A Writer’s Take On Diversity and Representation in Books

Diversity. The term has been mentioned a lot, particularly in the realm of young adult literature. In fact, it would not surprise me if your eyes rolled while reading the title of this post. Perhaps you’re thinking something along the lines of: “I’ve heard one too many opinions already. Can we please move on?” Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you do sympathize with this issue and wish more people would speak up about it. In any case, I’m glad you’re here because I believe the diversity discussion is an important one to have regardless of your feelings towards it.

To ensure we are all on the same page, diversity, as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is:

the condition of having or being composed of differing elements or the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.

While the term “diversity” refers to a variety of things depending on the context—race, gender, age, ability, religion—I will only use the word to refer to race/culture in this post. I do believe representation in books is an issue for all groups, but I also wish to be as succinct as possible here. Race is a subject I have seen come up again and again on BookTube, book blogs, and real-world news. Moreover, the basic aspects of this article apply not only to race but to other underrepresented groups as well. 

In this post, I will present the cause, the problem, and possible solutions to this diversity controversy. I chose to write on this topic not to merely throw another opinion into the mix, but to shed light on another side of the argument I believe is often overlooked.

I myself am both a reader and a writer. I was raised by two loving parents who taught me to judge people by their character rather than their outward appearance. During my childhood, I grew up in diverse neighborhoods where I had more African-American and Asian friends than white friends. Never thought twice about it. When I began writing a book, “including” racially-diverse characters was never a second thought for me. It is natural that I write characters who reflect the world of color I live in.

But not everyone grew up that way.

The Cause

You see, understanding background is key when examining a story from its writer’s point of view.

One of the golden guidelines (there are no “rules” when it comes to writing because every writer breaks them at some point) of the writing process is to “write what you know”. If you have a passion for quantum physics, write about it. If you gathered potential thriller material while exploring the Amazon rainforest, write it down. If you are into dragons and castles, I don’t care what they say. Write to your heart’s extent.

It’s a simple fact that the majority of today’s most popular writers are white—J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, James Patterson, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few. I do not necessarily believe this is wrong. They are talented, highly-acclaimed authors for a reason, and we enjoy their stories.

Image result for popular authors

Yet because of their cultural background, this often means many of their characters will be of European descent.

The same concept goes for non-white writers such as Gene Luen Yang, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and Toni Morrison. The majority of their characters are often Chinese, Afghan, and African because of their cultural heritage.

Image result for gene luen yangImage result for amy tanImage result for khaled hosseiniImage result for toni morrison

The Problem 

History gives us account after account of the establishment of European dominance throughout the known world since the beginning of civilization. Up until 55-60 years ago, even America, the great “melting pot”, had not escaped its history of racial prejudice. It still has a long way to go.

Even in our modern society, where we have established the acceptance of people regardless of race or identity, prejudice still occurs. As long as selfishness remains a part of human nature, discrimination is a reality we must realize and continue to fight against. This is why diversity is vital for so many readers. Books are a sort of temporary vacation from life’s frenzies, and we want them to critique reality rather than mirror it.

Every person is held accountable for their words, whether spoken or written, no matter who they are or where they live. The Internet has made it far too tempting to voice opinions about an author’s work, making it a difficult task to maintain a solid writing career. It does not matter how many people love your work; there is always an individual or group who will put in every effort to tear you down.

Truth be told, some writers may be afraid of misrepresenting a culture or group by writing diversely. I personally know this feeling all too well. In order to prevent backlash, they will just avoid writing about cultures outside their own. Or, if they do attempt to write about a different group of people, they end up misrepresenting them anyway and readers react negatively.

One event which comes to mind occurred back in 2016 when J.K. Rowling was heavily criticized for cultural appropriation in her stories about North American wizardry. Perhaps I’m stepping into a minefield by saying this, but it appears this would have to mean every story inspired by mythology, be it European or otherwise, is cultural appropriation.

The problem here does not lie in a lack of representation, but in the nature of humanity. Writers are not all-knowing deities. They are people like you and me, trying to find their voice among the clamor of a billion others. Writers write about events they’ve lived through, the people they encountered. In their writing, they express these experiences in unique ways. By no means am I giving an excuse for the lack of diversity in literature! I am simply saying we should consider the author’s background, and their goal, before criticizing them for promoting a white agenda.

Yes, there are racist writers out there, and occasionally a writer will offend or criticize someone without intending to. We all have done it at some point in our lives. It’s one of our flaws as humans—we are not perfect in our thinking.

The Solution

So what can we, the readers (and for some, emerging writers) do about this?

1. We need to support and encourage writers of every background.

I would love seeing more minority authors come forward and step into the spotlight. One of my favorite authors right now is Renée Ahdieh. Her YA The Wrath & The Dawn duology—a beautiful, nuanced retelling of A Thousand and One Nightswas the first YA series I truly enjoyed in a long time.

Ahdieh is currently finishing her second duology, Flame in the Mista story revolving around the daughter of a samurai. Not a single one of her books features a white character, and they tell the stories of vastly different cultures.

Image result for renee ahdieh and her books

2. Instead of slamming a writer for what they failed to do, try offering constructive criticism on their work.

Emphasize what the author did well, and respectfully confront them on what they could have done differently in writing the story. If the author is truly a good writer, they will take constructive criticism and use it to better themselves and their work. If you dislike a book, stop drawing attention to it by ranting. Instead, focus your energy on supporting authors who tell quality stories worth reading.

The publishing market will follow.

3. Finally, to those of you who are writers, I would leave you with a challenge.

Your first and foremost responsibility is writing the story which comes from your heart. No one has the power to take that from you. However, I also encourage you to keep the world in mind as you write. Do not write characters in your story for the sake of adding them; write characters who add to the story. Think about the sort of people who bring a new perspective to life, because those are the people worth reading about.

One final thought: we are all diverse in our own way. No two persons are the same, making it an impossible task to include every separate body in one story. Writers are not obliged to cater to us because at the end of the day it’s their story, not ours. This is the reason our world is constantly in need of more stories because each individual is peering out at the universe through a different lens. If you do not like what you see on the bookshelves, pick up a pen or open a blank document on your computer. Tell the story you believe humanity needs to hear.

There is so much more I could write regarding this topic. However, I decided what I have written here is sufficient both for my sake and for your attention span. Not everyone will agree with me, and I respect this. My purpose in writing this article was simply to provide a writer’s perspective on this issue, and I conclude I have done that here.

If you still want more, though, BookTuber Francina Simone does a fantastic job covering this subject. I’ll leave a link to her video here.

What are your favorite diverse reads? Better yet, what are your thoughts on this topic? Tell us below!

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