This past week, a group started a campaign on twitter #WeNeedDiverseBooks that trended for days. Blogs, twitter, tumblr, instagram facebook were lit up with people sharing photos, stories, ideas about how diverse books are both wanted and needed.
Diversity just means "reality," i.e. books (and movies, etc.) work best when they reflect the richness and variety of the real world rather than only representing one sliver of it. But diversity most often connotes race. And so lots of race questions rise up in this conversation, such as, is it okay for writers of one race to write from the point-of-view of a character from another race? Lisa Yee wrote her thoughts about this, which I appreciated.
Here's my own experience. When I was drafting The Goose Girl, I originally was going to make Bayern an African-type continent, everyone there having a deep-brown-to-black skin, while Kildenree would be the European-type continent with pale skin. I was inspired by Le Guin's Earthsea books. But I quickly realized the story required Ani to hide in Bayern, so she couldn't look too different from the Bayern people. I could have chosen to make Ani dark skinned as well but I decided not to, out of misguided respect and fear. As a white person, I was hesitant to try to speak from the point-of-view of someone of another race, even in a fantasy setting. I felt like I only had access to the heritage of my own bloodlines. So I based Bayern on Germany, both because the tale was recorded by the brothers Grimm and because it is one of the lands of my ancestors. I'm not saying that was the wrong or the right choice (I don't believe there was necessarily a right or wrong here), but that this was my creative process.
When I began a new series with Princess Academy, again I felt that I only had rights to the lands of my ancestors, so I chose to base the setting on Scandinavia. And the research and writing was a lovely experience for me.
While I was drafting Book of a Thousand Days, I was also studying about Mongolia, because my parents were about to go live there for two years. And the more I learned, the more the research slid naturally into the story I was working on. Perfectly. As if that had been my intention all along. I had a moment of crisis. I wanted to base the setting on medieval Mongolia, but did I have the right to appropriate a land I had no blood or familial ties to for my story?
Eventually I decided, yes. I am a human being. I can take inspiration from the stories of our shared planet. It was a little easier for me to make this jump since I wasn't writing a true historical setting but a fantasy kingdom inspired by a historical setting.
Dangerous is my first young adult book not set long-ago-far-away but in our own world. I don't remember my exact thought process in deciding to make my main character biracial with a Paraguayan-American mother and white American father. There was reason to have a bilingual character and the choice seemed interesting for the story. The supporting cast also has a Russian-American, African-French, Korean-American, German-American, and African-American. These choices make sense in the story, but if this had been my first book, I don't know if I'd dared to make them. Again, out of misguided respect and fear, I might have been hesitant to try to embody the experience of a character who has a different race than me. I think that would have been a mistake. This story makes more sense, is richer, and is truer with the diverse cast. If I'd tried to write this story with an all-white cast, that would have been forced and untrue, because it wouldn't have reflected the actual world the story takes place in. Making creative choices from a place of fear (even fear mixed with loving and honest respect) is never a good idea.
I appreciate writers who are respectful of other cultures and experiences. And I don't think that every book needs to have a diverse racial cast. A book set in a town where everyone is white can exist. Those stories matter too. But I always want to make sure I'm open to what the story needs. And all stories (ironically perhaps, but especially fantasy and science fiction stories) need to have a foundation of truth in order to work. And the truth of our world is colorful, rich, expansive. I think it's wise, as writers, that we're always checking ourselves, making sure we're not just defaulting to all white, straight, able-bodied, non-religious, etc., characters. Not defaulting to Neutral. But keeping our stories open for the possibilities of diversity.