Nancy: More Thoughts on Diversity

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?




11 thoughts on “Nancy: More Thoughts on Diversity

  1. Nancy, this really hits the nail on the head for me. I don’t want to write alternate reality historical novels, although one could argue any book with a H&H with 21st century sensibilities is already alternate reality. I get that.

    I am actually looking forward to my second book (finish the first! finish the first!) because my heroine has been living in Jamaica for a few years, and I’ve thought she would develop a friendship with a black girl living in the house, kind of along the lines of Dido Belle, who would accompany my heroine to England. Still noodling on that quite a bit.

    Thanks for the discussion. I’m hoping a few other folks will chime in with their thoughts.

    • This particular bit spoke to me: “Some of my white writer friends have approached me privately about the topics you addressed in your speech. They felt threatened when you and others made a call-to-action to increase diversity in the publishing industry.

      My first friend said, ‘If we don’t add gay people to our books or read gay books, they’re going to call us homophobic.’

      I told her, ‘People are asking for a chance to tell their stories. You do not have to read anything you don’t want. Absolutely do not add characters to your story who don’t belong. But please be a friend and ally to writers who represent marginalized voices.’”

      Not that I don’t want to be inclusive and have diverse characters, but what she says about “absolutely do not add characters to your story who don’t belong.” It’s precisely this sort of “check the box” mentality that I want to avoid, because I think it’s trite and does not serve anyone.

      • Thanks for the link! The section you quoted makes sense to me, as well. “Absolutely do not add characters to your story who don’t belong.” Yep. That will be inauthentic, and readers will feel it, too.

        Re: my historicals, the gay couple in the last novella of my HFF series (a book which I won’t write until sometime in 2019 :-)) came about as a natural part of the (currently half-baked) story development. And it will include a shocked and confused reaction from one of their mothers, and the understanding that society as a whole will never accept their love. But of course their wonderful support network of family and friends will. Because yay! fiction, where characters can represent the better angels of our natures.

  2. My first demon book has some minor characters who are Latino or African American, but they’re not very central to the story.

    The second demon book has a lesbian couple who are trying to get pregnant. They’re not front and center, but they’re pretty high profile in the story.

    That was a lot easier because I feel like I understand that community and can ask questions when I’m not sure how something would be perceived.

    • I have significantly more diversity in my contemporary stories, although my diverse characters are secondary, as well. And I still have to watch myself to catch inadvertent stereotypes. Talking to people in the given community, while of course not representative of all experiences, goes a long way to being inclusive in the best possible way.

      OT, I can’t wait to read all the Demon books!

  3. Historical is a toughie, because the stories have historically not been told about diverse people. It’s tough on two ends: one, because you have fewer role models, and two, even if you find a lady pirate (and there was a very famous lady detective in the 19th century! wish I could remember her name), you are going to have some readers who don’t believe you.

    And then there’s stuff that just strikes a reader as silly, like two 19th century people going into the jungle and smoking weed and losing their inhibitions. When I say “a reader” I don’t mean The General Reader; I mean me.

    If you are going to do alt universe stuff, you have to start at the beginning of the story and signal that this is going to be a wacky universe with Stuff in the timelines. I think Steam Punk was BORN for frustrated writers to have their cake and eat it too.

    In general, though, for non-historicals, it’s very important to read diverse authors so you can feed your idea machine. The best thing to do is live a diverse life, but of course, that’s really hard. In real life, I’m 99.9 percent surrounded by Japanese people. In online life, my diversity index is a little better, but not by much (and actually, I have no idea about the diversity of many of the groups I belong to unless people are quite forward about it. Again, two things going on here: most people don’t want to be a target for internet crudeness so they are purposely subtle, and second, I’m not tuned in enough to always catch subtle hints that X is black, or Y is a Buddhist, or Z is a lesbian).

    Also, by reading diverse authors, you create a market that will be more encouraging of other diverse writers.

    Be open to the idea of diversity. If a character turns out to be fourth-generation Mexican American, go with that. There’s a reason why your subconscious brought it up.

    And if you write diversity, it’s a really good idea to have diverse beta readers. Don’t ask me how to find them; I don’t know either. Join a class that encourages diversity?

    One thing to think about is that a lot of diverse writers don’t write diversity. They write about their Indian communities, for example, and have a token white guy as a foil. It’s really good enough.

    Be true to yourself and write what you really, really want to write about. Encourage others to write about ladies who helped run an Underground station for escaping slaves (like Beverly Jenkins did with *Indigo*).

    And try to bend your own mind. If you suddenly find out a professor from Harry Potter is gay, the question may be, “Why?” — be sure to follow yourself up with a hearty, “Why not?”

    • I was going to mention Beverly Jenkins in this post! And also Courtney Milan, who includes some POC in her England-set historicals (mostly set in the same timeframe as mine, IIRC). While I didn’t give any recommendations of diverse authors/stories as the post was already getting pretty long, I think we should all continue recommending and amplifying those authors when we can.

      • I’ve only read three Courtney Milan books, but I think she’s a great story-teller, and if my TBR pile ever goes down, she’s definitely on my wishlist for more. I haven’t noticed the people of color; I do notice her strong women who are often on the edges of society. They seem very plausible and well-put together. (-: I may not be very picky.

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: Diversity and the Historical – Eight Ladies Writing

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s