I participated in a pretty interesting and rousing panel yesterday at the Kidlitosphere Conference (with Justina Chen, Sarah Ryan, Lee Wind, and Sarah Stevenson) on the subject of “diversity” — racial and otherwise — in YA fiction.
Here are some of my thoughts:
- Talk is cheap. Everyone says, “I’m all for diversity!” But being in favor of diversity in theory is literally pointless. In today’s world, the only way it happens is if you consciously make it happen. We all need to be aware of this issue — in our own works and in the works of others. If the characters you’re writing (and reading) are exactly like you, it’s worth asking yourself, “Why might that be?”
- Writing minority characters can be a thankless job. If it’s a leading character, your project may very well be put in a different category by agents, publishers, and booksellers, than if the character is straight and white: it might be put in a marginalizing “niche.” Non-minority readers may be more reluctant to read it, but you might also face extra scrutiny from minority folks, especially if your project ends up being high-profile. The Help was criticized by some for being written (and told, in part, from the point of view of) a white character. Meanwhile, books like Push (which became the movie Precious) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are criticized, even by other minorities, for exposing (or, some say, exaggerating) negative aspects of those communities (to appeal to whites, some say). Since nobody needs these headaches, I wish people would remember that, ultimately, these are just stories, and no story is going to definitively change the world for the better or the worse, nor can any one story be all things to all people.
- Along those lines, there is no one minority experience of anyone — not of blacks, not of gays, not of the disabled. What we’re talking about are the experiences of individuals — individual characters, in fact. I really do get why minorities are protective of the way they’re portrayed — they’ve often been oppressed, ridiculed, and/or stereotyped, usually for centuries. But again, when we’re talking about a book or movie, we’re talking about individual characters, not entire groups. No one is “representative” of anything. And besides, art is about making connections and finding the emotional heart in a character and situation anyway; it’s not about literal “truth.”
- That said, if you’re not a member of a minority, and you’re writing a minority character, you have a responsibility to do your research about that community and get the details right. More importantly, you have a responsibility to be aware of existing media stereotypes and minority tropes and cliches about that community: they often loom very, very large, and they’re usually the source of much frustration in minority communities. If you choose to employ minority stereotypes or tropes anyway, you should absolutely know that you’re doing it and also know exactly why. If you don’t do your research on these issues, you really do deserve to be criticized.
- That said, don’t be scared of minority characters and stories, even if you’re not a member of that community. It’s sometimes the case that a person outside a minority community (but very familiar with it) can offer an extremely interesting perspective on that community. None of the three writers involved with the movie Brokeback Mountain (the original prose writer or the two screenwriters) were gay, but they were able to create a uniquely and profoundly “gay” story, and also somehow find that story’s universal “heart”; as a result, they created a story that appealed to a mainstream audience in a way that no gay love story ever had. Sometimes some minority writers are too close to a community, or too lost in details or politics, to find a way to tell a story in such a universal way. I’m reminded how, in the 19th century, the political writer Alexander de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, was able to see America so very clearly. Mainstream popularity is not the end-all and be-all of every writer and every story, but such stories do have a place in the world. Brokeback Mountain made a difference.
- The reason why there is so much controversy and discussion about minority portrayals, especially high profile, big budget, or leading portrayals, is because they’re still so rare. These projects contain the hopes and dreams of thousands if not millions of people; it makes sense those people would be heavily invested in them. The only way to make minority stories less of a big, angst-y, complicated deal is for there to be more stories told for and about minorities of all kinds.
- I wish minority communities, including my own GLBT community, would be more reluctant to level charges of “racism,” “homophobia,” or “sell out”, at least against projects that might be flawed but are still pretty clearly well-meaning and well-intentioned. I’m all for vigorous debate and criticism, but we’re all in this together, and the writer of even a flawed or stereotypical character is not necessarily the “enemy,” and cannot and should not be held responsible for all of society’s sins. Furthermore, criticism should always be about the work in question, never the motives or prejudices of the author, which no one can ever really know anyway.
Like I said, it’s a complicated topic!