Monday, September 12, 2016

How Diversity (and Lin Manuel Miranda) Can Make A Story Awesome

Lin Manuel Miranda's musical IN THE HEIGHTS

Lately, there have been a lot of discussions around diversity and inclusivity in my writing community. I say lately, but really, these discussions have been going on for a long time. However, they have their moments where they boil over a little more heated, and the past few weeks, this has seemed to be the case.

This is a topic I have a lot of thoughts on, mostly because that when it comes to increasing diversity in books and in the publishing industry, I am all for it. A lot of the time, I kind of expect people to take this for granted. I'm not one to make a fuss. I'm not one who likes hurting feelings. But I am also someone who hates faulty logic, and lately, there have been some arguments AGAINST increasing diversity in books that have relied on terrible, narrow-sighted premises and that is the kind of thing that I just cannot stand for. So in the name of sense, I am saying some things.

Actually, I am saying a LOT of things. Bear with me. I have a lot of thoughts on this.

Bad Argument #1: There isn't really a lack of diverse books. I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and that had race issues in it.

A lot of my readers are not writers and are likely unaware of the discussions writers have around diversity. But if you're someone who is concerned with social justice and media, you've probably heard of these discussions in some other venue. Maybe you watch movies and saw some of the discussion around the incredibly white Oscar nominees of the past couple years. Or maybe you like theatre and noticed that everyone is losing their minds over Lin Manuel Miranda's musical, Hamilton (we'll talk more about Miranda in a minute).

Generally, you can drag-and-drop that discussion onto books. Books, like most media, are dominated by white, heterosexual, able-bodied heroes. Oh sure, there are exceptions. There are lots of great books out there about minority characters, but this is more a symptom of there being "lots of great books" than of there being adequate exposure or opportunities for books focused on minorities.

If you need convincing at all, I compiled a list of as many books as I could think of that have been featured in some way on my blog. Most were selected for book reviews of some kind, because I think they're great books. A few came up because you can't discuss Young Adult literature without saying a few things about Harry Potter and Twilight. I think the list provides a decent litmus test of what you'll "happen" to see and read if you are not actively selecting for diversity. Below, I have highlighted all the books that definitively feature a protagonist who isn't white.

True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp – a white boy and some raccoons
Ship Breaker – a mixed race boy, possibly Latino, but it’s all pretty vague. Could be white
Divergent – a white girl
The Night Gardener – a white girl and a white boy
The Giver Quartet – three white boys and two white girls
The Hunger Games – a girl. Probably white.
Twilight – a white girl
Harry Potter – a white boy
MaddAddam Trilogy – a white girl, a white boy, a white woman and a white man
The Scorpio Races – a white girl and a white boy
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – a Native American boy
Three Men in a Boat – a white man
Tess of the D’Urbervilles – a white girl
Bone Gap – a white girl and a white boy
Stand Still. Stay Silent. – four white boys and two white girls
Wolf by Wolf – a Jewish girl who *usually* looks white
To All the Boys I've Loved Before - a half Korean girl (spoiler! This review is upcoming!!!)

I included that last one because I actually did write that review already, so it seemed part of the same, pre-post on diversity thought process of mine.

Now, racial diversity isn't the only kind of diversity you can read about, but I hope this gives some idea of why, when people seemingly go on and on and on about inclusivity, it isn't because they are going on about nothing. These are not books I stumbled into accidently. The majority are award winning and highly respected. Others are runaway blockbuster hits. Most are used as benchmarks within the discipline.

So here are some numbers:

Of the 17 books above, only 2 feature definitively non-white protagonists
If we include Nailer from Shipbreaker, that number goes up to 3
Wolf By Wolf features a religiously diverse protagonist. The count goes up to 4
Stand Still. Stay Silent. features linguistic diversity and isn't heteronormative. The count goes up to 5
Bone Gap features a protagonist with a disability. The count goes up to 6

And that's it. 6 out of 17 books feature diverse protagonists. Due to the inclusion of a couple works of classical literature, maybe the number skews a little low, but one of the advantages of being white today is that you have the past to bolster you up. We've been the heroes in the cultural narrative for a long time.

A lot of people may argue that I'm being unfair, only counting books where the protagonist belongs to a diverse group. And yes, I will grant you that it's nice that Katniss is friends with black characters and that Bella has a thing for Jacob. They help, because they show that neither Katniss nor Bella belongs to some sort of strange world where the diverse characters have all been edited away. But these are still stories that are about the experiences of people who don't grapple with issues that exclude them from the mainstream. The diverse characters are appendages to those stories, not the focus themselves.

What I'm saying is that things could be better. There could be more diverse books. I might need to more actively select FOR diversity if I want to feature it on my blog. But you'll notice something else about that list. The bottom of it - which is composed primarily of new releases - is more diverse than the top. I didn't do this intentionally, but the books I am reading and that are promoted to me are changing. Modern writers are getting better at including diversity, and a lot of the best stories today feature diverse protagonists. Which leads me to...

Bad Argument #2: If people are just trying to promote diverse books, then what will happen to "good" literature? This is like affirmative action hiring in books! I don't like it!

I think it goes without saying that books should recommend themselves on their own merits. I've picked up diverse books I haven't liked. I've also picked up books that don't feature diversity that I haven't liked. Just as there are "lots of good books" out there, there are also lots of bad books out there. And because reading is so subjective, it can be hard for us to understand why one book got published and another one didn't. And all too often, people use this as an excuse to blame diversity.

You see the same nervousness around diverse books that you do around affirmative action hiring, particularly from writers. Writers who aren't from diverse groups get antsy when they see an editor or literary agent calling for diversity. It's like a scholarship they can't apply to, and it upsets them, because they're looking for a way into the market too.

But this is the thing: For every editor there is asking for fantasy that features non-European mythology, there is another one turning down a manuscript with a diverse protagonist because there just isn't "broad enough market appeal" for it. And "market appeal" is often seen to equal white, heterosexual, able-bodied etc etc

If you want a good example of this, take a look at the way books are adapted into movies. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins describes Katniss as olive skinned, dark haired and dark eyed. She's racially ambiguous. But most of us don't think of her that way anymore because we've all seen her played by fair skinned, blue eyed Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence was a logical choice for making the movie more "marketable," a traditional, white beauty who was a star on the rise. Of course she did a good job, and since Katniss's race was ambiguous at best, I wouldn't say she was miscast. But can you see what I mean? When a spot is "neutral" so-called, it's usually filled by a mainstream character.

When people actively call for diverse work, it isn't because they are trying to exclude other writers, but because they're trying to make a space for work that otherwise might struggle to get into the "neutral" slot because nothing is ever neutral. Not really.

And if you find yourself "missing" these opportunities, consider for a moment whether or not your own work really is at it's very best. There might be more diverse work out there now, but there's also still plenty of stories about white people. Don't worry, I went to the book store. I checked. Our faces are still on plenty of covers. Which brings us to...

Bad Argument #3: Diversity is great and all, but not EVERY book should have to be diverse, right? Authors shouldn't feel pressured to include it if they don't want to.

If you are asking this question because you are looking for permission to write a white, able-bodied, heterosexual etc etc mainstream character as your protagonist, then I hereby give you permission. Yes, go ahead. It's your story. You can write your story about whatever you're little heart desires. Similarly, yes, you can enjoy a book about white characters without feeling guilty for liking it. There are great books out there that aren't terribly diverse.

And the reality is that even when we're looking at mainstream protagonists, there are still lots of differences between them . We all love the Avengers and how different they are from each other and yet they're all white, 30-something-year-old dudes. Give or take. (That's starting to change. Marvel is planning on releasing some movies that should broaden the line-up.)

But on the flip side, I will say this: Writers have a responsibility to represent diversity not because it is the buzz phrase du jour, but because writers have a responsibility to represent reality. And the reality is that the world is a diverse place.

If you live in Europe and North America, there was a time when reality did seem less diverse. I don't think Shakespeare had much exposure to cultures other than his own, so when he wrote reality, it was a narrow version of it. And good gosh, we should be grateful he didn't veer too far off of what he knew! *coughshylockchough*

But we don't live in that world anymore. Less than 50% of kindergarteners in America are white. Around a quarter of all Americans live with a disability at some point. If you don't see the need to feature at least SOME non-mainstream characters in your work, then you might just be ignoring reality. And yes, that is something that deserves to be called out. The "mainstream" I've mentioned so many times isn't what it used to be. It's varied in a way that it wasn't before.

There will still be exceptions. There will still be deeply fascinating, genuine books that feature little-known aspects of European history. There will still be stories about small towns in middle-America where everyone attends the same highschool and everyone looks like each other, accept for that one kid who sticks out like a sore thumb. These might be portraying reality in a time or place where it would feel a bit forced to make everyone "diverse for the sake of diversity." But even then, it wouldn't hurt to do a bit of extra research - to make sure we are portraying reality in those places and not just our assumptions about it. Even back in the olden days, there was still more immigration and mixing that went on than people often care to acknowledge.

So with all that said, I want to provide one last argument; one of my own, which I hope strikes people as a good one. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and even label it as such.

Good argument #1: Everyone benefits from diversity because it gives us more stories; stories that wouldn't be available to us otherwise.

A few years ago, I went on a trip to New York with my older sister. Being musical theatre enthusiasts, we decided to go attend a show we knew very little about, but had great buzz. It was called In The Heights and told the story of a neighborhood in northern Manhattan primarily made up of Latin American immigrants.

The musical was the first major work by Lin Manuel Miranda, who has since then achieved dizzying acclaim with his more recent work, Hamilton. But it was In The Heights that made me fall in love with Miranda and his hip-hop, rap infused musical theatre stylings. There isn't really anyone else like him on Broadway.

One of the scenes that completely fascinated me was one that involved Benny, a black cab driver who worked for a Puerto Rican ran cab company. He gets involved with his boss's daughter, Nina, and to his shock, is rebuffed by her family. Benny had always enjoyed an easy relationship with his boss. They're both minorities. They're both used to not having their dreams taken seriously, because they're from a "bad" part of Manhattan. But Benny is a cultural outsider, who speaks some Spanish, but isn't fluent. He finds himself viewed as an intruder and this understandably hurts him.

The resolution of this storyline is probably best left to the musical, but I remember this was a real wake-up call for me. I was so excited watching this, because I had literally never seen this story before. I hadn't seen it anywhere. One of the main reasons why was because, in my own life, there is literally ALWAYS a white person present. It can't be helped because guys, I AM that white person! Shocking, I know.

Miranda gave me a peep into a world of race relationships and cultural hierarchy that had very little - almost nothing, really - to do with white experience. The baggage is different. The tensions are different. The assumptions are different. As a result, the stories are different. Having a white character present for that scene would have radically altered the tone, and so I found myself very glad that there weren't any. Not because I'm inherently "uninterested" in the stories of white characters, but because sometimes they need to step out of the way and make room for other people - to make room for the stories that cannot involve them.

And that's what we stand to gain when we open up to diversity in literature. We end up able to empathize with more people and aware of worlds that are beyond our ability to observe. We have so much to gain by letting more stories be told by the people who experience them. So don't fear the future, friends. It's a place with a lot of great stories to tell.

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