The lovely Heather Marie has tagged me in the Writing Process blog tour! I’m taking it as an opportunity to write about Diversity in YA, which has been a topic that’s taken up a lot of my Twitter feed lately, and for good reason:
- Though 37% of children in America are people of color, only 10% of children’s books contain multicultural content.
- Of 123 bestselling titles noted by PW, seven titles had gay or bisexual main characters, but there were no lesbian or transgender main characters in the bestseller list.
One of the arguments put forth by many apologists is that non-diverse authors tend not to write outside of their experiences out of fear of backlash. I can totally understand this, but as Cindy Pon and Jenny Han Tweeted earlier this month:
— cindy pon (@cindypon) March 25, 2014
But this burden of portraying the diverse world we live in can’t just fall to writers of color. We need the majority to help us carry it
— Jenny Han (@jennyhan) March 25, 2014
Writers are told as early on as elementary school to “write what you know.” However, I believe that a better mantra is one that I’ve heard attributed to Elizabeth McCracken, who turned the phrase on its head: Know what you write.
In other words, I think the only rule to writing diverse characters is to do your research. Interview people. Engage PoC as betas. Read stories & first-hand accounts. Fear of getting things wrong shouldn’t stop you from trying to get it right.
Here’s me using the Writing Process prompts as a way to talk about how I overcame my own fears about writing a character whose diversity is very different from my own:
1) What am I working on? I’m on my second round of edits for my YA contemporary novel, None of the Above, which is about a girl who finds out after being elected Homecoming Queen that she’s intersex – neither girl nor boy, but something in between. In the old days, they’d call her a hermaphrodite, but there are a lot of reasons why that term has fallen out of favor.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? I think the answer to this question is fairly obvious! There have been a couple of novels featuring main characters who are intersex – Jeffrey Eugenides’ aforementioned Middlesex, and Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy. Both of these novels, however, were marketed as adult novels, and lean toward the “literary” spectrum. My goal in writing None of the Above was to specifically make intersex accessible to teens, because there’s a lot of ignorance out there about gender issues, if this incident with Fox News is any example.
Another side note is that the intersex characters in both Middlesex and Golden Boy ultimately identified as male, whereas my character identifies as female, as do the majority of people with her condition (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome). It was important to me to have the novel be a stepping off point for teenage girls to think about gender binaries and what it means to be a woman.
3) Why do I write what I do? I was inspired to write None of the Above when I treated a woman with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) during residency. It’s a medical condition where you’re XY and have testes in your abdomen, but externally you look female. I wrote an essay on the Fearless Fifteeners blog talking a bit more about my patient, which you can read here.
4) How does your writing process work? It took me a long time to write None of the Above, and for a while I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel confident writing about intersex. Finding my story involved a significant amount of soul-searching and research (including interviews with intersex women). In many ways, the process of writing outside my experience was a lot like writing historical fiction.
Looking back, I realize that I can break down my process into three parts.
1. Empathy – Before I even started writing None of the Above, the idea marinated in my head for months. I was pregnant at the time, and I spent a lot of time wondering how I would handle it if my child were intersex. Of course I would love him/her just the same, but how would I help him/her navigate childhood and, even worse, adolescence? What would my own life have been like if I weren’t cis-gendered, and what would I have thought if someone told me when I was a senior in high school that I could never have children, and that I might have problems with intercourse?
I’ve always found empathy to be the driving force of all my writing. I write because I care about my characters. Step 2 of my process, research, flows naturally from this.
2. Research – I started reading every book I could about intersex. At the time, I was still in residency, and had access to some great medical textbooks on intersex and Androgen Insensitivity Disorder.
I learned early on, though, that these books were great for the technical details, but had very little to say about how my character would feel, and what her thought process would be like as she dealt with her diagnosis.
Thank God for AIS support groups. I was very lucky as an author that both the US and UK support groups are extremely devoted to AIS education (obviously). On the UK site, for instance, group members have posted a huge number of personal essays. It’s a tremendous resource not only for people newly diagnosed with AIS, but for this particular writer. Through their websites, I was able to find an intersex woman who was willing to talk about her experience. She also agreed to read my final manuscript to vet it, which brings us to Step 3.
3. Engaging diverse beta readers – This step was probably the hardest part of my whole writing process, because it’s the one I had the least control over. In fact, when I told one of my writer friends that I’d be sending my manuscript to some intersex women for reading, she tried to persuade me not to. Think of how vulnerable you’re making yourself, she told me. What if they tear you apart and you get so discouraged that you stop writing?
I didn’t listen to her advice, because I knew in my heart that I could never publish my story without some validation that I was being true to their (varied, multifaceted, unique) stories. Thankfully, the two women I sent the first draft of None of the Above to were extremely kind and constructive. I’m waiting on two more reads now that I’ve gone through my first editorial pass. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t biting my fingernails waiting for their response.
So what about you? How do you go about writing diverse characters? Let’s continue this conversation. Or, if you’re new to the topic, check out these posts:
- Malinda Lo – tips about writing about lesbians when you’re not a lesbian
- Jim McCarthy – the R-word and diversity at the NYC Teen Book Fest
- Zoraida Cordova – on fear and guilt when approaching the topic of race
- Connie Hsu – an overview of the CBC diversity panel at ALA Midwinter
- Cheryl Klein – on the Complexities of Publishing Diverse Books
- Patrice Caldwell – on how activism comes in all forms
- Justina Ireland – how not to be an @sshole when writing diverse characters
Thanks again to Heather for tagging me; her debut, THE GATEWAY THROUGH WHICH THEY CAME, is coming out this August from Curiosity Quills! Tweet her at @heathermarieYA.
Next up in the blog tour:
Christine Danek writes young adult fiction. She has been creating characters and other worlds as far back as she can remember and began writing novels as an adult. Some of her free verse poetry will be published in the April edition of Vine Leaves Literary Journal (April 18, 2014). When she’s not writing (and the kids are quiet), she loses herself in books and movies. Christine lives in Pennsylvania with her family. Tweet her at @christinedanek.
Kelly Lyman is a dreamer, a planner and a doer. Her favorite mantra is: “Go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention.” She is a graduate of West Chester University, with a degree in early childhood education and elementary education. She is a former elementary school teacher who now stays home full time and loves every minute of it- even the hard ones. Kelly lives with her husband, 4 young children and their dog in Chester County, Pennsylvania. When not writing, Kelly can be found performing with her community chorus or watching movies. And when asked, pink is usually the color of the sky in her world. She’s repped by Nikki Terpilowski at Holloway Literary. Tweet her at @kellylyman.