Because I've been and still am very busy editing COCA, I've now reached the point where I don't have any pre-written blog posts, just the ideas, which is kind of frightening to me. So I'm writing this one on the fly!
As you know, I'm a supporter of We Need Diverse Books, because I believe that every story is valuable and it's through books that we gain the empathy we need to understand and relate to people of all kinds. Today, I consider myself a social justice advocate speaking on issues of discrimination and marginalization, as inspired by Kaye and other Twitter friends. My focus, because it's what I can speak on personally, is promoting disabled/mentally ill and women's rights. (I have a list of recommendations for YA mentally ill representation here.) However, I want to be an ally as much as I can on all issues related to this, and race is an important one.
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. The town where I live is a very not-diverse place. This is partly due to its isolated nature and partly due to the high cost of living, but in basis, the majority is white, with a fair representation of Asians. I can think of a handful of Hispanic kids, and a total of two black ones, of whom I knew when I was growing up.
I was also very unaware of race when I was young, and I think there may have been some Hispanic and Native American kids at my school whom I didn't recognize as such. I was always amazed at how my mom knew where people's ancestors came from (especially when it came to countries in East Asia) just by looking at them.
Due to this, when I wrote my first full-length novel at the age of 11, I didn't give much thought to race, or really any other form of diversity. Everyone was white, and the only social justice idea, really, was girl power. This continued with THE ICE ENCHANTRESS'S PLOT (age 12) and THE FOUR ELEMENTS (age 12). THE GHOST CATCHERS (age 12), THE LAST HOPE (age 12), 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, but no racial diversity.
Around that time, however, I joined the Write It! boards and began getting critique from other writers, as well as very seriously looking into querying. 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."
"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 led 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, but the writing itself wasn't high in quality. At age 14, I finished THE PSYCHIC STORY, which really made me think, "This could be the One." It wasn't, because the entire book, though possessing some of my childhood imagination in the detail, was an experiment in cliche drawn in part from Twilight. In order to figure out writing 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.
Because I was taking this book, which was the second I queried, so seriously, I knew I needed to give racial diversity a go. I'd already started out with my very first non-white character, an Asian side character. Asian was the easiest for me to imagine, since I knew so many growing up. I later added a Hispanic person, of which I was very proud. Realizing that non-white characters should do important things, I decided to kill the Hispanic boy off, very dramatically. Because importance!
It was progress to me, as ill-written as it was, and I was happy to have made it out of my white suburbia. Sort of. Not really. At ages 14 and 15, I wrote the CHOSEN FOUR series, which was also highly derivative and also vitally important to my progress as a writer. That series was a major adventure for me, full of blood and sweat and tears, one I was very proud of. It's also the third project I queried. Buttttt I'd taken a step backwards on diversity, with the exception of the third book, which had more Hispanic people! Also, one black dude briefly mentioned.
Once I got through that series, I balanced out and have since had (I hope?) decent manuscripts that present originality alongside quality. Age 16, I wrote THE PROPHECY KEEPER and pushed a little harder on diversity. Still not great on that front. Age 17, I wrote WHAT IT TAKES TO DEAL, which I also had to go back and add diversity to. That was followed by PERISHED, which is also in need of a racial reboot, because I started writing it just after THE PSYCHIC STORY.
Then I started college, and wrote (most of) the MERCIFUL Trilogy. At first, the diversity there wasn't great, but I discovered Twitter soon thereafter and through Twitter, the social justice movement. Something clicked at that point, maybe because I now had the language to describe these issues, but I realized how unfair it was for me to be defaulting white.
"Defaulting white" is a huge problem in our culture, with the "default" idea also being a factor in 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, for 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 person of color (a half-black half-Polynesian girl) as the main character. When I started writing COCA, it was with Cecily Garcia, a Latina Catholic teen who perfectly fit as my character.
In writing the book, I also continued to ask myself about my character choices rather than defaulting, which I think I had some success at. When I got to the end of the book and went back to start editing, however, 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, I hadn't 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), I ended up writing Cecily basically as a white 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 the issue. She began listing off all of these aspects of Mexican-American culture that I should have known but had completely forgotten. By the end of the car ride, my mouth was practically hanging open, and I was super embarrassed (in part because she was laughing at me).
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 ignorant whitest white person, how could I write/edit diversely the way I need to?
I did get back into it, though, in the past couple of weeks. I've been 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, 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 bookish aspects, but I have no doubt I'll still need help with the representation. I'm serious about making this right, though, and I'm not going to let fear of messing up stop me. (Putting out an early call: if there's anyone of Mexican ancestry reading this who would like to beta read COCA, feel free to contact me!)
The good news is that 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 while addressing my own OCD, but it wasn't something I faced with my writing up until this book. I've 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.
Thanks for reading all of that and for your support. Please do come back Wednesday for a part two on this, discussing more detail about incidental diversity. I'll also be here Tuesday for next week's Top Ten Tuesday and again Wednesday for another upcoming book!
Images via jezebel.com, readingupsidedown.com, and [my own].
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