The other day I was talking with the delightfully dark and inspired Berit Ellingsen who writes, among other things, The Empty City (which you should go check out). The subject was about writing outside of our cultural comfort zones. I thought I had covered this in a previous post, but it turns out, I only mentioned it briefly in the post. Most of the relevant content was in the comments.
If you want a great resource to get the ball rolling for yourself, I can’t recommend Nisi Shaw’s essay on Writing the Other highly enough. Even if you think you know everything there is to know, give it a gander. I can’t give you much, if any advice, that she doesn’t do better there.
At some point I might distill my own thoughts on the matter of writing The Other. But first, let’s put all the cards on the table. I’m not The Other. I’m just another heterosexual white dude in his forties. I was raised in a town where racism was not uncommon, though I credit my folks for raising me right.
I want cultural diversity in my reading. It’s a big world, and if all I’m seeing is stories about people who look like me, I really cease to give a shit pretty fast. I realized that I talk a pretty good game about wanting to show a lot of diversity in my writing as well. But I realized that I had never done an actual audit of my fiction to see how accurate that is.
So here we are, gentle readers. As a metric, let’s take a look at my published short fiction, as that gives us fourteen stories to consider.
Let’s take out the weird outliers first, namely inhuman protagonists. That removes “Dancing Tonight! Live Music!” (Zombies, but arguably white, redneck zombies), and “The Price of Cream” (Brownies, and if you consider sprites, pixies, and general fey-types minorities, these guys count), and “Fists of Felt” (puppets, so yeah…not sure where to rank those, so let’s just toss ’em).
That leaves us with nine stories. Unless I’ve indicated otherwise in a given story, I’m going to assume that the main character is white male. Fair enough? So let’s start there and count The Man. That gives us “The Invitation,” “Fishwives of Sean Brolly,” “Ink Calls to Ink,” and “Kid Gloves.” Technically, you might be able to include “Deacon Carter’s Last Dime” here as well, because though the title character is black, I intentionally never say what ethnicity the POV character is. That gives us a total of four or five out of eleven, depending on how you score Deacon. If you give me a half-point, that gives me a under 50% on using white, male protagonists.
The remaining six: “War at Home” and “None Left Behind” (black), “Frames of Reference” (Asian), “Hard Ride to Yuma” and “Memory in the Time of Bones” (Hispanic), and “Old Root from a Sinister Vine,” (ancient Egyptian albino – now that’s diversity!) round out the set.
And you know what that leaves? No women protagonists!
I’m actually a bit ashamed of that. I have one novel with a strong protagonist which I hope to polish and do something with at some point. And there are women in my ensemble works (Cobalt City, in particular, but also the novel of Ink Calls to Ink that I’m preparing to shop to agents). But for short stories, I have two short stories I’m sending around now with female protagonists, but nothing published. And the story I wrote about half of yesterday has a strong female character. So I’m making an improvement, but I feel I need to do better.
Maybe it’s time for me to rethink a few projects and stir things up.
Maybe it’s time for all of us to reconsider how diverse our worlds are.
Just a thought.
One thought on “A Diversity Self-Audit”
Thanks so much for my first name-dropping ever 🙂 and for the kind words and links to The Empty City. 🙂 I appreciate it a lot.
An audit like this is good and informative.
I think it’s pretty impressive you have written from so many different points of view that you have, and I don’t feel you need to change anything about writing a female protagonist, unless it really fits the story. Which is, I guess, what we’re all after.
I think the essay that you link to,
Appropriate Cultural Appropriation
is a good example of that.
It’s very reflected that you bring up this issue. I don’t think we can expect anything better than a thoughtful and honest approach to all themes, be it writing the other or writing the self, or what have you.
The poem mentioned in the link puts the finger on exactly the bad conscience I have when I feel I appropriate a culture for writing. Still, I also think that poem points out another side to it.
It’s arrogant for people in a culture to believe they know all about their own culture and history, I mean, unless they actually are a historian or archeologist. How many people can say that they really know and understand all aspects of their own culture. Even if one wants to write a historical novel set in one’s own country, one must still do research to become acquainted with the past.
Like in the example with the poem, white women have been appointed geisha and masters of Japanese flower arrangement.
A sensei I trained under was the first Japanese woman in her field and her husband was the first white man. I think the old sensei allowed this, because he saw their committment and the commonality we all share. That’s what was essential.
I think we need to be a little more generous in allowing guests in and tourists in, and dare to be guests and tourists ourselves and make mistakes and ask for direction once in a while.
Hmmm…. I have a lot of male protagonists. I’ve never viewed that as writing the other, but maybe it is?
Thanks so much for the discussion.