Writing from our own individual experience is as important as writing in the popular styles and tropes our genres require. Yen Ooi explores how to confidently write in color, without compromising either our writing style or the expectations of our readers.
The world in which we live in is a truly diverse place, inhabited by more than 7.4 billion people of tens of thousands of cultures living in 196 countries. Out of which, English is spoken in 109 countries and used by more than 339 million people.
So, why do we not write more diverse literature, and if we wanted to, where do we start?
As someone who is British-Malaysian of Chinese descent, it may come as a surprise to you that much of my own writing can be read as mainstream Western. Writing tends to reflect reading tastes, and, in my own reading, I had never had much exposure to literature by writers of colour, until recently. In the past, much of what I read by writers of colour tended to be works of cultural fiction that are treated as ‘autobiographical confessions’ — though fiction, these works cautiously acclimatise readers to the culture in question. Such timid forms of writing lack the ability to convince readers and are, therefore, neither interesting nor particularly entertaining.
Recently though, I came across Vandana Singh’s beautiful collection of Indian science fiction short stories, The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet. In the anthology, Singh plunges readers into her world, resisting the anxious kind of writing styles I had previously associated most writers of colours with. Her writings were refreshingly unapologetic and made me wonder if there are other writings of the same by different writers. Why did I enjoy her stories so much more than literature from other writers of colour?
It’s this question and my own exploration of science fiction writing that got me to thinking about today’s article. Going back to the top, let’s consider how diverse our world actually is. For a moment, think about your own day-to-day experience with ‘diversity’ and how it affects your own writing.
Here are five basic steps to avoiding common mistakes and writing diversity right:
1. Some writing rules are made to be broken
Whatever genre or style we write in, we tend to follow some rules, whether knowingly or unknowingly. They creep into our writing habits through experience, learning, reading, or day-to-day interactions. Some of these rules help us evoke emotions in readers, or they help us structure our plots. But some are disruptive and give rise to a false reality. This false reality is what media programming, including literature, gives us through clichéd characters and stereotypes — crime thriller leads are usually strong and male, divorces in romance novels are generally an effect of adultery, Asian characters in science fiction stories are often villains. Such stereotypes do not improve the story in any way, they are just lazy forms of writing drawing on popular, albeit misguided tropes.
As experienced writers, we learn from an early stage to navigate feedback — to filter out what doesn’t work for our writing and accept constructive criticism. If we aspire to continually improve in our writing, we need to confront our writing habits too. Question your writing, ask yourself why you write in a certain way, then put away those habits that are stopping you from exploring diversity in your fiction, especially if your intention is for your writing to mirror the world we live in more accurately.
2. Write from experience — you are an expert on you
The first time I wrote a story inflected by cultural practices, I had my sister fact-check it for me, as I didn’t trust my own memory and understanding of my culture. When I told another author that I had done this, she told me to stop worrying and just write. Since then, she, and other authors have nurtured my confidence in my own. I am truly an expert on me, and that is something no one can take away from me.
In our own lives, we would have, at some point or another, been situated in diverse communities, be it online or offline. Whether we take from it the setting, or characteristics of a person, or the premise for our fiction, we can be certain that our experience is grounded in reality. Different people might have experienced different iterations of the situation, but that is precisely what gives any account personal nuance and originality. Where our voices can be unique is in how we depict these events, and how we ultimately guide our characters through them.
3. Create real, rounded characters, especially with your villains
When characters are offensive, it is usually because they are flat and exhibit stereotypical qualities. These are easiest to spot with villains — consider a James Bond villain, can you hear a Russian accent? Other than money and power, are we given any insights as to what makes the villain so evil?
Take the success of Netflix’s serial killer, Dexter. The protagonist, Dexter Morgan, is such a well-written rounded character that, as a viewer, you’ll find yourself empathising and cheering him on, despite him being a cold-blooded, ruthless murderer. His colleague Vince Masuka, however, appears disgusting and offensive, though his only offence springs perhaps from his bad jokes, which often imply an obsession with sex. Dexter is likeable because we are treated to his full backstory. We get glimpses into his upbringing, the consequences of his life decisions, and, thus, the original motives for his choices. With Masuka, on the other hand, we don’t get a chance to see him as a person, a human.
Stories will always rely on villains, and, no matter what we do, we will inevitably be offending someone’s culture, nationality, or religion. However, by writing our villains (and heroes) as unique and individual characters as ourselves, our readers are less likely to remember these characters for their ethnicity or gender. Rather, they would be remembered for who they are as individuals.
4. Trust your audience
Readers are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. As writers, it is our prerogative to ensure that our readers have access to an ever-growing list of quality diverse writing. After all, a lack of diverse literature isn’t the fault of the reader, rather, the fault lies with those of us who are involved in the publishing process — from writers, editors, agents, to publishers.
When we write, we need to trust that our readers will follow us as long as we’re able to provide quality writing they can immerse themselves in. Imagine attending a dinner party full of strangers, or travelling in a foreign city — we’re expected to go with the flow and piece the story and characters together as we go along. Writing needs to follow the same method.
When introducing new characters or a new setting to our readers, we need to place readers in the room (scene) and allow them to explore and piece together the narrative the same way we would in that situation. Immerse your readers within your world, where they would be able to experience the story as the narrator or character that you have chosen specifically for that purpose. Trust your audience.
One of the most commonly heard phrases in writing is ‘show not tell’. Showing, which allows for immersion creates a safe space for your readers to explore without judgement, and it will allow them to come to terms with their own perceptions of the story. However, telling will just force your own view on your readers, dictating how and what they should feel, without giving them the space to navigate the narrative of their own. That’s why it’s extremely important to show — as opposed to tell — a story, especially when writing diversity.
5. Enjoy and embrace diverse literature
Living in a diverse world isn’t enough to write diversity well. Broaden your horizon to include more diverse literature in your reading, whether it’s within your genre or outside. Sample new works, test your own boundaries, and create better mental flexibility that will allow your writing to grow and take new shapes.
Remember, good literature not only acts as a mirror to allow readers to reflect their own selves, it also opens them up to new, diverse experiences.#IAF16 5 Steps To Writing Diversity Right @yenooi bit.ly/LBF172988 Click To Tweet
Yen is offering two different giveaways:
A free paperback copy of “A Suspicious Collection: Of stories, poetry, and drawings.” It contains stories and poems that collide the weird and the wonderful, clashing hope with despair, loyalty with betrayal, and starlight with the pulsing energy of the darkness that resides in every human heart.
A Traditional handmade “Write Right Notebook” with grids and blank spaces, perfect for your author notes and doodles.