Monday, June 2, 2014

One More Reason Why We Need Diverse Lit



The other day I had a conversation with a very wealthy and well-educated white man. This conversation still bothers me. Probably because it’s a discussion whose main points I’ve had to deal with many times before with other people. Note: this guy was not some ignorant, insensitive racist spouting ethnic slurs.

Still, he didn’t understand what I was talking about because ultimately he was not yet able to stand outside his privilege of white skin, male gender, and inherited wealth. I say, “not yet,” because I refuse to give up hope for him and others I’ve encountered like him, who have genuinely good intentions but can’t get past the blinders of privilege. Earlier conversations with such people have focused around the difficult lives of women living in poverty, the automatic racism encountered over and over by people of color that can leave them justifiably hypersensitive, and similar topics. This conversation centered on books.

This person condemned a wide variety of fiction and poetry by writers of color, in particular Latinas and Latinos, as “just political.” Good writing, according to him, is not “political posturing.” I looked at the list of books we were discussing, which ranged from Rudolfo Anaya and Manuel Muñoz to Luis Alberto Urrea and Helena Maria Viramontes and were among a group of books and authors branded as extreme political agitation by a rightwing school board (which led to our discussion), and I realized from things he said that he’d not read most of them himself and was just parroting the judgments politicians had laid on them (probably without reading them, either). I tried to explain that most of these writers weren’t trying to write political novels or poetry as much as they were simply trying to be true to the lived experience of their lives and the lives of their families and ancestors. He didn’t buy it.

You see, in his experience, everyone is deferential and respectful to him. He has no experience of being deliberately humiliated or seeing his parents deliberately humiliated because of the color of their skin, their accent, their Hispanic last names, and/or their poverty. He has no experience of deliberate, offhanded cruelty directed at him or his family or neighbors for no reason other than because the inflictor can get away with it. He has no experience with living in grinding poverty, seeing his parents (and possibly himself) forced into dangerous, unsafe, and unfair working conditions for the tiniest possible wages.

In his world, such things are unreal. Therefore, they must be made up or vastly exaggerated for political purposes. To him, therefore, any writer who simply writes of her childhood misery working in the fields as a migrant laborer as Helena Maria Viramontes does or of the poverty and casual, racist cruelty encountered as the child of an immigrant as Luis J. Rodriguez does must be dishonestly fabricating in order to inflame the reader’s emotions for political purposes. Writers speak the truth about their lives and the lives of many in their communities, and because the reality they describe is so unacceptable to privileged white Americans, they are told they must be making it all up for radical political purposes.

I know, unfortunately, that this is a common stance, even among some well-meaning people. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the person whose conversation with me began this post believes that poor people of color writing about their lives and history must be inventing out of whole cloth for inflammatory political purposes. I’m not angry with him. I’m sad for him—and others like him. The only way to get past the blinders of privilege is to take a journey way out of their comfort zones, to walk into the world of the disenfranchised (of whom they are afraid). Or they could read the works of the many gifted Latina/o writers, African American writers, Indigenous writers, Asian American writers, and LGBTQ writers and discover the world these writers and their people live in deep underneath that bright surface of the world of American privilege.


#WeNeedDiverseBooks  #diverselit



As I reflected on this experience, author Mona Alvarado Frazier, whose blog can be found at www.alvaradofrazier.com,  invited me to be part of a blog adventure, designed to explore the problems of lack of diversity in published books that was initiated on Twitter under the hashtags #weneeddiversebooks and #diverselit, in which we answer the following questions:

1) What are you working on?

I am currently writing Every Family Doubt, my fourth Skeet Bannion mystery novel—my third, Every Hidden Fear, just published in May—revising a thriller with a Latina protagonist, and getting ready to send out my third book of poetry, Dark Sister.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre? 

My protagonist, Skeet Bannion, is Cherokee, and she lives in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Like a number of modern Indians, she grew up among her tribe and learned some traditional ways, but left in her late teens for education and employment in the urban mainstream world away from her people. She’s encountered prejudice as an Indian and as a woman in the largely white male profession of law enforcement, but she’s succeeded anyway. Now, as a police chief, she’s mentoring a smart, talented Latino whom she relies on, even as she knows that the opportunities she’s opening to him will take him from her to larger arenas where he can climb higher than her small force will allow. There are only a few Latino or Indian authors publishing mysteries at this time.

3) Why do you write what you do? 

People seem to expect novels that deal with Indians to either showcase life on the rez or drunken, violent urban Indians. I wanted to write about the majority of Indians today, who live in cities away from the reservations and traditional places of their people, but who hold down jobs, raise families, take part in their communities, and still try to straddle the two cultures of mainstream American and their own tribe’s traditional ways.

I also wanted to have as diverse a cast in my novels as I have in my own daily life in the Kansas City area. I have wide diversity in my neighbors and friends in ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and sexual preference/gender identity. At the same time, I don’t want to make the book a sermon on diversity, so most of the storylines don’t really have anything to do with diversity. I simply want to make the cast of my books as diverse as the cast of my real life.

4) How does your writing process work? 

I start with the nexus of location/situation/character, and then I focus heavily on character and develop plot out of the interactions and overt and hidden reactions of the characters. I do a lot of thinking, and I try to do most of it on paper since the act of writing thoughts out and developing them on paper leads to deeper and more complex thoughts about the characters and the story. I try to write the first draft quickly without interruptions, but then I revise and revise, trying to make it richer, more complex, and more alive with each revision.

Next week, June 9, 2014, creative nonfiction writer Terra Trevor will post her own experiences and thoughts in this same blog adventure as we look in our many different ways at diversity in literature and the need for diverse books.


Terra Trevor, mixed blood Western Band Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca, is a widely published, essayist, memoirist and nonfiction writer of a diverse body of work, and a contributing author of 10 books. Excerpts from her memoir Pushing up the Sky, A Mother’s Story are in landmark anthologies including Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices On Child Custody and Education, and Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond To War. In addition to writing Terra has worked as a Project Director with American Indian Health Services and has led numerous workshops for the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) Conference on the topics of race and adoption, multi-racial and multi-cultural identification, and racism and white privilege for the transracial adoptive family.
REPLIES TO COMMENTS: (Blogger! What can I say?)

Diana, you bring up two very good topics. For my response to the first one , I'll just offer a link to an earlier blog where I dealt with that issue of writers trying to write about cultures other than their own in depth, basically saying "If you want to do this, take the time and put in the effort to do it right." And also looking at the problem of white writers writing about marginalized people and getting published while writers from those communities cannot get their work published. It's the exploitation problem.
http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com/2012/04/literary-mystery-noveliststony.html

As for the second one--minority writers wanting to write about other lives--I've found it interesting that some reviewers will give white writers a pass on writing about any lives or cultures that they want, but won't with writers of color. I know it's frustrating not only for writers but for visual artists, as well. I have friends who get comments about how can they be really Latino if they have no sombreros or cactuses in their paintings. There is too often a sense that there is only one way to be Latino or Native American or African American or Asian American, and that way usually involves using stereotypes. It's important for writers of color to write the stories of their families and ancestors, giving voice to those who have been allowed no voice for so long, but writers of color also need to be free to write their own stories. Often if a writer from a marginalized community writes his or her own story and didn't grow up in the stereotypical way--sombreros and cactus--it's blasted as "not *whatever label* enough." I have had readers tell me they were disappointed with my books because they wanted something like Tony Hillerman and some other white mystery writers who have Indian protagonists. Because the "sombrero" for Indians is the reservation, even though the majority of Indians in this country live away from the rez in urban areas--and not all as drunks, which seems to be the only other way Indians are portrayed.

And that doesn't even speak to the idea that a writer of color might want to write a story of another culture, especially the mainstream one.


Mona, thank you--and thank you for inviting me into this discussion. I can get as angry as anyone else, but I also can tell the difference between someone of good will, failing in understanding and action, and someone who is filled with hate and the desire to trash people other than himself. They are both problems, but the first are people who will eventually learn, I'd like to believe.

Kay, it is a problem, but not always insurmountable. This guy may well be a lost cause. He's grown up extremely wealthy, and we all know Jesus told us how hard it was for a rich man. But I have known people of privilege with this same problem who, because some of us didn't give up on them, have come to be aware of their own privilege and to be willing to try to learn about people other than themselves without relying on stereotypes. They sometimes fall short in their efforts, but so do I and most people I know. They continue to try when they could just turn their backs and be comfortable among "their own kind." And it's with people like these that the battle's to be won. The ignorant bigots, so full of hate, aren't going to change, and the people who have already made this journey don't need our efforts--we're preaching to the choir there. It's these people with good intentions but privilege blinders where we can make real progress, slow but telling progress.

Mary, I don't consider those folks who use the "they don't work hard enough" and "they're lazy" myths to be well-intentioned. I'm talking about folks who, if nothing else, have a little sense of compassion, but just cannot get past the blinders of privilege because they're not really aware that their privilege is blinding them. But I do agree that books are excellent ways to reach the people I'm talking about and possibly even the ones you're referring to. Studies show us that reading novels stimulates and strengthens empathy--and that's exactly what's missing here.

Debra, yes, I was also appalled at the many conservative media sites that pretty much trashed her, and many people of the same mindset put derogatory comments on articles and posts honoring her poetry and her life. Appalling!

Terra, thank you for spreading the word about this post. I'm glad it provided fruit for discussion on your conference forum. I hoped it would start people thinking and speaking to each other about the need for diverse books. I'm really looking forward to your post about this topic next week!

Reine,  that's like the reason I hate the term "politically correct." It's one of the many clever ways the right wing has renamed good things to make them sound bad to people who don't read widely. I always tell people that "inclusive" is a much more accurate term. If you use terms that offend or shut people out, you're not being inclusive. If you try to include the viewpoints of other genders, classes, religions, cultures in your discussions, you're being inclusive, not political correct. Inclusivity helps us learn, broaden our outlook on the world, fosters communication between people of different backgrounds. An inclusive world, a world that values diversity, is a richer, more complex and exciting world.

8 comments:

  1. In my days behind the library reference desk, I saw a lot of conversations about diversity in writing. I think we absolutely need to hear a more diverse collection of voices, and one of the things that pleases me about the changes in the publishing industry and the move toward small presses in self-publishing is that there is an opportunity for those voices to be heard even if they're not through the traditional publishing machine.

    I do remember two interesting and unfortunate ideas that kept coming up when discussing diversity in writing:

    1. There is a notion that white men and women don't have the authority (or possibly, even the right) to write diverse characters in an authentic way.

    2. There is a notion that books about non-white books are written only for a non-white audience, and not all minority writers want to write minority characters or worse, be pigeon-holed as writers for a minority audience, because non-minority readers will dismiss books featuring minority characters as being "not for them."

    These two ideas create an interesting problem. On the one hand, you have a group of authors who might want to write a more diverse cast of characters, but they're afraid of getting booed off the stage or worse. And then you have a group of writers who have the authentic voice but are afraid of being pegged "niche market" writers. Those are two tough roadblocks that need to be removed in order to clear the way for writers wanting to write the human experience.

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  2. Sorry, that should be "books about non-white characters." Bad editing on my part.

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  3. Your ability to place yourself in the other person's shoes brings out several pertinent topics some people don't want to have. Thanks for sharing this with a larger audience and participating on this topic of diverse literature.

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  4. If someone is locked into his/her version of privilege and has no empathy, than I see no hope for someone to appreciate aother's desperate situation. That benighted person gets labeled OTHER and then discarded, not worthy of consideration. With the huge growth in entitlement these days, that means a concommitant decline in empathy. I do fear for the future.

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  5. Yes, those with 'privilege blinders' but otherwise being, or thinking they are, well-intentioned - I know too many of them. So often I've heard 'they don't work hard enough' referring mostly to people of color who are underemployed, not paid enough to support themselves or a family, or unable to get employment. I've learned there is absolutely no discussing it with them, because they work hard! Perhaps through story, fiction or non, it might be easier for such people to get an inkling of other peoples' experience. They are not threatened, within or without, while engaged in reading and might allow themselves an opportunity to relax out of shored up thought patterns and expectations and get, if not a new perspective, at least a glimmer that one might exist.

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  6. Excellent and timely post especially with the reaction to the recent passing of Maya Angelou. Looking at posts after her entire biography was reprinted in obituary articles, it was interesting to see how those who loved her poetry and writings from one viewpoint expressed different thoughts when they learned more about the obstacles she encountered in her life. What you write needs to be said...thought about...truly understood...and incorporated into life.

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  7. Linda, this is an excellent post. I strongly identify. I linked to you at River, Blood, And Corn, and have tweeted. And I also routed this piece to "invited reader only" site (with readership of thousands of mixed race family members) that I'm co-administering in conjunction with a yearly conference where I sit on a panel on the topic of race and white privilege. Your post nailed it. A large majority agrees with you, and the white readers who do not understand are working to gain a better understanding. The purpose of our forum is to bring awareness to those who want to learn.

    Thank you. I am honored to be invited me to join the growing number of authors, publishers and writers within this online campaign calling for more diversity in publishing

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  8. Linda, I love this blog, because it is about fostering understanding and communicating and not about one perspective or putting anyone down while building another up. It's about becoming familiar, which is inclusive, rather than teaching which puts someone at the head of the class and the rest behind desks. Each of us has a story of our own to tell and many more to listen to. If we make assumptions about other people's stories we won't learn. We must be responsible for our own learning and that starts with making good and varied choices about listening.

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