Quills: Literature Paves the Way to a Better World
Remember the first time you were entranced by a book? A kid on a slow Saturday afternoon, avoiding your chores? The books we read become part of our lives in ways nothing else can. The characters we ride to battle with are with us in our daily battles. The worlds we take refuge in stay with us in the classroom, and as adults, in the office (or during the age of coronavirus, the home office). Books, from poetry to memoir to fiction, weave their way into us; they become part of the fabric of us, and part of the fabric of life. The power of story deserves respect. This is why many authors, editors and agents are having conversations about diversity in the literary world.
At the League of Utah Writers’ 85th Annual Quills Conference, these conversations permeated the atmosphere. Two panels were held, exploring the topic: “Authors Discussing Diversity” and “Editors and Agents Discussing Diversity.” Professionals explored tough issues and encouraged writers to become more aware of their own lenses and reach outside their own experiences respectfully. Multiple presentations addressed issues relating to writing about people of color, the disabled, LGBTQA+ folks, and the mentally ill. Some focused on the importance of consent.
One of the major problems in literature, both historically and now, is representation. People who belong to groups outside the white straight able-bodied male lens have not been given much page-time, and what time they get can be incredibly diminishing. This happens for many reasons; two of those reasons are 1) the literary world has been focused on the dominant lens for so long and 2) writers often miss the mark when including what is outside their own experience.
First, let’s look at the lack of representation in literature in general. In school, required reading is usually written by white male authors. I love William Shakespeare as much as the next person, and the crew of WWI veterans who colored the world have a special place in my heart. At the same time, consider the stories we are not reading. The point of view we have missed because of erasure. The white lens is valuable, and so is the Black lens, the queer lens, the female lens. Many professionals spoke of this through Quills, observing how much a certain book changed the way they see the world because it came from a different perspective. Moving forward, let’s hope tenth grade English can include authors from all walks of life rather than just one.
The absence of work by people of color impacts us all, but maybe most of all children. Children who do not see themselves represented in the stories they read tend to feel less valid. As author and poet Jayrod P. Garrett expressed in the panel discussion “Authors Discussing Diversity,” as a Black kid, he didn’t know there were Black authors until he went to college. Author Sammie Trinidad pointed out during the editors and agents panel that as a Filipino-American girl, she always wondered “Why don’t any of the characters look like me?” The power of seeing yourself represented in your favorite stories has been expressed over and over by people from marginalized groups. If the stories we read become parts of us, what happens to the parts that are nowhere to be found?
Unfortunately when representation does happen, it is often bad. Cardboard cut-outs of shallow ideas of who people are have, historically, passed as diversity in literature. This is harmful not only to the underrepresented but also the culture at large. It robs us all of the richness available if we just open our eyes. It not only perpetuates simplistic and often harmful assumptions, it also keeps marginalized folks feeling isolated, less-than, erased.
What To Do
What is being done, and what can individual writers do? As these conversations continue, the literary world is adapting (a bit slowly for some tastes). Individuals and agencies are moving forward into more inclusive approaches in several ways.
A movement called Own Voices, started by writer Corinne Duyvis, promotes literature about underrepresented people and cultures written by authors from those cultures. For example, a book about a Pacific Islander written by a Pacific Islander. Several panelists spoke about the importance of reading books from other points of view. Allison Hong Merrill shared that in her home country of Thailand, people read a variety of authors from all over the world. Growing up is that environment, she has an authentic appreciation for work that expands her worldview. She shared that after reading a book about Afghan women, even though she doesn’t personally know anyone from that culture, “I have love in my heart for them.” In our polarized world this connection is invaluable. Not to mention how important it is for each person to tell their own stories their own way, without code switching or hiding who they or their families are.
If you want to include more diverse characters in your novel or stories, read on for some tips on how to begin.
Whatever your ethnic background or sexual/gender orientation, you may be feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Many White writers wonder if they should write characters of color at all. Straight writers want to include queer characters but don’t want to do so in a hurtful or uninformed way. While opinions vary, the consensus is that we not only can but should include diverse characters and cultures in our work. The major caveat being that we do our homework. Here are some ways discussed at Quills for writers to begin writing deeper, more authentic diverse worlds.
A self-editing move anyone can begin is paying attention to word choice. Our language has anti-black sentiments baked into it. For example, typical descriptions of good versus evil overwhelmingly focus on white as good and black as evil. Not only race, but sexual orientation, ability and mental health are all automatically referred to–not usually in a positive light– in our everyday wording. Not because we are terrible but because it is our culture. We just need to take a breath and pay attention to our words. In her presentation “Do’s and Don’ts of Writing People of Color,” J.T Moore gave an easy tip: stop describing POC with food metaphors. Basically, be on the lookout for any language in your work that objectifies or fetish-izes anyone or their culture.
If you are a caring person, which we will assume you are, you may still feel overwhelmed. The craft of writing and rewriting is hard. It takes a conscious effort to add cultural awareness on top. Many writers feel that their voices will be stifled by trying to choose words that don’t diminish, or they just feel frustrated and defensive as we are ought to do. But the extra effort is well worth it; we are creating a world where everyone belongs and we are not limited to narrow worldviews. In order to write believable, affirming characters and cultures who are not like yourself, you will need to do your research. Here are a few ideas for how to find information.
The most obvious and readily available resource for research is the internet. Each of us has access in the palms of our hands to more information than we could possibly consume in our lifetimes. So if you want to write about a character who has schizophrenia, read, watch and learn about that experience. If your character is blind, as author Elsa R. Sjunneson pointed out in her presentation “Writing Blindness,” you need to learn about the various ways people become blind and the nuances of those perspectives. She reflected that most blind characters tend to be light sensitive, but in reality blindness is unique to each person. This is another example of how uninformed representation limits our worldviews. Being a sighted person, I was unaware of this fact. Whether you need to research medical phenomena, biology or cultural traditions, search far and wide. Take your research beyond a basic five-minute search; there are entire channels devoted to specific topics. Check books out from the library, or invest in a copy of your own.
Another avenue for research is participating in ally training, discussion groups and educational opportunities. During the “Authors Discuss Diversity” panel, author Kat Kellermeyer expressed that if you want to write about a group or culture outside your own, you need to learn from them. “Love a community enough to get to know them,” she said.
A final idea on how to make sure your writing is affirming is hiring sensitivity readers. It’s not censorship, panelists in the Editors and Agents discussion stressed. It’s about getting the craft of writing right and about resonating with your audience. Even those writing Own Voices literature need consultation. “It’s like having a friend help you get dressed,” said Rebecca Sachiko, professional sensitivity reader. We all need help sometimes, and authors need help reaching outside their own lives to add diversity to their work.
Artists play a major role in shaping culture. Literature seeps into readers’ minds and hearts, we digest it and make it part of our lives. Writers of fantasy and science-fiction create entirely new worlds; why not create worlds where diversity is celebrated? Writers of any genre have a role to play in what will happen next in our culture. Why not imagine a better world and begin creating it now? Even if it has to start on the blank page in your notebook. The literary world has an opportunity to expand representation by opening doors for writers whose voices have been silenced. Our lives and our future will be rich if we welcome differences, respect one another and celebrate our own stories. Think of the kids next decade who will be avoiding their chores on a Saturday. What do you want them to be reading? Go ahead and write it. Just do your homework as you go.