On writing diversity

The Sirens are singing in a shiny new year, one full of dreams and stories and magic. We hope you’re brimming over with ideas you just can’t wait to write about!

As you know, diversity and respectful representation are very important things here in the Star-Dusted Sea. So I’d like to talk a little about how to do it well—and how not to do it.

Speculative fiction lets us talk about complex issues in our own world, but it’s also a wonderful way to shine a light on countries and cultures that are underused in the genre. I’d love to see many more novels and short pieces set in India and China and Mexico and and and . . . Or even with characters from those countries who live in the U.S., in a way that honors their background and heritage while allowing them to have the same kind of fun adventures other characters get. (“I’m brown; where do I belong?” is far from the only story to be told!)

Sounds easy enough, right? Not so much—I’m thinking about a few books I’ve read that fit the above description and still fall down in some crucial way. Let’s take a look at the mistakes they made, individually and as a group.

First, the authors failed to do the research that would result in an accurate, rounded depiction of the country and the people who lived there. They often fell back on stereotypes, faulty information, and in one case, even demonized a religion that’s already the victim of misunderstanding here in the West.

Think here of a movie: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That movie portrayed the Hindu goddess Kali as a bloodthirsty monster and her followers as eyeball-eating creeps. And of course the white characters (Indy and his friends) were the heroes and justified in everything they did against the Thuggees. Do I really need to say that is hurtful and terribly biased, not to mention ridiculously inaccurate?

Our job as writers is to tell a good story, yes, but we are also in search of truth, big Truth and little truth, which we sprinkle through our work. One thing we really owe it to our readers not to do is to continue spreading harm through stereotypes and patently wrong ideas about the people we’re writing about. Research does matter.

The second thing these books did wrong was to appropriate their settings and cultures. What I mean by that is, they grounded their stories in a supposedly “exotic” location, but the story itself actually starred white main characters from the West, often in savior roles. Imagine a book set in China that had almost no Chinese characters; the setting just acts as a backdrop for the Western characters to play out their journey. Any actual cultural trappings only exist insofar as they serve those characters. This happens far more than you might think, and it’s often never even called into question.

Erasure is a huge problem. It’s far too easy to think that the straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical point of view is the default one, the way of seeing everyone should be able to relate to, and thus that character deserves to be the star of every story. But that’s a fallacy, and a very harmful one.

A third error is the use of the Magical Negro. Basically, if there is a person of color (or a queer person, etc.) in the story, this character exists solely to further the journey of the white main character and has no real role/arc of their own. In fact, they often die in service to the white main character. Please don’t do that. That’s another colonial idea, that everything and everyone exist for the sake of white people/characters, particularly those from Western Europe and America.

Finally, the authors of these books don’t appear to have taken the time to examine their own prejudices and the filters on their worldview. We all have ideas given to us by the society we live in and the media we’ve been exposed to, ideas that are so deeply entrenched that they’ve become mental wallpaper to us. We don’t even see they’re there until someone else points them out, but they do shape how we think and see things. And that will always bleed through into our work.

So how do you do diversity right? How do you tell stories about people not exactly like you in settings unlike your own? Research, research, research. Then research some more, and read books and watch movies about the culture/country you’d like to write about, but make sure those media are by people from that culture. Also, talk to people from that culture. Internet forums are a great way to do this, and you might make a friend, too. It’s so important to step outside your familiar circle of friends and fellow writers, because they very likely share your notions about things, and the same things that slide by you will slide by them.

Most importantly, don’t forget that you’re a reader, too. Read and promote work by the people from that culture!

Know that writing truly and respectfully takes hard work, and yes, you may get something wrong, but it’s also an important thing to do. As writers, our job is to put ourselves in others’ shoes and report what we find. All the stories of all the people in the world deserve to be told, so let’s tell them with compassion, respect, and love.

Happy writing!