I know this post is longer than I normally have my blog, but stick with it. I found it highly interesting. I hope you do too. – Laura
Writing about diversity in a way that a mainstream audience can understand has always been a challenge for me.
“So why write for a mainstream audience?” people ask me when I say this.
Well, in this case, by mainstream, I mean not me or my sisters. Then again, my sisters don’t read my writing for the most part, so I really mean not me.
My fantasy world in These Lies That Live Between Us is set in a post-racial integration society. I timed my story at a point post-integration to a place where not enough time has passed for everybody to look more or less the same yet, but enough time has passed that people take for granted that skin color means nothing—children of different shades of skin can even be siblings, because this isn’t uncommon given how mixed everybody is.
This was always my intent, but for a long time, I planned to leave that part implicit—hopefully apparent in the interactions of certain characters. I added a paragraph making it explicit because of a certain encounter I had. When I was hunting for an agent to represent me, I had one particular dialogue with an agent that threw me off-balance.
“Are your main characters people of color?” asked the agent.
I felt wrong-footed. “They don’t have a race. I wrote them to be like me.”
The agent looked at me, brow furrowed, and I could hear her thinking—what are you?
And then I asked some of my beta readers and I realized—no one had caught on to the fact that everybody is mixed. That was a thing that I had to say if I wanted anybody to catch on.
Diversity and Me
Diversity isn’t a thing I ever thought about when I was growing up. It’s not something I thought about in my teens, or in college, or in grad school.
This may seem odd to anyone who’s read my bio. I’m mixed race. I’ve lived in several countries, and have always been a visible minority. I was born and grew up at the intersection of four languages, four religions and four countries. We had no “family language” in our nuclear family, a handicap that came back to bite us time and time again, as unlearned and forgotten languages became a very real hinderance to communication. To cap it off, I’m demisexual.
I am diverse, but the sort of diversity that doesn’t come with a community behind me. I don’t know anyone else with my mix of cultures, my mix of ethnicities, my mix of language comforts—only my sisters. I’ve never met another person who identified openly as demisexual, who could relate to the frustrations I’ve experienced that come with this sexuality.
In this age of heightened social awareness and calls for representation in the media, I remain an outlier. I’ve never seen myself represented in any meaningful way, and I never expect to.
Instead, throughout my life I’ve experienced a stream of people who either try to mansplain my identity away and insist I’m really just like them; or people who try to highlight the ways in which I am Other and cannot possibly have anything in common with themselves. I’m used to both, but ultimately, neither is better or easier to cope with than the other.
The Myth of Diversity in the Writing Industry
I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2017 and 2018, and both times inadvertently ended up in several conversations about diversity, and being pushed towards resources that are specifically for diverse authors. But the writing industry is ultimately a business, and at some point, I realized—I’m not what they’re talking about when they say they want diversity. They want the sort of diversity where writers can speak to their own communities. Where they’re speaking to a specific consumer base that the book can be marketed to.
That’s not something I can do. Socially, I’ve learned to talk to any group. With certain communities that I’ve interacted with often, I’ve learned things to say and things not to say, and explanations that work better than others when I try to explain my experiences. But these “rules” vary by community, and they’re a moot point when it comes to writing, anyway.
Unintentionally Writing Diversity
When I write, I’m not writing to one community in particular. I can’t do that—or, more accurately, I have no interest in doing that. Writing is where all my decades of conformity and effort fall away. Here, in words on a page or on a screen, I’m simply me in a way that I never am—in a way that I don’t know how to be in real life.
It sounds romantic and lovely, but it actually takes a surprising amount of effort and editing to make sure that my meaning comes through.
Sometimes, I forget to take care of negative connotations of certain words or phrases that are particular to some communities and not others. Always, before I start writing something, I have to take a moment to decide whether I’m doing American or British English, then take care not to slip into the other.
Most often, I forget the biases that most people have.
I forget that the world is overwhelmingly heteronormative. Several times, I’ve had stories that my beta readers could not understand for the life of them, and I couldn’t understand why—until I’d realize at last that I was writing in a headspace free of heteronormative presumptions that all of my beta readers carried with them.
I forget that the world takes cultural norms as moral or objective truths. I rarely write characters arguing about culture, because the dialogue is usually obvious and commonplace to me—the same way that most writers often skip the “how are you?” “good, and you?” segments of dialogue when characters meet up. As a consequence, I sometimes find I’ve confused by beta readers by providing two conflicting cultural outlooks with no confrontation or resolution—because, to me, this is simply a fact of life where resolution can rarely if ever be expected.
I forget that romance is a thing that most people do actively seek out. I forget which cultural context I’m supposed to be thinking in at times, and use idioms in the wrong language or culture without noticing.
I get around these potential pitfalls with the help of beta readers and editors.
Am I Still Trying to Conform?
When I try to explain my efforts to make my writings more accessible, the question sometimes comes up whether this is tantamount to conformity.
But the answer is a resounding no.
I don’t veer towards saying too much that might alienate a general audience. As with race in These Lies That Live Between Us or sexuality in so many short stories, my tendency is to say too little, leading the reader to either not see what I was trying to do, or to simply be confused.
I like subtle writing, which exacerbates this problem. As a reader, I love writing that makes me read between the lines. My favorite fantasy series growing up, alongside Harry Potter, was Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito series. In direct contrast to Rowling, who dunks her reader neck-deep into romance that shows up out of nowhere when it’s convenient to the story, Uehashi showed no explicit romance throughout her 12-volume series. Yet the relationship between the main couple—who are not a couple at the start of the series, but are at the end—can be seen developing and deepening if readers look at the way that their interactions evolve between books. The only explicit mention of this is in the final book, where the woman who would never settle down now refers to the man as her spouse.
There’s no kissing, save perhaps one comforting peck. There’s no discussion of their relationship on the page after the very first book in the series. We only see the pair of them grow more at ease and comfortable with each other in their everyday interactions. I’ve always wondered whether English-language readers would complain that the resolution came “out of nowhere.” Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—only the first two books in this series were translated into English, so we may never know.
I mention this because ultimately, I write my stories for myself. I’m of the opinion that writing for a faceless audience, trying to please everyone, is an endeavor that is both uninteresting and doomed to fail. So instead, I aim to write stories that I will be able to go back to in a few months or years and still enjoy. I write in subtleties because I enjoy those things very much as a reader. But I hope to not be inaccessible. I know I can’t bring everyone in the world with me, but I hope that I can reach some readers in a meaningful way.
I want to be able to share my loves, my sorrows, my angers, my joys and my fears. With my future self, with any readers who might be interested in my writings. To do that, I have to be aware of my blind spots, of the things I take for granted that others do not.
H-A-G-S: My Current Project
My current project is a YA thriller titled H-A-G-S. – https://youtu.be/WvzcIFWXgYI
Each of my main characters—Julian, Gil, Eva and Mei—is of mixed race and culture, going through some crisis of identity that I am familiar with.
The story is an old brainworm of mine that dates all the way back to my first year of university, and my first trip to London that was in fact made to research this story.
But it was only last year that I came across Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the danger of A Single Story. < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg> I listened to the talk and immediately looked at this story and asked myself, Why are all my characters monoethnic and monocultural? It was my greatest hinderance to telling the story I wanted to tell—I only have second hand accounts to work out what that’s like—yet for some reason it never occurred to me to write myself into these characters this way.
Because I’ve never seen a story with characters like me, it had never occurred to me to write them.
Immediately, I looked at my main characters and realized that the solution was easy. There were three divides in myself that I’ve struggled with, each of which would perfectly suit one of the main characters if I tweaked their backgrounds. So I did just that, and it immediately became easier to write. In fact, the more I peel away my reluctance to pour myself out onto the page, the easier it is to tell the stories I want to tell.
H-A-G-S is a thriller. But it’s also a personal coming of age story.
I’m trying to tell a story that only I can write. But I’m also trying to tell it in a way that not only is engaging to people who can’t directly relate, but is also interesting and entertaining.
Thank you Kai for your post!