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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Writing Diversity (SIWC 2013 Notes)

Wow, it's hard to believe that SIWC was over two weeks ago. I had a fantastic time, made a lot of great connections, and came away feeling absolutely energized. Which was a good thing, because after I'd sent off everything that had been requested from me during the pitches, it was all of a sudden November. And that means NaNoWriMo.

(Can I just say how much I love the Greater Vancouver community? There are multiple meetings taking place every day across the Lower Mainland, and being there is like stepping into a maelstrom of creative energy. Flourishing. Vibrant. Absolutely incredible.)

Back to SIWC. One of the highlights for me at this year's conference was the opportunity I had to meet fantasy author Jim C. Hines, who you may recognize from his Gender Swapped Cover Poses. His keynote speech was well-deserving of the standing ovation it received. His class, Writing Diversity, felt like a great complement to the PAX Prime 2013 panel, "Everything We Know is Sexist. Now What?" that examined the lack of diversity in video games. In both cases, it boils down to the writing. And that means us.
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Writing Diversity
Jim C. Hines

This is about creating more realistic and honest diversity. About the danger of stereotypes and token writing.

First, the obvious question – Why is this middle class straight white dude lecturing about diversity?
-    It’s important.
-    It’s a problem.
-    It’s something he cares about.
-    It’s something he’s tried to listen, learn, and talk about for years.
-    Not all of these ideas are his, but these are his words.
-    What he’s learned from listening to other people.
-    He’s in a position to address it, to bring attention to it.

It’s hard to write the other, because it’s not our lived experience. How do we do this?
-    Fear of screwing up is prevalent.
-    Lots of others speak about this, so don’t listen to only him.
-    Sometimes this stuff doesn’t occur to us because it’s not something we’ve experienced. (But that was the problem.)
-    We need to have someone come along and say, “Yes, it’s great you have these books, but I don’t. My kind of people die in the first chapter, are the sidekick, fill a narrow range of characters.”
-    We can do more than that.

-    The current state of publishing: The Cooperative Children’s Book Centre sampled 3600 different YA/Children’s books. Found “The total number of books about people of colour, regardless of accuracy, was less than 8 percent  of the total published.”
-    Melinda Low: looked at YA novels for 2011. Of all of them, less than 1% had LGBT characters.
-    Cover art: Men on cover are usually portrayed as their character in book. Active. Women on cover of book – odd poses that flaunt their bodies, the weapon is an accessory, boobs are pretty, let’s look at them. Narrow, uncool.
-    This is not about meeting quotas. No one is saying when writing a book you must have this diversity. The only time quotas come up is from people trying to shut down these conversations. No, this about trying to undo quotas, the unspoken quota that 90% of books must be about white men.

-    All of this stuff we talk about here is a reflection of our society – the prejudices, the oversights, get reinforced every day. We see it so much that we stop seeing it. It’s become normal. It’s why he participated in the cover pose calendar.
-    Diversity is many things: Gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion, disability, age, cultural heritage, colour of skin, English not second language
-    Throne of the Crescent Moon: about a crotchety middle aged guy. So many protagonists typically mid-20s or teens (for YA).

Why this matters
-    Writing’s hard enough, so why add one more layer of stuff?
-    Getting an email that says thank you for this character, or this is the first time I’ve seen this character treated respectfully, is awesome.
-    If you have spent most of your life being invisible, and you see this author saying you exist, it’s important.
-    Stories teach us a lot. They’re the most important thing of anything. How we relate to the world, understand things, why history classes suck because they destroy the story and give you dates and facts. We learn from stories. So if we learn that the world is dominated by 25-year-old handsome white men, that sinks in. If we learn that black people exist but mostly in the background and to die in the second act, that sinks in.
-    Stories are powerful. And no, it’s not necessarily our job to approach with “how can I change the world today” but it is to recognize that when we write stories with all white folks, that’s not okay. We’re choosing to exclude most of the world from our stories, and that’s not okay.
-    “…When we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.”—Sarah Ockler.
-    This stuff matters. And yes, you can have a successful career never doing this. But your stories will be much weaker, and they will be lies.

Recommended Book: Writing the Other by Nissi Shaw and Cynthia Ward

So how do we do this?
-    Writing about a person respectfully, not just cultural appropriation.
-    Cultural appropriation: “Oh look, shiny. I’ll take this.” (e.g. Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves. Sexy Halloween costumes for women.
-    Surface level stuff.
-    Gypsies. Big in Fantasy. Shiny stuff, free lives, travel everywhere. The term gets used unintentionally. Yet for many, gypsy is a racial slur.
-    We do it unintentionally because we haven’t stopped to look deeper.
-    If you’re just taking shiny bits out of the culture, you’re going to fail. People will leave nasty notes. If you’re going to write about anyone, you must do it respectfully. These characters need a background and a history and a culture. Talk to people. LISTEN to them. Learn from them.

How do you borrow without stepping on toes?
-    Borrowing pieces from existing culture: he asked, Why did the culture evolve this way? Why is this a cultural norm? Does this make sense? (e.g. In the 3rd princess book, Sleeping Beauty is described as dark-skinned and from a desert culture. The culture evolved around the desert’s harsh environment.)
-    Also, do enough research to know when you are getting into very sensitive areas. One thing to look at taboo of turning away a stranger, different thing to dig up sacred religious ritual and steal it.
-    How to handle religion when opinions within a religion means different things? Just like any other character, try to do it respectfully. Do it so they’re not a caricature, have reasons for believing things. Remember, every character is the hero of his or her own story. This is part of who they are, what they grow up with, this is what’s important to them. Go beyond the one dimension.
-    Shepherd Book: the only representation of religion in Firefly.
-    Avatar: the cartoon, not the movie that doesn’t exist – Heavily influenced by eastern cultures, and not in a shiny bits way. The animators spent lots of time studying these cultures and learning about them. Affects the story. Good example.
-    Bottom line: it comes down to research. Find these people. Listen to them. It’s easy to make the effort to find people “not like you”. Still not about quota. Broaden yourself. Find people who disagree with you.
-    Remember that listening to people doesn’t mean agreeing with them. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine.

Description: How to describe these characters
-    Without description, there’s an assumption from readers that a character is straight and white.
-    Some people skim read and make assumptions (like the mistaken assumption that Rue in The Hunger Games was white and people got mad that she was cast in the movie as black).
-    When doing description, it’s okay to be blunt, to have a character say, “she looked Indian in appearance”. Avoid the chocolate skin and almond eyes, the cliché and purple prose, because that can be offensive. Find other ways to say it.
-    Are there other options than comparing people to food? Yes, wood, for example. Find other things that are brown, dig deep for comparisons.
-    Don’t overthink it.
-    Be aware of drawing examples between nonwhite skintone and things that have come from exploited races (e.g. coffee, chocolate).
-    Be true to the character. Just because the bisexual character chooses someone that matches with heterosexuality, or that choosing means that you’re either heterosexual or gay, doesn’t mean you’re making a statement about those issues. When you address it in text so that if someone complains, you can say, “no, I know what I’m doing.”
-    Take away the tokenism. Have more than one character like that. So the burden doesn’t weigh down on them all by themselves. As you’re writing, keep this in mind. If there’s just the one, pay very close attention to what baggage you put on them, because people will react.
-    Beware of assumptions and stereotypes. For example, just because a character is autistic does not always mean that they are a math genius who counts cards and amasses rocks.
-    A lesson learned: In his Princess Series: Sleeping Beauty is dark-skinned, a lesbian, and a rape survivor. She’s the only one of these things you know in book 2. She’s also the only tough, kick-your-ass character. But that was a problem because she took the burden of representing all. He was asked why. His answer was, “Because that’s her character. That’s her backstory.” But it doesn’t change the fact that this one character falls in many problematic areas and he realizes now that he could have taken steps to fix that.

Writing Dialogue
-    Do it carefully.
-    English as a second language is often portrayed as very stupid, filling a stereotype.
-    One or two examples sprinkled throughout is very effective.
-    Consider idiom and vocabulary. Idiom’s the last thing we learn – “eg. it’s raining cats and dogs”. You can do a lot to show the character is intelligent but communicating from a very different context.
-    Some use English, but use their language for sentence structure.
-    Words they’ve learned from reading only, but they can’t necessarily pronounce.
-    Puns are hard to translate because they depend on the language.
-    Give them really bad jokes that make no sense in our language, but are hilarious to them.

Don’t immediately kill off your own non-white character.
-    Be aware of secondary characters.
-    When you put these supporting roles in there. And why you put them in there.
-    No sassy gay best friend, the Asian dragon lady or martial artist, the native American vision-quest person
-    Stories are powerful. We’ve seen these very narrow stories. If that’s what goes in, that’s what comes out. We’ve absorbed that. So, step back and ask, Who is this character? Not just the gay character. The gay jewish computer programmer who lieks to brew his own beer.
-    “Colour doesn’t matter” – yes it does. We still have the prejudices. This still affects how we grow up, our values, who we become. Who are characters are. But it does not DEFINE or limit them. All things should not be dictated by their characteristics. It is dishonest to say that’s the only thing that affects this character. It’s equally dishonest to say that it doesn’t affect this character’s choices.
-    A lot of time we start these stories and write them as issue stories. Autistic character means all about autism, gay character is all about them coming out. As if it’s the only story about them. Identity is layered and complex and messy. Seeing other cultures in stories can be frustrating if they only see one piece of them.

“Why did you choose to make this character [insert minority]”?
-    This is a stupid question. Valid, but the stupid comes in that we only ask one side of it. If the character is a straight, white male, there should be a reason for it, too. Depending on the setting, culture, and time period, that will affect what kinds of characters you can bring in. But be careful about what history has erased, too.


  1. Awesome notes--thanks so much for posting these! I wasn't able to attend that class, and I'm sorry I missed it.

  2. You're welcome, Lara! Yes, it was a very insightful class. We discussed a lot of the awkward questions that were on our minds (which are reflected in these notes), and that made the class that much more useful.