The “Other” Experience: Representing Diversity

I came across a now-deleted post on Reddit the other day, entitled simply, “The Trans Experience”. By the time I clicked on it, the original post had already been removed, but there was a reply that, I think, beautifully encapsulated the struggle some authors face when trying to include diverse perspectives and representations in their work, and what to do – and what not to do – when doing so. There’s a part of me that wishes the comment had been its own post, because it really made a lot of sense.

The comment was quite long, but in summary, it more or less posits the following: do include trans characters in your books; do not attempt to write the ‘trans experience’. Over the course of several paragraphs, the commenter, a stated trans man, quite eloquently points out that diversity and representation of trans people is sorely needed in literature, but when a cis-gendered person tries to write a novel about being trans, and the experience thereof, they are – even if inadvertently – causing more harm than good to trans authors and the trans community. There are elements of being trans that are difficult, if not impossible, for a cis person to truly comprehend, and therefore put across correctly in a story. Instead, the author points out that you should instead focus on aspects of their personalities that are universal – happiness, sadness, life and death – and have the fact that they are trans as more incidental.

Whilst this is a great perspective specific to the context of the trans community, it can easily be widened to incorporate writing about any community the author is not necessarily a part of. I think many authors are very much aware that there is a distinct lack of representation in literature, with what seems to be the vast majority of stories focusing on straight, white male protagonists, but the answer isn’t to try and overcome this by writing stories about the experience of those other groups. A white author might recognize the deficit of black characters, but trying to write a black character from the perspective of their struggles as a black person could go disastrously awry. No white person can ever truly know what it’s like to be black, and it would be incredibly difficult to come across as authentic and genuine.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I was heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings, which, for all its fame and importance, is hardly the most inclusive of novels. I also wanted to write characters my then-young son could identify with, so I chose – perhaps subconsciously, even – to make the main protagonists young white males (well, I don’t specify their skin color necessarily, but that’s what I had in mind). I even killed off the only important female character as a plot device to kick off the rest of the series. But as I continued writing, I realized that this didn’t have to be the limit of the characters, and I started introducing far more diverse characters, including stronger female characters, different ethnicities, and even ages.

Of course, The Redemption of Erâth is high fantasy, and there are arguably only the limits of my imagination when it comes to the characters that appear within it. When it comes to my young adult/contemporary fiction that I write under my real name, I found myself in a different boat altogether: my first novel deals with teenage depression from the perspective of a young woman, which is – as a man – a perspective I have limited experience with. In writing from a female perspective, it was tempting to try and shove in as many ‘female’-centric characteristics as possible: dealing with boys, dating, periods, etc. But I soon realized that this kind of writing came off as ‘man tries to write women, fails successfully’.

Instead, I found myself following the above Redditor’s advice years before I ever saw it, and focusing instead on the emotional and human characteristics that are universal to all people: depression, sadness, death and loss, and all the things that affect all humans equally. When I had several female friends beta-read it, I specifically wanted them to see if it felt authentic from a female perspective, and to my astonishment, they universally said ‘yes’.

I took this concept further with my second novel in this genre, featuring both gay and black characters; again, not because I’m trying to force diversity into my stories, but because that’s who these characters are – how they appeared to me, and what their personalities were crying out to me to be. And again, I found myself wanting to write forced passages on racism, sexism and misconstrued sexual identity, and I had to stop myself. I don’t know anything about those concepts, except perhaps as the subconscious perpetrator of racist and sexist ideologies (I don’t think of myself as racist, but I know I’ve definitely said and done racist things without realizing it), so I tried hard to focus on the aspects of being human that transcend sexuality, race, and gender.

I have yet to see how successful this approach is, as this second novel is yet to be published, but I think it’s allowed me to write a story that deals with tragedy, love and loss from the perspective of people, rather than ‘black’ or ‘white’ or any other kind of separator of humankind. And if it turns out successful (to be determined by my readers, of course), then I would like to think that this could be a valid way of writing representation overall.

I think the lesson here is that we can all do better at representing minorities and traditionally unrepresented communities in our writing, and it doesn’t have to be in a way that singles them out – in fact, it’s probably better to write in these characters in an inclusive manner, to make them a part of the story and therefore a part of the world, just as they are in real life. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, or black, or trans, but I do know that if I was, I would want the same acceptance that I already enjoy as a straight white male. It isn’t fair that there are entire groups of people who are ostracized and isolated because of some characteristic that they don’t even have control over, and I think the world – both in literature and in real life – needs more acceptance, rather than more divisiveness.

What are some of the best instances of minority representation you’ve seen from non-minority authors? Are there examples that make you grind your teeth at how stereotyped the characters are (Stephen King, I’m looking at you)? Let me know in the comments!

Those of Us Who Live for Emotion

Everyone in this world lives with emotion (well, maybe the psychopaths don’t, but most everyone else does). We laugh, we cry, we feel anger and despair, and for the most part, we learn as young adults to handle these emotions, to live with them, and – to one extent or another – integrate them into our lives in a way that doesn’t (usually) override our ability to function as human beings.

But not everyone truly feels emotions the same way. Some of us fall more into the logical spectrum, whilst others are run by their emotions, making decisions based entirely on ‘feel’, ‘gut reactions’ or instincts. And, of course, some of us find ways to defend ourselves from emotion, because we’ve been so deeply affected in the past.

Having worked in the same place for the past ten years, most of the people I know are of course work colleagues. I know many of them well, and most of them well enough to know – to some degree – what kind of an emotional person they are. There are private people and people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, but you can usually tell what kind of an emotional person someone is by the way they express themselves, the emotions they choose to show (or that they can’t control), and the way in which their decision-making process is influenced.

It’s likely you know people like this, too. Think of all the people you daily say “how’s it going” to. Then think about the ones that, without fail, will always answer “fine” – whether they’re fine or not. Then think about the ones that are actually more truthful – that will tell you when things aren’t fine.

There’s no right or wrong way to be, of course – these are just people at different points on the emotional spectrum. Personally I fall into the former category, but I know plenty of people who will gladly share their whims and woes if asked. An easy mistake to make with this, however, is to assume that those people who don’t easily show their emotions simply don’t feel them as strongly – or at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Using myself as an example, it’s been a really long time since I could say I’ve truly felt any deep emotion of any kind – joy or despair, laughing or crying, these things kind of just don’t happen to me. I tend to live life day in and day out by just sort of moving from task to task and place to place, making decisions in the moment based on whatever seems right at the time. If you were to ask me how I felt and I were to answer truthfully, the answer would probably actually just be, “I don’t really know.”

Of course, a large part of this is probably my bipolar medication, which is, well, literally supposed to diminish the extremes of emotion I feel day to day. Prior to being medicated, I do remember times of uncontainable rage, pits of black despair, mountains of eagerness to work, and bouts of inexplicable tears. But even then, these were the rarer instances, and most of the time I wouldn’t allow myself to truly feel anything.

And I think this is a telling perspective, in some ways. I think there are some of us who actually feel so deeply that we deliberately protect ourselves from such emotion, by either avoiding things that make us feel deeply, or simply not letting it in at all. This can be a positive thing, to some arguable extent (I’ve never cried at a funeral), but it can also be detrimental: when discussing the recent Black Lives Matter protests with others, I can see how worked up they get about it, how deeply, deeply hurt they are by the injustices suffered by black communities across the country. And whilst I can inarguably see just how terrible things really are, it doesn’t make me as sad or angry inside because I just can’t allow myself to be hurt so deeply. I sort of wish it did, but I don’t know how.

Sometimes I envy people who can simply allow themselves to feel. When presented with those things in life that absolutely should trigger deep emotions (deaths, births, successes and failures, tragedies and triumphs), I kind of just … don’t feel anything. I can look at the event and think that it’s good, or bad, or whatever, but I don’t really deeply feel it, and … it makes me sad, but (of course) not really enough.

There is one thing that this lack of deep emotion does for me, though, and it’s that it allows me to understand conflicting perspectives in a way that I often see others to struggle with. Take something very simple but very relevant: Trump supporters. Most of the people I know are pretty liberal, and many of them simply cannot fathom how anyone could still support someone like Donald Trump after the toxicity, outright lies and falsehoods, and total lack of care that have so far defined his presidency. Yet for me, despite not agreeing with these people, I find myself in a position where I can actually understand some of their rhetoric, their mentality and their decisions. Because I’m not clouded by my own emotions (most of the time), I can see others’, and understand (to some degree) why they feel they way they do.

In the end, although I envy those who feel deeply, I don’t think I’d trade it for how I am already; I like being able to identify with and understand a multiple of perspectives, even if it means that the true depth of others’ feelings fall into more of an intellectual and logical empathy than a true “I feel what you feel” kind of thing. It allows me to get along with more people than I might otherwise be able to, and of course, it means I very rarely feel deeply enough to hate.

Of course, the reverse is that I rarely feel deeply enough to love, either … and that hurts.

How do you approach emotion? Are you a feeler, or a thinker? And do you find you have to feel what someone else does to empathize with them, or can you empathize from a logical perspective?

Black Art and Film

I want to preface this by saying this is a topic I know very little about. In fact, that’s why I’m writing about it. I can’t strictly call myself a film buff; I enjoy movies, and have a reasonable collection of digital films in my library, but I didn’t study film history in school, I don’t go out to the movies every Friday (or didn’t, prior to COVID-19), and honestly, as I age, find myself less and less inclined to watch something I haven’t seen before.

That being said, I enjoy the art of cinema, and enjoy the emotions, thrills, scares and joys that come with it. But with current events, it didn’t feel right to go on about another favorite film of mine tonight, not because film is any less important, but because cinema, Hollywood and society’s perception of film is possibly one of the largest bastions of industry-wide white privilege I can think of.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t black cinema, or that it isn’t good; nor does it mean that there aren’t famous black actors and actresses – of course there are. But in a space where tokenism remains dominant and white film is the norm, there is, I believe a lot of room for improvement. And it starts with me, and you, and all of us.

Take the following numbers as an example. I currently own 267 movies digitally, and I’m not going to start on the movies I’ve owned previously on DVD and VHS. Of those 267 films, the following contain black primary protagonists:

  • Black Panther
  • Blade 1-3
  • Independence Day (co-protagonist)
  • Lethal Weapon 1-4 (co-protagonist)
  • Men In Black 1-3
  • Rush Hour
  • The Shawshank Redemption (narrator, but not necessarily primary protagonist)
  • Suicide Squad (sorry)
  • 48 Hours

That’s 16 out of 267, or roughly 6%. Ninety-four percent of my movies are either entirely white, or the black characters feature as a minor, secondary, or token role. And arguably, the movies above are a) exceptions to the Hollywood rule, b) written, directed and produced by white people, and c) major blockbusters that everyone went to see anyway.

I can do better. There’s no reason I can’t expose myself to black cinema more, immerse myself in a world of stories that are every bit as engaging, fantastical, and human-centric. There are incredible movies out there written by black people, directed by black people, starring black people, that I can and should seek out.

Except … actually, there is a reason why I can’t expose myself to this realm of art more: it’s harder to find. As someone who primarily watches Hollywood films over independent cinema because it’s easier to access, I end up limited in my choices because those kinds of films don’t usually include an awful lot of diversity. Let’s look at the top ten films from a domestic box office revenue perspective in 2019:

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. The Lion King
  3. Toy Story 4
  4. Frozen II
  5. Captain Marvel
  6. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  7. Spider-Man: Far from Home
  8. Aladdin
  9. Joker
  10. It Chapter Two

Of these films, five have black actors within the first four credited actors (two are the same actor, however), but only two have a first-billed black actor – The Lion King and Aladdin (in neither of which do we actually see the actors themselves). Of these same 10 films, none were directed by black directors, and none were written by black writers.

Oscars are great, and critical reception is wonderful, but if people don’t pay to see a more diverse ensemble of cinematic talent, those films will never achieve the recognition they might otherwise deserve. And it’s a difficult thing to tackle; Hollywood loves old stories that it can repurpose again and again, and the old stories aren’t black stories. The adaptations, the rewrites and the re-imaginings of everything from Jane Austen to Philip K Dick, those enduring stories of humanity were, nonetheless, written by white people.

It’s difficult to ask Hollywood to take a risk on a new story, naturally; a lot of money goes into these films, and no one wants to risk millions of dollars on something no one might want to see. And the only old stories that feature black people are, naturally, ones about slavery – and no white person wants to be reminded of that, even though they should.

I think, perhaps, this is what it means to support black artists. Their stories should be told, and they should be heard. But they won’t be, and can’t be, unless everyone chooses to hear them. They might be uncomfortable; they might be hard to see. But change can’t come through comfort. And if the only language Hollywood understands is that of money, then we need to put our money where our mouths are.

And this, perhaps, could be the most difficult thing for us to do. Because of my environment, my upbringing, my exposure to art as I grew up, I’ve only ever associated art with white artists. I love western classical music, composed by white men. I adore European heavy metal – created by white artists. I love classic stories of hope and failure, written by white authors. I love these things because I grew up with them.

By nature, it means I end up associating non-white art with difference; with ‘otherness’, with change. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, or rap; I don’t know anything about black authors. And change is scary; it closes the mind to new experiences. It makes me say, “I don’t like this”, when in reality I haven’t even given it a chance. It turns me into a kid again, refusing to eat his broccoli.

But my starting point is this: I acknowledge this failing in me, and I acknowledge that change starts from within. It starts by giving others a chance.

So if that means that I look a little deeper into myself, and ask where I can find black art, then perhaps more people the world over can, too. And of course, art is interpretive – you don’t have to like it, just because it’s black! But don’t dismiss it for the same reason.

Support black artists. They deserve to have their stories heard.