When I started writing fiction it was important to me to portray single moms in a non-stereotypical way—meaning, not being rescued by anyone but themselves (if rescuing was necessary at all). It was important for me to portray the workings of a single-mom family in a way that I knew others didn’t understand. I knew this from being a single mom, and from the assumptions made and
stupid-ass insensitive things said to me, and in my presence, in the past fourteen years. Don’t ask me to list them, we’d be here all day. It was important to me to illuminate the world I knew best for anyone interested enough to read it, to not beat anyone over the head (no matter how tempting), but to show a culture of family living that was new to many people.
So, when #weneeddiversebooks became a movement, in my own way, I felt like I understood.
It’s true that I’m white and I’m Jewish, and neither are underrepresented in fiction, specifically women’s fiction. But still, I had inklings of how it could feel to never see yourself in the books you read. Craziness!
Another crazy thing is that I’ve always read diverse books by diverse authors. Maybe I did it wrong, because I never did so intentionally. About twenty years ago I handed a stack of recently read books to my then-mother-in-law. A week or so later she informed me I’d given her books by all black authors. I knew, but hadn’t thought anything of it.
All I have to do is think of some of my favorite authors and all-time favorite books, and there are authors of color among them — Renee Swindle, Tayari Jones, Maya Angelou, Gaile Parkin, Margaret Dilloway — and that’s without going through my physical and virtual bookshelves. If you haven’t read these authors, I encourage you to do so!
Yes, we’re going there today on WFW, with the help of the insightful author Alessandra Harris (don’t you just love the cover of her forthcoming novel?).
Please share your thoughts in the comments, and welcome Alessandra to WFW!
#WeNeedDiverseBooks in Women’s Fiction, Too!
by Alessandra Harris
Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Her words are important at this moment with an increasing focus on diversity – or the lack thereof – in publishing these days. But I do not believe the answer to the problem is for us all to write about people of color, the LGBTQIA community, or disabled people. We are all diverse in our own way, and the way to answer the call to diversity is to hone in on our own individuality and write the stories that only we can tell while supporting underrepresented voices.
Though lack of diversity seems to be a “new issue” for some people, that’s not the case for people of color, whether black, Asian, Latino, indigenous, or immigrant. The majority of books, TV shows, and movies feature people that are not like us. At an early age, I knew I was different: the color of my skin, my hair, the shape of my body. I stood out from my mostly white peers at a Catholic school in a county of the San Francisco Bay Area with a population that is only two percent black.
I also learned on a very personal level about injustice, inequality, and racism from the struggles my family overcame. My maternal grandfather, Dennis Brutus, was a “colored” activist, professor, and poet who served time in the same prison as Nelson Mandela due to his opposition to the apartheid South African regime. He always emphasized that it is each person’s duty to fight for justice and opportunity for all people.
That’s why the outcry for diverse books resonates with me. As an educated, married, African American woman living in Silicon Valley, I’ve noticed the lack of contemporary women’s fiction that features women of color. And though I love the characters that are in many popular novels, I often feel like I’m back in grade school, an outsider looking in on the lives of privileged, wealthy, women whose lives are very different from mine.
So, I essentially did what Ms. Morrison suggested; I wrote my own book. My first novel tells the story of two couples: one African American the other Caucasian struggling with issues that are real to me: family drama, fidelity, health, and finances. I didn’t set out to write a diverse book then check off all the boxes as I went along. But my stories naturally feature the diversity that I live in. After all, the San Francisco Bay Area has people from all ethnicities, lifestyles, and economic and social backgrounds.
But writing a diverse book involves risks. I’ve wondered, will white people mind that I’ve written from their point of view? I haven’t tackled issues specifically relevant to the black community, so will black people still embrace the story? I also took risks writing about experiences I’ve never personally had. I did my research and tried to portray these issues with sensitivity and respect. But often the stories that call to us force us to move beyond our comfort zone.
It’s natural to want to fit in and be part of the crowd, so we often hide our differences and shy away from discussing what sets us apart. The call to diversity asks each of us to do just the opposite in our writing. What makes us unique? What passions do we have? How do our beliefs shape us? What experiences, good or bad, have left indelible marks on our lives? How has our environment, community, and culture made us who we are? When we answer these questions, we tap into the part of us that is unlike anyone else. That’s also diversity.
As writers, our duty is to write the stories that call to us. If you’re being called to write from a cultural point of view that is not your own, that has its own challenges. The second novel I wrote was from the point of view of an African American woman married to a Mexican man in deportation proceedings in the United States. I ended up shelving the novel because I didn’t feel like I authentically represented Mexican culture, and it wasn’t my story to tell. When you’re writing from outside of your experience you have to research thoroughly, dialogue with the people you are portraying, and get beta readers from that viewpoint to give you honest feedback. And though I did that, I still didn’t feel that I was able to go beyond clichéd, stereotypical characters.
However many skilled writers that have written outside of their cultural perspective have had a profound impact. At a time during slavery when some white colonies made it illegal for blacks to read and write and illegal to teach those skills to black people, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin that went on to becoming the bestselling novel of the 19th century, and second bestselling book, after the bible. The anti-slavery novel depicted the brutality that enslaved Americans faced and shed light on the horrors occurring in the South. Though it also stirred controversy with its stereotypical characterization of blacks, most notably Uncle Tom, it was a powerful message supporting abolition.
The written word is still as powerful and necessary today. But while America is becoming more diverse, the publishing world hasn’t caught up. Lee and Low’s Diversity Baseline study reported that just under 80 percent of publishing staffs are white and 89 percent of reviewers are white. This translates to the dearth of underrepresented stories being published. So, while I don’t believe we should feel obligated to feature “other” people for the sake of jumping on the diversity bandwagon, I do think that we all need to understand the importance of having underrepresented stories being told.
If you are not writing a diverse story, what should you do? I would urge all writers to diversify their reading and experiences by including authors of color, authors that are not straight, authors with disabilities. We have access to books from all corners of the world, and broadening our reading helps us connect, create empathy, and understand the plight of those who share the same world we all inhabit. Reading experiences from “others” also helps to support these writers and ensure that publishers and agents know the value of these stories.
Aside from reading, social media has created the ability to access people from all walks of life more easily than ever before. Friend, follow, and engage with people that are from underrepresented segments of the population, not to meet a quota, but to learn more about what’s important to them, their viewpoints, and their struggles.
We can’t deny the fact that we live in a diverse world, and everyone has the right to tell their stories. But only through buying, reading, and celebrating these stories do authors feel that they are actually heard. Once we begin writing stories that have yet to be told but are calling us, and reading diverse stories, the publishing industry and our world will be changed one book at a time.
Chinelo Okparanta – “Under the Udala Trees”
Naomi Jackson “Star Side of Bird Hill”
Miriam Toews “All My Puny Sorrows”
Sejal Badani “Trail of Broken Wings”
Celest Ng “Everything I Never Told You”