Unless you’ve been living under a rock AND falling behind on your 8LW reading, you’ve heard about Suzanne Brockmann’s stirring acceptance speech for her Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 RWA national conference. On Thursday, our own Kay summarized the speech and Brockmann’s career. This launched a discussion about writing diverse characters and including diverse experiences in romance fiction.
One of our Eight Ladies, Justine, disclosed in the comments her own trepidation about writing diverse characters in a meaningful, inclusive, and non-appropriating way. This sums up a lot the discussions the Eight Ladies have had on this blog and outside of it. And Justine threw in a twist – how do we respectfully and conscientiously diversify our historical romances? As I said in a reply to Justine’s comment, I have no answers or advice, just some thoughts and more questions of my own.
How bad would it be to write an historical world where women, and people of color, and characters with non-straight sexual orientations, and those with neurodiversities, and those with disabilities, are treated equally? Whose differences aren’t shamed or shunned or punished. Who get to do all the things straight white men were actually did do in those days. If it’s a fantasy or alternate history, it could be amazing to imagine such an inclusive world. But if it’s not fantasy, it’s dismissive and disrespectful, and I’d argue could do more harm than good.
About three years ago, I bought an indie book that had been featured on Bookbub. I liked the title. I loved the cover. I was intrigued by the premise of the mystery set in nineteenth-century Boston. I hadn’t read the reviews, so I didn’t realize there were several problems with the book, which got progressively worse with each passing chapter. But one of the biggest issues I had with the book showed itself early in the story. It was the bad-ass, pants-wearing, swearing and smoking in public, living with her lover, never pregnant (so must have had great access to birth control?) female detective.
The male author made it clear that this was a Woman among women, a trailblazer who didn’t have time for society’s conventions and limited roles for women, a woman with the nerve to step up and take her place in the world. The author didn’t mention the very different laws that must have existed in his world to allow her behavior, because much of what the character did was illegal in the real US in the 1870s. Rather than having a coveted spot in the Boston police department, a woman of that time behaving in those ways would have been locked away either in prison or a sanitarium. And if she’d ever been freed from those institutions, she’d most likely have been disowned and tossed, penniless, into the streets by whichever male relative had control over the money she’d earned while on the police force.
Yeah, I hate-read the rest of that book, just to see if reality ever set in. It did not. The author’s implicit message, whether intentional or not, that women of that era could have lived exciting, public, and equal lives if only they’d bothered to pull on pants, step outside their homes, and grab the reins of power, was dismissive of the amazing women of that and every other oppressive era whose superpower was that they survived. His choice to include notional equality without acknowledgment of the real women (and men) who fought, suffered grievously, and even died to advance women’s rights over the past 150 years made an impression on me. I hope never to make such an egregious impression on any of my readers.
As writers, we need to be more inclusive, whether we’re writing contemporaries or historicals. We must stop erasing marginalized groups from existing in our stories. But we can’t pretend that black people are living a white experience, or gay people are afforded the same rights and respect as straight couples, or that people in a wheelchair face the same obstacles as able-bodied people. Yes, the end goal is to create (and therefore be able to write) a world where differences are routinely respected and accepted, and don’t even rise to the level of discussion. But we’re not there yet.
And when we’re writing about times and societies where women had no access to money or property, black people were lynched, and being gay was punishable by death, we can’t even use today’s levels of equanimity, inadequate as they are, as a guidepost. We do know some of the basics we should be doing, though. Research. Read (and amplify the voices of) writers from marginalized communities. Create well-rounded characters. Employ sensitivity readers. Engage in empathy whenever and wherever possible.
We also have to be prepared to get it wrong, because we will. And be prepared to have some people we’ve tried to represent tell us we’ve done a good job, while others tell us we’ve failed miserably, and still others tell us we should have tried at all.
Thus far, that’s all I’ve got. Like I said, I have more questions than answers. So, how are you approaching diversity in your writing and creativity? What are you struggling with in trying to do so? And really importantly, what diverse voices are you reading right now?