Yesterday I was explaining to Mother Person why exactly I like Marvel more than DC, and two things popped up: humour and diversity. In my personal opinion, DC heroes take themselves way too seriously. They also have a habit of being straight white abled guys and it’s like … dude, seriously?
Mother Person warned me that I need to be careful not to become a ‘one-issue voter’, because I never seem to shut up about diversity to the point where my family are tired of hearing the words “misogyny” and “heteronormativity”. But the fact is that diverse fiction is about more than just being politically correct. It’s not even necessarily about representation, even though that is massively important. It’s about storytelling.
When I was a kid I never understood the definitions of fiction and non-fiction because I thought the one with “non” in it should be the one that wasn’t true. It should be “real” and “not-real”. Now I realise that fiction actually needs to be just as true as non-fiction, even when it’s set in a fantasy world in another galaxy where the people have six legs and two heads.
Fiction is about taking real emotions, characteristics, personalities, life truths etc and placing them into a made-up story. It’s about taking something real (heartbreak, grief, identity crisis, stress, joy) and expressing it through something that isn’t.
It’s like drawing. When you study art you’re told to draw what you see. Drawing, they say, is about perception more than it’s about holding a pencil. You draw what you see, you draw it right. Don’t draw what you think you see, what you expect to see, or what you want to see. Draw what’s right there in front of you, and you’ll be an artist.
Writing is exactly the same. Anybody can put sentences on a page. Okay, not everyone has the perseverance to get to the end, but theoretically most people could do it. And a lot of people have an imagination, so they can think up a story. Maybe some characters. But to express universal truths about the human condition, you have to be able to see them. To write about emotions, you have to understand what they’re like.
Now, when I read a novel where everybody is straight and white and male I begin to wonder about the writer’s observational skills, because that isn’t the world I’m seeing, and that’s not the humanity I’m trying to express. Or maybe there are some women, but everyone’s still straight and white. It’s not about shoehorning characters into it to be politically correct – it’s about good storytelling.
All I’m thinking when I read these books is: I want you to convince me that these stories express some universal truth about humanity but I can’t get past your complete lack of observational skills, and they make me think you’re not looking hard enough at this world. I mean, it’s shortsighted, isn’t it? It’s narrow-minded. It’s not good storytelling.
I live in London. Greater London, to be fair, so far out it’s practically Kent, but it’s still a multicultural place. From the age of eleven until sixteen I was in a form group at school where 15 out of 32 people were white and the other 17 were not. The proportions between which members of my friendship group are straight and which aren’t is fairly similar (but you know what they say – birds of a feather flock together). As far as mental illness is concerned, a whole handful of my friends have consulted doctors about anxiety and related conditions.
Yet my first (eight or so) novels were about straight white characters who displayed no signs whatsoever of any mental conditions, let alone physical impairments. And it never even occurred to me that that might be a problem.
Why? I look back now and I’m ashamed of the books I wrote and the messages they would have sent to readers if they’d been published, because they’re portraying such a limited portrayal of the world I live in. And I know that when I wrote them I thought I was straight, most of my friends thought they were straight, and I wasn’t yet disabled. But that doesn’t excuse me.
The fact it, I didn’t notice what I was doing because all the books I read told me stories about straight white people falling in love. None of them woke up in the morning with chronic pain or had to fight depression to be able to leave the house. None of them decided they weren’t interested in relationships, or found themselves falling for someone of the same gender, or realised they no longer identified as female. None of them had to deal with prejudice because of the colour of their skin.
Oh, there were exceptions, but only in Books About Racism (like Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman), you know? And my books were not Books About Racism, they were Books About Fairies or Books About Knights. So it wasn’t something I even thought to address.
My realisation that I needed to represent a broader perspective took me far too long, and even then it sort of dribbled down in stages.
First off came the idea that not all my characters needed to be straight. When I first had a queer character, I didn’t really know how to write her or what to do with her. She was an accident. Once I started identifying as queer, though, I realised it was way more fun to write characters without making assumptions about their sexual orientation, because then they could end up with anyone and it was like pot luck. By the end of the third draft of The Quiet Ones I wasn’t sure I had anybody left who was straight. So I had that one all sorted. Tick the box, move on.
Next, the internet – particularly Tumblr – made me aware that it was kind of rubbish to have all-white characters, because there was absolutely no reason for it. At first I made the usual excuses, i.e. “My books are set in England / elsewhere in the British Isles!” The internet said, “I don’t care. Look around you. The world is not full of white people.” So then I said, “But my characters are fairies!” and the internet said, “You have more characters with green skin than you have actual realistic POC.”
Wow, I thought. I never realised how racist my writing was. So I decided to address that one next, and wrote a novel where the protagonist was mixed-race and her best friend was black even though it was a fantasy novel set in Ireland, and you know what? It didn’t kill me. Radical, that. Other novels, like The Quiet Ones, also began featuring a more racially diverse cast. Not least because the University of Aberdeen, where it’s set, has a high proportion of international students, so look – Scotland could be diverse too! Amazing.
But the last realisation is the one I’m most ashamed of: I didn’t have any disabled characters. And the reason I’m ashamed is because I didn’t realise until I was disabled myself. When I woke up in the morning in pain, never once could I think, “Oh, but this character had the same thing and SHE saved the world.” And suddenly I thought how nice it would be if I could. (NB: It’s one of the reasons I love Rosemary Sutcliff’s books: her protagonists are never the physically strong characters, and some of them do have chronic conditions and aches and pains etc., yet they still get to be heroes.)
The internet, particularly Tumblr, was yet again responsible for helping me move past an internalised ableist attitude to writing disabled characters. No miracle cures. No romanticism that made mental illness look quirky. Don’t let a character’s physical limitations define them and their role. They pointed to Iron Man 3 and Tony Stark’s anxiety attacks – oh look, Marvel again – and said, “Hey look, a major character helping destigmatise mental illness.”
And I listened and I thought about it and I made excuses. I said, “My fairies are supposed to be these perfect magical beings.” I said, “I don’t know how to write this.” I said, “But it would get in the way.” I said, “There’s no space in this story for somebody disabled.”
Oh my Hamlet, I am ashamed just writing this. Ashamed what you must think of me and ashamed because if someone said that now I would hate them too. I would yell at them that I deserve to be represented even though some days I can’t climb stairs or hold a pen.
You see, the more I read about people wanting representation and the more I looked for it in books, the more I realised that I needed to stop taking this attitude, and I started thinking. Once again, The Quiet Ones kind of became my all-diversity-included novel, with a major character who has anxiety and bipolar disorder, just because it worked. Not because I was slotting it in to tick boxes, but because it fitted his character. In the Death and Fairies series I said, “Okay, so the fairy world has high standards of perfection – but that doesn’t mean everybody meets them, so what would happen to somebody who didn’t?” And suddenly, a plot failure in book one was resolved.
Yep, you heard that right: having more diverse characters resolved a plot hole. It didn’t just mean representation, it actually meant a better book.
We need diverse books because it took me too long to realise that by writing books about straight white abled people saving the world I was failing to tell a story that was true. We need diverse books because I am ashamed of what I used to write. We need diverse books because I live in a place where half the population is non-white, most of my friends are queer, and mental illness is a very real problem. We need diverse books because increasing the diversity of my characters made the books better, the worlds more realistic, and the plots stronger.
We need diverse books because I followed the example of every YA novel I’d ever read and therefore it didn’t occur to me that books weren’t all about straight white people.
But finally, we need diverse books because sometimes I just want to be a heroine.
I’m maybe a little late to the party, but this post is related to the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. Check it out here or maybe here, follow the hashtag, buy books, and yell about why you think we need diversity in the books we read!