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!

Thought of the Week: Gay Atheists Sure Are Dangerous

I don’t usually weigh in on stuff  like this; I find society in general to be pretty dangerous and upsetting in itself, and more or less steer clear of issues of an even remotely political nature. However, something came to my attention this week that, frankly, shocked me. This happened earlier in the year, so I apologize if this is already familiar to anyone, but given the lack of obvious coverage, I felt the issue needed to be raised.

Back in February, Krystal Myers, a student at Lenoir High School in North Carolina, had the audacity to write an article for the school paper called No Rights: The Life of an Atheist. The potential for disruption this article had is frightening; students across the school might suddenly have begun wondering what atheism is, questioning their beliefs, or worse – thinking. However, disaster was averted: the school’s principal, Steve Saint-Armand (what a good, Christian name – it’s got the word ‘saint’ in it) happened to see the proposed article, and prevent it from being published. A collective southern conservative brow was wiped.

But wait – there’s more! Despite the relief at having thwarted the wayward atheist in their midst, it happened again – only this time the nature of the crime was far more horrifying: being gay.

That’s right; in May, the high school’s yearbook was edited, published and released containing the offensively-titled article It’s Okay to Be Gay. Student Zac Mitchell, the subject of the article, is – unsurprisingly – gay. Now, there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done about that, but it sure was important to make sure no one found out; after all, he only came out four years before, so chances are no one at the school had really had time to notice.

The true heinousness here, though, is the fact that, unlike Ms. Myers’ article, this one managed to be published. Because despite a school paper and yearbook being written, edited and published by the students themselves, at least one teacher had to have supervised and approved these articles. And who exactly is this monstrous fiend? English teacher James Yoakley. Here he is:

You can almost see the horns. This terrible man, it appears, not only approved, but in fact encouraged, the students to write and publish these articles. Rather than doing the right thing and convincing them to forever hide their sins, he openly pushed them to discuss their heresy and sexual deviancy. It should come as little wonder, then, that there was a sudden and great clamor to have him burned at the stake. Panicked school boards issued summons to prevent Mr. Yoakley from teaching; petrified parents sent acid-tongued letters to the teachers about the devil spawn they had allowed to twist their children’s young and impressionable minds. Chances are, an angel died somewhere. Maybe it was a gay angel. Finally, though, sanity was regained through a man named Van Shaver, an authority from a neighboring school district, who put into words what all were feeling:

If an individual wants to be a homosexual, that’s their own decision and they will have to live with the consequences of that decision. What I am intolerant of is an adult, a teacher no less, inflicting their personal beliefs and sexual orientation decisions on impressionable students.

It all makes sense: James Yoakley is a homosexual atheist whose sole purpose in life was to lead pure children away from the paths of righteousness. It was too late for Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Myers, but they could at least banish him from the school district so he might not ever taint the young again. Parents were enamored. A Facebook page was created in support: they’ve had a whopping 88 likes since May.

Now of course, there will always be those few that, in their own misguided way, believe that what Mr. Yoakley did was not entirely reprehensible; that – unthinkable though it might be – he might even have been doing something incredibly touching, supportive and inspirational for these two students. Those unfathomable people started their own Facebook page: to date, a measly 1,789 likes.

The good news is that these aberrant supporters have little far-reaching influence, and this won’t ever become a major issue. For example, the New York Times seems to have absolutely no record of this incident. Nor does the L.A. Times, or CNN; even the unimpeachable source of trustworthy news, Fox, has little to say on the matter. They do, however, have several thousand articles relating to the Aurora shooting – an event that, according to some who study these things (sorry – lost the reference), ought not to have been publicized outside of local news for fear of inciting further killings.

Ironically, there is a little more publication about the earlier atheist scandal – it got all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee – but that’s okay, because of course atheism isn’t quite so bad: at least they acknowledge that they chose to follow the path to eternal damnation. But gays…their stubborn refusal to admit that they chose to be how they are obviously places them as one of the most dangerous threats posed to our society today. Imagine if all the world was filled with people who said it’s not a choice: all the murderers would be set free (I had no choice); all the politicians would lie to us (you gave me no choice); every doctor would be free to pull the plug on vegetative-comatose patients (there certainly was no choice there). No – it’s best we keep this sort of danger under wraps.

So if you’d like to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t continue to happen, please don’t discuss this with your friends and family. Please don’t head over to the Facebook page of Mr. Yoakley’s defenders and click like. Please don’t post, retweet or reblog. Certainly don’t send an email to Steve Saint-Armand or Van Shaver and tell them what bigoted, ignorant pigs they are. After all – we wouldn’t want more gay atheists thinking it’s okay to be themselves.