Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Conundrum of Writing with Diversity

As a writer, I'm always been told, "write what you know".

Also, I'm expected to develop characters that are genuine and multi-faceted. To write one-dimensional characters who are underdeveloped will kill any story I want to tell.

A few months ago, I saw a writing diversity hashtag trending on Twitter that promoted the idea of writers creating ethnically diverse characters. I loved the idea and I know my writing has not always been diverse. Yes, I've had black characters and Asian characters, but neither serving as an antagonist or protagonist.

So I wrote a horror short story with the main character, Wayne, as a young black man in high school. For the purpose of the story, I had him driving a muscle car and who liked to listen to EBM music while hanging out with his white girlfriend. I ran into a severe problem in the story that made me very conscientious. There is a point where Wayne gives his girlfriend a joint. It is important for the story because I go into some unimaginable imagery and I wanted the reader to ask the question "Is this really happening or are the characters hallucinating?"

I realized that without even trying, I put Wayne into a stereotype regarding drugs. So I asked myself if Wayne was white would it be important to the story and I answered myself yes. Wayne needs to hand his girlfriend the joint in order to create the environment I want the reader to feel.

But let me tell you this. After writing that story and choosing not to define Wayne's race in the text, it got me to thinking a lot about writing diversity. Writer's face a conundrum. We have to write authentic diverse characters who are well developed, but we also have to avoid being offensive. If I wanted to write a story with black characters in urban LA, I need my characters to be genuine. They have to have the freedom to speak with one another just as the people there do in real life. So if one of my black characters says the "N" word to another black character because that is how one character speaks to everyone, I need to be able to do so without being concerned the readers might be offended because I am not black.

So if I need to use modern slang that may include racial slurs against other characters in the story, as a writer, I have to avoid that. I don't want to be offensive to my readers. But I still have a responsibility to tell the story I want to tell to the best of my ability.

Then comes the next question. Why would I just focus on writing about gangs? Why not write about affluent black or Asian people who are not disparaged, but educated and facing a situation? On one hand, that tells me as a writer, in order to be diverse, I must limit my storytelling to only people who have it easier. Not to mention, culture, educated people of ethnic history are not treated well by people of their race. Asians who "act white" are scolded as being a banana (Yellow on the outside, white on the inside) and back in the day, black people who acted white were called, "Uncle Tom". White people are no better. If a white person acts black, there is a derogatory word for that as well that I don't feel comfortable writing.

My point is this. Don't ask me to write diverse characters and then be on the ready to attack me for not accurately portraying them or using words that will offend if I'm true to the character.

Let's write diverse characters and develop them well. But at the same time understand that if a writer is doing their job, they will need to use the language of the character's culture, as well as their time in history, to develop the character and it should not matter what color the writer is. If I have a story I need to tell about slavery as Mark Twain did in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", I don't want to be remembered as a racist because I used the "N" word because it was culturally relevant to the time and subject matter of the story. To write a slave story with oppressive civil war era establishment characters, to not use the "N" word would not be authentic. If anyone has a better idea on how to write and honor diversity in writing, I'm willing to hear it. ~Will

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting post. I've been ruminating about this very topic for a while now. How to write what we know, but also create rich, vibrant, diverse worlds and characters. It's a conundrum! But I think you're on the right track.