Diversity is a hot topic in publishing these days, as it should be. But, like any hot topic, it’s misunderstood by some. Let me take a moment to break it down:
Yes. We need more diversity in publishing. In the people behind the scenes, in the authors given deals, in the books being published.
No, it’s not up to you to represent diverse attributes that are not part of who you are.
Yes, it would be great if your novels represented a more realistic version of the world, but unless you are willing to do research and treat these characters with respect, you need to tread very carefully.
Why? It seems some people can’t understand this. Some people have always seen themselves in print and film and never had a lack of material to relate to. So, let’s play a little game. Let’s say that you like pizza, but most other people don’t. So every food critic you read has someone mentioning pizza with disgust, or staying clear of mentioning pizza at all.
But pizza is important to you. Then, one day, you find a restaurant, and it specializes in pizza! So exciting! But, the pizza is presented without any sauce at all, and that’s not pizza to you, pizza has to have some form of sauce.
You feel disgruntled, left out, alone. You feel not worthy because of your love for pizza. Then you find another restaurant specializing in pizza. You tread carefully, remembering the last experience. However, this chef is a fellow pizza enthusiast! You enter the establishment and there is nothing but love for pizza, with appropriate sauce. Finally, you have a restaurant you can connect with.
That’s what the diversity movement wants. That’s why we want own voices, writers writing about their own diverse traits. This isn’t about you, it’s about us.
Now, gather around, a little story time from yours truly. I wrote a novel where one of the main characters was of a different race than my own. I did it during a time when I really noticed the lack of diversity in novels. I did it because I write characters with hearing loss. Hearing loss spans all races, genders, sexualities, religions, disabilities, etc. I wanted to show some of that variety in my novel.
I researched. I talked with others. I had sensitivity readers. And, still, I listened to authors of color talk. I worried. Not because I didn’t do my work. But because I know how I feel when I pick up a book with a deaf/hard of hearing character written by a hearing person. I know how I feel when I find all these little details that are not accurate.
I don’t want to do this to someone else.
And yet, this character was as I saw her, each time I tried to see her in a different light, she lost something. She was diverse, in more ways than her ears.
In talking with a friend a suggestion dropped on the table: make her Jewish. Now, this isn’t another thing I had to research, this is who I am. And yet, most of my characters are not Jewish. I’ll write a hundred deaf characters before I write a Jewish one. But, more on that later.
The Jewish aspect clicked. The character took shape. Writing her became easier. I no longer worried I messed something up. The character shifted, because when you change part of an identity, other personality traits follow. Parts of the character that remained unchanged were now viewed in a different light, based on societal impressions.
The experience was a learning and telling one for me.
And then, antisemitism explodes on twitter, targeting Jewish writers. Reminding me why I hesitate to write about my faith. Simply put, I’ve been taught not to. You don’t grow up Jewish without knowing most of your ancestors have been killed for being who they are. You don’t grow up Jewish without knowing that at times it’s best to keep this part of you hidden. You know there are risks.
Those risks make me proud I’m taking this step. Because while my non-white character was important and underrepresented, so is my Jewish character. And like when I write about hearing loss, I can take a part of myself that most people don’t know about, and shed some light on it.
But I’ve never worried someone would attack me for writing Deaf and Hard of Hearing characters. I do have to worry about writing Jewish.
So, that’s me, where I’m at, exploring my own diverse traits in my main characters, while ensuring my supporting characters represent the world larger than myself. I’m supporting my fellow diverse writers. And hope that the non-diverse ones can either join in on the support, or take an honest minute to see why. This is only a fight because of lack of representation.
If you want to meet the character mentioned in this post, her name is Jasmine, and she’ll be out in the world on June 27.