As a writer, this necessarily means writing diversely. My experience trying to write diversely when it comes to race, though, has been a clumsy one. Los Alamos, where I live, is a very not-diverse place, which is unusual for New Mexico. This is partly due to its isolated nature and partly due to the high socioeconomic level you have to be at to make a living here, but in basis, almost everyone is white, although we have a fair representation of Asians, which is also unusual for New Mexico. I know of a few Hispanics in the area, but I know very little of how their culture plays into their lives. I knew a total of two black kids growing up.
Going along, I continued in my happy ignorance writing novels with little to no diversity. The Dragon Slayers (age 11), The Ice Enchantress's Plot (age 12, still up on deck), and The Four Elements (age 12) all had no minority representation. The Ghost Catchers (age 12), The Last Hope (age 12, still up on deck), Fitness Day and the End of the World (age 13), Twist (age 13), and The Walls of Dreamland (age 13) added in an aspect of mental illness, which, sadly, has been a much more common and involved part of my life than racial diversity. Around that time, though, I joined the Write It! boards and began getting critique from other writers, as well as very seriously looking into querying (which I'd already done once with no success, because I had no idea what I was doing, LOL). One of the things that came to my attention, at this point, was how bad of an idea it was to turn my books into "white suburbia." I believe that's the exact phrase I came across.
"Oh, yeah," I realized then. "Yeah, there are people who aren't white in the world."
At this point, a major shift in my writing occurred, again brought on in part by Write It!, which lead to a massive decrease in originality but a massive increase in quality and character development. Before, I'd played with a lot of fairly original ideas with free reign to explore (Fitness Day, my first contemporary attempt, was the only obvious failure), but the writing itself wasn't high in quality and I hadn't yet gotten to the point where characters came alive for me (as discussed in this post). At age 14, I finished The Psychic Story, which was the first book where I went, "Oh, this could be the One." Which it wasn't, because the entire book, though possessing some of my old originality in the detail, was an experiment in cliche drawn in part from Twilight. In order to figure out those skills in which I'd been lacking, I had to go back and become derivative the way most beginning writers are, though at the time I didn't realize it, of course.
It was progress to me, though, and I was happy to have made it out of my white suburbia head. Sort of. Not really. Age 14 and 15, I wrote the Chosen Four series, which was also highly derivative and also vitally important to my progress as a writer, and I learned a lot about the process, my style, characterization, etc. That series was a major adventure for me, full of blood and sweat and tears, one I was very proud of (enough to start up this website originally for it!). It's also the third I queried. Buttttt I'd taken a step backwards on diversity, with the exception of the third book, which had MORE HISPANIC PEOPLE!!! Also, like, one black dude briefly mentioned.
Once I got through that series and everything it taught me, I balanced out and have since had (I hope) good works with originality alongside quality. Age 16, I wrote The Prophecy Keeper and pushed a little harder on diversity, with Eragon in mind. Still not great on that front. Age 17, What it Takes to Deal, which I also had to go back and add diversity to through the side characters. Because side characters is the VERY LEAST you can reasonably do to add diversity today, given how honestly diverse our world is. That was followed by Perished, which is in need of a racial reboot because I started writing it just after The Psychic Story and before I started intentionally adding race. Then I started college, and wrote (most of) the Merciful Trilogy. At first, the diversity there in race wasn't great, but as y'all know, I discovered Twitter soon thereafter and through Twitter, Kaye, #YesAllWomen, and the social justice movement.
Something clicked at that point, maybe because I now had the language and I could compare my own areas of marginalization with race marginalization, but I realized how unfair it was for me to be defaulting white. "Default white" is a huge problem in our culture, with the "default" idea also being the reason for all other forms of marginalization. We think of the groups in power as being the "norm," but that's completely unfair because there is no norm in our world. With how complex and beautiful it is, how complex and beautiful people are, how could there be? We devalue all those marginalized groups when we decide that the non-marginalized group is, if not the ideal, at least the default. Furthermore, when writing characters, you shouldn't default them to the same interests, the same personality, so why should other qualities like race be different? When you're creating a character, race should be something you consider, with each one. (Along with religion and all those other important aspects.)
The third book of the Merciful Trilogy, which is still incomplete, is the first book I've written with a POC (a black girl) as the main character, and that shows the important shift in my conception of race in my writing. I still have to remember not to default though. When I started writing Coca, I nearly did, but I caught myself, and after due consideration, Cecily Garcia was developed, a Latina Catholic teen who perfectly fit as my character suffering from OCD.
When I got to the end of the book and went back to see, just in preliminary, what I'd need to edit, I realized I had a problem. Because I'm a pantser, because I think "globally" rather than in detail, and because I really like to have things finished and done, I tend to "plot rush," which means I grab tight to the central plot and ignore basically all the subplots and details as I write. I always have a lot to fill in when I edit. In this case, assuming that my life in New Mexico meant I understood Hispanic culture just fine, I hadn't even given thought to Cecily's race beyond basically naming and describing her. Caught up in the central OCD thread (which was, to be fair, very complex and difficult to write), I ended up writing Cecily as a Caucasian girl and then saying she was Latina. This point was emphasized when I started talking to my mom on the way up to college this past semester about how I felt like I hadn't gotten the cultural aspect right. She began listing off all of these aspects of Mexican culture that I should have known but had completely forgotten: the food, the language, quinceaneras, Day of the Dead, religious holidays, cultural values, etc. By the end of the car ride, my mouth was practically hanging open, and I was super DUPER embarrassed, in part because she was laughing at me. By not knowing these things, I guess I failed at being a New Mexican (which is already true anyway because I can't eat chile). In my defense, I would like to reiterate how WHITE Los Alamos is.
Since then, I've been struggling to get back into Coca, not just because of time restraints, but because of how ashamed I feel about that. I thought I'd known most of what I needed to in order to write my Latina character, but I was proven very strongly wrong, and the task I faced seemed terrifyingly insurmountable. With me apparently being the most stupid, whitest white person, how could I write/edit diversely the way I want to?
I did get back into it, though, in the past couple of weeks, thanks to two things -- finding a new title (Coca from the original Sammi) and realizing the best opening scene (always a terrifying prospect as well) would be Cecily's quinceanera. From there, I've been slowly going through Coca mending the biggest gaps, primarily cultural and religious, although I also let the romantic subplot drop towards the end. (Which all my old Write It! buddies would tell you is practically heresy for me.) I've had tabs upon tabs open on Mexican slang, Spanish swear words, religious and cultural holidays, and Catholic services/rituals -- possibly the most research I've done for a book since the Chosen Four. After this, I'll be going back for more detailed edits on the usual booky aspects, but I have no doubt I'll still need help. I'm serious about making this right, though, and I'm not going to let fear of messing up up stop me. (Putting out an early call right now, which I'll do again later: if there's anyone Latino, of Mexican ancestry, reading this who would like to beta read Coca and tell me what's up, please contact me. PLEASE. I also wouldn't mind some diversity editing help from Pauite Native Americans, possibly black people, and other OCD patients. I do mostly have the Catholic part covered among my current beta readers/critique partners.)
The good news is, I'm learning a lot, not just about writing more diversely, but also about not letting my fears overcome me. That's something I had to learn a lot recently in reaching recovery for my own OCD, but it wasn't something I faced with my writing up until this book, to be honest. I felt the pressure with this one on multiple levels, and it's been stalling me over and over, but I can't psyche myself out. Not when this means so much to me.
In related news, I need to suck it up and do my research more often.
Images via jezebel.com and readingupsidedown.com.