There’s a lot of discussion about diversity in books at the moment – well, lack of diversity mostly. But balancing out these discussions are cries that we’re doing as well as we can, pointing at this, that or the other book or drama featuring a minority group and urging those demanding still more diversity to put up and shut up.
Personally, I don’t think as a culture we’re yet at a place where everything’s been done and anyone who thinks otherwise is an overly-sensitive soul who needs to face reality. There’s still work to be done, and I’m very aware of this in relation to my own writing.
I read an excellent post the other day, by Mary Fan (it’s worth checking out if this is a topic you’re interested in) about what it’s like reading and writing books as a member of an under-represented group. It made me think (as good blogs should), because diversity and representation is something I struggle with in my writing.
80% of the world appears to be male
When I was writing The Last Gatekeeper, it was the representation of women that was uppermost in my mind. My fictional world of Fane was deliberately constructed to have a gender imbalance in favour of women. 80% of fanes are females. I chose that figure based on my own perception of female representation in British culture. If you can’t see it, take a look at the TV and start counting (be warned, if you’re female this may be a depressing enterprise). I notice it especially with panel shows. You’ll have a host (male), and a couple of teams of (usually) two people. Of these four participants, three will be male and one female. Some weeks there’ll be no women at all and I’ll feel like I’m the only one who notices that and thinks it’s wrong. Roughly 80% of faces on the screen are male. Anything more balanced stands out as unusual (I notice, think: thank goodness they’re doing a better job this week – and then get cross with myself because I shouldn’t be grateful to be made marginally less invisible by the powers that be).
If aliens ever watch the programmes we’re apparently beaming across the universe, they’ll think females were a rare blip in a mostly-male species.
So, I switched the gender balance in my fictional universe and that’s all well and good, a blow struck for feminism. It was only after the book was published that I realised what a whitewash it was. I deliberately try not to describe my characters in detail so readers can create their own pictures, but … anyone who is described is white.
But it’s not about the colour of your skin
I tried to fix that in my next novel, The Last Dreamseer. My main character, Deena, is distinct because of the abilities and the dark skin that set her apart from almost everyone else on her planet. But then, it’s a fantasy novel and Deena has fantasy issues to deal with: race isn’t an issue, what’s a problem is the people trying to control the power she wields.
But because I don’t address race directly, the thought that kept occuring as I was writing is – are my characters really diverse, or just dressed up to look like it? I’m a white, straight, middle class, able-bodied western woman; sorry to be a privileged stereotype, but that’s the truth. I don’t want to silence other voices, but in trying to represent a diverse cast of characters am I giving them my voice instead of their own? The answer to that would be to shut up, free up some space for someone else to tell their stories. But I really can’t do that. Writing is what’s in my soul and I can’t not let it out – and I don’t think my stories are any less valid than anyone else’s. The whole point is that we need lots of voices so we experience the full harmony of human experience and points of view, rather than a dull monotone.
The book I’m writing now has a genetically very diverse bunch of characters in a world where diversity is absolutely the norm and that brings its own problems – I’m trying to tell a story where skin tone and ethnic make up isn’t an issue, but it will be read in a world where they still are. Describing the characters is again problematic – I’m finding myself having to be more prescriptive about appearances than I like to ensure that the diversity is clear – but then that’s not what the story is about so I don’t want to labour the point, either. And once I’ve got a satisfactory gender and racial balance, what about my LGBT characters – and why are they all able-bodied? Argh!
See the universe in a grain of sand
Representation in fiction is an especially difficult thing because you have a small section of characters to represent an entire world. They can’t illustrate everything about the world because any story would bow under the weight of that. I thought this when there was a great deal made of Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn and whether she was using the book to push an anti-abortion agenda.
I hate when character views and decisions are attributed to the author, because it diminishes literature to suggest it’s only a mouthpiece for the writer. Breaking Dawn has one woman making an individual decision about continuing a problematic pregnancy. She can’t provide balance by both having an abortion and taking the pregnancy to term: the character has to make a decision one way or the other, so there’s bound to be a bias. Balance and diversity must come from the entirety of literature, not each individual book.
There aren’t any easy answers to this, and maybe there shouldn’t be. It’s unpleasant to feel uncertain about whether my books are unconsciously reflecting a bias I’m not even aware of, but that sense of uncertainty does ensure that I don’t become complacent, and that can only be a good thing.
Diversity is an important issue for me. It’s something I’m aware of and which I want to be aware of, so I’ll keep looking for ways to make the worlds I create more diverse and inclusive. After that, I guess it’s up to readers to decide how successful I am in that aim.