Wednesday, April 6, 2016

IWSG: On writing race

First Wednesday, and time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group!

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Last month I attended a conference on race in our schools, run by the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators. While there, I naturally gravitated toward the book sale display by Ashay by the Bay Books. Chatting there with the woman running the booth, it naturally came up that I write. And I had to admit I don't think  have persons of color in my books (I don't really describe characters much at all, so there is some wiggle-room there, but the reality is, no, I don't). And she asked me straight out why not.

I had to answer with equal honesty: I don't write about people of color because I'm afraid of getting it wrong. Which, she pointed out by implication, makes no more sense than refusing to write about historical periods or a place I haven't been. That is, the answer is research. Checking with people who know the experiences better. Of course, in a historical novel (which the Ninja Librarian is, sort of), it gets even more complex, given historical attitudes, where an author must negotiate tricky ground between realism and modern sensibilities. No wonder I, and many like me, dodge the question. But that's not good enough.

The end result of that discussion is that I'm recognizing something that Chuck Wendig has blogged about frequently: it's part of my job to write diversity. And I will have to learn to do it. Not just racial diversity, but also gender differences, and whatever other diversity occurs to me. So: I'm working on it. It's not an easy thing to consider with the Ninja Librarian series, but I'll be doing some re-reading of the first books to see if there's any proof that all the characters are white. I have some ideas about how race might fit in, but it may not work. Book Three, which I'm currently revising, had already found its own way to some gender questions, so there's that. 

And I promise that Pismawallops Island won't stay as white as the small town where I grew up, once I get back to that project. I'm not much of a writer if I can't write about someone who's not just like me, and I'm not much of a person it I can't move out of my comfort zone.

And the science fiction and fantasy I write? Absolutely no reason characters need to be white. Again, I have often failed to describe them, but that doesn't quite measure up. If I'm any kind of writer, I can write people who's experiences are truly unlike mine. 

How about you? Anyone else hesitate to write people of color or gender variations because of fear of giving offense out of ignorance?


  1. I've written a few stories with characters of color and different sexual orientations than mine. It doesn't really scare me. Life is diverse so why shouldn't my writing be. If there's a character who has something I don't know much about, I'll see someone more knowledgable.

    ~April IWSG Co-Host Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, Indie Author

    1. That part about finding someone more knowledgeable was pretty much what she pointed out to me--do what I'd do if I needed to know more about trains or whatever!

  2. I know exactly where you are coming from. I justify my lack of diversity by my completely middle class white up bringing in Australia which has continued when i moved to England. But it is no excuse. I have changed one of my characters in NO MORE HEROES from white to black because there was no need for him to be white.
    The series formulating in my head revolves around a transgender, female to male and a shizophrenic who thinks he can read minds. Must learn how to spell.
    And i agree that by diversifying we are stretching ourselves and, ultimately, have to become better writers.

    1. Yes! I think that's it exactly. If we just stick with what's easy, we aren't growing.

  3. I think there's always something I'm scared of when I write. Sometimes it's writing in a different culture, about a different time period, and more recently it's been writing from a male perspective. My project that I'm thinking about (but haven't started yet) has almost no white characters, so, yes, I'm a bit nervous about writing about a race other than my own.

    At the same time, I don't want to force my book to have diversity just for the sake of having diversity. It needs to fit the story.

    1. I don't want to force stories into diversity. But rather than just thinking about when "the story needs the person to be black" or whatever, I'm thinking about asking "is there any reason why this character *shouldn't* be black?" (or gay, or whatever).

  4. This is a valuable post, Rebecca, and one I'll blog about when the A to Z's finished. The Princelings books have their own variation on colour prejudice, but I can't say I write about people of colour, except to make my spacegoers a good mixture (in fact Lars is a throwback). Interestingly my editor erupted saying I'd alienate the Hispanic, Swedish and some other communities in New York, so I guess one of us hasn't researched the 2800s enough. Tricky.

    I don't have a problem writing about variations on gender, though I drew back from dealing with Dougall's deafness - but as I see it, the problem is also one of the culture you're in and its own perspective on diversity. That's tricky to handle for an international readership.

    1. There are some issues with writing for an international audience. But I do think that it's right to deal with diversity as you want to see it addressed, and, in a sense, let the chips fall where they will.

      I don't see why your miners should alienate anyone. They certainly didn't seem to me to be stereotypes. They just have varied ancestry. Now, if there are any Pavanians reading The Perihelix, they might be offended. Or not. Pavanians seem to have pretty thick skins :D


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