Promoting Cultural Diversity in Literature

So this may come as a shock for some of you but just in case you haven’t noticed…I’m Black. “Surprise!” I also happen to be an avid reader and a writer of several genres including Young Adult fiction. My debut novel, On The Run (The Moriya Chronicles: Book 1) features a half African American, half Chinese protagonist. My second novel from a different series has a Caucasian female lead who also happens to be vampire. So…what’s the point? The point is that although I can be described as many things and boxed into several intricate categories, I am first and foremost, a human being. A human being who is in love with literature. When I decided I wanted to become a writer it was because I wanted to tell stories. Lots of different stories. About lots of different people. Which is why I have absolutely no problem creating a character who is white, black, purple, orange, tall, fat, or ugly. Because I enjoy telling stories about people.
That being said, it is sometimes overwhelming (and often quite discouraging) that as a reader I have had such a hard time finding books that feature people like me. People being the operative word. See I have no problem writing about all kinds of characters in my stories because I have come across all kinds of characters in my life. I am blessed to have friends from many different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and was raised not to see color. However, often times when I am reading (YA novels in particular) it becomes hard not to. An overwhelming percentage of these books are about fair haired, fair skinned girls. In fact in most, you’d be lucky to find even a supporting character who is non-white.
Now I know that people typically write what they know, and you often identify with people who look like you. And I suppose it could be argued that Katniss from The Hunger Games wasn’t Native American because Suzanne Collins isn’t, but am I really to believe that as authors our creative minds are that one dimensional? How would you then explain someone being able to write from the perspective of an animal? Or a person of the opposite sex? Or someone of a different species? There are also those who feel that race has nothing to do with this argument and I would encourage those individuals to do an internet search about the uproar that some movie goers had at discovering that Rue from The Hunger Games- who is described as having dark skin and dark eyes in the book- was indeed Black. And more times than not when a character in a novel is of a particular minority group they behave in a way which is stereotypical, or the story is about the fact that they are of that minority. Why can’t we write stories about interracial relationships without making the story about the interracial relationship?
So enough griping, how do we solve the problem?
1) Well, let’s take baby steps. First we could perhaps decide as authors of all different races to write aboutwait for itall different races. Yes, we absolutely write what we know but we all know lots of different people, and have fan bases filled with beautiful faces from all across the globe. Perhaps we could all make more of an effort to reflect that in our literature.
2) Don’t make it about race. I am no less qualified to write about a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes than a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes is. And wouldn’t it be silly if every time I wrote about a girl who looked as such, her looks were the topic of the story? Case in point: we all bleed, cry, laugh and fall in love. So let’s have all different types of people do all different types of things in our stories, and remove the topic of race from the table.
3) Perspective is key. Some people just don’t get it, and perhaps they never will. To be honest, I picked up on the fact that Rue was Black as soon as she was introduced into the story, while others, clearly did not. But in all fairness, I am admittedly more cognizant of the presence (or lack thereof) of characters of color because of my color. I’ve had friends who didn’t recognize racial disparities simply because they weren’t exposed or had no knowledge of them or just look at the world differently. We’re all different, so perhaps if there are people among you who don’t see your perspective you could enlighten them. Don’t preach. Just share.
4) Since we’re on the topic of diversity how about we include all diversity. May it be race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or those suffering from an ailment or disorder. I have an autoimmune disease and a majority of the people I come into contact with on a daily basis have no knowledge of it. My disease does not define who I am and it doesn’t always have to define who your characters are either.
5) Lastly, I encourage people from diverse backgrounds who have a knack for writing to do so. We can’t complain about a lack of representation if we don’t first make an effort to represent ourselves. Of course that does not mean that the Brazilian author has to write books that only feature Brazilian characters. (When you hear it that way doesn’t it then seem silly for anyone to do this?) I don’t believe any author should feel obligated to write anything they do not truly want to write, but if diverse people began to write about diverse topics it would really broaden so many horizons.
6) Unfortunately, I must point out one last thing. At times during the publishing process there may be individuals who are disinterested in diversified characters or insist on pigeonholing authors who write about them into specific categories. Even Neil Gaiman, a highly successful fantasy author who wrote a book called, American Gods, which features a main character who is of mixed racial descent, found that when his book was initially being shopped around to movie studios there were those who wished to alter the race of his characters, claiming a lack of appeal. He chose to decline their offer and years later the movie has still not been made. There are countless others who have seen firsthand that the people in a position of power don’t always promote diversity. Case and point: when it comes to publishing literature, there is another answer. If you have a story you feel strongly about and everyone is telling you “No,” then publish it yourself! Don’t let another person’s negative attitude deter you from sharing your story with the world!
So remember, write what you love and love what you write. If you are blessed to develop relationships with different types of people, cherish those relationships. We are all beautiful, and we come in many colors, shapes and sizes. An author’s success is dependent on its wide variety of readers, so allow your writing to represent all of them.
I-Lanaa Twine

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