Thursday, 7 January 2016

Why are we still talking about diversity and inclusion? By Dawn Finch

After I finished writing my latest novel I did my usual next step of sending it out for editing. I sent it to my usual editors, but was rather shocked when one of them sent me a message that said “Can I just ask, why is Gavin black?”

I’ve had a lot of contact with editors over the years, and I’ve occasionally been frustrated by their comments but, on the whole, they’ve been great and they are an essential part of the writing process. This editor’s question had me flummoxed, I genuinely didn’t know how to answer it and so instead I asked her to clarify what she meant.
“Everything needs to be part of the plot," she said. "Is his colour really essential to the core of the plot?”

I stared at the email for a few days. This was someone who had been a supportive editor up to this point and had only ever given me advice that had helped my work. I was left wondering if maybe she was right. Maybe it did have to be essential to the core of the plot?

I sent another email saying that I still wasn’t sure what she meant, and she replied saying that “many publishers are eagerly looking for a book that has purposeful diversity” and she explained that if I was going to have a black character then I needed to “make more of it.” She also said that I should “make more of the deaf boy too” and “bring up the scale of Cat’s depression because publishers love depression at the moment.”

That was where she lost me. I emailed politely back saying that I would no longer need her editorial input as we clearly had different agendas. I didn’t want to upset her, but this was not the editorial help I was looking for. I explained that I wasn't box-ticking, but I also said that we all still needed to talk about diversity and inclusion and it was important to keep that conversation going.

There has been some talk recently suggesting that the word “diversity” is in itself damaging as it suggests that we are in fact looking at this from a starting point of “supposed normalcy” and that diversity heads out from this imagined point -and that point is white. This is wrong, and this is not what the word means by any definition and is actually confusing "diversity" with "diversion from a single point". That negative view of diversity only works if you yourself are seeing “normalcy” as a starting point, and are basing it on the assumption that this “normal” is a straight, white, middle-class man. I don’t know what “normal” is, but to me it’s certainly not that. That’s not my “normal”. I’m a white, late 40s woman from a working class background who lives with a degenerative visual impairment and a medical condition that means I live with pain on a daily basis. That’s my “normal”, but it's probably not yours.

The dictionary definition of diversity is “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas etc” and “the state of having people who are many different races or who have different cultures in a group or organisation.” Pretty straightforward, and nothing about a “normal” starting point, but what about in ethical and biological terms? Biological first – let’s look at marine biologists exploring the diversity of life on a coral reef. In order to fully understand life on this particular reef, do they first find one specific type of silvery three-finned fish, with two round eyes and a heterosexual reproductive cycle, and then base all of their assumptions and research on a biological point that diversifies from this one fish?
How about in ethical terms? When searching for a good ethical definition of diversity I found this from the University of Oregon and it sums up the way I prefer to use the term.

A few months ago I chaired a panel on diversity and inclusion in children’s books and I was depressed to hear how restrictive publishing still is, and how polarizing the whole subject is. We heard how publishers still say “We’ve already got an LGBT/ethnic/disability issues book so we won’t need yours”. This box ticking exercise restricts the variety of  books available to young people and potentially makes for such a narrow field of choice that it hinders inclusion and, in the long term, hinders the mental health and wellbeing of our society. That's not showing the huge variety of "normal" that I know.

In December 2015 Noma Dumezweni almost broke the internet after she was cast to play Hermione in JK Rowling’s stage sequel to the Harry Potter series – The Cursed Child. Some people just could not grasp that this play is not a follow-up to the films, but is instead intended to be a follow-on from the books. In the books Rowling makes scant reference to Hermione’s actual colour and therefore casting an experienced actor in the role irrespective of colour makes perfect sense. Surely this decision should be colour-blind? They were, after all, looking for someone to play Hermione and not someone to play Emma Watson. They were looking for the best person for the role, and they decided that this should be experienced actor Dumezweni. If that casting decision is wrong, we'll find out when the play opens and then audiences can judge that decision based on her acting ability and not her skin colour.

As a librarian I know that the issue of diversity and inclusion in children’s books is incredibly important. I remember an argument in my library between a little black girl and a little Indian girl who both insisted that Hermione was “just like me”. They were both "normal" and both saw themselves in her face and loved the books because of that. Diversity is even more important in non-fiction. The whitewashing of history is shocking and wholly unrealistic. I have been involved in a number of publishing advisory panels and I always say that what I would really like to see is not just another “special edition” about black history, I’d simply like to see an accurate portrayal of the huge contribution that people of non-white heritage have made to history, and art, and literature, and music, and politics….and I’d like to see that in all books. I’d like bookshelves where a child from any diverse group is able to pick up a book and see an accurate representation of the world. I'd like them to be confident that they can see their "normal" in the books on the library shelves.

For many reasons diversity and inclusion is important for mental health and wellbeing. In 2015 I was part of the steering group for the Reading Agency’s report looking into the wider impact of reading for pleasure. Reading for pleasure is an important way of combating issues such as social isolation, teenage depression, negative self-image and social and educational disengagement. This means that we need to have books that normalise all of us by showing what the world is really like.  We need books containing all people, and we need writers to be brave and creative and to embrace characters from all walks of life and place them in the story just being who they are. The right book at the right time can change, or save, a life. The right book for a teenager is the one that tells them they are not alone, that they too are normal.

One of my first tasks as CILIP’s 2016 President will be to chair the new Ethics committee and we will be taking a long hard look at how we handle diversity within all library sectors. The subject of diversity and inclusion is one that is littered with broken glass and those of us who want to work to bring about change have to face that fact that we are likely to face online wrath if we speak out. In fact this article has been through about a dozen rewrites as I have had to remove a number of points that I know will make people flare up. I keep at my heart the adage to tread softly because I tread on the lives of others and I don’t want to leave footprints.

That said, I know that to keep this high-profile we all need to push this into the public eye again and again until we no longer need to. To me this issue is so important that I am prepared to take the flak to keep the conversation going. The day we no longer need to have the conversation about diversity and inclusion will be the day that we have (almost) cracked it. As writers we must keep on writing characters from all walks of life and we must keep pushing publishers to understand that this is not a box ticking exercise, we are simply shining a bright light on the multi-faceted gem that is "normal" life.

How will we know when we have cracked it and can stop talking about it? We will have cracked it the day that writers who happen to also be from the LGBT community are asked about their research methods or their characters instead of their sexual preferences. We will have cracked it the day that writers who happen to be women are no longer referred to as “female writers” and are no longer asked about their weight, their age, or their frocks. We will have cracked it the day that writers who happen to be male are not quizzed about their masculinity if they choose to write about magic or fairies or emotions. We will have cracked it the day that writers who happen to be from BAME backgrounds are not asked about their family heritage and are instead asked about their work. We will have cracked it the day pronouns no longer matter or cause confusion. We will have cracked it the day we are all are asked primarily about the story we have written and are only asked about our private lives if we choose that as the conversation. Then, and only then, can we stop talking about it. I’d really like that to be before I’m only referred to as “blind female writer” Dawn Finch, and so I’ll keep on talking about it.

Oh, and I’ve finally worked out how to answer the question about my characters – Gavin is black because his parents are black. Danny is deaf because his mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant. Jamie and Sean are a gay couple because they were born that way and because they love each other. Cat is depressive because her brain chemistry is different from people who don’t suffer from depression. They are who they are because that’s the real world. The characters were loosely drawn from my daughter’s circle of friends (in fact that's her on the cover). To me the characters represent a normalised cross-section of teen society in the 21st Century. I wasn’t trying to tick boxes, I was just trying to show the society that my daughter lives in – a normal world with all sorts of people in it. If other people have a problem with that then that’s their problem and not mine, and they need to get their houses in order - but until then, let's keep talking about it.

Dawn Finch is a children's and YA author and President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). She is also a member of the Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee (CWIG)

The Book of Worth is published by Atlantic YA Press - December 2015


spec sisters said...

Hear hear, Dawn, congratulations on your appointment and new book. Blogged about this issue here: and agree it takes courage to stand up for what you believe. Ultimately the issue is about the children and young people one comes across, children of all ethnicities, genders and sexual orientation, who really deserve children's books that reflect the world we live in, not some mythical Enid Blyton-esque past.

Emma Barnes said...

Pleased to say that my publisher has made no adverse comments on the ethnicities of the characters in my forthcoming book! My problem, like many writers I suspect, is that I've had to convince myself I'm not being presumptuous (or tokenistic) by writing about characters of a different ethnicity or religion from my own. Like you, though, I want to write books which reflect the world in which I live and which my readers live, with all its variety.

Pippa Goodhart said...

My daughters say that making anything of people being of different ethnicities never occurred to them until teachers in junior school started teaching how wrong racism is as part of the curriculum. In their very mixed Leicester primary school (actually, as white skinned children, they were in the minority) there genuinely hadn't been any racism between the children. Now, suddenly, they were taught to look at each other and spot the differences ... and so adult life began. Hey ho.

Lucy Coats said...

Brilliant piece, Dawn, but sad we still need to say these things. Also very shocking that your (ex) editor could think like that in the 21st century. You are a wonderful advocate for diversity and I applaud you.

Jo Franklin said...

I don't know what the answer is.
This is a great post. Thanks Dawn.
This whole issue is fraught with problems.
If we don't put diversity on the agenda then diverse characters seem to fall by the wayside.
If we put 'incidental' diverse characters into our books we are accused of not making enough of them or blatant tokenism.
If we write a BAME/LGBT issue book we are either accused of milking someone else's issues or writing about something we know nothing about.

And anyway does diverse have to mean black or disabled or gay?

I wrote a story about a tomboy which had a lot of editorial interest but the sales people at a number of publishers turned it down because it wasn't mainstream enough.
I wrote it because my daughter really struggled to find books with characters like her. She turned to books about boys in the end. It's probably contributed to her not liking reading much.

I don't know what the answer is.

Susie Day said...

Gasped out loud at your editor's comments. Excellent piece.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent piece, and you gave a good answer to the editor. I would have been inclined to ask if you had to show 'why' some of the characters were white?

Anne Booth said...

I think this is a very good post - excellent points.

Rhian Ivory said...


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for posting!

Rowena House said...

Great post. But sad that we all still think so. Diversity, like you say, should be a given by now.

Savita Kalhan said...

This is a brilliant post, Dawn, and you say it so well. It's all depressingly true... I still live in the hope that one day things may change.

Anna McQuinn - Chief, Cook and Bottle washer said...

Great post. I think the positives are that 'diversity and inclusion' are on editor's minds at the moment. It is VERY sad that this turns into a crude exercise where the writing/story has to be ABOUT the diverse things when I think what readers want are books they can see themselves and their experiences in and/or that reflect the diverse world they live in. It's sad that any non mainstream character still needs a reason to be in the plot - but it is unfair to limit criticism to editors who, however ignorant their comments, are often responding to equally crude opinions of sales people and feedback from booksellers. I always felt that if my little character Lulu (in Lulu Loves the Library) had been refused a library card and had to fight for one, the sales would have been much higher as everyone would have understood WHY she was in the story. As it is there's no reason - but it is shocking how many times the first 'audience question' is 'Why did you make Lulu a little Black girl?' (FYI, from answering the question for 10 years, I've developed the answer to, 'she's the hero of the story, she doesn't need to have a reason to be a hero, does she?').

C.J.Busby said...

Great post. I think it's absolutely true that this ticking boxes approach is a sales/marketing perspective. It's like branding, and the problem of books being too 'quiet', and many other dreadful things about contemporary publishing. Here's hoping things do improve - certainly lots of good people are trying!

Abbeybufo said...

Just flagging up The Reading While White blog - which you might find interesting...

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks for a brilliant and heartfelt post, Dawn.

jkairys said...

Thanks for your courage and determination. As a white author of children's books that feature children of color, I've experienced the polarization you speak of - and I'm completely puzzled about how to navigate through it.

Cathy Butler said...

"Why is your main character white? Perhaps you should make more of it?"

Said no mainstream British editor ever....

An important post, Dawn. Thank you.