Monday, November 2, 2015

Katherine Memmel: "We Write Diversely. We Fail. We Write Again."

We've got another #WriteInclusively guest post in line! :D I love these posts, and am actively looking for more. Especially if you are a writer of color, please please contact me! I'd love to have you guest blog.

Take it away, Katherine!

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Let’s get this out of the way—I’m a white writer who thought I could write diversely and failed. Here’s how:

I was raised in a liberal household in the greater San Diego area, where over a hundred languages are spoken and white people are less than half the population.

I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Cosby Show and I spent more time singing along to Boyz II Men at middle school dances than actually dancing with anyone.

I don’t have many friends but I’ve had acquaintances of all races throughout my life. One of them, a high school colorguard teammate, used to let me ask her anything I wanted to know about being black on the long bus rides to competitions and parades.

When I moved to Wisconsin for a few years in my twenties I called out relatives left and right over their nakedly racist comments (the 2008 election was…fun).

There has never been a time that I didn’t consider myself progressive and open-minded, but most importantly, I’ve long been aware my place in the privilege pecking order—I don’t have it the best, but I certainly don’t have it the worst.

So when the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign started trending on Twitter last year, I charged into it with that righteous sense of sincerity tucked in my back pocket. I watched as pleas from writers and agents and editors and librarians and parents gathered into a great chorus, amplifying the ugly truth of fiction’s diversity problem: it’s not simply the lingering effect of tradition or an innocent oversight. It’s a tragedy of human potential.

Because diversity isn’t a movement or an agenda or a phase. Diversity is inevitable. White people only make up about 16 percent of the world population but control every pillar of power: politics, business, religion and entertainment. Think of how fast civilization could progress if all the ideas and wisdom and stories of the remaining 84 percent were just as welcome.

This cry for representation is the backbone of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and as the campaign gained steam, I sympathized with the participants, retweeted them, nodded my head in solidarity. And when the time came to apply diversity to my own work, I assumed I was beyond ready for the task. But white privilege is almost invisible to those it benefits, and sometimes it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

Like writing dozens of characters in numerous short stories and novels that are uniformly white, not from some conscious decision but because, well, I’m white too. It’s an utterly weak excuse, which is why I tried to rectify it when I embarked on my third novel. It wasn’t easy, but after half a dozen revisions and two passes through my critique group, I thought my first attempt at writing believable people of color was a success. This confidence lasted through the first six months or so of querying, boosted by a relatively high request rate. It didn’t even tarnish when almost every pass was attributed to a lack of connection with the main characters because that’s allegedly the most subjective—and thus best—reason to be rejected.

And then #WriteInclusively came along. Reading through SC’s tweets and conversations, it became clear that I had fallen into the tokenization trap. There’s no other way to put it: my characters, while lovingly rendered, are POC on the outside but not on the inside.

Their appearance and other surface details reflect diversity, and although their struggles revolve around the main plot, not their identity, that’s not really the problem. It’s that I missed an opportunity to incorporate all the struggles POC face on a daily basis into the layers of their characterization—the microaggressions and fears and compromises that could have made my thriller that much more thrilling.

Alas, that manuscript is already out in the world, in the hands of agents, one of which was active in SC’s Query Kombat tweetstorm—I might have cringed permanent wrinkles into my face. But I’m eager to discuss a revision strategy in the event I get The Call, not that I’m entirely sure what that strategy will be.

Because the easy lesson in all this is to be more thoughtful and respectful when blending diversity into my stories. The harder lesson is to understand that I’ll never get it right due to the myopia inherent in white privilege. Diverse characters in a white writer’s novel will never have the impact on #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WriteInclusively that diverse characters from a diverse writer’s novel will. And that’s fine.

So what can I do? I’m tempted to stay in my lane when it comes to main characters, especially when writing in third-person-limited POV and absolutely when writing first-person, because when I write white characters I don’t have the specter of inauthenticity hanging over me. I feel much safer incorporating diversity into the supporting cast, and I will strive to write them with the care and consideration they deserve.


How? By opening my eyes and ears and heart and imagination. By listening to POC and reading their stories. By following them on Twitter and engaging in conversations. By learning, growing, trying harder, writing better. No doubt I’ll stumble more along the way, but there’s nowhere else to go but forward. And there’s no excuse not to try.


Katherine Memmel is Fiction Editor for Black Heart Magazine and content manager for an international trade publication, with short stories featured in various online venues and an erotic romance novella trilogy (under the pen name Katrina Sparks) available soon from Enamored Ink. Tweet her!

Thank you thank you so much for the post!!! Some key points in my opinion were the idea that We Need Diverse Books (instead of a focus on diverse authors) has led to tokenization of people of color in literature. It is so so important to realize that people of color aren't just a change of skin, but have different experiences all together.

What were your thoughts? Comment below!


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6 comments:

  1. Wow, good stuff here...is she inside my head??? Thanks for the post.

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  2. This is very much on my mind as I rethink all my manuscripts. Thank you for your honesty!

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  3. Great post. Swimming in unfamiliar waters is tricky at best. Your insights are much appreciated. I wish you well.

    Even for a POC, writing diverse characters is not an easy task. I am intimately aware of the struggles of Black women who grew up pre/post civil rights and who lived in the south. My south, New Orleans, which is an incredibly complex place with regard to race. On the other hand, I would have no idea how to write a Black woman who faced those same struggles in an inner city environment in New York or Baltimore.

    Research that included reading POC in that genre would help. Interviews with people who lived those lives would also be highly informative.

    But I would have to be careful not to assume and to search for differences in attitudes, thoughts and behaviors. Careful too, to respect differences and represent them accurately for my reader. And still, as you say, I may not get it right. Although, if I am open, thoughtful, and aware, I should come close.

    I believe the same would be true for any writer attempting to write across cultures.

    Although, I fully support WNDB, I worry. Not every story should be written by every author. Representation that portrays POC as cardboard characters or stereotypes can be damaging. Anyone who has read Debbie Reese's post on a "Fine Dessert" will understand this. The book's illustrations of slaves are blatantly dishonest, though the inclusion was well intentioned.

    I also worry that the WNDB movement will not result in additional opportunities for POC to publish. That WNDB will be interpreted "only" as a request for diverse characters from established white authors.

    We need diverse voices too. Lots of diverse voices to fill the gap.

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  4. God blessa youse
    -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL when they had morality

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