Thursday, May 1, 2014

May Day is for Revolution, Right?

So, today's the start of We Need Diverse Books tripartite campaign, which begins with sign-picture posts (captioned so blind-enabled browsers can read the signs in the picture; this is the kind of detail that people who don't need something often overlook) of reasons why we need diverse books, and culminates in going out and actually buying diverse books.

So make a date with your bookseller this weekend.

I have never understood the mentality that assumed people, especially kids, didn't want to read about people too different from a narrow norm. I have always been more interested in a book if the protagonist wasn't too much like me. I know what it's like to be me. One reason I read is to get a break from being me.

And face it, if you read English-language media, you already have a fair grasp of what it's like to be a cis-het white middle-class American or British person, regardless of who you are.

I tend to write protagonists who are more or less like me, because that's sure ground. In an ideal world, or even a sensible one, everyone would do this and there'd be a proportionate number of available books covering all the bases. This does not happen. People like me are disproprotionately represented in media; and people like John Green are disproportionately represented in awards, panels, and reviews. And this is silly, as well as unfair to everybody. Including the people like John Green, who is not being challenged to be the best he can be by competing on a level playing field with the women of color who have to write and market so much better than he has to, even in order to get a review.

Which places a burden on those of us who partake of privilege, however innocently or unintentionally, to write diversely. This is scary; but it is also exciting to try out other identities. For one thing, it means - research!

Which research is made much harder by the historical narrowness of media representation. (Heavy sigh.) If I want to find out what it was like to be (for example) a medieval person of color, or a blind woman in antebellum Texas, or a nineteenth century Apache little person, I've got my work seriously cut out for me, reading all around the subject and, sometimes, even finding appropriate lines to read between. Ideally I should today know people who resemble my protagonist in some way, and run the work by them, and ask them questions that aren't too obnoxious; which is problematic because I'm not much of a people person.

The internet is a big help with this. But sometimes - okay, a lot of the time - I won't even know what questions to ask. Or that I even know a person who is appropriate to ask, because you can't know if a person you've been talking to online about cats or sewing or gaming is black or autistic or intersex or whatever unless the subject comes up, and why should any of these things come up in those conversations? (So thread drift is your friend.)

Which means that when I try to write diversely, odds are good I'm gonna screw up.

But you know what? I can screw up writing undiversely, too. I'll just screw up in ways that are unchallenging, comfortably familiar. Boring even. I could even be rewarded for those screw-ups, and I am just about mature enough not to want that.

And when I express these concerns about writing diversely - which I know is extremely common; people don't want to lose their liberal cred by "doing it wrong" - to someone from an underrepresented group, they always say the same thing: That none of us should be limited in the points of view from which we write. That saying a white person can't write about American Indians is the same as saying that an American Indian can't write about white people. Which is clearly and egregiously racist.

We can't limit ourselves without limiting others, too.

The reach should exceed the grasp, or what's a heaven for? (That's Robert Browning, a cishet white middle-class 19th century Englishman writing as a cishet white middle-class Renaissance Italian. You see how hard it is to get out from under? I'm sure somebody from an underrepresented demographic has a similar quote I could go for, but it isn't culturally positioned to be in my head ready for use.)

If making the world better were easy, everyone would be doing it.

No comments:

Post a Comment