Monday, 6 April 2015

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway... by Cecilia Busby

I've been thinking a bit recently about the thorny issue of diversity in children's fiction. I'm probably a bit late to this debate, but my musings were partly sparked off by this recent blog post by Sarah Okler, who suggests that, since the majority of YA authors are white, perhaps one way to do something about lack of diversity is for white authors to start writing non-white characters into their fiction.

we’re the ones who can—and must—change [this situation] by actively diversifying the stuff we’re writing, and by doing so in authentic, meaningful ways

Obviously another and perhaps better way to achieve this would be for there to be more a diverse set of authors - but Okler makes the point that there's a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle going on here, in which the industry expectations are of mostly white characters as written by mostly white authors, and she suggests that maybe one way of breaking this is for those authors who are in a position to do so to put their shoulder to the wheel.

Batcii/Tumblr / Via
The importance a black character can have for black readers was also brought home to me by a great Buzzfeed post on the idea of a 'racebent' Hermione Granger. The writer, Alanna Bennet, had grown up loving Harry Potter, especially loving Hermione, but always feeling that she was 'not-me' - that if she dressed up in Hogwarts costume for Halloween she could never dress explicitly as Hermione because she couldn't get her hair to be 'white-girl bushy'. But now, posts and illustrations on sites like Tumblr are increasingly reimagining Hermione as black - and as Bennet says, it makes a lot of sense. She is in many ways positioned metaphorically as 'non-white' through being a 'mudblood', she gets angry about the taken-for-granted exploitation of the house elves (slaves) by the wizarding community - how cool to see her as not just metaphorically but actually a black character.

Taken together, what these posts seemed to be saying to was: the onus is on you. If you want the nine-year-old Alanna Bennets of today to feel they really own one of your characters for World Book Day, you need to think about putting non-white characters in your stories.

But that's when the fear bites. How can I, as a white author, write authentic non-white characters? Do I have the right to talk for such characters? If I, as a white author, populate my books with racially diverse characters, am I saying, hey, it's OK, we don't need to worry about a lack of diversity in children's writers because we white authors can do the job just fine?

Okler calls this Fear #1, that 'I am not qualified to speak'. She argues that we are writers, and imagination is our job:

Saying that a white writer is not qualified to write a black or a Mexican or Indian or Philippino character is like saying Stephenie Meyer can’t write about falling in love with vampires because she’s married to a human, or that I can’t write a male POV because I don’t have, um… a beard.

An even better version of this argument was suggested by Tanya Landman, who has just written a fabulous book from the point of view of a freed slave girl in the US civil war who dresses as a boy and joins the union army. "Michael Morpurgo," she points out, "isn't a horse."

This is undeniably true. And yet, speaking for others (from a position of privilege) is not a straightforward issue, and there is a history and politics at play here that doesn't simply come down to the ability to make that leap of imagination into another character position. Tanya is well aware of this aspect, of course, and this thorny issue may be one of the reasons her marvellous book has not so far found a publisher in the US, where the politics of identity, and arguments about 'appropriation' of others stories, are issues that rage more fiercely.

If you doubt that this resistance to white writers writing characters of colour exists, there is an interesting guest post on YA Highway from a US-based black YA author, Nicola Richardson, who, while she argues that white writers SHOULD feel free to write black or non-white characters, cautions nevertheless that:

White Writers, People Will Go IN on You.

White writers who write characters of color will NEVER satisfy everybody. It is impossible. So don't even worry about that. But if you choose to write characters of color, you MUST do the research ... 
I most definitely admire a writer who takes the time to do that ...

But: when you want to write a character of color, know that you will catch hell. Yes, you will be accused of cultural appropriation. Yes, you will be told that you can't tell our respective histories and cultures. You will be told that it is far easier for you to write characters of color than a writer of color. You can't please everyone.That is impossible and you shouldn't try. But if a character comes to you as Black or any other minority, then write them.

I don't think in the UK, these arguments are as heated or visible as they are in the US. And it's interesting that they rear their head more forcefully with older children's and YA fiction. Picture books are much more consciously diverse, with illustrators instructed quite simply that their images of children should be representative of difference. Similarly, early readers and the early chapter books are often written and illustrated with diverse characters in mind. MG fiction is more white, but there are white authors writing non-white characters into their fiction - like Elen Caldecott, Robin Stevens, Suzie Day, all name checked in this post on MG mysteries and diversity. I don't know if they feel anxious about it, but I've yet to hear anything but approval for their attempts to write more diverse characters.

But... But. When it comes to YA and older books, perhaps because this sort of book has more interiority, because it necessitates that we as authors get inside the heads of our characters, there is, I think, more anxiety. Yet if we pull back from representing otherness, how can we write at all? Can we only speak for ourselves?

I have wavered back and forth between, on the one side, the need to acknowledge the barriers caused by the history and politics of race and on the other side the importance of championing the empathy of the writer's craft, our essential shared humanity. But having mused considerably on the issue, I've decided the answer for me is: Feel the fear, but do it anyway.

Firstly, I need to 'feel the fear'. It's important to acknowledge that there IS a history of exploitation and appropriation that means that if I write from the point of view of, say, a young mixed-race girl, I cannot be lazy about it. She needs to be as real and as rounded a person as I can make her, and I have to dig deep and do some homework to make sure that happens, in a way I might not have to for a young white girl, where I can draw much more readily on my own experiences. Equally I would have to do this deeper digging if I wrote from the point of view of a beggar boy in Victorian England, or a space-ship captain in the 22nd century, or a horse in the second world war - but in those cases, my alter-egos are unlikely to call me out on my decisions. Keeping in mind that they might, keeps me on my toes, and hopefully makes for better writing!

Secondly, I need to 'do it anyway'. Because we don't live in an entirely white world, and I want the young Alanna Bennets out there to be able to find a character in my books they can feel is them, one they can dress up as on World Book Day if they want to. And because I don't want a world where writers, of whatever colour, are restricted to writing only from their own culture.

There was an article on this issue in the Guardian recently, by Aminatta Forna. As Forna says, discussing the rise of notions of 'authenticity' and 'appropriation' that tie a writer to representing only what they know: "a novel is a work of imagination, it is not a dissertation". It is not "fact" nor does it claim to be:

The writer of fiction says to the reader only this: come with me on a journey of the imagination. 

This means that it's not claiming to be 'real'. If you, as a reader, find that imagination faulty, find that it does not accord with your experiences or understanding of the world, you can say so. Books should be critiqued, and especially they should be called out if their depictions reinforce cultural tropes we might want to criticise. But that is different to saying they should not be written in the first place.

Let's make mistakes, let's have a conversation, let's allow writers - of whatever colour, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability - to be writers, and let their subjects be multiple. Hey - if they get it wrong, if they offend, if they don't manage to persuade their readers, they can be told.

The alternative to this is complete sterility - and in fact, as Forna argues, it's a perspective that disadvantages black writers perhaps even more surely than it does white writers, relegating them to the category of 'African writer' or 'Sri Lankan writer' or 'Black American writer' rather than the more inclusive 'writer'. It would have prevented Forna, half Scottish, half Sierra Lenonian, from ever embarking on her novel The Hired Man, set during the Croatian war of the early nineties and written primarily from the perspective of an older male Croatian farmer.

My last trilogy had a black character, a priestess/princess from an alternate-world Akkadian Empire - but she wasn't a point-of-view character and anyway, she was from a fantasy world. I couldn't really be accused of getting her wrong! But my current Work in Progress has (at the moment) a contemporary British mixed race protagonist, one of the two main characters. She is clever, loyal, willing to take risks, kind, sometimes moody, and she has a temper. The story is not about race, and racism doesn't really enter into it - it's a contemporary fantasy. She is bullied at school by a bunch of blonde girls who are the 'in crowd' but I don't do more than nod to a racist intent in that bullying. I don't want the story to be 'about' the fact that she is mixed race, I just want her to be there. As a minor contribution to increasing the pool of non-white World Book Day characters, perhaps.

I love my character. Now I've written her, I wouldn't be able to see her as, or turn her into, a white girl. I have to confess, though, despite my well-reasoned arguments, I still feel a little bit anxious. Will readers - of whatever colour or gender - like her, identify with her, believe in her? But then I also feel like that about her white boy cousin - and in fact, writing in general is a bit of an anxious undertaking. We put a little bit of ourselves out there for others to scrutinise, and possibly criticise. So maybe the very act of writing itself comes down to the same impulse: feel the fear, but do it anyway.

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


Stroppy Author said...

Brilliant - I wholeheartedly agree with you, Cecilia. I have written black and Asian characters without any feeling that I shouldn't. They are not 'issue' books about race, they are just books about kids, and kids come in all colours. The idea that to write a black character is appropriation is, frankly, stupid. It's not thought through. If we can only write who we are, all books will have to have only white characters or only black characters, only boys or only girls, only straight people or only gay or only trans people. The world is a mix of people and fiction should - on the whole - reflect that.

spec sisters said...

A well-argued post.
But as you say, established white authors who have made reputations on writing white character at least have the luxury of being able to write diverse stories whatever their anxieties over being criticises.
Having talked to several UK YA authors of colour over the years in an informal setting, they universally say that
a) it's harder to get published
b) once published you are, indeed trapped in a ghetto of only writing Black or Asian characters.
c) you are then blamed when/if these books don't sell..
But they can only say these things off the record-after all no one likes to bite the hand that feeds.

The violence and tragedy of the history around race in the US makes it perhaps easier for these opinions to be aired-tit has been the work of many decades getting to this place.

Zetta Elliot's recent post in the SLJ here
is both upsetting to read and galvanising.
So, if your biggest worry is being criticised then go for it.
True diversity requires representation, and like many creative industries, publishing and the children's book world lacks diversity. Let's hope talking about it helps it happen.

Emma Barnes said...

Fascinating post. Some of the online responses to Rainbow Rowells' book "Eleanor and Park" and it's portrayal of a Korean character do show how easy it is to ruffle feathers...but I agree, what is the alternative? Books full of uniform characters? Books full of supposedly diverse but universally bland characters?

Catherine Johnson said...

Don't we always research all our characters? If they like fly fishing and we know nothing aren't we going to find and talk to someone who does? Why is it hard to write stories that reflect how the streets outside our windows look?

Catherine Johnson said...

Sorry Cecilia pressed send before I had finished! Well said!

Jenny Alexander said...

Brilliant post - and my motto in life. Go for it, Cecilia!

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks all for your comments and shares - it was something I've been thinking about for ages and wanted to get straight for myself but it's a thorny issue so it's encouraging to get positive responses!