Recently, Jeann from Happy Indulgence posted a fantastic post, When ‘Diversity’ Isn’t Actually Diverse, and I implore all of you to read it. There has been a great deal of discussion and debate surrounding diversity lately. The intensity of the discussions made waves in the Twitter book blogging community, but I found the discussions necessary and absolutely important.
Something that came up a few times, however, was the precarious situation that authors face when writing diversity. In discussions, comment sections, and Twitter threads, I observed that some people described a ‘catch-22’ when writing diversity. Today, I want to discuss the so-called ‘Catch-22’ that people have described, my note to authors, and emphasize – again – why diversity is important.
The Catch-22 at hand
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a Catch-22 (from the book Catch-22 by Joseph Heller) is a paradoxical situation in which an individual cannot win or escape from due to its contradictory rules. An example of a Catch-22 (that most graduates may be familiar with) is: To get a job, you need experience. To get experience, you need a job.
I have read a lot of discussions and debates surrounding diversity, and often raised is the ‘Catch-22’ that authors face when writing characters with social identities different to the author. (And mind, I am using the phrase ‘Catch-22’ very loosely.) The Catch-22 goes something like this:
If an author does not include diversity in their narrative, they’ll receive backlash, but if the author does include diversity and gets it wrong, they’ll receive backlash too.
I understand. I understand that authors tread a very fine line when writing characters with a social identity that is different to theirs, and that one small slip can entail backlash. But.
Before I offer my opinion on the matter, I want to discuss misrepresentation and no representation.
No Representation and Misrepresentation
On no representation:
The effects of no representation have been discussed many times over, so all I have left to say the matter: I live and grew up in a very ethnically diverse and multicultural city. From when I was a child right to now as an adult, my classrooms, workplaces, communities, and social circles were, are, and will, continue to be diverse. There is nothing wrong with portraying white characters, there is nothing wrong with portraying cis characters, there is nothing wrong with portraying heterosexual characters, and there is nothing wrong with portraying able-bodied characters. The endeavour to include representation does not go hand-in-hand with erasure – of any kind. However, a book that features characters that are all white, all cis, all heterosexual, and all able-bodied is not representative of reality and is a norm that needs to be challenged.
People deserve to see more of themselves in the media. People deserve to have their stories heard, told, and listened to. In a post I wrote last year, I discussed why I needed representation as a child and need it now as an adult. I wrote about having no representation as a child and how seeing all white characters affected my imagination, my identity, my self-esteem, and my self-perception in very negative and insidious ways that I am still trying to undo and unlearn.
Something that I said in response to Jeann’s post was that ‘misrepresentation grinds my gears more than no representation’. I dislike the idea of pitting two negative things together and choosing which is ‘better’, so let me put it this way that is purely for argument’s sake: instances of misrepresentation hurt me more than no representation.
There is something deeply exhausting about seeing a part of yourself and part of your identity being twisted for a story, especially when the characters are no more than mere caricatures or token characters informed by stereotypes. Not only is misrepresentation often inherently exploitative, but misrepresentations perpetuate misconceptions which are harmful and hurtful, and have real life effects.
The books we consume inform us and shape our perspectives. If you are unfamiliar with, for example, a culture, you are likely to believe anything about that culture, right or wrong, that is presented to you. More so, a harmful portrayal can perpetuate the stereotypes and prejudices associated with it. (And so, that’s why it is important for people to celebrate narratives that do a good job at representation, and critique narratives that do not.)
Furthermore, people who are constantly being misrepresented in books and the wider media have to constantly fight against stereotypes, stigma, and prejudice. It is exhausting and painful to fight assumptions, prejudice, and dehumanization constantly. It is not something that people should have to deal with.
Essentially: no representation and misrepresentation are both harmful and hurtful. Representation and the call for more diverse books are more than just social justice issues; it is not something that exists in a vacuum. There are a plethora of reasons why people want diversity, reasons unique to their experiences, but among them are: we want to see ourselves and see our experiences validated, we want to learn about others, and we want our books rich with complexity and depth.
Dear all authors and writers (and readers):
I want to tell you that I understand. I understand that your job and your endeavour is hard. I understand that it is difficult and scary to write characters with identities that are unfamiliar and different to you. I get the ‘diversity Catch-22’ that you are faced with. But.
The simple solution is this: if you are going to write diversity, write it well. It is not easy but anything less isn’t good enough.
1. Write and be inclusive with sincerity. If you want to write a character because you genuinely want their story to be told, then you have taken a step in the right direction. Ask yourself why you want to write characters who are different to you. Is it just so your book isn’t dismissed as lacking diversity? Is it just so your book isn’t criticized for being too white and too heterosexual and too able-bodied? If you answer yes to those two questions, stop and re-evaluate. Don’t slap an ethnicity on a character purely because you want to write a ‘diverse’ book. If it is insincere, it is very obvious.
2a. Read, read, read. I know most of you authors out there are bookworms, but read a variety of stories. Diversify your reading experience, read books with a variety of perspectives, characters and voices. Read books that challenge your perspective and what you know. Read critically. Read, engage, and empathize. Read a lot of books.
2b. Read and support #ownvoices. Whether it is existing, yet to be released, or projects in the works, support authors who are writing #ownvoices. Understand that people who write #ownvoices are, and should be, at the forefront of those narratives. Read them, buy them, share them. Their stories are incredibly important. (Goodreads #ownvoices book list, #ownvoices tag on Twitter)
3. Research and check. If you are writing something beyond your lived experience or something you are not familiar with, chances are what you know is not good enough. (Fantasy stories and magical creatures are, of course, exempt from this.) If you are willing to research 93472739 ways to kill a person with a fork, you should be willing to research a culture that you are including in your book. Check with others if what you are writing is good representation – and ask people who you may be representing. (Note, no one is obligated to help or educate you, but there are people who would not mind.)
4a. Listen. In discussions about representation, listen to people who belong to the group that is being represented. Their opinions and their voices matter. Listen to understand, not to reply. And rather than asserting yourself in conversations that do not involve you, consider amplifying (retweeting, quoting, sharing) things already being said by people who are involved. Listen to discussions, such as #Diverseathon. Understand that lived experience – and human experience in general – is highly diverse in itself (there is no monolithic experience), but also understand that there are fundamental things that you can get right. And most importantly, before speaking, listen and think.
4b. Listen to criticism. I understand that fear of criticism and backlash is a real and valid thing. But, probable backlash of wrongful representation is not an excuse for no representation. If others receive criticism, listen to it. If you receive criticism, listen to it. If you receive criticism from people who you are representing in your stories, definitely listen it. Take criticism as an indicator and opportunity to improve, to learn more, to be self-critical. If your work is problematic, take responsibility for it. You can always learn more, so strive to learn more.
Alyssa also shared with me a post she wrote, How Can We Write Diversely? As Alyssa is a writer (she’s writing a Swan Lake/Mulan retelling!), I strongly advise that you read her wonderful and insightful post.
Again: Why diversity matters
Read and write characters from a variety of backgrounds and life stories. Read and write stories and characters that can shape a better, more inclusive future for all readers. Celebrate, share, and support books that do a good job at representation. Critique books that do not.
Diversity in books is important, and will always be important. The stories that people tell have the power to create connections, foster understanding and empathy, and pave the way to more inclusivity, and more accepting readers and people. Books with good representation are a message: they say, I hear you, I validate you, I stand by you — and being told this is so important for self-love and acceptance.
Let’s talk about it!
As usual, this discussion has been on my mind, and I’m relieved (and a wee anxious) to finally share my thoughts.
In the future, I will endeavour to read more #ownvoices books myself, and challenge myself by reading a variety of stories. I’ll also be writing a book recommendations post of some of my favourite books that feature good representation, but for now, I’d like to recommend the #diverserecs tag, started by Jeann!
Anyway, I would love, love, love to hear your thoughts, and I implore you to share them with me in the comments below. Some questions for you to get the conversation going:
- What are some books that you feel represented you? Do you have any recommendations?
- Are you an author who has included/hopes to include diversity into your story? Tell me about it!
- What do you think readers and authors can do to ensure that we have more inclusive and authentic stories?
- Have you written a post on diversity lately? Please share them!
Some small thank yous:
I would also like to take a moment to thank a few bloggers who gave feedback and suggestions regarding this discussion. Thank you to Aentee from Read at Midnight, Daisy from Feminists Read Love, Reg from She Latitude, Alexa from Words Off the Page, Vicky from Books and Strips, and Alyssa from The Devil Orders Takeout, as well as those who offered their help. Thank you; I appreciate all of you.