We need diverse books, yes, but really…

Writers, as you may be aware, there’s a big push right now, particularly in the YA world, for diverse books. Absolutely, indisputably, this is true.

But I want to change the conversation a bit.

In case you didn’t know…I’m white female YA author. Yep, another one. Here’s something that probably sets me apart though: I’ve spent six years working with mostly low income, African American students and families, particularly boys.

We need diverse books? I could easily write a book with an African American male protagonist that felt authentic and captured well the struggles and strengths that child brings to the table. Before my year and a half hiatus in Singapore, I could understand and speak Black English Vernacular, so I could weave that in, too, to make it feel even more real.

So let me paint a picture of this book. I’ll name the protagonist…crap, I have to make sure I’ve never worked with a student by that name…DJ. DJ will be a seventeen-year-old boy living in Madison, Wisconsin, home to one of the top public universities in the nation, filled with liberal white people such as myself, but also one of the worst places to be black in the nation.

My book would capture DJ’s daily struggles and dreams. And no, DJ will not be in a gang or coming out of juvie or anything like that. DJ aspires to be the first in his family to graduate high school and go to college. DJ’s parents (and yes, both would be in the picture) dream of him going to college as well, but they’re scared for him because they’ve experienced a lot of discrimination in their own lives while in school and at the hands of police—and this shapes how they relate to the school. DJ’s parents may have made mistakes in their lives, and may still be making them, but they love DJ and want what’s best for him. They want to make their own lives better and want DJ to have a brighter future than they have, but they don’t have the knowledge or access to all the resources needed to make this happen. This would be something I’d show in my imaginary novel.

DJ would strive to do well in school, but he’s been at a disadvantage since before kindergarten… his parents maybe didn’t know how to or have the time to provide the early life enrichment that most middle class white kids get. DJ would struggle with attention and focus; teachers would constantly be telling his parents to put him on ADHD medication and his parents might eventually listen because they want DJ to be successful. But in reality, DJ is suffering from the lingering effects of trauma, which effects brain functioning and cause things that look like ADHD. Some of DJ’s friends would be making bad choices, might be getting involved in gangs and crime, and try to pressure him into doing it, too. Which would leave DJ trying to find like-minded peers and role models and perhaps lead to him struggling with his own identity, particularly in light of how our media is rife with rappers going on about drugs and crime and belittling women. He would be left desperately seeking a positive, successful African American male role model, preferably who rose up from a situation like his rather than came from a middle class family.

My novel would capture the strengths of DJ’s family: the intense love and protectiveness, the interconnectedness of extended family and neighbors, the strong advocacy. But it would also capture the struggles of parents working multiple jobs just for the family to survive, substance abuse, community violence, parent incarceration, and poverty. DJ would be followed around by mall security, questioned by police while walking around, singled out for things in class that other kids are doing, too. But DJ would have a massive heart and massive dreams and fight to rise above all of this. DJ’s quest might be graduating high school or passing a specific class or having to make the choice between helping to take care of his family or going to college.

I could write this book well. I could easily write another book with a female African American protagonist and incorporate things about skin tone, hair texture, and the portrayal of Black females in the media. And (not to boast but…) people would read it and a lot of them would probably like it. Kids would be able to relate to DJ. Agents might be interested–I mean, it’s a diverse book, right?

But the question is…should I?

I’ve struggled with it and my conclusion at this point is that no, I shouldn’t. Our nation has a long history of oppressing African Americans (VERY simply put: slavery followed by overt discrimination and racism followed by continued systematic racism and racial profiling). Racism is quieter now but always lurking under the surface, ready to be ignited. Things like Ferguson happen. Bam, flames. And SOME white people be like, “It’s not about race. We have a black president! We’re a post-racial society!” No, we’re not. Have we made progress? Absolutely. But clearly we have a long way to go. It’s easy for white people to be ignorant of what’s lurking under the surface because we don’t have to deal with it every day. Racism is real and pervasive and systematized. I should not assume that, as a privileged white person, I have the right to take on their voice and tell their stories.

We need diverse books, yes, but really what we need are more diverse authors.

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17 comments

  1. tastehitch · December 8, 2014

    I agree to a point (certainly that there should be a more diverse authorship) but using the same logic male writers can never write with female voices and vice versa.

    If you are writing fiction then that voice is yours to craft however you will. Even if you are trying to say something more significant.

    Without someone taking on the voice that voice can be lost. Take Josiah Wedgwood for instance, he wrote from the perspective of a slave and helped spark the first anti-slavery movements in Britain. Without him, Britain wouldn’t have ended slavery so quickly in the Empire – allowing the continuation of one of the most barbaric trades ever devised.

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    • sjoycarlson · December 8, 2014

      So I agree with what you said. But I think, right now (particularly in the US, where I hail from when I’m not in Singapore), race is a far more controversial thing than gender. And in my very humble opinion (having written first POV with male and female characters), it’s a lot easier to write a different gender than a different race.

      Here’s what I think it comes down to…. If you’re thinking about doing it to do it and you’re a white writer, you need to search your soul about it.

      So let me throw this out there.I work in education, predominantly with students of color from low income areas. I’m highly trained in cultural competence and white privilege, which is something I know not many Americans have had the benefit of. I also have years of experience being the minority, both working at schools where I was one of 20 white staff members in schools that were 99% African American, and now living in Singapore. Very few white Americans and Brits have this experience either.

      We as authors can’t just wake up one day and say, yeah I’m going to write literature featuring people of color. We need to be asking ourselves, do we have the knowledge and experience we need to capture their subculture: dialect (or knowing when NOT to use dialect), religion, food, relational styles, communication styles, the interaction of socio-economic status and race on subculture, family structure, extended family influence, the impact of history on current worldviews, systematic racism, ect. Do we know enough to ensure that we’re not perpetuating stereotypes? I don’t know how many books I’ve seen about African American boys in gangs or coming out of Juvie. Just at face value, that perpetuates stereotypes that black inner city boys gangbanging criminals that maybe have good hearts. Having worked with inner city boys, yes some of them were in gangs, but a lot of them were just struggling to survive and wanted to learn and do great things in life. Even if we’re writing in the future… Hair care is different for white people and African American people. Fact.

      Are we willing to do the research, find readers from that population, to ensure that we are accurately capturing things?

      We also really need to delve into ourselves, examine our own stereotypes for that group (because we all stereotype) and challenge those.

      And if you’re a white person, you need to be cognizant of white privilege and how that shapes how you see the world. Because it absolutely does. And if you’re trying to show the world through the eyes of a person of color, you need to see the world through their eyes, not yours. And it’s different.

      Let me display my own former ignorance. It was probably six months to a year into working with soley African American kids that I realized that skin tone matters. Light skin is perceived by many of the students I worked with as more attractive than darker skin, particularly for girls. This is the case for students of other races I’ve worked with as well, Asian and Latino. When I first started working with African American population, I had no idea about hair and hair texture. Weaves and relaxers and straighteners and wigs and tracks. The lengths girls will go to (time, money, pain, etc) to have hair that looks white. The past few years, one of the things I observed, too, was the interaction of race and socio-economic status. What I mean by this: if I brought in an African American professor who came from a middle class family, a number of my low income African American kids might feel limited connection to that person because they don’t truly know their struggle, can’t talk their lingo. And not listen to what that person is saying. I think, too, it’s also the kind of thing where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know and don’t understand. And really will have to work very hard TO understand.

      Writers shouldn’t choose to have diverse characters just because. If they’re going to do it, they need to question what right they have to do so and being willing to truly make a commitment to learn about that particular population. And unless you’re writing sci-fi in the distant future, race matters if you are not the majority. Part of white privilege is that we can live our lives ignorant of that. You can’t write a book featuring a person of color and ignore it. If you as a white person think you can capture that, great. And do.

      .My main point is this: if you’re going to do it a) you need to educate yourself b) you need to be self-reflective on your own privilege and how it effects your worldview c) you need to MAKE SURE you are not perpetuating stereotypes d) you should really have people from that background read your novel first and give feedback e) you need to be prepared for potential backlash.

      Whew. That was probably a WAY longer response than you were expecting, lol. Might even be longer than the original article. Anyway, thanks for your comment and you’re right, when white people take it on and do it justice, it can change the world 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • tastehitch · December 18, 2014

        I too work in education and have around the world (currently in Bangkok).

        I think what you’re saying is two fold. Firstly, that just because someone is of the same ‘demographic’ (how I hate that word since leaving my 20s and joining the 30-40 demographic) doesn’t mean that they are representative of that group of people and may not connect to them ‘just because…’. Secondly, to not perpetuate stereotypes that are negative.

        My main contention was that assuming the voice of anybody is solely the right of an author. If what they write is racist or defamatory then they will have to suffer the consequences whatever they may be. Saying that an author may not do anything rather undermines the idea of authorship.

        Put it this way, Kazuo Ishiguro won the Man Booker prize for assuming the voice of Upper Class British people in ‘The Remains of the Day’.

        Quick aside, I’m British and we would (as far as I know) use the term ‘people of colour’ – too many connotations with pre-1994 South Africa. Why do you? I ask out of genuine ignorance.

        Also apologies for the delay – crazy end of term!

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  2. Jon Chaisson · December 8, 2014

    I will say I’m happy that I’ve been seeing more English translations of non-English authors lately–I mean, aside from the celebrity of Haruki Murakami, though I do love his work–and a lot of it is well worth checking out. [Another point aside–I’ve notice Publishers Weekly is VERY big on giving reviews for PoC and non-American writers. I’ve found some phenomenal work that way.]

    But I also agree, it’s not just about the stories, it’s about the people telling them, and I think we definitely need more of these writers as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sjoycarlson · December 8, 2014

      That’s great! I’ll have to check out publisher’s weekly. I’m an educator when I’m not living in Singapore. If I ever made it big as an author, I’d start a novel-writing mentor program for students of color :D.

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  3. annie · December 9, 2014

    wow.. what a beautiful wall painting!

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    • sjoycarlson · December 9, 2014

      Yeah, I used to drive by it every day on my way home from work. I always thought it was beautiful but also sad because it’s chipping away. It seemed ironic/iconic, because it’s on the boarded-up inner city arts council building. Seemed like a good metaphor.

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  4. christineplouvier · December 9, 2014

    Would it be possible for you to work with an appropriate co-author?

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    • sjoycarlson · December 9, 2014

      That would definitely be a good thing. Honestly, when I move back to Madison, if I could hook up with some of the students I worked closely with and enlist them (and their families) as collaborators, I’d consider it. But in my perfect world, I’d start some non-profit mentoring program for students from tough backgrounds to write their own stories.

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  5. I’ve had these thoughts as well, because I’ve written about kids who aren’t from the same background. Actually what happened was I wrote the stories about my own kids and I’ve gone back and edited the characters so they’re now locals because the choice I was faced with was one of trying to explain why a white face was the protagonist in an Indian/Malaysian/Singaporean setting and just saying you know what? This is a three-hundred-word illustrated story about a middle-class four-year-old who can’t sit still. Let’s just make him a local or we’ll lose our whole point.

    And I do worry about people accepting that choice, but then I also think my kids should have stories they can relate to, and I don’t know that people would accept the alternative choice any better. 🙂

    I think I’d make a different decision if I was trying to bring out a lot of subtleties and have an in-depth conversation which was really about race (rather than being four and having to sit still). Then again, in a story that length I’d have time to explain what a caucasian was doing in India.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sjoycarlson · December 9, 2014

      To me, your situation feels a bit different from what I’m talking about. In a nutshell, I’m talking about white writers assuming A) they can authentically B) and have the right to take on the voices of a group of people who my nation has a long history of oppressing. It feels different to me than a person living in Singapore, who has been surrounded by the culture and lived with it, writing the characters. In my very modest, humble opinion (for what it’s worth), I think what it comes down to is this: as with anything we do as writers, we are obligated to create the best characters and best stories we can. When we assume perspectives far different from our own, we need to go a hundred extra miles to ensure that we do it authentically and accurately. That we don’t perpetuate stereotypes. And we need to be highly aware of our own culture, worldview, the privileges afforded to us because of how we were born. And, as you’ve done, question ourselves as we’re doing it.

      Now, like I said, I think it’s just different in the US, particularly when talking about African Americans and especially right now. Of course, this is just one person’s opinion. 🙂

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      • Definitely it’s a delicate area, and worth careful thought. And I think you’re right in that the “correct” answer is very nuanced and depends on a lot of factors, one of which is the readership you’re presenting your work to (and their local race relations). It’s actually harder than people think to get outside their own perspectives.

        Liked by 1 person

      • sjoycarlson · December 9, 2014

        So true! And I wonder how many people really try….

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  6. S. R. Carrillo · December 10, 2014

    I don’t entirely agree. Yes, we need more diverse authors, but just because you’re not diverse doesn’t mean you can’t have diverse characters with diverse situations. I know you’re not using it as an excuse (obviously), but many others are, will and do. They hide behind this “I’m not qualified!” cover, hiding their heads from the world and swearing to write only what they know, as they’ve been told to from the moment they decided to look up “how to write well,” when in reality it’s only too easy to find these things out and use secondary sources and even primary sources like good writers know how to.

    I understand what you’re saying, but your reasoning isn’t the soundest. Of course, my opinion.

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    • sjoycarlson · December 10, 2014

      Totally agree with you that we as writers should not hide behind the “I’m not qualified” cover. You’re spot on with that! 🙂

      So I think what I’m trying to say is this… Authors shouldn’t just say oh, we need diverse books, I’m going to make my character Asian! But they have no appreciation for all the different kinds of “Asian,” all the unique cultures and languages and foods and takes on religion that vary greatly across a massive area of the world. They know no Asian people. They’re never given any thought to the immigrant experience in America, even for second generation. They’ve never experienced being a minority before.

      In my opinion (having written several books now with MC’s of very different backgrounds from my own), you as a writer are obligated to make sure you go the extra mile to do that person justice as a whole person. You can’t just, in contemporary fiction, make a person a different race and then write them from your worldview. Unless, of course, they’re culturally completely aligned with the middle class white culture of America. But then still there’d be conflict for that character because of that. It’s about being able to truly put yourself in the shoes of another (fictitious) human being. It’s far, far easier to do with characters that are similar to you; which is why I’m saying more diverse authors writing characters would be a great thing!

      I think writers also need to be cognizant of what’s going on in the world and historical context. Obviously I felt I could do a Northern Irish boy justice, but I put in a ton of work and research and got readers from Belfast to ensure accuracy. I’m currently collaboratively working on a novel with a Mexican American boy as an MC with a friend who is Latina. Now I would never write a book featuring a Native American MC because of our history of doing terrible things to them as a nation and stealing their voices and destroying their culture. African American? Maybe someday. Right now? Probably not the best time in my opinion.

      My point is not that writers can write only what they know. Wow, what a boring literary world that would be! But that if we choose to write characters that are different from us culturally, we need to be self-reflective on how those differences would impact the character’s worldview and ensure that we can authentically capture their perspective. That we can create well-rounded, well-researched characters in a non-stereotypical way. We need to put in tons of extra work. If we feel we can’t do that, then we shouldn’t take it on.

      Wow, that was long. Haha. Summary: If you choose to do it, research and be self-reflective.:) Thanks for the comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • S. R. Carrillo · December 10, 2014

        Wow that was… really well-worded. I think the initial post got a little off-track or something because that comment right there is on point. And I DO entirely agree with THAT.

        I read a book a few years ago (not too many – like 2) that featured an Asian MC who acted exactly like a middle class white girl and so that is basically just what she was – a middle class white American girl with an Asian last name (the author made it a point to explain in detail the fact that she didn’t even retain any typical Asian-associated “looks”). And I considered it an insult to the culture, to the race, to the people. This author had the chance to make this girl’s nationality mean something (because she was Irish-Chinese American) and went and fucked it all away by favoring almost entirely her whiteness. It was kinda embarrassing, actually.

        So yeah. Feel you on that one – that final thought is A+.

        Well, my comment got kinda long, too, so no worries! haha.

        Liked by 1 person

      • sjoycarlson · December 10, 2014

        Yay! Glad, friend! 😀 And the big thing that worries me about books like THAT is, imagine if you’re a Chinese American girl reading books like that. I HOPE you can realize it’s crap, but what if you don’t? Particularly with the way the author didn’t even make her *look* Asian. What might that make you think of yourself and they way you look? I mean, this imaginary girl’s already surrounded by white people, likely, and the media is flooding us all (unfortunately) with all these super skinny, beautiful white women. And then even in these books, *looking Chinese* doesn’t happen. And the fact that it doesn’t go into the culture says a lot by not saying anything. It says it doesn’t even matter.

        Thanks for sharing that example! That’s so perfectly exactly what I’m talking about 😀

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