Blog: How can I, a white writer, include more diverse characters in my writing?

 

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.
– Leila

The Golden Egg Academy q&a is storified here: https://storify.com/LAHodges10/geaqa-with-5666a4f746faaa4e2eb4c877

Spotlight on: Kate Agar, editor and secret vampire plotter…

Spotlights tell you more about the people involved in Megaphone: writers, editors and agents.

Kate Agar (@kateagar) is one of the editors who is generously donating her time to help select the applicants for Megaphone and to deliver final feedback on the manuscripts. She is commissioning editor for Hachette (Little Brown Young Readers) .  The ‘commissioning’ bit means that she gets to seek out new authors, and advise the publishing house on who to publish – a very important role. In addition to traditional work, she works on licensed projects such as Mattel’s Ever After High and with non-traditional authors such as Frank Lampard, and develops ideas  generated in-house into stories and novels. 

Kate Agar photo
Kate Agar

Kate mentioned in her bio for Megaphone that she was building up the Young Adult (YA) list for Little, Brown Young Readers. I asked her what she was looking for and what she thought the future of YA held.

Kate Agar: “We’ve seen some big sweeping trends in YA in the past, but I think we’re heading towards a landscape where we’ll be able to make really great stories work, regardless of genre. Saying that, I keep hearing talk of YA sci-fi having a renaissance (and I recently had a coffee with an agent where we plotted to bring back vampires . . . but don’t tell anyone . . . ). For our list, we want a spread of authors covering different areas so that we have plenty of space to promote each of them. I’m not seeing a great number of male protagonists in my submissions pile, and I’d love to acquire something with a hint of supernatural or magical realism. But what I want more than anything are authentic voices. We can work on the plotting or the world details, but if I don’t immediately fall in love with the voice it’s very unusual for me to be won over by a manuscript!”

Kate is, like all the writers and editors involved, a very busy person – so I wanted to know why she took the time to get involved with Megaphone!

Kate Agar: “As soon as I heard about Leila’s plans, I was incredibly keen to be involved. It’s such a brilliant way for editors to see a new range of voices that we don’t always have access to, and hopefully will start to help to make publishing as an industry feel more accessible. I think the whole process of book creation can feel a bit opaque from the outside, and the more we can open it up the better.

Finally,  the question that I asked everyone: what do you think is needed, to improve diversity and equality in the children’s book world? What project, initiative or change of approach would really make a difference?

Kate Agar: “Can I say Megaphone?! I think we’re in a bit of a vicious cycle because historically most characters in children’s books have been white and able-bodied, so children who identify in that way are the most likely to want to become writers and editors. Long-term, making sure we have a wide cast of characters within the books we publish will help to solve that, encouraging readers early on and bringing new voices and experiences to both the submission pile and the pool of commissioning editors. But other initiatives are also really important in the shorter term: Megaphone, of course, but also charities such as Creative Access (which places interns from BAME backgrounds into creative industries) and Arts Emergency (which pairs young people with mentors in the arts, and supports people of all backgrounds to think about a degree in the arts).”

Many thanks to Kate for  her support!

Questions for libraries

When I left school, approximately two hundred years ago, one of the career paths suggested to me was librarianship. Little did they know.  Into the context of cuts comes news from The Bookseller of a new  report from the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals (CILIP), which has found that, in libraries:

The workforce (…) has lower ethnic diversity than the national UK Labour Force Survey average statistic, with 96.7% of workers identifying as “white”, almost 10% above the national workforce average.

These numbers immediately raise some questions in my mind. Librarians are gatekeepers of children’s literature. Among many other important duties, they guide and advise parents and children in selecting books and resources, they arrange events and author visits, they order children’s and YA fiction and non-fiction books and resources and make them available to readers. Parents and children are important library users in every sense.

If the gatekeepers for children’s fiction are so much less ethnically diverse than the children and parents they serve, what are the results for the quality of library service? Will the librarians have the same priorities as the library users?

Are they best placed to help the 100% of children in their communities who need the right books at the right time?

Members of CILIP also vote for the most prestigious children’s literature prizes in Britain: the Carnegie and Greenaway awards. Winning or being shortlisted for these awards makes a significant positive difference to a writer’s career, at least in the short to medium term. It raises their profile, not least with schools and libraries, and though it may not necessarily result in sales out of bookshops, it is likely to lead to more events such as school visits and festival appearances, which can be a large part of a writer’s small income.

Does the statistic above mean that only 3.3% of the people who are eligible to nominate and vote for the most prestigious awards for children’s literature in Britain are Black, Asian or other non-white group, including mixed heritage?

If so, might this have an influence on the books and authors that are nominated, shortlisted and win?

Would a more ethnically diverse workforce in libraries lead to different nominations, shortlists and winners of the Carnegie and Greenaway – and perhaps as a result to some reassessment of what constitutes ‘outstanding’ literature for children today?

I should stress that I don’t mean to disparage the achievements of past Carnegie and Greenaway winners. But I believe we should be asking these questions. They are not purely academic (although they are very interesting questions in that sense – cultural values are not absolute, and changing the gatekeepers is very likely to change what gets through the gates). They are also practical questions that impact on the careers, livelihoods, ability to survive financially and keep writing, of BAME children’s authors in Britain.

I’m delighted that CILIP have undertaken this essential research. The link to their executive summary is here: http://www.cilip.org.uk/about/projects-reviews/workforce-mapping
I look forward to reading the full report when it is available. In particular I would like to see
1) how far children’s librarians as a sub-group conform to the statistics above, and
2) a break-down by library authority. In Birmingham, for example,  with 53.1% defining themselves as White British, 13.5% Pakistani, 6% Indian and 4.4% Black Caribbean, do we still have a library and information workforce that are 93.7% white?

It is however encouraging to read  here that Nick Poole, CILIP Chief Executive Officer, said:

“Of greater concern are the significant gaps in pay equality and diversity which the results have highlighted…CILIP is calling for a National Library and Information Skills Strategy which will enable us to attract high-quality talent from diverse backgrounds into the profession (…)”

Maybe my careers adviser wasn’t so far off the mark after all.


http://www.cilip.org.uk/news/landmark-uk-information-workforce-survey-reveals-ongoing-gender-pay-gap

http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/cs/Satellite?c=Page&childpagename=Planning-and-Regeneration%2FPageLayout&cid=1223096353923&pagename=BCC%2FCommon%2FWrapper%2FWrapper

Get in!

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The Inclusive Minds Collective are launching a new phase of the “Everybody In” social media campaign, which encourages children’s books to include ALL children. It aims to remind everyone of the need to write, illustrate, publish, sell, buy, borrow and explore diverse and inclusive books.
Inclusive Minds’ goals are very much in harmony with Megaphone’s and I’m delighted to support them. This is their website: http://www.inclusiveminds.com/ where you can sign up to their newsletter.

If you want to join in #EverybodyIn, here are some suggestions of what you could be doing:

  • Declaring your support for the campaign – this might be just a simple tweet about the need for more inclusive/diverse books, or perhaps you’d even be willing to join those who are tweeting photos of themselves with a sign saying “I’m In”. (I’ll be doing this! Ideally once I’ve managed to make myself look presentable J )
  • Retweeting campaign tweets from @InclusiveMinds
  • Relating the campaign to something you are already doing or a something you are planning to do, be it a book, a project or an event.
  • Reminding people whythis is so important, e.g. “I’m in because….”
  • If you’re a publisher or bookseller, sharing the fact that you have signed up to the Inclusive Minds charter and/or urging others to do the same.
  • If you already know all about it, introducing the campaign to new people
  • Following and adding #EverybodyIn to your tweets.

Look out for @InclusiveMinds tweets, starting later this week, to signal the start of #EverybodyIn!

 

The Writers’ Toolkit, mail shots and more

The last of the mail shot!
The last of the mail shot!

I thought I’d do a quick update about what’s going on with Megaphone at the moment. Basically, it’s all about getting the word out, so please, do pass the news of this great opportunity on to anyone you know who who could benefit from it. I have just been at the Writers’ Toolkit event – Writing West Midlands’ annual writing conference, held at Birmingham University – where I sat on two panels and had lots of interesting and inspiring chats with writers about Megaphone. Everyone was so positive – so if I saw you there, thank you!
I’ve also just finished addressing the last of the mail shot which I’m sending out to every England-based university that teaches creative writing even slightly. Wow, that was an odyssey. Mostly because of the mysterious ways of printers (will print only entire document, not individual page; will only ever print page 2 skewed, etc.). Anyway, it is now DONE – despite having taken about a week longer than I expected, entirely due to my printer – and is going out. I wanted to send a paper mail shot in this case (rather than email) because I know how many emails departments can be deluged with, and besides there are some nice flyers which I think would look lovely on a departmental noticeboard. If you would like some of these for your local arts centre, library, etc. please do email me at megaphone.write@gmail.com and I will happily send you some (but please, only if you’re sure they’ll be accepted – sometimes venues are happy to take flyers and sometimes they aren’t, in my experience).

Oh and finally – this exciting event is coming up soon in Wolverhampton: http://www.exploreyourarchive.org/452/ I love archives, love history and would love to go to this – but am booked onto another event at the same time. Anyone who can go, though – I’m sure it will be brilliant and inspiring (and could inspire a historical novel for children, your Megaphone project? 🙂 )

Happy writing!
Leila

Flyer
Flyer

A couple of exciting things

  1. A great opportunity for writers of colour here  – courtesy of Sable magazine and The Literary Consultancy.

http://www.sablelitmag.org/creative-institute/bespoke-services/free-reads-tlc-partnership/

And

2) thrilled to say that Birmingham has a new publisher, specialising in poetry AND poetry for children! (whoop whoop). The Emma Press is looking for poetry and prose pamphlet proposals. Writers are invited to send in 10 poems or the full prose manuscript, which will be read by editors Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright. The deadline is Sunday 13th December 2015 and full details can be found on their website: http://theemmapress.com/about/submissions/

We tweet!

If you’re not already following Megaphone on Twitter, we’re @MegaphoneWrite over there and would love to see you. My own Twitter handle is @LeilaR .

The Voice have also just featured the project with a smashing picture of Catherine Johnson, one of the masterclass leaders and author of at least sixteen books, most recently,nominated for the Carnegie medal.

http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/unique-scheme-launches-help-black-writers?quicktabs_nodesblock=2

Two Megaphone masterclass leaders nominated for the Carnegie award!

The Carnegie Award is the Man Booker prize of children’s literature, and I’m super excited to hear that two Megaphone writers are on that list – Catherine Johnson for The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, a wonderful novel about a real historical character who rose like a phoenix out of terrible circumstances and built her own life out of stories, and Alex Wheatle for his first YA novel, the funny and moving Liccle Bit, about a boy who’s caught in a situation that’s only getting worse… and how he tries to get out of it. I loved both these books. Huge congratulations to the authors!

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