Diversity in Books

post by: Ava Reiss

Last month, I chanced upon an NPR broadcast of a panel discussing the novel, “American Dirt.” They addressed the way minority groups are handled by authors who are not of that background. The broadcast brought up a lot of concerns I share. Did you know 48% of YA publishers are Caucasian? I’m of Asian decent, but a majority of my characters are “white.” (Really, they’re aliens… but most are on the pale side, even the blue and violet ones.)

It’s not because I don’t want to include diverse looking characters. Yet, there is the elephant in the room: the fact that Caucasian features are still the de-facto we see on television, in ads, telling us what to do; look at the White House, etc. Things are getting better, but seeing diverse faces still elicits a cheer. It’s almost as if people are saying “Look! We’re woke!” And I appreciate that on a level. But until it elicits no response, it has not yet become the norm. We still have far to go.

In more places than we’d like to admit, there is still a general lack of trust when we see non-Caucasian faces. And even if there is trust, it’s likely to come with built-in stereotypes, in which not all are positive. Even in print, where the voice of the character should trump all else, readers are hungry to know what their hero or heroine is something familiar- even if that “familiar” doesn’t look like them.

Onto my main concern: I’d like to think I have diverse friends and that I’ve done my best to respect and understand their culture. Most of my elementary school years were shared with students from around the world. Our librarian was particular to reading books from various backgrounds. But since another’s culture is not something I’ve lived and breathed, I doubt if I’m worthy- or capable- of capturing their essence and authenticity. 

There are aspects of other cultures I would like to include more. However, I don’t want to be seen an author who conveniently cherry-picks. It risks adding to stereotypes. It may not be the best resolution: but I find myself avoiding it altogether.

An example would be the background for my character, Leera. She’s part of her planet’s ancient culture that reveres peace. Their martial practices preach violence as a last resort. I wanted to call her people the Uxolo Warriors, because I felt Uxolo was one of the most beautiful words I’ve encountered, in spirit and in sound. It’s of Xhosa origin, and admittedly, I know little about it.

I didn’t feel I could give enough of the book to explain Leera’s background in detail to allow that word to be as venerated as it should. Also, she’s pale. Hence, I changed her people to the Pinghe Warriors. Leera is in my upcoming novel, The Seed of Life in my Cycles of the Lights series. 

Now, what about me? I’m Asian but I’m writing about Caucasians? Again. Technically, they’re aliens. They have their own culture. But am I guilty of what I feared: writing about a group of people who physiologically don’t look like me?  

I’ve lived in America since before I started pre-school. All of my schooling was in the US. White culture is my culture, because it it’s a part of mainstream American culture. I don’t mean that with any disdain. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much I’m attributing to the problem. In my attempts not become a marginalized writer, am I guilty of appealing too much to the mainstream, that I’m betraying even my own instincts of representation?

Truth is, white culture isn’t all of my culture. There are parts of me I don’t generally share. It’s not because I’m ashamed. It’s more that people have found my Asian side less relatable. I’ve been ignored from conversations. Not purposefully- most of the time. Just no common ground. To be fair, it’s the same when I’m with an older generation of Asians, only flipped. I don’t talk about my day-to-day life, just the slice that’s relatable.

I WANT to incorporate more cultural diversity in my writings. Yet, I feel I’m sacrificing it to remain politically correct. Too often I’ve been asked how could I, a person of a diaspora, grasp more than two cultures adequately? People see me and immediately assume I’m unqualified to write about anything that’s not Asian. A select few have also indicated they feel that me writing about Caucasians is blasphemous. (again. Pale aliens.) 

I struggle with myself every time I design characters. My main character in The Seed of Life is Kameclara. She’s darker skinned and channels a southeast Asian vibe. I had wanted to make her darker, but wasn’t sure if making her of an Asian descent that’s not mine was already stretching it. (appearance only- because she’s from Teroma where there is no Asia)

I’ve also had people tell me I shouldn’t care, and just write what I write. 

But I do care. 

I think the conversation of diverse representation shouldn’t be approached carelessly. 

Why?

Short version: that’s how wars start. 

Long version: Cultures are like a rare flower. Each has a stage of development before blossoming into something beautiful. It’s something that gives dignity and identity to people, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

This is not a sponsored post. Ava Reiss posts every first Tuesday of the month. Ticana Zhu posts every third Tuesday.

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