Writing Diversity

by K.C. Maguire

On reading my copy of the July/August SCBWI Bulletin, I was interested in an article by the Executive Director, Lin Oliver, about writing diversity in children’s books. Like many others, she agrees on the importance of diversity in books for children, but raises questions about who should write diverse characters. In other words, does one have to be an African-American or a Native-American, for example, to write an African-American or Native-American character? I’ve been very interested in this question for a while, particularly since I learned about concerns raised when Susan Cooper, author of the Dark is Rising series, recently released a YA book, Ghost Hawk, in which the main character is a Native-American. Cooper apparently did a great deal of research for the book and her writing is lovely, but she is not herself Native-American. Then I compared that situation with some criticism of Dork Diaries author Rachel Renee Russell, herself an African-American, for not more prominently featuring African-American characters in her books.

A lot has been written about whether white writers should write minority characters, and whether minority authors should feel obliged to write characters who represent their own backgrounds. The answer must be that “it depends”, mustn’t it? As Lin Oliver points out, a writer has to be able to “authentically write” from the point of view of a main character, and if a particular author feels he or she cannot authentically write a character from a different ethnic background, that author may not be comfortable writing the book, and may not write a good book.

I also wonder if the same concerns ring true for gender as they do for race. It seems to me that far fewer criticisms are lobbied against women who write male characters or men who write female characters. I’ve written from the point of view of teen boys and middle-aged men relatively comfortably, but I doubt I could (and I don’t know that I should try to) write an authentic African-American, Native-American, or Hispanic character. I have written characters who are in same-sex relationships, even though I’m a heterosexual middle-aged mother of three.

As usual, the academic in me is raising more questions than I’m answering about who “can” and who “should” write different kinds of characters. I’ve never really questioned why I feel comfortable writing some kinds of characters and not others. And I feel very comfortable writing sci-fi and fantasy characters whose attributes and backgrounds are completely made up, but they’re obviously based on something from my real life.

I’d love to know what others think about writing diversity. There’s a ton of articles about this and I’m obviously not the first to think about it. I know that personally I would like to see more diversity in books, particularly books for younger readers. I also know that, growing up as a white female, I’m not the best person to write characters from other ethnic backgrounds. And I also don’t think it’s fair or appropriate to expect minority writers to feel obliged to write about characters from their own backgrounds unless it’s something close to their hearts as an author. So what’s the best way to ensure that our children experience more diverse characters and backgrounds in the books they read?


4 thoughts on “Writing Diversity

  1. I think authors should write what they want to write. If someone is compelled to spend months penning a book about native americans, the culture must be one they can slip into with some sense of belonging. Let’s face it – it’s a big, big world and someone will always get upset about something, even the most benign “something.” The best an author can do is write what’s in their heart, write with sensitivity, and hope for the best. If authors could only write from their own perspective and experience, then books like Harry Potter (don’t write as a boy!) and Hemingway’s Wife (don’t write as a historical figure!) and Memoirs of a Geisha (don’t write as a Japanese woman!) wouldn’t exist. Writers, by nature, can put themselves in the shoes of others. Let readers–not rules–decide whether or not they’ve chosen the right pair.

    Oh, K.C., you’ve hit my hot button with this article!!!!

  2. If I could only write from my perspective, then the rest of the world would see how incredibly boring I really am. Why are reality shows even staged? To make it interesting…

    I write to entertain. I want to tell a good story and have my audience enjoy it. I research, study, try to get into my characters heads–or maybe try to get them out by telling their story. But in reality? I want nothing to do with a murder mystery. Or aliens. It’s fiction–I’d like it to stay that way.

  3. I also write stuff I don’t really know, but feel maybe disrespectful writing about a culture I don’t know. I’ve been to some great lectures this week on learning to write from the perspective of other cultures.

  4. I once took a workshop from an editor who insisted that writers cannot write from the POV of a character that they’ve never been. In other words, I cannot write the POV of a teenage boy. I disagree. I do think that when writing outside your culture you should do the work required to honor that tradition and get it right. I think it also helps to have someone who lives that perspective to vet the work.

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