Monday, April 28, 2014

Incidental Diversity

I have returned from my writing conference bleary-eyed, excited about editing, and feeling already the unreality of the last few days. I rubbed shoulders with people I have idolized--saw them as people, chatted with them about the banalities of salmon and poop; that's a rare and surreal thing. I'm still getting over it.

I also can't get over another topic of conversation that was prevalent: diversity in fiction.

Diversity is one of these things that we think we've got down in the western world, but we really haven't. We think we're not racist, sexist, ageist, etc. anymore, but the prejudice has just gone underground. The insidiousness of bigotry is evident in all aspects of business and culture, and no less so where the two meet: the world of literature and entertainment.

Do you know who the average writer is? A middle-aged straight white guy. And who is the average hero? A young straight white boy.

In some ways we've succeeded in breaking down a few barriers. There are, for instance, more and more strong female protagonists. It's becoming a fad, and I'm okay with that. But so much else is not. What about 80-year-old protagonists? What about depressed protagonists with General Anxiety Disorder? What about Deaf protagonists?

One of the things that irks me is when we try to fight diversity too explicitly. I was talking with another writer about how LGBT Lit is always about the character's gayness. It's never about a gay character who finds a ring with magical powers and has to go destroy it in a volcano. Or a gay character who discovers he has magical powers and is destined to destroy the dark lord. It's about a gay character discovering he's gay, falling in love, doing gay things--sometimes inadvertently promoting stereotypes.

I think we've come to believe that LGBT identity is restricted to sexuality. We think that being black means your whole life is about racism. That being handicapped is who you are, not one of many facts about you. We forget that whether you're gay or black or differently abled, you still hunt for jobs, avoid avocados, and read sci-fi on the weekends.

I call it incidental diversity: when a character's diverse characteristics are not the focus of their story. Of the people I know who fit in "underprivileged" categories, the category isn't how they think of themselves, nor how they like to be seen by others. When I define myself, I don't say, "I'm a woman." I say I'm a writer, an animal-lover, a synesthete; I talk about (1) the things that make me unique, (2) the things I like to talk about, and (3) the things I've achieved. My femaleness is neither particularly unique, an interesting conversation topic, nor an achievement.

We have to strike a careful balance here. On the one hand, being from underprivileged groups (gay, person of color, female, transgender, disabled, etc.) doesn't restrict you from all the other joys, worries, fears, jealousies, and pleasures of human life. You still fall in love, struggle with identity, learn to grow up, have love-hate relationships with jobs, juggle adult responsibility.

On the other hand, the nature of these experiences are informed by your unique perspective. All people have relationships; but a white guy and white girl will have a different experience from two girls, who will have a different experience from an Indian-American and a white American, who will have a different experience from two 90-year-old widow/ers.

One gal at the conference said, "We need to stop seeing categories and start seeing individuals."

Isn't that what literature is about--or what it's supposed to be about? You're trying to say something about the human experience through one character's adventures. You're seeing an individual, and seeing how they both adhere to and deviate from the usual script of life.

This is the best way to fight for diversity: writing people instead of categories.

The only good thing I have to say about nondiverse literature is that it has increased my imaginative capacity. I grew up relating with male characters even though I am female, and learned to take away lessons from stories quite different from my own experience. But like I said in that post, the point of art is to change us not by showing us people similar to us, but people who are different. (Tweet this.) The greater the diversity, the greater the benefit to all communities and individuals.

In lieu of that and of the distinct lack of diversity on today's bookshelves, a campaign is starting on May 1 to bring this issue to the attention of publishers and booksellers. Currently, books by minority authors and books about minority characters are being rejected in much larger proportion to books by white, straight authors about white, straight characters because "people don't want to read that." Let's show publishers how wrong they are.

If you want to participate in voicing this issue, details of the campaign are here. It's pretty simple: post on social media with the hastag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Let's make diversity commonplace and normal, not the few-and-far-between freak show books we currently have.

Word count: 794.