually made for us. Heck, a lot of us have the “race” conversation so early on, that it’s as vital to our lives as learning the ABCs. So don’t shy away from mentioning it, because it lives in our heads just as much as you’re trying to avoid.
Second, you mentioned the extra layer of conflict it creates if you add race to it. To paraphrase your commenting on making Sophie black, you believed it would stop making it about class and would make it about class and race/just straight racist. Basically it’s not as simple. But that extra level is something that many people have to confront, and being afraid of that is cheating yourself and discounting other experiences. Just think if you had his mom could have dug her heels further into the class thing as to not appear racist (something that I have seen happen in my life).
Finally, one of things that I’ve always loved about your books is your sense of community and how vital is becomes to your Protags. I think if you focus on that, on your cast of characters that come around the Protags, you can find your way.
It’s not so much jarring as it characterizes the PoV character. If Nita looks at Button and thinks, “She’s black,” what does that say about Nita? And of course it depends on the context. If Nita thinks, “Oh, hell, she’s black,” there’s a problem. If she thinks, “She’s black. That’s new” it means she lives on a white island. If she looks at her and doesn’t think, “She’s black,” it means race isn’t an issue where she is.
I agree that Welcome to Temptation would have had an extra level if I’d made Sophie black. But I think, given the impact of race, that’s what the book would have been about. And I was obsessed at the time with class and motherhood. Adding race to any story gives that story another level, but I don’t think extra levels are always a good thing.
I’ve been looking at the community in Nita’s book because it’s going to turn out–spoilers–that the island has a fairly extensive demon population, all of whom are passing as human. I am fascinated by the concept of passing, mainly because I’ve been passing most of my life as white collar and it’s exhausting. And once I looked at what the book is turning out to be about, it really is about race, except it’s demons. Nita’s passing without knowing it. Some of the demons are tired of passing and want to come out. Others are passionately opposed. And then there are gates, which is essentially illegal immigration. I actually had a scene in there where Button looks at what’s happening and says, “So this is just a big metaphor for immigration?” and Nita and Nick both say, “No.” Uh, yeah it is.
So what I’m discovering is that this book is ABOUT race and ethnicity. Evidently the Girls in the Basement had had enough of me ignoring the problem. So this is an isolated community dealing with race, which means it’ll be about community and race, which means . . . I dunno. I don’t even have a full discovery draft written yet.
I just know that comments like yours and the others here are clarifying things immensely. Thank you.
I think it might have had Unfortunate Implications to have the Dempseys be a black family of con artists as well. So…maybe that was for the best to not go there.
So I’ve been sitting on this a bit, because I want to give a thoughtful and constructive answer. I want you to say that I’m really happy that you’re listening to the girls this time around. In my experience they tend to lead you in the right direction.
First, I want to tell you that Welcome to Temptation is basically my favorite and kept me up so late I almost fell asleep in 1st period 10th grade English. Everyone else I know hands out Bet Me, I hand out WTT as a way to get them hooked on you. So I do love the story as it is. (this is not sunshine for your posterior)
I agree that extra layers aren’t always great with story, but it sounds more like in this case there’s more of a fear of the complications that these characters not being white could engender. That you thinking this extra layer isn’t one worth taking on for sake of story, and that seems unfair to characters of color. That if it’s going to be a story that you approach with a character of color, it has to be simplified in a way that race isn’t going to be a factor. That seems unfair. Not only to your readers, but also to you as an author, because I think you’re a stronger writer than that. I get that I might be extrapolating too far in this case, but your statements could be taken that way.
I think that you looking at this story as one about passing is great. A lot of what passing ties into is not just about racism, but it’s also strongly tied to socioeconomic movement. Most of my experiences with it are personal and familial. We have a whole segment of family in the same small town that didn’t talk to us because my great grandmother married someone far too dark for their liking.
I’m really aware of the fact that the way you approach race is very much centered around your generation and how you became aware of injustice. So I hold nothing against your feelings about it, I just hope that you’re willing to expand your thinking a bit more.
My final statement is regarding the unintended consequences of having a family of black con artists. Forgetting the fact that you could take all kinds of copouts and make them only half black and have Michael be white with some throw away line about his heritage….Why can’t characters of color have fun too, and those damn Dempseys have a lot of fun. I think someone down low said something to the effect of, as long as you are treating these characters respectfully and not like caricatures it’s ok. I agree with that wholeheartedly. Most of the time people have issues is when characters of color aren’t treated respectfully, like you would treat any other heroine that you have.
I think with the Dempseys, the problem would be that they’ve been con artists for generations. There’s a line in there where Tilda says they’re descended from gypsies (which is another discrimination, but I wanted the legend about an ancestor of hers stealing nails at the crucifixion). So the idea that this disregard for law and order is endemic in their DNA really is not a good idea to pair with black because so much of discrimination, especially against black men, is the whole thug thing. Nope. And anyway, that book is done.
Sure Thing brought up the Wek devil portrait which I hadn’t seen. It’s beautiful, of course, Wek is beautiful, but that portrait is just . . . wrong, especially paired with a white angel. I kept trying to argue with myself, telling myself that the fact that it was so beautiful was enough, but it just isn’t. And that’s where I am with this.
I don’t think Nita’s story is about passing. Once she finds out, she’s very open about it, or as open as you can be when you’re part supernatural and most people don’t believe in that stuff. I think the passing will be for the demons who have settled there, and I’ll be able to work on my own issues there, the way I did in WTT. I think Nita’s story is about discovering that the life you had isn’t there any more and you have to rebuild, but then I think that’s most of my books.
All of which is to say that while I recognize the need to diversify my casts in my stories, I don’t want to write about diversity. I absolutely agree that diversity is important; I don’t think it has to be my theme. Of course, nobody here is saying it has to be, either.
Thanks for this. I grew up in a community with some Hispanics and Native Americans, no asians or blacks. On my first real job, I became friends with a tall, gorgeous, non-white woman with dark curly hair and freckles. After I knew her long enough to feel comfortable making a personal remark, I said “you are the tallest Hispanic I have known” and she said “That’s because I am black”.
I will spend more time with this post and these links later. Thanks, Argh People!
And, Jenny — thank you for your thoughtful post, for your openness and willingness to accept suggestions and criticism, and REALLY thank you for cultivating such a wonderful community here where this conversation can take place.
I love this community.
Reading this I thought that I knew exactly the community Jenny comes from because I have only white people in my community too. Then it occurred to me that my brother-in-law is an Alaskan native, as are my nieces and nephews, my brothers third wife was an Alaskan native, his fourth wife was black and the current one is Philippino as is his son. Plus one of our best friend’s wife is Japanese. But I don’t think of the color of their skin anymore overtly but yeah it is there.
A few years ago- opps decades- a guy came into the house and grabbed my purse while I was standing there. One of the cops answering the call was black. I described the guy as best I could, curly dark hair, blue wind breaker etc. Then the black cop left and the other asked me if the thief was black because I hadn’t mentioned skin color and they didn’t know if I was being politically correct. I wasn’t. I thought at first the person walking into my house was my white nephew. But there is something wrong if we can’t mention a fact of physical description. No one has any problem saying someone is blond, despite all the dumb blond jokes. And really, when someone asks who my sister is married to, I frequently say he is a native american who works for the Park Service and get all the questions out of the way at once. Unless you are type casting, skin color is a physical fact and should be treated as such.
“Where is your partner?” “She’s the black woman interviewing the fat guy over there”. The important things is 1. woman and 2. black because most time people expect the partner to be 1. male and 2. white. But society is so diverse that once people know basic facts it isn’t an issue. But we need to do this so that people know the written world is diverse too.
Wasn’t the bartender in Bet Me a lesbian? And it really wasn’t a big deal and it made it easier for Cal to be friends with her without every second reader seeing it as a man/woman relationship instead of a friendship. Also it added another layer of love stories.
That was Cal’s next door neighbor, Shauna (?). I think I got her right.
I need to take the dogs back to the vet for their wellness check-up, and the vet we had last time is a darling woman who is very overweight. Since I never know which vet we’re going to draw at the clinic, I was trying to think of how to describe her because we don’t go often enough that I remember names, and I was trying to avoid her weight. “She’s short, dark-hair, incredibly sweet and supportive . . .” and all the while the real signifier that would identify her absolutely would be “grossly overweight.” Can’t say that, that might make it seem like I’m singling her out for her weight. I think I’d do the same thing if she were black because IT DOESN’T MATTER IF SOMEBODY’S BLACK, even if you’re pointing out somebody who’s the only black vet in the practice. This is where political correctness turns into thought police and makes people (like me) dumb. It’s the First Do No Harm thing. If you’re not sure, don’t do it.
And now I’m thinking that since I used weight as an example, somebody’s thinking, “So you equate blackness with being fat?” No. Jesus.
Right. That’s where you get some cute phrasing like “she’s heavyset…” I wouldn’t want to describe her like that either except you sortakinda have to…ugh.
I hate descriptions! I’d rather describe someone by a cute outfit. Unfortunately sometimes you just get “Asian dude in a T-shirt and shorts that looks like everyone else.”
One time I got asked to describe to the police someone who had thrown a phone at a coworker, except I never saw the incident OR the guy who did it, they just said, “here, I gotta go, take the phone and describe that guy standing at the front counter.” Who was a pretty generic looking Asian guy in a red shirt. Little did I know I gave them the wrong guy and the phone thrower was a white dude that was sitting down out of my eyesight. That could have ended so very, very poorly.
Yeah, but I just feel bad saying “the black woman” or “the Asian guy.” Even though a black woman I know is all, “just say the black woman, I know I’m the only one in here!” Well, good point, but I hate that that is the first thing we’d have to notice and describe. Then again, PoC usually start out with “she’s white” where we’d be all “has blonde hair…”
Ugh. Everything’s a minefield of “I don’t want to hurt your feelings except I just did.”
And I think that’s kind of the point, if you have someone who’s a minority notice race, it’s not weird to us, because we live with it and it is a part of our identities. It doesn’t define us, but it is a part of us that can not be ignored or removed. So it isn’t weird to look over and think, “Oh, cute Asian guy,” and not just, “Cute guy.”
I would think we treat it the same way that someone who is Italian acknowledges other Italians or some other ethnicity.
Jessie, I too was thinking that I live in a white community, but I live in the SF Bay Area and grew up in Southern California. My “all” white elementary school had Asian and Hispanic kids (one black girl, oh my). My “all” white high school had even more Asian and Hispanics. A bus ride in San Francisco is populated mostly with people with black hair (a fact that I had not noticed, myself, until it was pointed out to me) of many races. The BART ride out to the suburbs is definitely a very mixed race community. And don’t get me started on the LGBT population, which is everywhere, here.
I have to say that I must have lived a very enchanted childhood, or maybe my parents were demons. I was ten years old when I heard the first racist comment, said to me, by my friend’s father about black people in general (I am sure he used a different word, this was the early 60s). I was so shocked, I went right home and told my parents. I think we discussed some people’s views, but they did not prohibit me going to my friend’s house. I was amazed by stories of the Japanese internment camps, which my father told me because he actually worked on building them (in Southern California). In fact, I don’t think I believed him until I went to college and law school. So, I did grown up in some weird bubble. Or maybe not.
When Jenny says that she would feel awkward describing a character’s friend as “black.” I get it. That might not be how I would think of that friend, first. So other people’s comments that they would not be offended by such a description is reassuring. Not that it would be any easier.
I grew up surrounded by racism, but it was that “just joking” racism that’s so insidious. Nobody I knew would harm a black person, they were just alien, the Other, not one of Us, the subject of watermelon jokes, Amos and Andy and “Wish Cotton was a monkey.” I remember my father-in-law, possibly the kindest man I’ve ever met, watching Leslie Uggams sing on TV and saying, “That’s a real pretty shine gal.” He would have been terribly hurt if I’d pointed out that was racist. My own family loved racist jokes, but I honestly think they loved them because they knew they upset me because they’d tell them and then look at me. Since they did that with everything else, too, I kept my mouth shut until Mollie came along. They weren’t ever going to change, and it was exhausting fighting them all the time. There’s a reason I left home at seventeen.
I am so glad you posted ‘Answering Melissa,’ not just for your thoughts but especially for providing a forum for the fabulous ArghInk community to share their thoughts and resources. What an incredible dialog you began, Jenny! This was the best thing I could have read today.
Argh people are the best.
Cops are trained to notice appearance, including skin color and any racial characteristics. It’s part of their job to be able to describe people so I wouldn’t consider it racist at all if Nita notices, especially if she also notices white.
I always read Shauna as biracial, actually. I see her that way because when she and Min talk about their hair Shauna’s is described as “beautiful soft kinky curls” or something to that effect.
I have a good friend who’s multiracial (white mother, biracial father who reads black but whose mother was Chinese) and she has beautiful soft curls and a complexion that means she’s often read as Latina. I think that’s probably who I’m picturing when I think of Shauna!
Whoops, this comment was supposed to go waaaay further up, under the comment about Shauna, Cal’s neighbor/bff/the bartender from BET ME. Sorry!
HERE I was going to agree with carolc that I would also think it was just a police-detective-thing if Nita responded to meeting new people by giving a very factual account (race, hair/eye color, height/weight) but since the population of the island is so small, it probably wouldn’t make much sense for her to think that way about people whose names she already knows or whom she has already met or seen.
I’ve been trying to figure out how big it is. Under 10,000. More than 3,000, I think.
I don’t think she’d respond factually, though, I think she’d respond practically. That is, if she was writing a report she’d write down eye color, etc, but if she’s encountering them she’d look for approach, action, attitude, etc. I base that on having been a junior high and high school teacher, breaking up fights, etc. You don’t really care what the hell they look like, you just want to know if anybody’s going to be a problem.
Oh and don’t worry about the misplaced comments. We’re getting too many and the blog does that.
I’ll get a new post up here, soon, and we’ll switch over to that one.
That works for me.
Basically what Briana said. I am enjoying reading this discussion and love that it is A DISCUSSION, no name calling, no bashing an opinion or thought down on everyone else, or screaming at anyone with a different idea, and that it is between respectful people. Thank God for this site. Over the last few years it has felt that thoughtful discussion is a thing of the past, and I am so grateful to see it alive and well here.
In JK Rowling’s new play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, they cast a black adult Hermione, JK Rowling herself pointed out her description of Hermione in the book meant she could be.
Yes, diversity is good and should be encourage, in the UK the theatre my friend works at has colour blind casting and their Cinderella chosen for the panto was asian.
However, it needs to be done properly, I think there is nothing more painful then the writers adding diversity so they can tick a box. It becomes forced and fake, like for example when you get some middle class, middle aged writers trying to write dialogue for teenagers in dated vernacular.
So how would you advise that say, Jenny or some other white writer “do it properly,” then?
Personally, I lie back and think of England.
Brownies are life! I am all up in this thread because this is issue is so important to me, and I am delighted that you are addressing it, though it’s probably pretty rough on you. I get that. It’s not easy to be criticized, even when the criticism is valid.
Another way to express the thing I’m trying to tease out in these comments. Those of us who are ____-American don’t need to see every aspect of our experiences reflected in the media we consume. We mostly want to tell our own stories when it comes to our struggles with identity and so on. But to see ourselves reflected physically is a huge deal. Joan Watson on Elementary is an awesome example of this. There have been small glimpses of her heritage, but for the most part, she probably could have been a white lady without major changes to her character. But they made her an Asian woman, and that’s perfect representation, because, again, minority experiences can be exactly the same as white/cishet experiences. And we enjoy seeing that! We enjoy not having to emotionally struggle through yet another narrative about the ~immigrant experience~ and how scarred one becomes from unrelenting racism and blah blah. Sometimes we just want to have normal stories told about us. Because our lives are pretty darned normal most of the time.
Or what about Mrs. Hudson? It’s briefly touched commented on that she’s a trans woman, but after that she’s just another Irregular in Sherlock’s orbit. We don’t need to see her struggles as a trans woman, we just need to SEE her. That she exists.
Hope those brownies are delicious!
And really, it hasn’t been rough on me. It’s a little stressful because I want to make sure everybody gets to discuss this without anybody get shut down, so I keep checking to make sure we haven’t lured in anybody who might do that, but the discussion itself is something I need. It’s good to be challenged.
I love Elementary, but they have it easy: they just cast people. They don’t have to put the signifiers in. ARGH.
This made me think of a piece of advice I saw somewhere recently, something like “write marginalized characters, but don’t write a story about marginalization unless you’ve lived it.” I thought that summed it up well. I haven’t seen Elementary, but the way you describe it sounds like a writer of any background can write any given episode. If they ever choose to delve deeper into her heritage, they can make sure a writer with similar experiences can treat it right. And maybe they never want to go there, for exactly the reasons you list.
Wow, this comes at such an interesting time in our lives. I totally understood the original post and Jenny’s problems with how to/if to have a PoC as a character – main character, supporting character, etc. This has come up for me recently in wildly different settings (none of which are writing related):
1 – an amazing review on Letterbox about “The Danish Girl” by a transgender person who did not pull any punches about how wrong the movie was. Amazing because the original post was from an informed but emotional point, and other comments were from all sorts of different points, and I learned so much that I did not know about transgender issues (and movie making issues). And how, like in any “group”, they don’t all agree on whether to be insulted by the use of a certain word (cis), or scene, or reaction, or destination (Europe/Africa).
2 – a re-read of the SEP book “This Heart of Mine” which features a scene, premise, which reverses the role of the heroine and hero. It is a favorite book of mine, but reading it now I have to reflect on how I am different, how the world is different, from 2001. How young people might or might not react differently to sexual assault than people who grew up reading Rosemary Rogers. Whether the author got the male character’s reactions right? Can a woman ever get the male characters right? Would the author do it different today? It has been a busy week in my head.
3- an interview with Philando Castile’s mother about the conversation she had with her son and daughter before he left her house that day he died. How I can never really know the fear that must always be in the background when your son, who teaches pre-school, who has been stopped by police 52 times, drives away. This experience in America for PoC has to be different from mine (middle class white lady regardless of whether other races are in my community). And tackling this in a romance set in small town Ohio is a big shift. And not tackling this is also daunting.
Thanks, Jenny. Love you.
P.S. I have read a few books lately where the race of the characters has not been totally clear from the start of the book, but has become important/revealed later on. Joshilyn Jackson’s latest, The Opposite of Everything, comes to mind.
P.P.S. I had a friend argue with me that Min was not “fat” or even heavy. She obviously had a different picture in mind when she read the book, and any hints that Min was heavy just were not important to my friend.
Honestly, Min’s not morbidly obese or anything. Two inches up from a size 8 (why those details stick in my head without looking things up is another issue) would put her in a 16/18 in bridal sizing. I had to go up 2 sizes from my regular size the last time I was a bridesmaid (which would have been about the time Bet Me was written). So she’s maybe a 12/14. To Min’s mother, who is a 4, it may be overweight, but for someone who lives in XL clothes (that would be me), she’s not enormous.
I should never have put that size 8 reference in there.
What I wanted was for readers to fill in the blanks. Some people would see a size 18 as just beyond the pale and find it impossible to believe that Cal would be attracted, other people would see an 18 and find it impossible to believe that anybody would think that was overweight. So to make that work, I wanted to leave all white space where the weight references would be. Slipped up in one place. Argh.
Kay, there are a lot of reviews for the Danish Girl on Letterboxd. Can you give me a URL or the poster’s name?
I knew you were going to ask me that! I will find it. I hope.
Thank heaven for Pocket!
And set aside some time to read the comments. A film maker comments on several things and responds to other comments and the whole thing was so illuminating for me.
Oh god, “This Heart Of Mine.” I could not believe SEP started the romance out with a straight up rape and pregnancy, even if it was the woman doing the raping. Just…nope. Terrible idea. Nope.
I generally like SEP and she can usually do jerks turning into better people pretty well (especially What I Did For Love) but sometimes she can do things that I find…really questionable or in this case, just plain bad. I didn’t much like the scene in Phoebe’s book where Dan mistakes her for his ex-wife that he’s doing sex games with and Phoebe’s been traumatized in the past, either.
Great post! And interesting comments too. My two bits, as a writer, is that it’s kind-of senseless to demand diversity of a writer. Our characters are like our children. Would you demand of anyone: make one of your kids colored! No. The same about characters. They are born in our minds the way they are. Painting them in any color doesn’t change anything.
Most of my characters are white. That’s how they come to me. And although their actions wouldn’t depend on their skin colors, I see them as white, so that’s how I write them. My children are white too. I can’t arbitrary change who they are.
I do like reading about diverse characters, but I like reading cozy mysteries too. Doesn’t mean I write either of them. It can’t be forced.
Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series is the best example I can think of where cultural diversity wasn’t the point, but also included. Of course, it’s a fantasy series so the world building with different cultures is part of the story. So in effect, this is probably not so helpful to you. Still, she handles this question very gracefully in my opinion, so maybe worth a look?
She was Mollie’s fave writer growing up.
It’s also interesting to watch how she does racial diversity in the Tortall books AND hire the way she does it changed over time (Alanna’s books being whiter than later books, lgbt characters showing up much more often in later books, etc.). Fantasy does make it easier in a lot of ways, though!
And her more recent short story “Student of Ostriches” does a nice flip, where the main character lives in a savannah-type place and then an incidental white character shows up and gets Othered pretty hard by the narrator (“so pale he looks dead! You can hardly even see his teeth when he smiles because his skin is so pale!”) because she’s never seen a white person before. It’s in the collection TORTALL AND OTHER LANDS.
Hm, on a related note, this “is it a token thing to make Sulu gay” article might have some points that are relevant here:
You know, I read several articles on that, and I think that where you come down on that depends on where you start. Takei seems to be starting from “Let’s honor Roddenberry’s vision” and Pegg seems to be starting from “This is a reboot in a new time and we can do what Roddenberry couldn’t.”
Yeah, and I agree with Pegg on this one because literally it’s an alternate timeline, I don’t recall ANY mention of who Sulu dated in the previous movies so there’s no precedent to break, and why the heck not? Statistically it’s likely that someone’s gay on that crew, eh? Why not him? (Or Scotty. Or have Sulu and Scotty start dating just for kicks.) I think the only ones canonically established in Kelvinverse/Universe B/whatever it’s called as being hetero (or at least enough to give it a go) on the crew are Kirk, Spock, and Uhura.
As for Roddenberry’s vision, he was creating at a time where it was still scandalous for Kirk to kiss a black woman, much less make anyone gay. I won’t argue if there was precedent and they did do episodes on who Sulu dated (I have no idea, I’ve seen the movies but very little of TOS) and if it was established there, but…still! Alternate universe! Fair game!
Star Trek- Original Series The Naked Time – Sulu grabs Uhuru and says “I’ll protect you, fair maiden.” Doesn’t feel gay to me. Because who you chase when you’re drunk I think tells who you’re really attracted to.
(Of course I really remember it because of Uhuru’s response “Sorry, neither.”
I see Takei’s point that they could leave Sulu true to Roddenberry’s original scripts and come up with forty or fifty other characters who are gay, not just the one major character known to have been played by a gay man. But they made it a different timeline so they could do whatever they wanted without running into the canon.
I also think there’s value in saying, “See this character you’ve known for decades? He’s gay.” Aside from the fair maiden bit which could just be a knight fantasy, there’s nothing that contradicts that because his sexuality has nothing to do with his ability to do his job on the starship. I’m on Pegg’s side: it’s the right thing to do, especially since it reflects what happens in real life. The guy you sat next to in high school geometry comes out and you think, “Huh. I did not know that,” and then you go on asking him for help with your math because his sexuality has nothing to do with the area of a triangle.
I really don’t get why they can’t just make him bi, it accounts for everything and there are so perishingly few bi characters that one more would be fantastic.
Speaking as a writer here: Because it’s harder.
Evidently they’re going to show that he’s gay by showing that he has a husband and daughter. That’s easy, a picture on his desk will do that.
But if he’s bi, how do you show that without that becoming a subplot? He has a wife and daughter (his first marriage) and a husband and daughter (his second)? Two pictures? Then he has to explain that. If you want that subplot, that’s fine, but it’s not what the movie is about.
One of the great things about this, I think, is that it’s not the story, it’s just the way it is. Spock loves Uhuru. Kirk chases everything (he’s probably bi). Sulu has a husband and daughter. But the story is about them all fighting bad guys on the Enterprise. So Sulu’s husband is normalized, he’s just like Spock and Uhuru or Kirk and the Body of the Week. (I saw the first two, but I don’t remember the second one well; Kirk didn’t commit to anybody, did he? It would be so out of character.)
It’s not that a story about Sulu being bi couldn’t be excellent. It’s that it isn’t this story.
I once sat in a gymnasium attending a professional development on cultural proficiency for a large suburban school district. I was at the back, in my chair, my arms crossed as I watched my colleagues squirm in theirs We were being told of the district initiative to be trained in cultural proficiency by the speaker at the front, microphone in hand. You could see those around us, writing off the training as another interminable professional development of the pendulum that swings in educational fads when she spoke.
“You won’t get trained today. You can’t be trained. All you can do is listen as I speak my truth and your colleagues speak their truth. That’s all we can do, is listen to each other’s stories and their truths.”
As I read these comments, I hear her voice clearly in my head, because I think its being reiterated here today. There are only truths. No Truth.
For example, Do we notice race? Some people do, some people don’t. Some people do because they’re noticing the other-ness of the other person. Some people do because they’re trained to observe details. Some people don’t because they don’t want to label and so they pretend they don’t see the color. Some people don’t because they honestly don’t see it.
Even people’s opinions about whether or not we should live in a color-blind society vary. Some people think that by being color-blind, they’re showing how they’ve progressed beyond a label; others think that by being color-blind, you’re ignoring what it’s like to be different and devaluing the identity of people with color. For each position, some of these people are white people and some of these people are POC.
What are the truths about characters in a Jenny Crusie novel? The truths of your novels stem from community. You know this truth as a woman in a man’s world. You know this truth as feminist living a suburban housewife’s life. You know this truth as a baby boomer coming to grips with a millennial society. You know this as a woman who has made her own community.
While I am a white girl from Kansas living on the East Coast with my own set of experiences (Peace Corps, married to an African American, work at school that my principal describes as a mini UN) this is what I’ve experienced: the intersection of white and people of color’s lives comes back to community.
POC, for the most part, in our history have been denied a place in American community. I think of Langston Hughes’ poem *I, too* — being sent to the kitchen when the company comes, but laughing and eating, and being strong.
I think, as a writer, you have to let go of writing the Truth of what it means to be a POC. You can only write the truth as you know it. You know community: what it feels like to be integral to one and what it’s like to be outside looking in. Use that empathy as a bridge to diverse characters.
PS I once read an article on the Cosby Show, about whether or not it helped race relations in American. One side argued that it showed that not all African Americans lived in the ghetto with single mothers, so kudos. Another side argued that it actually set race relations back because white people looked at the show as an example of how it must not be that bad to be black in American if they can be doctors and lawyers. So even with the Cosby Show, there is no Truth about how it impacted lives, only truths.
I think this is incredibly key: We’re not looking for a truth here, we’re trying to find a lot of truths.
And of course I’m actually a lot less noble than that: I’m trying to figure out to write faux truth aka fiction. My fiction is a lot more faux if it’s not diversified.
What quote did I just read that was something like reading fiction was reading lies to discover the truth about ourselves?
Because someone mentioned it earlier, I thought I’d piggyback a little on the use of “political correctness”. For me, it has a negative connotation – many use it to indicate “well, I can’t say certain things that are actually derogatory, insulting, and racist/sexist/homophobic because I have to be politically correct.”
The phrase, “politically correct”, in my mind, has a lot of troublesome baggage around it.
This, I think, is what “Tired” is getting at. I do not think this is how you mean it, though. An alternative would be to use “sensitive” or even “authentic”. ie:
I had some INCREDIBLY patient AA authors try to walk me through what I could do without screwing up, and because I was so hamstrung by writing with racial sensitivity and authenticity…
I think of “political correctness” as a bad thing, artificial, being insincere and paying lip service to something without really caring.
But obviously that didn’t come across. My fault.
Political correctness is something that’s been imposed from outside. It’s a restriction on our behavior that other people enforce (that’s why Trump rallies are such a thrilling place for some people — they don’t go to listen to the candidate, they go to express themselves without fear of censure). So complaining about “political correctness” does two things: it repeats a right-wing meme, which gives it power outside your intended meaning, and it suggests that you see this problem as something that other people have imposed upon you.
I don’t think your problem is political correctness, I think it’s internalized racism. Our lived experience as white people is informed on a daily basis by our race, but we’re seldom (if ever) prompted to acknowledge it, which means internalized racism is a pretty normal part of being a white person in America. As is being poorly-equipped to confront that fact. NomadiCat did a better job dissecting this in their post, so I should really just refer back to that.
Or, why language matters, in a nutshell: Political correctness is you trying to deal with someone else’s problem. Internalized racism is your own problem. Acknowledging that means taking responsibility for addressing it.
Is Nomadicat Justine? (Sorry, I’m slow here.)
Internalized racism is my problem, I know that. Political correctness I have no time for because it simplifies complex things, which is the problem I had with Justine’s post. It’s politically correct to say that white writers shouldn’t write narratives about people of color, particularly with protagonists of color. In my case, I really shouldn’t write protagonists of color, so I agree with that. But I absolutely do not agree that no white author should ever write a protagonist of color, any more that I think no male author should ever write a female protagonist. To make that sweeping judgment oversimplifies a problem by doing the politically correct thing instead of looking at the incredible complexity underneath. There were so many things in that post that were politically correct, like the idea that by writing narratives about people of color we block writers of color from publishing, that when looked at closely were basically protectionist/racist and, at the level of practical publishing, not logical. It sounds so good, so noble, but it’s a bandaid that vastly simplifies a complex subject.
“Political correctness is you trying to deal with someone else’s problem. Internalized racism is your own problem. Acknowledging that means taking responsibility for addressing it.”
No, political correctness is finding a superficial solution for a complex problem. Internalized racism is my problem, which I’m pretty sure I’ve been acknowledging in here for two days. And starting this discussion (okay, Melissa started it) is one of my ways for addressing it.
On the basis that our “lived experience …is informed on a daily basis by our race” everybody, regardless of skin color, is a racist. There is no allowance here for individual differences in outlook and assumes that all action must be determined by race. Which could say that anyone of a particular ethnicity should not attempt to write someone of a different color or ethnicity. And there is a whole lot of literature out there that would not be written with that guideline. It also discounts the commonality of the human experience. We are more flexible in outlook then that. I think of all the books I have read in translation, Japanese, South American and so on where I identified with the characters and we had no similarities of life-style.
So if someone feels strongly about writing something from a particular point of view, go for it. Likewise, if the idea is unappealing, you probably could not do the character justice.
But I do think there should be some indication of cultural diversity so we are right back to adding appropriate signifiers.
This is something I’ve run into with my own WIP, especially the parts about not wanting to play into unhelpful cultural stereotypes. Cathy’s comment above about including marginalised characters, but not making marginalisation the point of the story unless you’ve lived that experience, really rings true, as does the comment about visibility being a damn good start. I know I’m going to screw it up at some point, but it’s not possible to write a character that everyone will identify with, always. I suppose I figure that if they’re a real enough person on the page, there’ll be a real person somewhere who can see themself in that character. Not a perfect solution by any means, but a starting point.
A few (probably unhelpful) thoughts about addressing diversity in Nita’s story in particular:
1. Nita’s a cop. Wouldn’t she be trained to notice and catalogue details about people’s appearances? I don’t know how she sounds in your head, obviously, but maybe that’s a way to include description, because it would be a function of her character and professional identity, not authorial intrusion into the story. Or would she not even realise she’s doing it at this point, because she’s been doing it for so long? If Button’s a junior detective, would she be doing it consciously to try and develop her observational skills to the same level as Nita’s?
2. There have been a few comments about how if the world makes a big deal about your ethnicity so that you live in that reality every day, you’re less sensitive about noticiting or specifying other people’s ethnicity. Would Daglas be experiencing this to some extent as a member of an minority population (demons) who is struggling with acceptance into the majority? Would that make him more likely to comment or ask questions about the differences in human ethnicity because he’s trying to figure out where he might fit into it some day? I imagine that he and Rabiel see an awful lot of diversity in Hel, but wouldn’t the implications of those differences suddenly become immediately, personally important to him if he’s thinking about getting involved with a human? (Not sure about this, it may cross the line into theme-mongering. Hmm.)
3. I completely sympathise with your reluctance to demonise (giggle-snort) any ethnicity that isn’t your own by making the bad demons people of colour. That said, if they’re fully fleshed characters (which yours always are), their ethnicity will only be one facet, possibly not the most important part, and probably not what’s motivating them to act the way they are acting. When in doubt, I go back to Terry Pratchett, in Jingo. “Be generous, Sir Samuel. Truly treat all men equally. Allow Klatchians the right to be scheming bastards.” Not all characters, all the time, but some characters, sometimes. I think.
Also, thank you for starting this conversation. The Argh community is awesome, and I always learn something here. Another suggestion for movies is Dear White People, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s wonderful.
I don’t know if you want to know but Justine Larbalestier saw your post and was a little confused about your use of “political correctness” and your understanding of her post. She was talking about it on Twitter:
“Jennifer Crusie says I’m tied in knots by “political correctness” but then agrees with me. Colour me confused. For the record Jennifer Crusie is one of my favourite writers. I admire her enormously.”
Anyway, I thought you might want to know so you could clarify/engage with her yourself…
I went back and read her blog post again, and she starts with a good thesis, I think, and then contradicts herself, so I stand by “knots” comment. I left my e-mail for her if she wants to get in touch and talk.
Jenny, speaking of diversity, I thought of something else.
Nick is born somewhere around 1492 or so, right? As a man of that time, he really might not notice skin color as much as religious beliefs and he might not think of what the demons were doing as immigration as much as colonization or escape. Because he predates the term immigration.
The term immigration it turns out seems to date from the late 18th century. And it seems to have a lot to do with the US, Canada & Australia or at least those are the references I’m finding right now. So the concept of moving away from your homeland permanently might be a concept he’s going to have to work through.
He’s also born into a world where everyone is either of the One True Faith or in trouble. It’s not good to be a Muslim or a Jew or even an Orthodox Greek in Italy. So even though he’s had several hundred years to catch up, the religiousness or nonreligiousness of the island might unsettle him.
Because you didn’t have enough to think through. ; )
All of that is true if he’s transported from 1492 or whenever (I have it written down somewhere) to the present. But he’s not a time traveller.
He’s been conscious for 500 years. He left Italy to live among demons, making periodic trips to this sphere to clean up the occasional screw-up for Satan, watching everything, keeping records, etc. So he’s going to understand immigration, he’s going to understand different faiths (he’s presiding over a sphere that has to deal with the afterlife concepts of all of them, so he’ll be an expert), he’s going to have a pretty good grasp on modern concepts. What he’s not going to be is unsettled because he’s dead (remember the whole body/emotions discussion). He’s pretty much a skeletal robot.
Man, can I design a hot hero, or what?
I remembered the whole body conversation but for some reason when he started to get his appetite back, I thought he was getting feeling back.
Did I miss a scene?
And is it 500 years? Because it’s 500 years in this plane but isn’t it a lot less in Hell?
You may have missed a scene. I’ve got twenty or thirty of them laying around here.
He starts to get taste back, its the first step. It takes him awhile to get his body back.
How? No idea. I have to solve my racial diversity problem first. Also figure out demons. And the whole time shift thing you pointed out. And . . .
Maybe I’ll just write a nice children’s book.
Heehee. You’d run into the same diversity issues, but with less space to address them–while also feeling the weight of Writing for Our Children.
I feel responsible for reflecting a diverse world and promoting understanding and collaboration between all kinds of Us and Them. At the same time, I’m writing to entertain, not lecture. So it’s a balance of using the tactics all the thoughtful commenters above have suggested (an inspiring and much appreciated discussion) while telling the story of “Happy Barfday.”
LOL. You’re right, let’s add something else I’m lousy at to the mix, writing for children.
Forget children’s books. Then there’s what “What Message Do We Send?” For example, my husband and I disagree over whether this, https://www.amazon.com/This-Not-Hat-Jon-Klassen/dp/0763655996/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1468440641&sr=1-1, “This Is Not My Hat” is an appropriate book. I think it teaches important lessons. He says it’s a snuff book.
I bought it for my grandkids, read it, and handed it to my daughter, saying, “Uh, maybe not.” Snuff book pretty much sums it up.
I’ve just been talking about this discussion with my husband, and we were talking about how many of Heinlein’s characters are people of colour, it’s just that it’s rarely mentioned beyond a few subtle points unless it’s pivotal to the story.
“Pivotal to the story” is key, you (and your husband and Heinlein) are absolutely right.
Okay, I’ve been AWOL off and on so I could easily have missed a scene.
If I’m thinking deep POV, it’s not your diversity problem. (well, it is but follow the logic)
It’s either the island’s diversity problem or Nita’s or Nick’s. Who sees it? Who doesn’t? If it’s a Mackinac Island stand in, what happened to the Native Americans? What happened to the few black families that came up before the Civil War? Can Native Americans see demons so they were encouraged to leave? (yes, it’s its own racial sterotype that nonwhites have special powers) Is having demon ancestry a benefit and is there a perceived resentment among the non demon descendants? Did the demons use humans’ prejudices to keep out outsiders so they build up an Us vs Them mentality which keeps their presence safe? Did they pass sundown laws? (Sundown laws are laws passed throughout the country that outlawed blacks, Jews, Chinese from spending the night within a town’s borders.) So your 97% white Ohio county might have passed such a law 100 years ago and even though they stopped enforcing it in the 1920s, it’s still has an impact today.
Most Westerners could not tell the difference between Hutus & Tutsis; I think the same is true for Shias & Sunnis. or Catholics & Protestants in Northern Ireland. To an outsider, they look alike. But people living in those situations are cued to the slight differences and those differences than become as big to them as skin color is to us.
They wouldn’t necessarily know it was demonic but it’s small town – what’s their explanation for why 4 families have money & power and other people do not?
Continuing on that thought, since this place is crawling with demons pretending to be humans and they all just pick random racial identities, completely out of touch with how “normal” society will look at them. Now this place is crazy diverse, and maybe Nita doesn’t think to question it because this is where she’s been her whole life, but someone else looks at it and goes, “Well this is different.” (forgive me if I have the wrong vein, I’ve been in and out a lot lately)
I don’t think they pick random racial identities (still in discovery draft here).
I think they take the green out, the way you color correct in a graphics program. Without doing ANY research, my first thought was that demons just have a high chlorophyll count (I mean NO research so that might be completely garbage) which gives them a green tinge in the way that humans with high blood pressure look reddish or albinos look chalky (yes, I know there are no biological parallels to those three things, still in discovery draft).
The parts of the story that have created this approach–I write the story and figure out what’s going on based on what I’ve written, very inefficient–are about demons who came into this sphere for reasons of their own and then decided to stay. Nobody decided to immigrate. They got here and liked it and didn’t go back. So they came here with cover identities that were carefully chosen, and they were taught to blend in before they got here–think undercover police maybe–so they fit right in.
I think the key is how common it is for people to stay on the island. My former agent grew up on Nantucket and we’d go stay at her house there; I’d have bought a house on that island in a nano-second if I could have afforded it. I just looked at real estate on Mackinac and it’s comparable to an upscale neighborhood, condos for around $300,000, houses for over a million. Not cheap but not impossible for somebody to buy there. So I think they’d just individually decide to stay and blend in. It’d be a PITA keeping the green out–NO idea how they do that, it’s a discovery draft–but otherwise they’d assimilate pretty easily, I’d think. I saw it as normally diverse, something that Nita wouldn’t notice.
But Jenny, normally diverse for who? You or me?
Sorry, I meant as reflecting America, which is somewhere between 75%/80% white at this point with that percentage dropping every year. Maybe I should have said “average” instead of “normal.” I got pounded on “political correctness,” too. Define your terms, Jenny.
You’re right about dropping every year, Jenny, but according to the 2015 Census data, the US is about 63% white non-Hispanic.
Census-takers get a question about race that does not include the choice of Hispanic, and then a separate question about whether we’re Hispanic. I could go into a huge long thing about why this is, but I’ll spare you…although it is an interesting illustration of the way we socially construct whiteness.
The majority of people who identify as Latino/Hispanic check “white,” as a default option, but usually aren’t constructed as white in other ways (i.e. rather than benefiting from institutionalized racism, they are likely to be systematically oppressed by it). So it’s more accurate to say that the US is 60-65% white, at this moment in time.
I was going by Wikipedia and the 2010 census, so out of date.
Chlorophyll is what does photosynthesis with sunlight, so it might not make sense in Hell. (Or it might, your call!)
But there are some other chemicals that make green – in flame tests or solutions or, say, demon skin.
And I posted too soon!
Copper compounds – though that’s a pretty bluish-green
And, my personal favorite for demon green-ness, phosphates *moistened by sulfuric acid*
Also thallium, molybdenum, and a few others.
But then, I teach chemistry, not biology.
Boron is good. Probably. (What’s boron? Never mind, I’ll google.)
Obviously this is something I have not researched. Stick with me, I’m going to need you.
All I can see now is Catherine Tate saying “B is for Boron”, and then shouting “Magnesium, innit?”
The four families lost their grip a long time ago, that’s in the story (sold off land during the Depression, indicted, etc.). The island is run by the Mayor, and he’s a practical law-and-order guy: as long as everything’s running smoothly, he’s got no ax to grind with anybody; people start causing trouble, he’s got an ax. The cops are mostly from the island; when Nita talks to people, she does that six degrees of separation thing people in small towns do (“You’re a Jones? My second cousin married a Jones . . .).
It’s not a Mackinac stand-in because Mackinac wasn’t built and populated by demons. Mackinac and Nantucket are just the two most famous New England islands I could think of to get a feel for how large this island should be and for what happens when the tourists hit. Since Demon Island was created, it has no native population.
These are good questions, BTW; stuff like this is a great help in brainstorming this book.
One thing that I’ve gotten from the comments on this and other Nita posts is that everybody assumes that all demons are evil. But that’s a misconception even outside of fiction. A daemon is “a god or a subordinate deity, as the genius of a place or a person’s attendant spirit” or “the guardian spirit of a place or person” or a computer program that lies dormant until invoked . . . Maybe I should switch the spelling to “daemon.”
There are no sundown laws or any laws discriminating against demons because most people don’t know they’re there. I think the people on the island, once the word gets out that are demons everywhere, are going to assume they’re evil. I think that once Nick gets a grasp on how huge the problem is, he shuts down the bridge and the airport, and they’re all stuck there together while he sorts things out, but again DISCOVERY DRAFT. But I also think there’s going to be some appropriation, in the way that people whose ancestors did everything they could to wipe out Native Americans now proudly claim they’re 1/64th Mound Builder or whatever. As I believe I mentioned, Discovery Draft.
I was actually thinking more of the demons passing sundown laws so that they could control the numbers of nondemon population. If you wanted it, it would give you a reason why this island is less diverse than America as a whole. If you want to keep outsiders from asking questions, it’s always a good thing to keep outsiders out.
I wasn’t seeing the demons as a minority – I was seeing them as a ruling elite- not as overt as an aristocracy but like one of those small towns you drive through where everything from the gas station to the bank says one name – and it’s not the name of the town.
The nondemon population may freak when they discover it, but again, small town, some of them are going to be freaking when they realize they’re not wholly human either. “The Terwallers are demons – OMG…wait a minute, my great grandmother was a Terwaller… let’s hope nobody remembers.”
Now I’ve never lived in a small town so correct my assumptions.
Discovery draft is good. Discovery draft is my favorite.
The demons aren’t that organized. Mostly they just want to live their lives in peace and watch Netflix. Basically, they’re like humans. Some of them are politically active, some of them are crooks, most of them are wondering what they’re going to have for dinner.
Daemon is an elegant spelling with a long history. Although since Pullman it also implies a twinned spirit that is an animal. Which can be confusing.
Also I cannot tell you how much I love the idea of a Genius Locii – the spirit of the place.
I was thinking Bonnie, the tiny blonde in Bet Me could have been Black and gotten her happily ever after, and it would have been lovely.
“As I’ve told you, several times, I’m the Devil. And Daglas and Rabiel are demons. Fallen angels. As you can see from their ages, it didn’t take them long to fall.”
Doesn’t that mean that they did something evil?
Nope. Lucifer didn’t fall because he was evil, he fell because he rebelled against God which was breaking the rules. He saw God as a tyrant, which basically He was. (Paradise Lost as a source here).
Rabiel was watching porn and Daglas wandered by and stopped for a minute, and both got tagged.
Rabiel is really much happier in Hell. Daglas is one of those quiet, smart people who adjust no matter where they are. Also, he and Nick get along just fine, so Daglas has an interesting job as his minion, along with Rabiel and Belia.
(I can’t believe I had that already worked out. Most of the time, my answers are, “I dunno DISCOVERY DRAFT.”)
Sorry, I’m slow on the uptake. Rabiel and Dallas are demons, former angels, right? So porn is broadcast in angel-land for angels to see if they’re likely to misbehave by watching some smut? And misbehaving turns an angel into a demon and sends him to one of the demon-lands?
I’m beginning to see why populating an island on Earth was more appealing.
Of course, I always liked Satan in Paradise Lost. Took me awhile to discover Eve’s depth.
I love Paradise Lost, the rebellion parts. Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
I don’t think celestial beings get cable. But I don’t think they’re Alan Rickman in Dogma, either. Remember how annoyed he was about not having genitals?
My take on it isn’t misbehaving so much as it is “probably not suited for this job.”
Thank you for this post. I’m late to the party (finishing up the packing for my move, plus readying for RWA National conference) but find it all very interesting. Back in the early to mid 2000’s Barbara Samuel wrote a novel, The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue, which I adored. I still recall how deeply I connected with her characters and then was surprised when a couple of chapters in found they were an African American family. She wrote that story beautifully and sensitively. They were people, just people, and I related to them with the same emotional depth I would any interesting character. I must get another copy for my kindle and see exactly how she did this.
Barb was married to an African American guy for a very long time, I think their kids were grown when they split, so she’d have a grasp on a PoC narrative, I’d think.
I’ve been wondering about what your response to Melissa’s original query would be, and this blogpost and its varied comments interest, confuse, anger,and work for me.
My feeling is this: write what you write. Your current challenge is to finish your story about Nita and Nick in a way that satisfies you. I’ve only just started reading arghink and the chapters of your discovery draft. The premise of Devil Island is that it lacks diversity — anyone looking different is immediately pegged as a tourist/interloper — which spawns fascinating possibilities. Then, I chuckle to think that for the length of time the island has been successfully populated far more diverse beings than mainlanders/blacks/Jews/Asians/gypsies have infiltrated the place, unrecognized.
I like the fact that your characters come to you showing their insides before their outsides.
I read a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction that covers all sorts of people and interractions. When I pick up one of your books, I find women I don’t find elsewhere, such as Gwen Goodfellow and Min Dobbs. Not only are these characters unique, they eventually find love in relationships that are tons of fun. (Your books have also made me feel much better about my dealings with my mother.)
Perhaps your next book — the one after The Devil & Nita Dowd — will use some of the ideas generated by this blogpost.
I’ve known for a LONG time that my fiction wasn’t handling diversity well. My solution was to not describe people so that readers could do their own casting which I still believe in, but not to the extent that I don’t establish diversity because the default for undescribed characters is white. So that is a problem. I could wait until the next book but I’ve been doing that for fifteen years.
And no matter how much I want it not to be, this book is going to be about race because it’s about humans and demons. I absolutely have to have people of color specified in this book or the demons will default into the Other and I’ll be literally demonizing people of color. The whole demon thing is a diversity time bomb, not just because I have to be careful not to do something racist but also because I have to be careful not to be simplistic about a problem that is huge and complicated. That is, I can at the end of the story have the entire island singing “We are the world” with their arms around each other. There’s always going to be a subsection of racist asshat-ery wherever you go.
So basically, I deal with the diversity here or I take the demons out.
How is the book about humans and demons in a racist way? I’m really not trying to be stupid. Maybe I’m uninformed because the race issue hasn’t emerged in the discovery chapters yet. Maybe the humans’ response when they eventually accept the idea that there are demons among them is to attack anyone they know is a demon. (After all, I’m still confused about who distributed donuts that would kill demons. But it’s early the story so I should be confused.)
Are there four categories? 100% human (ex. Button); human-demon mix (descendants of first four families); 100% demon (Daglas and Rabiel); and dead human (Nick)?
“How is the book about humans and demons in a racist way?”
I don’t think you’re stupid, but I don’t understand the question exactly.
Do you mean why does the story have to deal with racism? Because it’s about a community that has thought that it was one thing (diverse humans) finding out it’s another thing (diverse humans mixed with diverse demons) and how both groups are going to react. I don’t think all the humans will attach all the demons. I think it’s like real life. Some of them will shrug and say, “I’ve known him for ten years, he’s a good guy, I don’t give a rat’s ass” and others will say, “It’s different from me, kill it with fire.”
Based on the early reactions to the book in the comments here, a lot of them are not going to react well. Because I didn’t explain that I had a different take on demons, everybody who commented assumed demons would be evil, a completely logical assumption. I’m fairly sure everybody on the island would fall into the same logic, not just “You’re different and therefore you’re the Other” but “You’re a fucking demon, die evil thing.” And when you consider how much racism is stoked by fear, a supernatural race would make that go ballistic.
Basically, you got your humans and your demons. If they intermarry, you’ve got biracial offspring, bur if you’re talking about races, you have human (diverse) and supernatural (diverse). Nick’s human. Nita isn’t. After that it gets down to those annoying questions–“So your grandfather was a demon, that makes you one quarter demon?”–that don’t have much impact on actual life. I don’t think on the island it’s going to matter in a practical sense, just in the emotional, racist sense. That is, I think the US needs race on the census for affirmative action, etc, but that kind of thing wouldn’t matter on the island.
You interpreted my question correctly. Thank you.
I realize that my ignorance about this discussion is fueled by the fact that I don’t watch TV or movies (I saw an episode of Jeopardy on TV this past winter and my husband dragged me to an awful movie the week before last, the first film I’d seen in over a year). I think I don’t get demons because I haven’t become accustomed to their place in popular culture.
My position confounds me because I’m otherwise in the loop with the issues discussed in this blogpost. (Race, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, weight, small town / large city, popular terminology, and the like.)
Well, since demons aren’t real, you can be excused for not knowing the True Facts About Demons. And now I want ZeFrank to do a True Facts About Demons youtube video. (I checked. He hasn’t done one.)
I don’t think there are many demons on TV right now, at least not in the very few shows I watch. There were demons on Supernatural a while back and I assume there still are. I’m trying to think of any other shows that have them.
Anyway, I don’t think it’s a pop culture/entertainment derived problem, it comes from myth and religion, the idea that demons are evil entities that possess you and make you do Bad Things (a demon made me do it!) or possess you to take your power or whatever. Succubi and incubi, that kind of thing. Pretty much everything I found when I googled demon (DO NOT GOOGLE DEMONS) were weirdass websites about how to avoid being possessed or how to cure possession. It’s like picking up a rock. (Shuddering now.)
I’m think seriously of spelling it “daemon,” except that’s pronounced the same way, and anybody who does computer programming would say, “So when the daemons show up, everybody’s printer springs to life?”
I think I’m losing it.
For what it’s worth, I think Tanya Huff includes a number of diverse background characters without having their race define them ( like the Indian cop who prefers dealing with monsters to dealing with the mess that her kids and dog make, or the gay Jewish musician/composer who steps up big time).
Look at Ravi on iZombie, his race is there and people mention it but it’s not the thing that people will latch on to (his face when the girl he has a crush on doesn’t know star wars )
Ravi is the Best. My god, I love that man. And I especially love that actor, he’s brilliant.
The way he reacts to Liv when he finds out she’s a zombie is just so good. What a great guy. (“So the hot sauce. Is that a zombie thing?”)
Ravis is amazing and so is Babineaux (although it took me a little longer to recognise it).
That gorgeous scene where Ravi discovers that Babineaux has secretly been cooking for them and trolls the heck out of him…
I actually watched an entire season of the great British Bake Off because one of the contestants reminded me very strongly of Ravi (also he did amazing work with spun sugar)
Clive is so subtle. That actor is doing great work, too.
I loved the scene where Liv finally told him she was a zombie. It was perfect.
Just to stick in a different viewpoint, wasn’t it the Gnostics who believed that the denizens of Hell were not good or bad, just of a different viewpoint from the denizens of Heaven? I’m sure there was much more to it than that. But believers in dualism were considered major heretics, and The Church came down quite heavily (killed them in horrible ways) on them.
It’s not a new struggle or issue to write about. But it’s much safer today to write about it than it was a thousand years ago, I think.
Plus, demons and angels do work as a metaphor for race. Science fiction has been doing this for ages with aliens, and fantasy has been doing it for ages with various creatures. You can’t tie an orc to a specific race. Could be a metaphor or stand-in for a specific white person, or black person, or Asian person. Most likely, it’s a completely made-up figure who can be as evil (or stupid or misguided) as the author wishes, and is Other without pointing any fingers. Readers can assign their own definition of Otherness to the orc, and the reader can to some extent choose the issue being explored. An orc may be about classism, or racism, or intellectualism, or pacifism/warring personality. The work isn’t finished until readers brings their own perceptions to the work. Under ideal conditions, readers will talk with each other, and make the work even richer and more useful to the individual readers.
Gnostics believed a lot of different things. Some were dualists, some were not. And yes, the early church that wrote the canon erased them from the official church story.
I have been thinking about Jenny’s objection to political correctness as an oversimplification of things and of her quandary about how to physically describe her diverse characters without being perceived as racist.
We have been taught to notice race is to be racist, which (to use Jenny’s definition of political correctness) is a politically correct way of addressing racism. Seeing color is racist when people attribute character traits and attributes to a physical trait. So simply noticing skin color, a physical trait, in and of itself, is not a racist thought, until noticing the physical trait becomes a cause/effect thought. For a not-as-loaded example, when I see a person with glasses, I also think they are smart. Seeing the glasses themselves is not the problem, it’s when I make assumptions about the person’s intelligence that it becomes an issue. So as an author, it’s having the character point out the physical characteristics when it’s appropriate without letting them be shorthand for character traits.
So I thought I would add my experience to the mix about when I notice the race and ultimately the diversity of my husband and friends. I notice it when we go out in the summer and he’s uber concerned about my use of sunscreen and nonchalant about his use of it. I noticed it when I saw him using sunscreen for the first time and I felt like an idiot for not even thinking that of course dark skin also needs to be protected from UV light. I notice it when I rub his bald head and the stubble is on my skin and I wonder what his hair would be like if he ever grew it out, because I have never known him with hair. I noticed it when I listened to the news reports of what’s happened recently. I notice it when he says something out of left field and I try to figure out what the hell prompted it and I remember he grew up in DC during the civil rights movement and I grew up in Kansas during the Cosby Show and I’m reminded we come from very different backgrounds. As for my friends, I notice it when they call home to let their parents know where they are and they start speaking a different language. I notice it when they talk about childhood rituals that were different from mine and so I can’t as readily visualize what they are talking about as when they talk about traditions we share. I hope this helps you think about ways we unconsciously notice the diversity around us.
This is so true. My brother-in-law (full blood Native American) visited after his heart surgery. He went for a walk but came back very quickly because he started staggering and he did not want people or police to think he was drunken Indian. He is an educated, middle class professional but knew he would not be perceived as such.
Well, that’s heartbreaking in so many ways.
You notice when it’s significant, when the detail has meaning to the situation you’re in and the action you’re doing.
That’s what detail in fiction is about: significance. (In real life, too, obviously.)
That’s why it always clunks when a PoV character notices something obvious.
“Here comes my black friend, Jane.” No.
Jane put on suntan lotion, and I thought, “Well, of course she needs it, black skin burns, too.” And then make the suntan lotion significant to the plot and you’re covered. If the suntan lotion never shows up again, not so much.
What I like about you, Jenny, moderating this conversation is that you allow people the dignity of their own opinions. And when you disagree with anyone, you’re civil, and you expect everyone here to be the same. In this atmosphere, it’s possible to learn and maybe even grow wiser and be of service to the world.
Civility is so needed these days, so we can have honest, productive conversations! Without it, I don’t have a lot of hope of making progress on the social justice front. I don’t think being justifiably angry about even the deepest, most searing pain gives any of us carte blanche to dehumanize other people.
I look to Anne Frank for inspiration when I feel the weight of the current time’s darkness bearing down on my spirit. We can overcome if we are brave and keep our hearts open.
Thanks for the welcoming forum and for being courageous yourself, Jenny, by putting yourself out there.
P.S. Anger’s okay, even necessary, to solve a lot of conflicts. But the anger should focus on problem-solving, not on name-calling.
You know, it’s such a fine line, moderating, which is why I like how quiet it is in here most of the time. The community knows the ropes here, but people who come in from the outside don’t, and I don’t want to stop them from speaking, but I think people need to understand how it works here. I see so many good discussions on the net shut down by well-meaning people who cross the line and end up in comment wars. It’s not going to happen here.
There are a lot of comparisons here to the “visual” arts, so: I’m wondering: Isn’t writing for a visual medium, e.g. TV, movies, animation, cartoons, etc., a lot different from writing Words-Only, i.e. for readers or listeners not viewers, at least when writing in diversity (leaving aside all the other writing craft differences)?
There are a zillion stories about how actors interact (ahem) with their directors and screenwriters and who are outspoken enough to say “my character would never do or or say x, y, or z.” A human actor (voice or 3D) who is deaf, uses a wheelchair, is Jewish-Buddhist, Hispanic-Thai, Daemon-Martian, short, tall, fat, thin, urban female, 85, trans, abused, alcoholic, etc., can almost always speak out and object to the character’s as-written behavior or words – and rewrites happen.
But for a book/story writer, whose creation goes from mind/heart to words to reader, the characters speak only to the writer, through the writer. Writers do not and cannot get the same feedback as screenwriters and film directors, unless beta readers serve the same purpose. Do they?
Mainstream cartoonists have also for decades included diverse characters in their cartoons (Peanuts, Bloom County, Zits, Stone Soup to name just a few), but again, the visual trumps the written text, doesn’t it?
It’s not hard to draw in diversity (just look at the Zits artist’s pictures of Jeremy’s high school hallway scenes) with humor, love, and horror all rolled into one parent’s pen. And you can’t say, “well, it’s a cartoon!” as if it didn’t keep tens of thousands of Parents of Teenagers sane. That’s pretty powerful stuff (as have romantic stories been through the ages).
Maybe I’m overthinking one of writers’ (many) dilemmas – besides the fact that one person’s diversity is another person’s reality.
Speaking of trumping and diversity and writers, I hope you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hilarious, and awesome, short story starring Melania Trump, in the New York Times:
Not sure how I feel about that but it was a really interesting read, so thanks for point it out.
I think this is an interesting comment (I haven’t seen every comment, so I have missed the other comparisons to visual arts). I’m not a writer, so I can’t speak to it from that side of things. The idea though that maybe it is easier to include diversity in visual arts because, well, we have the clue we have in real life–skin color. And, as you mentioned, screenwriters have lots of beta testers, and get to see dailies (I think that’s what they’re called) before anything is shown to the public so if it’s all white, that jumps out quickly (I assume). Whereas authors of books, who see it in their heads, who don’t want to throw the reader out of the story by including every detail, and who know that readers make up their own visuals…I would imagine that it would be more difficult for them.
OH!! Good example: when Harry Potter hit the stage and they hired a black actress for Hermione and JK Rowling said,
“Sure, that works,” but other people lost their minds because 1) that’s not how they had seen her and 2) that’s not how the movie portrayed her and other people (and maybe the author too?) pointed out that she had never actually specified Hermione’s race and African British (is this a thing?) totally works for the character.
I know there’s a 3) they’re racist asshats but we don’t need to acknowledge them
ARGH. Just saw that someone already made this point. Sorry for the redundancy
My god, you don’t check this blog for two days and all the conversations happen. Perhaps this is too practical a suggestion, but, Jenny, as you’ve pointed out, you have here a super supportive, ready to critique community. Post a WIP where you go nuts with the race descriptors and we can all discuss whether it clunked. In other words, practice on us?
OK…I may just want more WIPs…
You just want more WiPs, but I had the same idea so it’s okay.
I promise as much insightful comments as possible. Though I have to admit I don’t have the most diverse background/life so who knows how helpful they’ll be for this.
– Born into apartheid South Africa.
– Grew up in Transition South Africa.
– Lives in post apartheid South Africa.
Due to economic (non legislated) apartheid the first and third look and feel similar. City planning was designed to keep people separate. This affects work issues and income. And there are words for what Education was designed to do, but they are unprintable.
There are many changes here. Mainly made by those willing to make an effort step out of our comfort zones and TALK. We ask questions of each other and try to listen to the answers.
And I personally make a point of checking my racism. I must have some prejudice. I grew up in one group area. Seventh grade was the first time I had another race child in my homeroom.
Some people do nothing and wallow in their mud made of prejudice.
Even for those who try to bridge gaps we get it wrong and try again.
For this book, maybe don’t make black people demons- that brings memories of that picture of Alek Wek as a devil and a white model as an angel.
Since you’re a writer,reading books by authors who write in their cultural voice may help.
Once Were Warriors and Trainspotting used language and immersion in those characters helps to vary and diversify the voices we hear and eventually the ones we can write. Even if we don’t change the language, we can convey the character.
I volunteer to help too. You have my email addy.
I have EVERYBODY’S e-mail. The power, the power.
(Relax, I never use them.)
The RWA report just showed up in my in-box with this:
(4) A task force will study the feasibility of an RWA-sponsored summit on diversity within romance publishing.
I’m not sure why they’d need a task-force to discover feasibility, but it’s been awhile since I was a board member and things are probably a lot more complicated legally now.
When Jenny talks, RWA listens….
LOL. RWA has forgotten my name, I’m so low key at this point.
Commenters have, I think, been approaching this from a perspective of the reader engaging with race — which is, I think, perfectly understandable. I’d like to bring up (revive? I started skimming halfway down the page, I confess) another proposal, which is: read more PoC stories. I don’t mean news (which is inevitably infuriating and depressing these days), but actual narratives that don’t so much focus on The ___ian Experience as “This is Plot With a POC main, and how his/her identity informs how s/he interacts with that plot”. I don’t think you’ll have characters screaming out to you to be written down until you’ve got a sense of how they fit into molds already, and what will or won’t work for you in terms of narratives.
I hope it isn’t presumptuous to advise you–your books and essays and posts are still teaching me how to write dialogue every day! But your posts make you sound a little like the “I have to know what color the damn lightswitches are in the room before I can put characters in it, even if all they do is talk in the dark” type of writer, so I wanted to make sure this idea got dumped in the mix.
Good idea. Any suggestions for those of us who’d like to play along at home? 🙂
I don’t blame you for not reading all of the comments, I wouldn’t, either, but people have been making suggestions so anything else you can add is great.
I actually don’t need to know the color of the light switches because I don’t see my stories, I hear them. I have only the vaguest idea of what places and people look like in mind which is I why I do collages and Curio files. Which makes me think maybe what I need to do is to watch movies with good black casts with my eyes closed. I always depart from my visuals anyway, the final characters are rarely if ever like the collages, so I’m starting to think I just need to listen.
Hmmm. Books on tape. Anybody got any suggestions there? Voices of color?
There are videos on youtube of Maya Angelou reading her own poems, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqOqo50LSZ0
I’ve never heard her read that before. That’s marvelous.
Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys is read by Lenny Henry (every significant character bar the villain is a PoC) .
Actually Neil’s post here might be worth a read?
Nnedi Okorafor is an author I keep meaning to check out and many of her novels/ novellas are available on audible (pretty sure that Adjoa Andoh who narrates Lagoon is a PoC, I really loved her narration on the Imperial Radch series by Anne Leckie)
That’s going to be helpful, I can tell a first glance. Thank you.
A lot of this is going to be from the 1990s when I was watching a lot more television and going to a lot more movies.
For movies, I love Mississippi Masala which has a different take on race.
And it has Denzel Washington which is always a plus. So does Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. A lot of Spike Lee is interesting but he doesn’t always catch me. Mo Better did.
Queen Latifah had a sitcom called Living Single which again I love. If you’re looking to see a lot of different types of people and some very funny dialogue, watch Living Single.
Charles Dutton had a sitcom called Roc which I remember liking. But if you can find Dutton doing the August Wilson plays (Hallmark did a dramatization of the Piano Lesson) that was good. For some reason I think PBS showed a live version of Fences at one point. What’s Love got to do with it – with Angela Bassett as Tina Turner & Lawrence Fishbourne as Ike.
The Wedding. Based on a book by Dorothy West, it’s a two parter about an interracial wedding on Martha’s Vinyard. Halle Berry plays the lead I think but it was the generations of family that I was attracted to. And hey! It’s set on an Island.
If you want something more international, the BBC did a dramatization of one of Zadie Smith’s books – I caught some of that and liked it. That portrays a very diverse London.
I’d be interested to see what other people recommend.
You said you were interested in the voices – well, if you’ve been watching Ken Burns documentaries, you’ve heard the voices. James Earl Jones. Morgan Freeman. Lawrence Fishbourne and a couple others regularly narrate for him.
This Comedian is pretty awesome. Race in an awesome mixed family.
I read “cult on a field trip” and “White Brent” and laughed. And then I got to the adoption party and cried.
That’s a great article.
Great article. Thanks for the link. And yes, got to the adoption center part and cried. I have been the waterworks chick all week though…
Thank you for the link. Wouldn’t have gotten to it otherwise. Illuminating.
You hear your stories? That’s awesome.
In case you want to give some color to the businesses on Demon Island, I know that a motel/store is run by sub-continent Indians by scent: incense, sometimes cigarettes, and flowers (especially roses). Sometimes there are kotchka such as elephants or gods.
I think of a store (especially grocery) as ethnic (Korean, Mexican, whatever) when the whole family is there, particularly little kids.
My suggestion is that you sit in a shopping mall, listening to the voices going by. You might hear less that identifies race/ethnicity than age, gender, and the way people group themselves. But there should be plenty of interjections that might indicate background.
I know I’m presumptuous in advising you. I just reread Bet Me and agree that Shanna could be black. But I already see characters in ways you didn’t write them: I think of Min’s mom as Jewish and I will always picture Sophy Dempsey as a blonde. (No, not a stereotypical one; more like Dusty Springfield and a bygone rock era.)
Okay, this is great. Scent, the family stuff, etc.
Shopping Mall: We don’t have one. We have strip malls. There’s an enclosed mall in Rockaway but it’s faraway. Also even if there was one in this neck of the woods, it’d be white. This chunk of NJ is known for white people and bears. Love the idea about how people group themselves. Also love the idea about eavesdropping. When I was on the road all the time, I’d do that in different parts of the country in restaurants and book stores. My fave is from South Carolina where I heard a (white) mother tell her son, “Jason, we don’t hit family.” I love that line. “Go ahead and take out the rest of the restaurant, Jason, but we do not hit family.”
Nobody is presumptuous in advising me, especially when I post and say, “Anybody got any advice?” The thing that sends me through the wall is when people start rewriting me (or anybody else) or when people attack other people on here (what do they think this is, the internet?).
As for Sophy as a blonde, why not? Min’s mom: I saw her as Lutheran because I kept hearing my mother. Maybe my mother’s cousin. It’s that fill-in-the-white-spaces part of writing; give the reader room to make the story hers, a collaboration.
My best friend is from India by way of Kenya where she was born and the US where her brother was born. Her house always smelled wonderful and sometimes incredibly spicy. But like many things, is the family North Indian or South Indian? Because her mother in the old days would start preparing the meal around 7 am (including hand grinding her spices & making the samosa dough fresh) but those were the smells of South Indian cooking and not while the Indian food I found in the UK seemed to be more North Indian.
There was also an incense that was used around some of the feast days but I don’t remember the name of it – although if I smelled it, it would probably come back.
Everyone I knew who was Chinese had been here for generations so I don’t remember their house smelling different. But I do remember when Thai restaurants came to DC in the 1970s that smelling different from Chinese restaurants which were either Mandarin or Szechuan.
Where do the grandkids live? Is there a mall near there?
In a suburb that’s gentrifying, next to an upscale neighborhood. No indoor malls.
You know, I hadn’t thought about the other senses, but it’s so true. You could describe my friend Kylie by her intricately scarf-wrapped hair and rosewater perfume, instead of just saying Iranian-Australian. Or if a store has a waving golden cat in the window and a yueqin on the sound system, the person you see behind the counter will probably be Chinese-Australian, and half the time it’s going to be a kid working after school in the family shop. Thanks, Elizabeth!
I have actually read all the comments. I come and check back 1-2 times a day and scan by date or time to make sure I read anything new because I find this conversation so important and comforting. I know this was started as a how do i write authentically for a PoC character, but as I am not a writer what I am finding most interesting is the thoughts and experiences shared hear.
I don’t want this conversation to end but that is not really why arghink is here. So I wonder if there is a place, a private FB group, etc ( I am technologically challenged so setting up a webpage is actually beyond my understanding and capabilities) where this conversation could continue, because this is a conversation that needs to be happening more in our world. I have ideas/thoughts that I usually don’t share because my internal dialogue is usually “well that won’t work” or “unless I can contribute or know how to make that idea work, just keep quite because I will explain it poorly or it won’t be well received” There is also the whole moderator issue which seems too big to carry this conversation on- someone that could keep the conversation thoughtful, and know when to boil things down to “at this point we need to respectfully agree to disagree and move on”
There are things happening in our country that break my heart and I would like to have thoughtful discussion- such as the picture of the woman, Ieshia Evans, peacefully protesting in Baton Rouge- I saw that picture and thought – wow she looks so brave and dignified- I was surprised by the negative comments and stopped reading them. Or being in awe of Cameron Sterling, son of Alton Sterling, and how could a 15 year old speak so heartfelt about peaceful protest and all of us coming together as family when he just lost his dad in such a horrific way. I cried when I read about Philando Castille getting a haircut for his upcoming birthday days before being killed. His fiancee is another one that I am in awe of her compassionate statements in the aftermath of losing him. That R-SC senator, Tim Scott, speaks of his similar experiences to Mr. Castille- who I believe I read was pulled over 52 times!- of being pulled over repeatedly- occasionally yes he was speeding-as do we all- and at times getting a call from the chief of police apologizing for how his officers handled the situation.
I am also totally perplexed by the negative responses to Matt Damon’s comments in Australia, regarding sensible gun laws.
Or going back to I think the fall of 2015, when the professor at an IL college ended getting fired for her comment/statement that all religions have the same God. One God. I thought well yes of course One God, people just worship or practice differently. Until I shared that thought with a co-worker who was going through Catholicism classes and was like, Uh no not One God. I honestly don’t get why it seems so controversial – not trying to be a pot stirrer, or make anyone mad. It is simply the way my brain works to try and make sense of the world around me and all the religions.
There was more I was going to say but I am fighting the urge to just erase everything and again say nothing because I don’t feel many people think or feel the way I do. I know these comments don’t really belong here but for a long time I have been feeling more and more isolated, and in that isolation feeling that not only am I losing my ability to speak in an articulate way, lately feel I am loosing the ability to articulate my thoughts in my writing. So I am hitting Post Comment, but Jenny will totally understand if you delete.
Actually, I think a lot of people think the way you do. And there wouldn’t be any reason to take your comment down even if I didn’t agree; you were very respectful.
I think Slack is the easiest place to set up private conversations. It’s free and it’s very easy to use. I can’t do it at this point, I’m swamped, but Micki was talking about something similar I think.
I don’t think we need to move on, I think this is a conversation that needs to continue and probably will in other posts. I’m going to shortly put up an extension post for this one because we’re getting too many comments for the blog to handle, so the conversation will just move to the next post for admin reasons.
Unless I put up my email wrong, my proposal has attracted zero interest. Which is fine. I think most people would rather talk here. (-: I know I’d rather talk here. And I suspect the writers have their own ways of processing “other”. Or maybe Argh-land doesn’t have a lot of people looking for a critique group that focuses on diversity. (I think craft is more important than diversity, myself. Diversity is important, but if you have a diverse story that doesn’t have pacing, conflict, characterization and the million other things that make a good story, you have nothing.)
I’ll be checking my mail box, though, and if we do wind up with a group, I’ll post in the comments. (-: I am so not the marketer of ideas, though, and diplomacy does not come easily to me. It would be awfully nice to have some writers who want to write, and who want to educate themselves in order to make original and interesting art that doesn’t hurt people unintentionally.
Did you ask the Eight Ladies?
Ah, good point. The Eight Ladies have more connections with various RWA chapters and what-not than I do. It’ll have to wait until after mid-August, though. (-: I was really hoping that with so many passionate commenters here, all I had to do was put up my addy and I’d get two or three passionately interested new friends.
I’m bringing some minority experiences to the mix, myself, though, so I can totally see why people with the most to say would be reluctant to join in on what’s going to be a difficult and frustrating and time-consuming process.
My brain-space has been consumed by this for the past few days, and I haven’t gotten any real writing done.
Bernie, I don’t know how to get in touch with you, but I’ve left my email up higher in the comments, so if you are interested, please get in touch with me.
So we’re over 250 comments which is when the blog starts to break, so I’m closing this thread but opening a new one in the next post. Same discussion, we’re just keeping the blog from going sideways.
Comments are closed.