Writing Diverse as a Person of Colour…

Encouragement of #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Back the beginning of the year I wrote a post discussing if there was a right way to do diversity in books. And this is a question that continues to be on my mind as I’ve gone through the process of writing, editing, and now querying/submitting my novel to literary agents.

We’re now in a time where people are calling for not only diverse books but diverse books written by people of colour. There’s outcry regarding the biases of publishers when it comes to whose books they’ll publish and what books they’ll buy. It feels more likely now than ever that you can pick up a book and feel represented in some way. And as someone who is reading the wish lists of literary agents, you cannot look at an agent bio without seeing a request for a diverse cast of characters and often for diverse authors as well.

And there’s so much support for diversity and diverse authors. I remember when I was younger if I wanted to read an LGBTQ+ romance I would go online or read fanfiction, there weren’t a lot of books you could just pick up off the shelf. But now that’s changing and not only are people requesting those books, those books are getting published. And I love to think of someone picking up and book and thinking ‘that’s me’ or ‘I know exactly what they mean’, and finding things true to their experience. And moreover, people are being educated to the ways in which we can make our society more inclusive. The trending #whitewashedout hashtag encouraged the film industry to use actors whose ethnicity matches the character they are portraying and encouraging non-POC actors to turn down these roles. But more than that, it was a show of the ways in which POC (people/person of colour) have been affected by only seeing themselves represented as stereotypes.

People are being encouraged to tell their own stories and to create stories that are more inclusive so anyone can find a book and feel represented. And as a writer, becoming aware of all the different types of people and cultures in the world opens you up to creating more diverse stories. And more, of researching and creating authentic characters instead of shallow stereotypes.

Except, it’s not that simple.

Can anyone write a diverse book?

Speaking from my own experience, there isn’t just a request for diverse authors with diverse books. It comes, I feel as a POC writer, with the stipulation that your diverse book is #ownvoices. What does own voices mean? It means writing a character from your own POV and experiences specific to your gender, class, race, ability, etc. And it’s a great movement. It encourages people to read stories written by someone who has actually experienced what they’re writing about and encourages writers to share their experiences. But the unexpected backlash is the way it can pigeonhole your writing. Whether intended or not, there’s some negativity that comes with this positive movement. One is that it seems to shame people who want to write about experiences other than their own. And there’s the idea that writing about someone else’s experience without having that experience yourself is stealing an opportunity from that person.

This is something I’ve been thinking about daily (yes, every day) in regards to my own novel. I wrote a fantasy novel about a teenager in a wheelchair who meets a witch that puts magic in his legs that lets him walk. This is something I have been stressed about the entire writing process. Not only because I’m neither male nor disabled. But also because on the surface it seems to suggest that the greatest wish of all people with disabilities is to not have that disability. Which is, of course, not true, and not the point. The point is that he feels his disability holds him back but comes to realize that it isn’t. It’s about accepting yourself. How can I write about that? Am I not perpetuating a stereotype? Am I not stealing an opportunity from an author with a disability who could better represent this character? Why not write about my own experiences as a POC?

But I am writing about my own experience. No, I have never had a disability. I may never know what that’s like. I will certainly never know what it’s like to be a teenager in a wheelchair. But I do know what it means to stand out. I went to a school where there were not many POC and yes, people assumed me and the only other black boy in the class were either siblings or dating. I know what it’s like to go somewhere and have people stare at me. And while I’ve never wished to be white, I won’t pretend that I’ve never thought ‘wouldn’t it be easier if…?’ when I was younger and insecure. What if I magically became white? Would things have really been easier for me, or would I have realized that my skin colour was never what was holding me back from being confident? Now how is that not similar to what I’m writing?

What I’m getting at is that everyone has different experiences and can draw on those to help represent a character, even if that character doesn’t match them. And that you can’t know what they’re using to relate to a character. Could I have written the exact same book with a female black protagonist who magically becomes white? I could have, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to see a novel that featured a character with a disability. I wanted to see a witch in a wheelchair that didn’t look like Professor X, or is old but wise, or sits in the background helping the abled MC. And in all honesty, it’s a fantasy novel, it’s about magic more than anything. You write what you want to see, so I did. And while I love the #weneeddiversebooks movement and to see and read more books with POC and LGBTQ+ characters. What I don’t like is this negativity backlash that seems to tell authors what they are and aren’t allowed to write about. That being said, do your research, make sure you’re doing the best non-stereotyped representation you can, but don’t discourage people from having a POC main character because they’re white, or writing an abled character because they have a disability, and wouldn’t they rather write about someone like them? Maybe they don’t want to. Judge the product of writing for what it is. Support #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices. But don’t dictate who can write what.

Writing diverse fears

Recently, there was a DVPit Twitter contest for diverse stories, especially those from marginalized voices. And I didn’t participate. Yes, I had a diverse book and I am one of those marginalized voices. But the voice I was writing and my own voice didn’t match up. I thought of that #whitewashedout hashtag. I was representing a marginalized voice, but it wasn’t mine. I was so terrified of being shamed for writing outside my ability that I didn’t submit at all. And I am sure that this wasn’t the intention of the person running the contest. I constantly feel an overwhelming pressure to write within my own race, and that not doing so, specifically as a POC, is a betrayal of it. Not everyone feels this way, but I’m confident that some people do. I mean, there are threads on Reddit where people are asking if it’s okay for them to write about ‘x’ race like being another race.

And so I encourage people to keep reading diverse and supporting own voices. But I would hope that people stop shaming writers that want to write outside of their own gender, orientation, race, and ability. I would like to think that writers are coming from the position of wanting to represent all types of voices and are not seeking to take away from #ownvoices authors or be ‘trendy’. And definitely do not ‘fact check’ people and ask them if their work is their own voices or not (yes, I have seen this happen). And no one should have to prove how and why their book is #ownvoices if they label it that way. This is a positive movement and I hope that it stays exactly that, positive.

Do you feel pressure to write within your own gender, orientation, race, ability, etc.? Why or Why not?