Friday, 6 March 2015


Hello, and happy Friday, Dear Readers! Before we go any further, a reminder that #Zolahpalooza is still in full swing and that you have just under a week now to enter for a chance to win one of the faaaabulous prizes on offer. Get in there while you still have the chance!

Today I'm answering a question from long-time blog commenter Alex, who says:
I'm working on a screenplay at the moment and I'm sitting down working out the details of my main character... and I immediately went to write 'White British' - because that's what I am. And then I stopped my pen and thought 'Why??' So, I tried to write down something different, maybe British Indian. But then I stopped myself again. I'm not of Indian heritage. Is a British Indian woman's experience of life totally different from mine? I haven't lived it; how can I write it? And I know this is stupid because I have written about ancient Roman characters who obviously lived very different lives to mine. I guess I'm afraid that I'll get it wrong; that I might write or portray something carelessly that causes offence, etc.  Do you have any reading recommendations maybe from diverse authors that supports the idea that it wouldn't be a kind of act of appropriation?
Which is such a complex and fascinating question that I immediately decided I wanted to base a blogpost on it - and then freaked out because I'm not sure I can do justice to such a complex and fascinating question, especially in light of the literal landslide of debate and information about diversity which has spilled over the blogosphere in the past couple of years.

The thing is, in theory Alex has come to the perfect person to offer some honest and practical advice on this. Like Alex I'm white, yet the vast majority of my characters are people of colour, many of them part of other 'minority' (ha ha ha) groups too, like the QUILTBAG or disabled community. I've been writing diverse books since 2006 and blogging about diversity since 2010. I talked about cultural appropriation here, the importance of looking at the real world here, stepping out of your privilege bubble here, and who gets to have a happily ever after here.

And yet, and yet and yet. After all these years of talking about the importance of diversity... I kind of feel as if I've already said everything that I needed to say? Or maybe as if I've gradually come to realise how truly little I really know in the grand scheme of things. There are scads of people out there whose voices on this topic deserve to be heard just as much, if not more, than mine - and so perhaps it's time that I hop off my soapbox to make room for them, and shut up so that there's a little bit less noise drowning out what they have to say.

So in a moment, Alex, I'm going to give you a comprehensive list of blogs and websites that are talking about this issue and offering advice, and you can dive into the discussion for yourself. Keep your heart and mind open - not to mention your ears - and perhaps at first keep quiet as you let it all wash over you. I think some time in the not-to-distant future you'll emerge enlightened and perhaps a little dazed, but a better and more thoughtful writer all the same.

However, you did ask me, personally, for my advice - it seems only fair I should start you off with that. So here's a condensed version of my two cents on what people who have privilege (white, straight, cis, able-bodied - or all of the above or more) should bear in mind when writing about people who do not share their privilege. Which at this point really seems to boil down to a three key things:

1) Do not reduce your characters to their differences from you. 

By which I mean, if you decide to write a character who is of Chinese origin, do not make their sole characteristic that they are of Chinese origin. If they are black, do not make the colour of their skin their single defining trait. If they are disabled, do not make their disability literally the only interesting thing they have to offer, and if they are queer do not turn them into The Gay Character. Even if they're of Chinese origin, black, disabled and gay (and yes, there's thousands of real people who fit that bill) that still isn't enough to make a character. It's just a laundry list of external traits, and is equally as interesting - which is to say, not at all. 

Yes, most of us are influenced by the ethnicity and culture that we are part of and grew up within - but we all to react to that influence in different ways, and that? Is what makes us unique, interesting individuals, not just stereotypes. Your characters are your representations of the way you think real people work. They should therefore be multifaceted, possibly flawed, complex and fully rounded, like real people. 

Decide who your character is: the core of them. Are they kind? Brave? Judgmental? Needy? Angry?  Violent? Reckless? Loyal? All of these things? How do they, as unique people, express these personality traits? What do they want, and how would they go about getting it? What do they love, and what do they hate? Make their ethnicity, their mental health, their gender and sexuality and their physical status, whatever they may be, a PART of this - a fascinating part which should be explored - but do not allow it to dictate your every decision on what they do and say and think.

You surely wouldn't write 'White, British, able-bodied, straight' down and think you'd done the job as far as developing the character went, would you? The same goes for any character regardless of how different they are from your primary template - which naturally is based on yourself. If you're generally allowing a single (or even two or three) external traits to define your characters, you're... probably not writing compelling characters. Sorry.

2) Do your research. 

The main problem which I think holds people back from writing characters who are different to them is that they're afraid of getting something wrong. Yet instead of acknowledging the gaps in their intelligence and launching whole-heartedly into research about what life might be like as a British Born Pakistani woman - just as you would have launched wholeheartedly into discovering what life might have been like as noblewoman of Italian descent living in Britain before the fall of the Roman Empire, Alex - they do one of two extremely shortsighted and unhelpful things. 

Either they get cross at the idea that they don't know all there is to know, pull the 'I'll just call upon the universal experience of being human!' card and refuse to do any research at all, leading them to make often quite insulting and inaccurate assumptions and choices and to depict offensive stereotypes instead of real people. Or else they refuse to write characters who are different to them at all because they simply can't be bothered. *Pauses to roll eyes* *Shakes it off* 

Look, if you're going to write another culture, or about the life experiences of a person whose circumstances are entirely different to yours, of course you must be willing to devote time and attention to research! Respectfully approach and listen (that's important - really listen) to people who share traits with the characters you want to write about, read books by people from that community about their lives, seek out music or films or blogs made by those from that group. Accept and embrace this. You'll enrich not only your writing, but your life.

3) Accept that you are a mere flawed mortal and will make mistakes - and that your audience is the same. 

There is no such thing as a perfect book (or play, or film or TV show or whatever). I'm fairly sure at this point that there is no such thing even as an unproblematic book (or play, or film, or TV show or whatever). Sometimes people will not like what you have created. Sometimes they will have good reasons and you should try to learn from their criticisms. And sometimes they will misinterpret what you've written, or focus on their personal issues with it to the exclusion of everything else you've achieved in the work. And it will hurt.

But it's OK. 

You're not a fifty pound note and your work is not a gold brick - which is to say, you cannot expect either you or your work to receive some kind of universal stamp of objective worth. You are a person and your work is the product of your own unique fears, hopes, dreams and wishes. Some people will like the fruits of your creativity. Others will find them bitter, or bland, or overly sweet, or rotten. That's up to them.

The only person you can ultimately be sure of pleasing is yourself. So make the decisions that feel right to you - be brave - take risks - stretch yourself - and if you fail (and you will, you will) know that the failure was only one missed step on your journey as an artist and that the lessons you learned in the fall will help you to make the next leg of the trip better, if not easier, than the one before.

You can also read this fantastic essay by Kate Elliott on writing characters as human beings (who are female) and mentally replace the word 'women' with 'person of colour/QUILTBAG person/disabled person'. Elliott makes an excellent point that even the most aware writers will always be working to make choices against their natural, internalised assumptions and prejudices, and offers much better advice than I do.

And now! A feast of awesome and diverse linkity in no particular order!

The Gay YA is a great, inclusive blog that focuses on the QUILTBAG community and books featuring QUILTBAG characters (asexuals represent!). Queer YA is a similar site run by a UK blogger that looks at UK queer youth culture and QUILTBAG representation in the media.

DiversifYA are just darn good people and their blog looks at all aspects of diversity. Again, they're focused on YA, but since YA is where the best discussion is... that's where you go. Same goes for WeNeedDiverseBooks (which involves some of the same amazing people) the thundering campaign which changed the landscape of children's publishing forever. Then there's Diversity in YA, which has been going for a long time and is run by personal heroes Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. They offer stinging editorials and statistical analysis of current levels of diversity in publishing, and helpful round-ups of diverse books coming out now. Rich in Colour are also all about discussing, promoting and reviewing diverse YA novels.

Disability in KidLit offers a similar thing to Diversity in YA, focusing on the representation of disabilities and disabled people within YA. They do a lot of thoughtful book reviews. The website is run by some really great, gutsy ladies.

In more general, less YA focused sites, there's Writing in Colour, which is just the best resource for writers seeking help to create a richly diverse and respectfully realised cast for their work - their mods will personally answer questions on the specifics of their lived experiences, or throw requests for information out to their followers if they're unsure. If you're looking for inspiration for a period piece, Medieval PoC is an enduring delight, offering European art history with the people of colour front and centre instead of cropped out, to disprove the idea that 'historical accuracy' = white. Also inspiring me currently is SuperHeroesInColour, whose posts prove that there have been superheroes of colour as long as there've been comics (so there).

*Swigs coffee* 

Phew, OK, I think that seems to be about it? I hope this is in some way helpful, Alex. Thanks to my Tweeps who responded to my call on Twitter to jog my memory about sites dealing with diversity - I'd probably have forgotten several great blogs without your help. Apologies to anyone whose suggestion/s wasn't included or whose site was not included - Alex is living in the UK and, as she mentioned, is working on a play, so a lot of the sites for children's literature or which were particularly US-centric weren't going to be particularly helpful to her. But hugs to all anyway!

Read you later, my loves!


Alex Mullarky said...

I knew you were the right person to ask! Thank you so much. That was exactly what I needed to be told, and now I have a whole trove of advice from other places, too.

PS I'm living in Australia now, as of the last 6 months! But I will return... (Seriously I miss the UK a LOT)

Zoë Marriott said...

You're very welcome - and good luck! (Also, enjoy the weather over there while you can - no matter how much you miss the UK, when you get back you're going to remember why you left in the first place).

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