Autism, books, reading, writing, Young Adult fiction

Diversity in Fiction: Does It Work?

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Before we get into this, no one holler at me about not supporting diversity or acceptance of differences — because that’s not my issue at all. I am a big supporter of novels that include “the melting pot” of cultures/races/religions, and certainly novels that encourage all groups to break stereotypes and treat each other with love.

Here’s what bugs me: Rather than making diversity a normal part of our writing/reading, it still seems to be on the “agenda” platform — meaning that it’s part of a checklist instead of truly coming from the heart. It feels like so many (especially YA) novels are now: “Have a bi-racial character – check. Have a character in a same-gender relationship – check. Have a character with depression/autism/dyslexia – even if it’s incorrectly represented – check.” Is anybody else hearing this?

Now, I don’t want to (inaccurately) bash the authors who have done a great job representing all of this. For example, I recently praised Maggie Stiefvater for wonderfully depicting a boy apparently on the spectrum in The Scorpio Races. (Go to the search tab on my sidebar and enter that title, you should be able to find the review.) And there are some great depictions of cultural sharing in my post on 10 Picture Books About Acceptance. Of course I’m only scratching the surface on this issue, just to make my point.

So, going back to the fact of the “checklist” feeling, and that we need to get away from it: A little while ago, there was a fantastic discussion on another blog where we talked about marginalizing certain groups in favor of “pushing” minorities and “the under-represented” — and how that actually creates an imbalance. To me, this also goes back to staying true to your own voice as an author — if your characters just are bi-racial, or just have a developmetal “dis”ability, or whatever, fantastic, go for it. But if, as a writer, you’re simply thinking about “checking those boxes,” then please don’t.

This comes from a very personal standpoint. My oldest son is high-functioning ASD — and yet, according to the textbooks, he barely qualifies to be on the spectrum. So how he acts/reacts/processes isn’t necessarily what people would “expect” from an autistic teenager. Hence, the misunderstandings. All my life, I struggled with sensory perception difficulties, transitional inability and increased or decreased emotional reactions — and yet, no one ever diagnosed me as on the spectrum — but, go to a pre-diagnostic quiz on WebMd or something like that, and I hit ‘yes’ on 80% of the  criteria. So, hello, and duh, medical and educational “experts.”

Anyway — so, for me and White Fang, trying to find fiction that portrays characters we can 110% relate to, and even more, that sound like us — that’s just not going to happen, most of the time.

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How do we go about addressing this? Even more, possibly remedying the situation? Well, here’s what I suggest:

Authors should still be encouraged to write what they know, regardless of their ethnic/cultural background. Are you actually an Arab Jew living in London? If so, yay for you, write about it. Are you actually a Caucasian North American? Same thing, go for it. Do you actually have autism, dyslexia, Cystic Fibrosis, social anxiety? Do it. Don’t let the haters drag you down. If your health allows for it, share your story. If writing isn’t your strong suit, try recording audio, or YouTube videos; find a friend or relative to transcribe it into blog posts or something, too.

We need to focus more on the story than the quota. Stories that naturally have a variety of elements, told from a variety of perspectives, will certainly help to aid understanding and tolerance. Making it just part of a normal thing, like reading a book, makes it more normal much easier than people screaming “the need for tolerance” all over the news. (Personally, I can’t stand crowds or loud noises or the physical feelings produced by witnessing conflict, so I barely even watch the news anymore.)

Readers, and writers, could let go of their preconceptions about “diverse literature.” Diversity tends to be a catch phrase anymore, a label we slap on any novel that comes from a foreign country or culture or religion, and it’s lost its true meaning. For example, when I read Malala Yousafzai’s biography, it was because I find her an inspiration for education equality everywhere. The fact she happens to be an Arab Muslim is simply neither here nor there in my support of her. Anyway, my point is that when I read books written by a foreign author (fiction or non), most of the idea for me is, I want to learn more about the story between those covers. Learning more about the culture/history/religion of another place is, for me, a bonus. It makes me a more well-rounded individual. (Logic, Spock.)

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As a writer myself, I have to say this: In my fantasy series, the authenticity of the characters come first, and I am writing what I know; so most of my characters are Caucasian North Americans or Brits. But this in itself isn’t wrong. And I do have a more “diverse” supporting cast, because I established early in the story that the secret organization I’m writing about spans the globe, and operates in dozens of countries, so why wouldn’t I have many different races/faiths represented? To me, it just makes sense.

Also, I have to give a shout-out to Never Seen A Nevergreen, who made a very eye-opening comment on my last post regarding an author who wrote, rather inaccurately, about autism — and later changed her content and released new editions of the books in question. I’d never heard of something like this, and getting this information made me very hopeful that we can produce the change we need on this issue.

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3 thoughts on “Diversity in Fiction: Does It Work?”

  1. I think the key element is absolutely the authenticity of the writer’s voice – if it’s jarring to read, it’s probably been crowbarred in, and that’s just a sign of someone not weaving its importance into the fabric of the story. Personally for me, I prefer writing about someone I don’t know where I can; it may mean I have to do a lot more research than had I picked someone familiar, but the benefit is (hopefully) a more thorough insight into the story’s creation. (Admittedly it’s a bit different for me as a script writer because that process is unavoidable what with it potentially being staged, but the principle of believability is the same 🙂 ).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, this is what sticks in my craw lately. I’ve read several books in the past year that I found the “checkmarks” pretty quickly, and I didn’t like it. Whereas in novels where a character just *is* gay, or has a disability, or is a minority but not out of meeting that “quota” – rather because the author simply envisioned them as being of African/Asian/Hispanic descent… Research is so invaluable. A lot of authors base characters on friends or relatives or acquaintances, so that, like you said, it feels believable and relatable, although the author isn’t that person him/herself. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem! Both of my degrees were in theatre (the masters in playwriting), and if I took nothing else away, it was that exposition is the devil and inactive information is useless to the audience. I now also have a twitch from having “conflict!” shouted at us at every waking moment of class…

        Liked by 1 person

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