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.


  1. well you posted this fascinating blog and now you're going dark. So how likely is it you'll see repllies? Diversity is a big issue in all writing these days.

    1. Haha, good point. :)

      I'll pop on and off, I just have no idea when that could possibly be :)

  2. I stick to "write what you know." I live in a county that's over 97% white and under 1% Hispanic/Latino ethnically, over 40% with majority German blood, so there isn't very much diversity. I've written one Latino character that I can remember; the rest have been pretty non-specific. I don't find diversity to be a problem. I might be jarred for a few moments by a mixed or entirely non-white cast in a story, but it doesn't matter much to me. If you don't want to read a story with an all-white cast, find a story that doesn't have an all-white cast. If somehow you have trouble finding one, write your own.

    1. The reason for the online campaign is that it us actually pretty difficult to find books written/published in North America that are written by, or are populated by, non-Caucasians.

  3. It is a fascinating and contentious topic and one I've often seem pointed out about television as well; one could argue that the 'arts' lag behind the real world to a certain extent, but then one would have to say why and to what end. The 'I don't see color' post says a lot about cultural influence and what people write and why. I think, to some extent, that there is a nervousness at getting it 'wrong'. Not knowing enough about a culture and stepping too deeply into caricature and/or stereotype is likely a deep fear for some, enough to avoid the issue entirely if and when they can.

    And the deeper issue of including 'minorities' for the sake of including them becomes as problematic. Need to head to work, so shall continue thoughts on that later ....

    1. Yeah, definitely no easy answers, but I think, even if people are just more aware in general, things would improve.


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