Posts Tagged ‘#diversity’

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If what you’re looking for is a beta reader or critique partner who will tell you your book is wonderful no matter what, and spare your feelings — this isn’t that.

That is a unicorn.  I suppose you could find one, if you looked really hard.  But what would be the point?  It certainly won’t advance your writing skills, let alone your writing career.

No.  A sensitivity reader is a professional you hire who’s job is to read your manuscript with special emphasis on how you portray people from marginalized groups or key historical events that involved those groups.  Marginalized groups includes women, people on the fringes of the economic scale, people with disabilities, people in the LGBT community, and of course people of color.  Also, if any of your characters practice a faith, have weight issues, a non-traditional family arrangement, or are victims of sexual assault, they can be considered marginalized.  Historical events that affect those groups might include the Holocaust, the Civil War, 9/11, and so forth.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented and far-reaching change in the books we read and write, and the books agents and publishers want.  Books are becoming more diverse, and at the same time, people are more sensitive to the way groups they belong to are portrayed in literature.  Negative stereotypes are no longer ignored.  And that includes the stereotype that all characters in a book should be white, or all soldiers or superheros should be male, and so forth.

Which means, as you write your book, you will most likely be including people unlike yourself.  And in so doing, you begin to write outside your comfort zone.  Which is fine — you want to write outside your comfort zone.  That’s how you grow as a writer.  But if your book contains both men and women, people of difference races, and a gay person, chances are you aren’t 100% familiar with all of those cultures.  And through no fault of your own, even despite extensive research, you may write something in your story that inaccurately portrays a marginalized person or puts them in a bad light.  If for example one of your characters suggests that a person with mental illness is somehow weak, you are stigmatizing mental illness as a weakness, which is a negative and inaccurate stereotype mental health professionals have been trying to erase for decades.

A sensitivity reader will read your manuscript and point out places where you might want to revise to remove problems like this.  But like any reader you pay to evaluate your manuscript, be prepared to make changes — even major changes — to your characters or story line.  After all, you will have paid for their advice.

So where can you find a sensitivity reader?  Here is a links to get you started:

Writing In the Margins

Shop before you you buy.  You will want to find a reader who specializes in your particular topic — woman’s issues, gay issues, mental illness, etc.  At present sensitivity readers are not especially expensive.  Typically $250-$300 per manuscript.  Also be aware, these readers are looking for a rather narrow range of issues within your writing.  Don’t expect a sensitivity reader to serve the same function as a professional editor.

Good luck, and keep writing.

 

 

James ScottJames A. Scott

I, for one, am disappointed when someone makes a blanket statement such as “I just don’t see how non-white characters fit into my book.”  But I recognize that every book is different and reflects the deep thoughts of the writer.  It also reflects the limitations imposed on the writer in terms of that person’s personal background and perhaps in the worst case upbringing.

On the other hand simply putting diverse characters in a story willy-nilly can, as you pointed out, can cause even more problems.  I prefer to leverage a character’s outward appearance to further my stories in terms of hidden themes or perhaps illustrating an in your face fact.  This is not an easy subject but it must be explored.  As you can imagine, I want to show characters of color, especially those of African descent, in areas outside of the usual sports, entertainment, inner city stuff, etc.  Aside from encouraging “black” kids to take up the sciences, I consider this to be a huge untapped market.

One may think that diversity should be used only if it is part of the story.  But what if the character is the vice-chairman of a large  international bank and we are not talking about him being arrested for driving a fancy car in an upscale neighborhood?  So why should the author “color” him black?  Well, one reason is to access that untapped market. A more noble reason is to educate your readers (both black and white combined) that such a person actually exists.  It’s an unpleasant fact that we humans tend to pay more attention to characters who look more like us, than not.

But the question is how does one do this without being patronizing or inaccurate or stirring up a hornets nest.  Fortunately, for me in the science fiction world, I have a lot of tools at my disposal.

For example, I address the topic of race in HEAVEN’S ANT FARM with a rather different tact.  In this story, I tell of a Holy Nuclear War in Heaven, a result of religious intolerance.  Only 5500 survived the war by living underground.  When the descendants of the 5500 finally emerged from their subterranean hideout 1000 years later they were all the same color — light golden tan.

Turning diversity upside down by making  everyone the same color with a radioactive melting pot is perhaps a strange way to address the challenge.  By the way, it’s a challenge that doesn’t go away in the story.  Point is, diversity in our stories is an underutilized tool to guide our readers to explore the world around them and remind each and every one of them that they can do anything they set their mind to achieving. Something I consider important in kidlit.

Diverse Hands Holding The Word Diversity

You may have read my post three weeks ago on diversity in children’s literature. If you did not, I essentially paid lip service to the cause, then made excuses for why I didn’t think it applied to my daughter’s and my book.

I got a lot of feedback.

I had one conversation with a delightful woman who insisted that I was absolutely correct to refuse to include gay people in my middle grade novel, because they were perverse and no child of any age should be subjected to conversations about sex. Over the course of our cordial debate I completely changed my attitude about diversity in children’s books.

Before, I felt like the movement was perhaps a little over-pressuring. I was offended by the notion that as white writers, if we didn’t include people of color in our book – regardless of the subject matter – that we were part of the problem. Perhaps we are. I won’t argue it; I’ve put down that particular banner, now.

My argument, with regards to our current book, was that the cast is very diverse already, even though almost everyone is white. The characters in this book range from German to French to Cockney to Swiss, and they have the accents to prove it. Isn’t that diversity? Well, yes it is. But if you are the parent of a Middle Eastern child looking for a book to give that child which will make them feel included, whites from Europe are really no different from whites from America. I argued that to simply make some of our characters Hispanic or black or Asian merely to be diverse was as bad as stereotyping; one should only include people of color if their inclusion makes sense, or if their color is integral to the story.

But then I started discussing with my “fan” the merits of creating a picture book with two gay parents. The example was a book about a married lesbian couple taking their child to the zoo to see the various animals. I argued that there was absolutely no reason such a book should not be written, and that the inclusion of a married gay couple was in no way perverse or sexual, and was just as valid for any child to read as one with a traditional couple. I had just seen a very cute commercial about some Star Wars themed soup in which both of the male parents took turns feeding their son soup while impersonating Darth Vader: “I am your father!” It was adorable. And while homosexuality has nothing at all to do with soup or Star Wars, I found the commercial to be an important one. A child of gay parents can see themselves very positively in that commercial. And children of traditional parents see a segment of our culture that is real – and there was no sex or perversion implied (unless the viewer is unreasonably bigoted).

So why not rewrite some of our own characters into people of color? Well, I thought about it. And while the reasons I gave in my earlier post were premature and not well-thought out, I stand by our decision, and for a very good reason. Many – even most – of the characters in this middle grade fantasy are sinister. There is a limo driver who is descended from imps – sort of a poor man’s jinni, characterized by horns and a tail. Like all of these kinds of characters in our book, we made them be from the same culture that created the myth. Imps (and jinn) are Middle Eastern. But we felt uncomfortable giving our slippery and underhanded imp character an Arab accent. We have a ogre, whose people are known for hunting and eating children. Should we have made him black? I almost made our brownie (who is a servant) black, but was cautioned that that particular combination invited offense. We did make our jinn black and gave them a subtle South African accent. We set up the jinn as characters of great power who might choose to join either the good side or the bad side, then had them join the good side. And my main character and her best friend are white. Changing either one of them would require a major rewrite which I am not prepared to do at this point. But almost all of the peripheral characters mentioned in the story are black or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern.

So, are we part of the problem? I hope we aren’t. But we also aren’t willing to add to the problem on purpose by reinforcing stereotypes. Bottom line: Diversity in kidlit can go too far. But how far is too far? Much farther than I thought before.

Diversity in Kidlit

Posted: October 7, 2015 in Writing
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colorful hands

There is a rising trend in children’s literature — in all fiction, actually.  The inclusion of diverse characters.  Characters of color, LGBT characters, characters with all variety of economic backgrounds.  I think it is not only important, but crucial to expose our children to the notion that people of color, etc. are a normal, equal part of our world.  Because too much of our popular media (movies, TV, books, cartoon, music) either ignores diversity and assumes everyone is white, or puts those people in a bad or stereotypical light.  And I believe much of this comes from the works of non-traditional people themselves, just so you don’t think I’m pointing a finger.

Like it or not, our kids live in a world where gay people and Muslim people and homeless people share their classrooms and playgrounds. And if you’re like me, I don’t want my children to grow up thinking in terms of “us” and “them.”

But…

These are children’s books and movies and so forth, and I also don’t want my children (or anyone’s children) to be force-fed morality stories.  Kids should be allowed to have fantasies and adventures without a token transgender wizard or a random Asian space alien.  My own story, for example (which I am co-authoring with my daughter) is bursting with diversity. Our book features elves and dwarves and pixies and dryads as well as goblins and ogres and gremlins and imps.  And I will be very resistant to anyone who tells me I “must” make one of my elves gay, or one of my ogres Jewish.  You can’t make me.

The thing about every “movement” is that there are gaps and over-reactions.  Most of the people and organizations trumpeting about diversity in books are not militant about it.  But some are.  And some are only interested in certain kinds of diversity.  I read a rant by the founder of one group that tried to tell me I was the problem if I was white and didn’t go out of my way to include non-whites in my story.  But my daughter’s and my book includes people from France, Germany, Ireland, England, and Sweden. So those aren’t diverse enough?

I understand this is a real issue.  And it has been going on in America since before the days of the minstrel shows.  I remember Sambo’s Restaurant when the little boy in all of the murals was black, then suddenly he was East Indian when stereotyping black people went out of fashion (but stereotyping other people of color was still fair game).  But if you’re going to get on a soapbox about treating minorities fairly and appropriately, then you should include all minorities. And you should understand that they are minorities because there are fewer of them as a percentage of the population than your average White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  Every classroom in America is not a miniature United Nations. And it’s not a sin to be white.

Moreover, making a character Hispanic just so you can feel like you’re being inclusive is not helping the issue.  Is there any reason for your character to be Hispanic, in particular? Does that fit with the rest of your story? If your story takes place in Maine and you turn Ed into Edwardo just so you can jump on the Diversity bandwagon, are you not edging into “token” territory?  Oh, and if he does fit, you don’t have to make him love spicy food and telenovelas.  Just saying.

One last radical thought.  Children’s books are for children.  Children are smart.  And they are natural mimics.  My daughter’s and my book is for readers from 8 years old and up.  And I don’t feel like 8-year-olds need to be exposed to anyone’s agenda, political or otherwise.  I think it’s okay if most of the people in our book are white.