Inspired by the #geaqa (Golden Egg Academy live chat ) that I participated in last night on Twitter, I’ve decided to put down my thoughts on this question, because it cropped up a couple of times last night and it does crop up frequently. When speaking about Megaphone I have often been asked by white writers, who agree there is a problem of lack of representation of non-white characters in children’s literature: ‘How can I make my writing more inclusive? I want to write diverse characters, and make a difference, but how do I avoid getting it wrong?’ I’m never quite sure how to respond to this question because while it comes from a place of very good intentions, I believe the only real way to create a more inclusive, diverse children’s literature is to make the workforce that officially produces, critiques and disseminates it (writers, librarians, critics, academics, booksellers, etc.) more diverse and inclusive in itself. Better representation in literature will follow from BAME people’s increased confidence and sense of ownership of children’s literature.
Having said that, so many people have asked me this that I think it might be worth putting down a few thoughts, with the caveat that these are my own personal opinions – others may disagree.
- Don’t force it. The story must lead and the character must lead the writing. Writing should be fun, at least at the beginning.
- Don’t force it. Putting a BAME character in a book won’t automatically make you a better or a more trendy or a more saleable author.
- Listen to real life BAME people. Actually care about them.
- Not just by researching facts but by listening to feelings. I’ve seen so many incidents on social media that go like this:
-Non-white person posts a link to an article/blog post about some kind of racism or cultural appropriation, and passionately says they agree with it and share this experience.
-Several other non-white people post to say they have also shared this experience.
-White person pops up and informs non-white OP that they are wrong about racism, that their experience is invalid, and instructs them as to what they should be thinking instead.
… I can’t honestly bring myself to go into why you should try your very hardest not to be that white person. Suffice to say a kitten dies in Rainbowland every time the above happens. Basically: if you want to write characters who differ from you in important ways, tune in more than you broadcast. Do people the courtesy of assuming they are telling the truth about how they feel, rather than assuming anything that makes you feel slightly upset/ uncomfortable/ defensive is part of some ‘agenda’ (a mysterious object, apparently possessed only by minority groups). Appreciate that non-white people live at the sharp end of racism. Ask open-ended questions and learn from the answers. The internet can put you in touch with all kinds of people and groups, and people are usually keen to talk if you are keen to listen respectfully. Gutenberg and online archives can give you access to testimony from the past – always try to go to original sources where you can.
- Beware reverse white-washing (in which your BAME characters behave in weird ways, because even though you’ve called them Abdul and Mohammed you haven’t fully imagined them). Would an all-white family with young children start running a Balti house in Sparkhill? Maybe, but you’d probably expect to learn something about them in the course of the novel that would explain their lack of concern about their children being the only white children in the local school, about not fitting into the community, about being the only white family in the street, about possible local hostility to their customs, etc. Would a Pakistani family move to Cumbria to open a guest house themed around Wordsworth? Maybe, but you’d probably expect to learn something about them in the course of the novel that would explain their lack of concern about their children being the only non-white children in the local school, about not fitting into the community, about being the only Asian family in the street, about possible local hostility to their customs, etc.
An interesting, uncomfortable exercise is to describe yourself through your character’s eyes. How would your character see you?
- Don’t jump from the inclusive attitude of, ‘We are all the same really,” to the erroneous conclusion: ‘You are all just like me!’. Difference is not a bad thing. Respect people’s differences in your writing, don’t ignore them. And don’t forget that there are huge, subtle, complex differences between members of a single ethnic or religious group. People may have attitudes and values which are irreconcilable with yours, without that making you, or them, a bad person.
- Where possible, enable and empower less-heard people to use their voices and take control of the production of stories and literature. Better to mentor a minority writer to develop their own voice, than write a minority character into a book. Don’t forget that diversity in children’s literature is not merely for its own sake, but in order to have a real impact on real children – so that the next generation can see that they’re a valued and important part of British culture, and that they too can aspire to be writers, not just passively written about.
- We lovers of children’s literature run on nostalgia. This isn’t a bad thing. We want to write because we loved to read. But the fact is that the books we read were often written in very different times and often contain racial stereotyping (the Calormenes, for example, or my beloved Tintin, Rider Haggard or Jules Verne). So sometimes we stereotype without meaning to, just because we’ve let our self-awareness idle and written what comes easily, without examining the shortcuts that our childhood reading have set up in our minds. Take a step back now and then and make sure you’re not making all your baddies BAME, disabled or some other minority. Some books and films still perpetuate stereotypes, sadly. Let’s try to make sure we don’t do this.
- Equally, beware exoticising people. Are you writing this ethnic minority character because you really care about the lives and experiences and concerns of real black/Asian/Chinese PEOPLE, or just because it seems exciting and sexier than your own identity? Generally speaking, ethnic minorities don’t feel exotic, they feel disempowered.
- Finally: my rule of thumb. Diversity in children’s literature has no purpose if it doesn’t affect the lives of real people for the better.
I know this all sounds less about writing, more about challenging and changing one’s own attitudes. But I personally think that is what it takes; there are no short, simple answers to the question of how you get better at writing about very different people’s experiences. I think if you accept that it won’t be easy, that it will be challenging and painful sometimes, that’s a good start. It reminds me of something an instructor said to me in an exercise class: there are two kinds of pain and discomfort: bad pain and discomfort that happens because you’re being injured, and good pain and discomfort that happens because you’re being stretched, and it’s important to be able to differentiate between them. Racism injures people. It wounds. But to reach equality, we all have to stretch.
The Golden Egg Academy q&a is storified here: https://storify.com/LAHodges10/geaqa-with-5666a4f746faaa4e2eb4c877