Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thoughts on diversity

Okay, I picked away at this post over three days, very late at night, so forgive me if there are weird leaps or poor use of language. I have been so busy/stressed, that after this post I'm going dark until the end of May when the convention is over (except there might be some pictures up on Bailiwick), but I really wanted to write this one last post as this is something I very much care about.

There's a campaign starting tomorrow about diversity in YA. Not sure if you already know about it, but I first read about it here. The topic of diversity been popular lately. Here's just one page with links, but it's been all over the internet for the past couple of months.

Now, I've thought about writing a post about diversity before... I know I've touched on it in several other posts, but it's never been the foremost topic, and for the sake of keeping this at a reasonable length, I'm going to concentrate on racial/ethnic diversity.

Two things that need to be clear up front:

1) Yes, I'm Caucasian. I'm 1/2 Irish, 1/4 Scottish, and 1/4 FOB British (My grandmother married a Canadian pilot during the war).

2) I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. The 2011 census puts Caucasians at 46.2% of the population.

If we're only using race as a plumb line, I've never experienced 'not seeing myself' in a book.

BUT, unless an author keeps reminding me what the characters look like, repeating how blonde someone's hair is, or how dazzling blue their eyes are, I pretty much imagine the cast as the world I grew up in.

Caucasian Population 46.2%

Visible Minority Population 51.8% (Chinese 27.7%)

Aboriginal Population 2%

I've been asked before why there's almost no physical descriptions of character in the stories I write, and well, I'd have to say it's because it's something I don't pay much attention to in real life, so I don't pay much attention when I write.

If I'm shopping at Metrotown in Burnaby, I don't think about the fact that I'm one of maybe 10% Caucasian shoppers, or one of maybe 3% in a T&T Supermarket. If I'm walking downtown on Robson Street, I won't even give a thought to passing through a group of women fully decked out in burqa.*

Because it's so normal to see so many different kinds of people.

The only time I really started noticing ratios of white-to-non-white, was when I moved away from Vancouver, first to Calgary, AB, then to Victoria, BC.

...and then I felt a little creeped out.

I'm being 100% serious. It was like being dropped into that movie with all the creepy blonde blue-eyed children ('Children of the corn'???).

I live in a racial and ethnically diverse city, and therefore, when I'm reading books, I naturally populate them with diversity unless expressly told otherwise.

When I'm writing, I figure, the less description, the easier it is for the reader to put themselves into the book. The only time I describe someone, it's for an important reason.

But this campaign for diversity raised an important question for me:

Is 'not noticing' and 'not describing' part of the problem?

When you don't specifically identify a character's ethnic background in a book, readers are going to make assumptions and populate the book naturally, just as I do, by what's 'normal' for where they grew up.

A Caucasian kid from a primarily Caucasian city is probably going to imagine a white-washed cast.

...BUT, is a minority kid from a primarily Caucasian city also going to imagine a white-washed cast?

To me, the conundrum of how to approach 'diversity' comes down to this:

Do I want to intentionally identify racial/ethnic (or other) groups in the stories I write, or continue to leave it up to the reader?

Pointing out, or singling out one group calls attention to which other groups are, or are not there. (For a discussion about this in 'Harry Potter', read the comments on this post, but I'm sure you can find a million other similar articles by using the magic of Google).

For example, in TRoRS, Spence is Indian, and by that, I mean his parents/grandparents are from India. I know some people refer to Aboriginals as 'Indians', so I wanted to clarity my terminology.

Should I have to give him a more traditional name like Bupinder when most of my non-Caucasion friends growing up all had 'Caucasian' names like Jennifer, Andrew, Susan, and Eric**? Should I have made a point to describe his hair, his skin colour, etc when I didn't do that with any of the other characters?

...and if I did, would I have to give Triss an authentic Jewish name to balance it out, even though only her mom is Jewish***? What about Jackson, who I imagine to be mix-race? Should I have to specify the racial background of both his parents and ruminate over the 'right' word to describe his skin-tone? Should all the Caucasian characters also be broken down into which part of Europe their ancestors came from?

And even if I did all of that, there would still be people asking, "where are the gay, transgendered, handicapped, and mentally ill characters?"

...or whether my story passes the Bechdel test****?

...and in the end, what does any of that have to do with the story if none of it is integral to the plot?

You can't please, or include, everyone. If you do, it'll just be a poorly contrived mish-mash where it feels like the author has created a checklist for 'diversity' and filled in all the character blanks in their story from that list.

If I'm intentionally adding in extra words for the sole purpose of showing how diverse the cast is, it pulls away from the story just as badly as a to-remain-nameless-author who spent pages and pages worth of words describing the FMC's clothes.

Going back one moment to Spence... there's a twist in the story involving him and another character. If I concentrated a lot of time (and words) on his background, it would make the reader assume that having an Indian at the party was a singularity. Not only is that incorrect, but then the twist wouldn't work.

I think it's very important for everyone, not only teens, to read about characters they can identify with.

As a writer, I think, the issue with diversity (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc) can be approached from many different angles, and that you can't say one is necessarily more 'correct' than another, as long as the writer is putting some thought behind it.

I think it's important for there to be books published with a Chinese or Indian main character struggling to find their identify as a minority.

I think it's equally important for books where Chinese or Indian characters are not considered minorities at all.

And there should also be books where racial/ethnic diversity is such a normal thing, that no one notices or cares about singling out one group or another based on race/ethnicity/skin colour/etc.

In Vancouver, so many are second or third generation immigrants that people of all ages are more likely to band together and group themselves in terms of jobs, wealth, religion, hobbies/interests, omnivores/vegetarian/vegan, etc rather than 'race/ethnicity'.

That's the culture of the city I grew up in, so that's the kind of culture I'm naturally going to write.

But this campaign on diversity, and the question that got raised for me, is probably going to change how I write, at least a little bit, to make sure the diversity of the cast in my head is better translated onto the page... without it feeling like I'm shoe-horning it in just so I can wave a flag around and shout, "my story is diverse!"

I want the culture I grew up in to permeate the atmosphere of the book. That's my goal.

To leave you with one more link to an older post, I believe it should always be 'character first', not 'gender first', or 'sexual identify first', or 'racial background first'.

What about you? How much do you think about diversity, and if you write about it, what angle are you coming from?

...and I very much hope this campaign for diversity goes well. Personally, I'd also love to see more books written in other parts of the world end up on the mainstream bookshelves here. I still have the (English translated) tattered copy of Banana Yoshimoto's "Kitchen" that I re-read to death as a teenager.

* A couple months ago I was out for lunch with a dog-walking friend of mine who recently moved here from Russia, and he pointed it out later at the restaurant.

** No, I didn't use their actual 'real' names, but close ones.

*** Hopefully there are enough clues with Triss that careful readers would have figured that out.

**** I guess that depends on whether the reader imagines the gender-unspecified MC as male or female.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Promising Flash Fiction Friday

A promising prompt up at Skullduggery, come play along (you know you want to).

My brain is set to explode, you really don't want me to get into it...

My flash fiction piece is probably going to be picked out on my phone sometime today, so it may be entertaining more for the 'auto-miscorrections' than the actual content ;)

Have a happy Friday!

(oh, and the new project I've started for the convention, I've got a couple initial pictures up on Bailiwick now. Stay tuned for more)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Where story ideas come from

When it comes to information, I'm an eclectic reader and viewer, and I especially love documentaries on all kinds of weird subjects.

I pick up odd bites of information that may pop up in a story one day, in some form or another, usually completely unrecognizable from the original source.

Here are a few knobbly tidbits that have stuck in my brain recently:

Birds that call first in the morning are doing it for a few different reasons: to be the first to attract the attention of a mate, to be the first to call dibs on territory, and because the earlier it is, the quieter it is, so their sound travels farther with less noise competition.

Ravens have more than 30 different kinds of calls.

Birds have a high-pitched alarm call (sometimes barely within humans ability to hear) that serves three purposes: scare away other birds/creatures that are too close, to warn other birds there's danger in the area, and to warn the mate/chicks to stay quite so they won't give away the location of the nest.

Some male birds grow seasonally feathers, headdresses, ruffs, etc in the spring to court females. Some have wattles (the red dangly bits that chickens, black grouse, etc have on their heads) which they can engorge with blood up 4X the size. Some repeatedly fly high, and plummet/drop down like a parachute. Some offer nesting material, some share food. Some male birds toss food in flight (food pass) and the females flip upside-down in the air and catch it.

Stravaging. Isn't that a fabulous word? I really want to use it...

And homeric. I want to use that word too, except for some reason, I can only think of using it in a sarcastic way (must be my sense of humour).

A certain parasite lives the first and last parts of its life cycle inside cats. The mid-cycle portion of their life is when it is released from the cats' body onto grass, which is then eaten by a mouse or rat. The parasite then actually changes the hosts' behaviour to make it more likely to get eaten by another cat -> rats/mice are instinctively terrified/avoid cat-smells, but in researching infected rodents, they were found to be super attracted to cat-urine, also they took an abnormal amount of risks (not hiding, but wandering around in the open/sunlight), and had slower reflexes. Since people can also be infected by this parasite through improperly handled cat-litter, researchers also discovered that people in traffic accidents are twice as likely to be infected... so, given that it's more likely you will get in an accident if you take more risks and have slower reflexes, would infected people also be strangely attracted to cat-urine?

The island of Socotra, mostly 'cause I like Sanskrit related stuff (especially the goddess Vac), and Mesa Verde (no Sanskrit there... yet...)

Parents in Tibet pay smugglers to take their children (as young as 4-5) across the Himalayan mountains (many die or lose fingers/toes/etc to the cold) to Tibetan schools in India -> the only safe place they can learn about their heritage, their religion, their history.

...The Wild Hunt... oh yeah, it's gonna happen some day...

Ogmios, or one of his other cultural variations, most likely the Irish one, 'cause, in addition to the very interesting cultural significance of dowries (for a comical rendition, see 'The Quiet Man'), I'm also interested in EriuDeirdre and The Morrigan.

...which brings me to psychopomps...

My love for these was started by the web comic Gunnerkrigg Court.

How about you? Do you gather strange facts/oddities, then warp & weave them into something different? What kind of things inspire ideas for you?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Masked Flash Fiction Friday

Pop over to Skullduggery for today's prompt! I swear I'll try to spend more than 6 minutes writing today's... unlike last week ;)

Well, it's been a crazy week, and it only gets crazier from here until the end of May with the oil painting convention. So many meetings... so many jobs... so many emails... and so many phone calls battling Canada Post since I'm (still) not getting my mail (...halfway through month #3...) and I'm getting super concerned since I'm the one receiving all the registrations, and I'm quickly running out of time.

...cross your fingers that they will find my missing stash of mail soon...

Hope you all have a wonderful long weekend (for those that celebrate Good Friday/Easter)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Characteristics of insanity

I know I wrote a post a while ago that touched on this, but it's happening again.

There is seriously a screw loose in my head (well, probably more than one...) that pops up in times of extreme busyness/stress.

When things are piled up so high it's hard to plan out a day, much less a week, my brain decides it's a great time to push everything aside and think about writing.

Is this a strange form of procrastination?

Is it a way to force a mental break?

Or is my brain trying to kill me in a slightly different method?

There are few reasons why I think it might be attempted-suicide-by-brain.

1) It's not just one story. It's all of them, actually. 6 major/full length stories (well, 9 actually, since the 'sort-of-trunked' one was a trilogy). If it was just a single one, I'd be more included to think, "wow, after a good rest/break from that story, I have gained fresh perspective!"

2) It's not just one change, it's many. Thoughts on TRoRS would require me to delete about 1/4-1/3 of the story and go from there. Thoughts on AotD, L&R, and SO would require a complete refocus of each story... too scared to calculate how much re-writing would be required (easily 1/2 of each story)... Thoughts on the trilogy would require rewriting from scratch in a different POV. Thankfully, at only 20-ish-thousand words, the changes to SL would be less... but it's also the one I have the least thoughts on, which means it's the story least worth delving into.

3) I'm still banned from typing. Even just typing out this post has my neck aching, a sharp repetitive stabbing in my rotary cuff, and the fingers of my right hand are starting to hit the wrong keys, or not move at all (due to the shrink-wrapped-fascia tissue in my forearm restricting the tendons that work the fingers).

Yet my brain is full of *ideas* that it wants to get out.

May is going to be an insane month, with the convention and all, so I'm hoping I can mentally sandbag/barricade this tsunami until June 1st.

...we'll see how it goes...

Friday, April 11, 2014

Hammy Flash Fiction Friday

A ridiculous new prompt is up @ Skullduggery, so come play along.

Sorry for being MIA, the ribs are... staying in place reluctantly, but sleeping has still been tough and no sleep + insomnia = not a heck of a lot I can do when it comes to reading & writing.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Midnight Flash Fiction

A late posting this Friday morning, but go check out the new prompt at Skullduggery.

Theoretically, there may be new photos on Bailiwick relatively soon... I have *something* to make before the convention in May, and since I've never made one before, it's probably wise to get in some trial and error time instead of leaving it to the last minute :)

...and no, it actually has nothing to do with painting.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ribs, birthdays & death

My naughty ribs have wiggled out of place again, so back to chiro I go, and another round of physio/massage/acupuncture tomorrow to hopefully settle things down. Once again, apologies to those who have sent me emails... I've not been moving a heck of a lot, and the pain has made sleeping a challenge.

Onto other things, my evil black goblin turned 10 today. Isn't he just so cute? Don't you wanna pull that fuzzy squirrel tail of his?

On a final note for today, one of the BC PAC members (who is/was on the board for the convention taking place in May) passed away a couple days ago. Peacefully, thankfully, but on the tail-end of the same flu I was down with a week ago that's been hitting the lower-mainland hard.

Though I didn't know her all that well (really only from working on convention stuff this past year), she was super kind, patient, and an excellent painter. She will be sorely missed.

This is a piece of hers that is being raffled off at the convention. Beautiful, eh?