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Diversity – Unsilencing of the Allies
I was at a writers’ conference recently and we were talking about including more diverse characters in our stories. We were already a group who felt the importance of representing a broad range of people, which was a lovely feeling. There was a lot of discussion about doing research on marginalized groups, hunting out the tropes and stereotypes so you don’t fall down those holes, doing interviews, etc, etc, but in the end, there was this overall impression that writing a quirky or diverse character was really hard, and you were probably going to do it wrong, and probably going to get in trouble.
Misrepresentation vs Invisibility
I think it’s really important to crack open what’s happening here. Yes, stereotypical appropriation of voice is hard on diverse peoples. Yes, research and understanding are important. BUT, a more immediate threat to diversity is invisibility, and I see all kinds of allies cowering in the shadows because they want to include, but don’t want to mess up the representation. This is not cool.
The point I made in the discussion was that so many writers feel comfortable creating a character who is a murderer or thief, but don’t feel comfortable creating a character who has a cultural background that isn’t their own or who has a non-standard orientation or gender. See, even here the word “standard” is annoying. Believe me, it annoys me too. I could say “non-binary” which is more accurate, but might also leave some people feeling confused and excluded. We need to bust open our language and stories and, sure, argue about them and grow some more. Silencing our artists, however, is desperately unhealthy and exactly the opposite of what our world needs right now.
Who Counts as Diverse?
In my new book, Root of the Spark, I have my loud and proud diverse character, Dell. Dell is both male and female and lives in the far future on a human colony planet. It was an amazing learning experience to exist inside of this person. Dell taught me a lot.
In the shadows of Dell’s unique story, my perhaps less obviously diverse, yet also marginalized character is Ledder, a violent alcoholic. I grew up with both my parents working in a youth detention center. My father worked nights there for 10 years, in fact. The stories of the young offenders he cared for still impact me, and if anyone has experienced marginalization, it’s them.
We feel confident in writing “bad guy” characters, but the truth is, every person has back story. Every character can be fleshed out and understood in a deeper way.
The Lists of Can’ts and Shouldn’ts
Ok, so writing diverse characters is a tall order and writing villains should be too? It’s easy to let the logical part of the brain make lists of why the story can’t unfold or why we aren’t qualified to tell it. We can pile on so much research that novels just don’t get written. Stories are the most powerful tool I know of for changing hearts and minds, and bottling them up is unacceptable.
I think the answer for me is: do the research you can, and then dive inside the story. If you let the creative empathy you have open you up to what a person might be feeling, and let the characters guide you, they always have more to show you than you imagined on your own.
If you accidentally write from a place of subtle bigotry, guess what? You’ll be like every other human writer ever. If you learn from it, you’ll write a better book next time. If people call you out on prejudice and start a lively discussion, well great! More people talking and exploring the essential areas of identity and culture = awesome. Good work.
Please, please, please, don’t let the threat of getting it wrong stop you from exploring and sharing your stories. We’ve had enough silencing and invisibility and censorship to last us. It’s time for some brave, imperfect strides forward. It might get messy. I say, bring it on. Life IS messy. Let’s gobble it up instead of carefully dieting.
Any thoughts on any of this? Please comment and open up the conversation!
With love and hope,
PS I’ve put part of Dell’s story below.
Title: Root of the Spark (Wild Seed #1)
Author: Michele Fogal
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance, LGBT
Length: 88,000 words (Novel)
Publisher: Loose Id
Release Date: Nov 22, 2016
Dell doesn’t want to hide anymore. As the first hermaphrodite on the human colony planet of Ameliaura, Dell has spent the last year trying to blend into the crowd. Snubbing the public eye with flamboyance and scandal worked for a while, but lately the attention just feels like loneliness. After surviving a vicious attack, Dell falls into the arms of Zavvy, a man who has made it his mission to help abandoned hermaphrodite children.
Zavvy has been alone for years. No one can understand why he’s given up everything to take in street children and any hope of romance is out the window. Until Dell. Found naked and bleeding by the kids, Dell fulfills Zavvy’s every youthful fantasy of the City’s unashamed exotic night life.
The needs of an impromptu orphanage leave little room for a relationship, but harder still, Dell’s past comes back with a vengeance. Dell will have to step into the light again to fight for a home before the age old tide of violence rises again.
WARNING: this book contains a child who is actually an ancient dragon made of fungus, a lovely villain imprisoned inside the creature’s body, a hasty clan gathering in the collective subconscious, a hermaphrodite orphanage on the brink, and some very naughty acts on a staircase.
That morning had been like any other: the overbright sun of the parched, whitewashed city, the lingering smell of burning garbage. The solitude. Well, maybe the solitude had gotten a bit heavy lately. Maybe that was why I’d gone out walking. I had dressed as a man, with small measures of guilt and irritation. I hadn’t dressed with any kind of style or pride in what I was for over a year, and it still rankled a little. Announcing one’s sex just to walk down the street shouldn’t be necessary, but people were always put off when they discovered I was one thing dressed up to look like another.
They caught me down by the docks. Circled around and worked up the nerve. The usual names: thing, pervert, freak. These young men recognized me. I just stood there and breathed. I could tell my silence spooked them. But their fear just made them angrier. I looked each of them in the eye, but I knew they couldn’t back down. Not with the others there to see.
They took me into an empty warehouse and smacked me around a bit. They told me I shouldn’t have been walking down there alone. Of course, I had to agree. It was foolish. I had been…looking for something. Maybe it was the ocean. It certainly wasn’t this. No, I wasn’t that desperate.
And not half an hour later, here I was—alive! And blessedly alone, but oh, I was starting to really feel it. With my hands on the floor of the warehouse, heedless of the glass and blood, I got my feet under me. I stood up and flicked my hair back off my face.
There in the doorway stood a man, motionless, staring at me.
He wasn’t one of them. No, those young men wouldn’t be coming back.
There was a flicker of movement beside him, and a small child peeked out from behind his legs. Large dark eyes stared into me. The man put a hand down protectively in front of the child and said, “Best get some of Silvie’s salve as well, Eda. Meet us back at home.”
He watched as she ran away, then turned back to me.
“Eda saw what happened and came to get me. I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner.” He touched the satchel slung over his shoulder. “We brought our kit. Thought you might need some help.” His gaze slid over my naked body, and he swallowed hard.
My adrenaline ran out right about then, and I staggered. Suddenly he was at my side, holding me up, and the rough pressure on my joints sent a wave of pain through me. I whimpered.
“Sorry. Here, put your arm around me.” He half carried me to a crate, took off his coat, laid it down, and sat me on top of it.
I wanted to protest that I’d get it dirty, but the wet feeling of my bare skin against the worn bugskin coating said it was already too late for that. “That’s going to need washing, I’m afraid.” I smiled at him and gingerly touched my face. The bruises were swelling up.
His eyebrows came down, and he muttered, “The least I could do.”
I started to shiver. I wasn’t sure if it was the cool shade of the warehouse, or the shock, or the relief of it being over…or maybe just the nearness of a fellow member of the human race.
His hand hovered around my shoulder. “We need to get you out of here,” he said. “They could come back.”
“But they could.”
“No,” I held his gaze. “They won’t. I’m sure.”
He slightly sucked in his lips. “Because they found out who you were?”
I smiled and shook my head. “I scared them.”
“Okay… So I can look you over here, and you’ll feel safe?”
I laughed. “Safe? I feel victorious!” My voice rose alarmingly, a shade toward hysteria, and I tried to rein myself in a bit, but giggles bubbled up. “I’m sorry.” I rubbed my forehead and covered my eyes. “I guess I’m more giddy than I thought.” He knows who you are, Dell. Try not to be a total mess.
“Please,” he said as he crouched before me. “Don’t apologize to me.”
“Hey.” I rested my hand on his shoulder. “I’m okay, really.”
He looked up at me, and the light hit gold flecks in his eyes. I squeezed the thick muscle of his shoulder. “I’m stronger than I look.”
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Michele has always felt a sense of kinship with quirky and diverse people. As a bisexual author, writing love stories that explore the rainbow of human experience is both a pleasure and a calling. Her work celebrates the divine nature of diversity, and the sacred, messy work of intimacy.
If you’d like to know when Michele releases new books, bonus content, book club questions, and sneak peeks, you can sign up for her newsletter at michelefogal.com. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Goodreads, and nudge her to get off there and write more.