‘Diversity’ shouldn’t just become a buzzword (though it may already be becoming one in some ways…). But one way to pull it back from the edge is to flesh it out: What does it mean? Why should it be considered? Etc. We’re trying to uncrack that nut.
I’m glad Nikki decided to start this topic because I was beginning to suspect that we had different and yet very similar ideas on what that word or train of thought means. For me it is all encompassing, from the characters in it to the authors that write about them. I don’t get “feelings” for books like Nikki, I just read whatever my hand or mind is drawn to at the time. I might feel like a genre or a specific trope, like my love of dragons and magic, but I rarely, rarely feel like reading a cultural sort of thing. When I have felt like that it’s mostly been for Caribbean books and I think that’s because it’s most familiar.
In my review of 2015 I noted the number of books that I read that had lead “diverse” characters or written by a “diverse” author and for me that category is one in the same. I’ll read a book with South Asian narrator or protagonist even if it’s written from a middle class white guy from the US. Authors and narrators/protagonists are on equal ground here for me.
Now to get into the awkward nitty gritty, um, I guess diversity for me is anything against the typical status quo. So a non diverse book, I’m purely guessing and writing in a stream of conciousness style now, would be one with an American/British/Western middle class/rich white guy narrator or author. Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s counts as a non-diverse book. I don’t want you to think that these books are bad, they are not, I think every book that I like is great and the ones I don’t like are great but to someone else.
They’re just not expanding my perspective on things, which is again fine. Just not all the time, we need to break things up, to learn, to explore and reach. That’s why it isn’t just about race, it’s about reading about people who think differently, who are differently abled, different sexualities or classes, from different countries or genders, it’s about challenging what you think of as normal and understanding that for others their normal is different. My normal as a biracial queer woman born and raised on a small Caribbean country is so very different from my friends in the UK and that is what makes life so amazing and full of flavor. That’s why I’ll read books by middle class American white guy authors but they wrote a really diverse character, I think that’s cool. Now how good the execution of that is or was, is a totally different topic which you read about below with Nikki (she’s such a good thinker, I love the way she thinks I really do).
On an aside, mostly because I tend to prefer female authors and protagonists, for me it’s hard to think of reading by gender (or nongender conformity) as being diverse but that’s my privilege as someone whose been able to command her gender and how people perceive of it and I know that, so I’m trying to work on that.
I tend to focus on diverse creators rather than just works with diverse characters in them. For example: if I were in the mood for a story set in asia or about asian culture, I am more likely to pick up something written by an asian (often one that is actually from Asia and not just Asian-American) than I am to pick up a book with an asian protagonist by a white American.
I know a lot of people are happy with just having diversity on the page/screen/facing the audience, and it’s great to see that too, but the way I choose to deal with this is to have a more diverse range of creators behind the page/screen/whatever because the work will naturally become more diverse and deal with a wider range of topics in an organic way that isn’t contrived or lacking in understanding and insights. It is also less likely to fall prey to tokenism or to run into the awkward problem of cultural appropriation.
There is nothing wrong with an able-bodied person writing about someone with a physical difference or a white person writing about black protagonists (as long as it’s well researched)! But sometimes we run into the danger of creators talking over the people they purport to want to elevate which is never good. Not to mention that readers should be aware that are not really getting an authentic view of that minority perspective…they’re getting a fabricated (but hopefully researched!) minority perspective from someone outside of that minority group which is worth bearing in mind.
I know I’m in the minority in thinking this, but I personally felt like this happened in the graphic novels Rat Queens and Sex Criminals in relation to straight, cis, white guys talking over women and talking over people of colour and talking over people who identify as LGBTQ+. It felt less ally and more tokenism, fetishism and stereotyping to me.
It’s a really delicate balance and I think you need both. You need marginalised people to be able to tell stories. All sorts of stories! It doesn’t need to be confined to just stories about being marginalised. If they want to tell sci-fi stories or historical fiction stories or high fantasy stories or memoirs or non-fiction or whatever, they should be able to do that and not feel like they’re not invited to the storytelling party. And you also need less-marginalised people (like those straight, cis, white guys we talked about earlier for example) to include a more diverse range of characters in their stories too. It reflects real life, it’s more inclusive, and it shows that it’s not just something for “them”, the marginalised people, to tackle. And it’s interesting! It helps us all (creators and readers) stop inadvertently ostracising ‘other’ voices and start understanding that they are all ‘our’ voices…and we all get new types of cool stories to read. Everybody wins!
That doesn’t mean I don’t want to read anything from the current ‘default’: able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered, white, usually male (but sometimes not…depending on the genre?), middle-class authors. Some of my favourite authors fit that category: John Steinbeck, George Orwell, P.G. Wodehouse, Andrew Kaufman, Jon Klassen, Garth Nix, Brian K. Vaughan, Agatha Christie, Kate Beaton… Trust me, I am in no danger of excluding those who belong to that demographic. But I want my favourites list to be less samey in its point of view.
So for me, although I appreciate works with diverse characters regardless of who the author is, creator diversity is what I tend to mean when I think about reading more diversely and I don’t think it has to mean the same old expected ‘other’ stories either.