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.)