Thanks to social media and changing generations, what was once soft protests online have become screams of indignation. Feminism, social justice, diversity equity is being shouted from the rooftops. The true cultural landscape of the United States is demanding to be recognized. And although politicians, Hollywood, and corporations are taking a snail’s approach to catch on, a lot of people, if they are not already marginalized themselves, are at least becoming aware something is bubbling and breaking through the surface.
Part of what makes a great writer, whatever background they have and whatever genre they are writing in, is the ability to capture and reflect on truths in society. To dive beneath the surface of the collective and draw it out in your story. These are the stories that resonate and connect with readers. And those of us representing authors are aware of this, which is why you hear the term “diversity” everywhere, at conferences, online, etc. Even the big offices in NYC are taking notice, albeit at a slower pace than most of us further down in the trenches would like. But an unfortunate result is that “diverse books” is becoming something of a catch phrase. And when something becomes a catch phrase, it loses some of it’s meaning and the truth we are seeking, becomes muddled. Non-marginalized people are writing books from marginalized points of view, which are then published, misrepresenting and further dismissing unheard voices. But diversity is not a trend! It is not something you write simply because you hear it being asked for. Enter the warriors, or in this case, Literary Agent Beth Phelan of the Bent Agency. She has created a fantastic twitter pitch event called #DVPit, “an event created to showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices.”
Non-marginalized writers may have the urge to say, “but I want to be a part of this, I want to support and represent diversity.” That is a great attitude to have, but do so with awareness and modesty, not because you are seeking pats-on-the-back. The first step? Know the difference between writing diversity and writing from a marginalized point of view.
On representing diversity: The characters in your book should reflect the reality of the world. I am a cis white female married to a Mexican and within my inner circle of friends are multiple bi-racial couples (japanese, jewish, black, latino, white). I have queer friends and disabled. This isn’t something that is intentional or that gives me allowance to be smugly color-blind, it simply is a truth of my generation. We are becoming a global society. So when I start a submission that has a cast of all white cis characters, because it doesn’t reflect my reality, more often than not, I lose interest; or if the writing is really good I begin mental notes on which characters could be changed. I also lose interest when the diversity is just stereotyped personas. My friends may be multi-ethnic and of multi-sexualities, but they are not my friends because of this. They each have their own personalities unique from (although entwined) with their identities. Yes, one might be flamboyantly gay man, but he is also a doctor who has traveled the world helping impoverished villages. Another may be a black woman with some sass, but she is also an incredibly thoughtful Christian who loves Lord of the Rings and to run marathons. So when I say I am looking for a diverse cast, this is what I mean. You can still be a cis white writer and write a diverse cast with depth and truth.On representing marginalized voices: If you are writing from the point of view of a marginalized person (POC, queer, disabled etc.) and part of the story development is the experience of inequality, prejudice etc., it is extremely difficult to capture the truth of the voice if you as a writer has not experienced the social injustice personally. As a literary agent, I am keenly aware that I cannot edit a manuscript with a marginalized voice without having someone with experience to show me certain ignorances I have. I know as a woman, when I see female points of view written by men that are stereotypical and offensive, I get angry, so I can only imagine the rage and betrayal someone who is further marginalized feels when their story is told by someone who has no real concept of it. If you are going to go down that path, then please please be sure that you have close friends or advisors who can speak to the experience, read your manuscript and point out the subtleties that you will misrepresent. And I guarantee you will misrepresent, despite how open-minded or educated you may believe yourself to be. When I am considering submissions, I tend to give preference of these stories to writers of the same background as their characters, because I know that is the only way to guarantee the truth behind the voice and the story. So if you are submitting to me something from a marginalized POV, especially in magical realism and historical, please do include your background!
Just some things to keep in mind as you seek to pull more diversity into your writing. Also, being the geek I am, here are some great SFF novels with diverse casts, protagonists, and writers.