Recently, our country celebrated the accomplishments of Dr. King and how his work changed how we view people of different races, genders, and so forth. A couple of days later, I watched a town hall meeting on local television discussing race relations in my city. The consensus is that these government-funded programs and changes in police policy will amount to nothing unless, first and foremost, we humans change how we perceive people outside of our race, culture, gender, creed, social status, profession, whatever is we use to judge and compare ourselves to others. I understand the events over the latter half of last year fractured the already fragile trust between the police and the citizens they’re “sworn to protect.” I’ve seen demonstrations on TV claiming “Black Lives Matter.” But–as people have asked, I’m sure–what about Latinos, Asians, homosexuals, transgenders, and so on? Yes, every life has meaning; every life is precious. Every life matters. My point is that things are not going to change on the grand scale if they’re not changing on the small scale. It starts with every last one of us. We don’t necessarily have to love one another, but there is an amount of respect we have to show for one another. That’s where it starts.
So, what’s this to do with writing, you ask? Well, I came across a topic on Facebook talking about diversity in the publishing world. The consensus being that diversity is sorely lacking. Now, not having gone through the rigorous process of having anything published myself, this is pure speculation, so don’t quote me on this. It’s come to my understanding that the publishing world–the traditional publishing world–is filled with middle-aged men and women, dead set in their ways. I can understand why writers self-publish or do a hybrid form of publishing where they have some control over distribution and editing and so forth. But, I think this lack of diversity transcends the publishing business into what we read and who we read.
I remember last year participating in a lively debate on Twitter about the lack of diversity in a cast of characters. Even if you know the writer is of another race or gender, the assumption is that the character is your perfect all-American white male with the perfect smile, baby blue eyes, and rock hard abs. Is this the ultimate stereotype? Sure. No one in real life looks like that. (If you do, send a picture my way.) The point is that we writers know better. Our characters are far from perfect and it’s the imperfections we can relate to because they’re a reflection of us, whether it’s a hero or villain. Having said that, there are cliches and stereotypes, when it comes to race or gender or culture, that we do our best to avoid. And I’ll be the first to admit that I am guilty of putting characters in a box, not realizing that I’m doing my characters a disservice. Maybe some of my ignorance is due to lack of experience with a certain group of people. Maybe some of it is because of “research.” Whatever the reasoning, it’s no excuse. As a writer, I feel it’s my responsibility to show off my characters in the best possible light, even if that light is dim and dingy. Now, I am not going to propose a solution, simply because I don’t have one. I don’t think anyone does. What I will say is that I need to be more observant and ask questions. Not just for the sake of my stories, but to be a willing participant in this journey of life.
In my schooling years, I was not a bookworm, period. I hated reading. I could think of more fun things to do besides sitting down on a bed in my room reading a book. I don’t know if it was because I don’t remember my mom reading bedtime stories to me when I was a toddler. I don’t know if it was because the doctors thought I had ADD. There are a number of reasons why I didn’t develop a love of reading until my latter years. And even then, when I browse the local bookshops or a Barnes and Noble, it’s hard to find a book that says, “Please read me.” Maybe the reasoning behind that is because I don’t see a diversity of writers. In fact, the only author of color I can truly say I studied is Alexander Dumas, and it’s because my class did a study on his period of literature. (I apologize for not remembering dates. I’m not a historian.)
I get that in this day and age, it’s more daunting to get a novel published and a miracle if it makes a spot on the numerous bestseller lists across the country. My concern is that non-white writers are pigeonholed into writing in a specific genre. For example, there is a small section at my local bookstore just for African-American literature. The problem is that if it’s not a biography, it’s what I like to call, a “Whitney meets Bobby” story. (You may laugh, but you know what I’m talking about.) And black women mostly write these stories. It’s kind of insulting. It makes me furious. And then I adopt a sense of dread as a writer, wondering if this is what I’m inevitably going to write. I feel I’m not the only one who has these feelings. Even among “white” writers, the temptation is to write what is popular, what is going to make them money. The problem with that philosophy is that the market is eventually, if it hasn’t already, going to be so saturated that it will die off.
But that’s not to say that I refuse to read African-American literature or that I won’t read a Veronica Roth or Lee Child novel. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t find time to read, you can’t be a writer.” I apologize for butchering this quote, but what he speaks is truth. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand, and I can’t be a good writer if I’m not reading everything I can get my hands on. I need to read in whatever genre I choose to write, as well as outside my genre. I admit that I am afraid to even read outside of my genre because…(insert excuse). The bottom line is to read everything. Read the bad as well as the good. Read the innovative as well as the cliched. Read the classical as well as the current. Read works by black authors, white authors, Latin authors, and the like. Read, read, read. The point is to take in everything and apply it to my work.
In an ideal world, people of all backgrounds will come to the realization that racism is intolerable, that it has no place in society. Racism will die and people will come to respect one another. I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime, but I choose to believe that the process will start. In the meantime, as a writer, I realize I have a gift of bringing worlds together. Sure, there will be clashes. No one is immune to prejudice. But I see that I have a responsibility to present the characters in my stories in such a way that it doesn’t diminish who they are just because they are different. It is my hope that the next generation of writers–black, white, Latin, Irish, Asian, male, female, whatever–will also come to that revelation.