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