Diverse Books We Need (and don’t need)

“Why haven’t you been more active in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement?” a friend of mine asked. “You wrote a diverse book!”

I sighed. “Yeah… I guess I did,” I said.

Here’s the thing, folks. We need diverse books. We really do. This became more apparent when little ol’ rural me moved to inner-city Pittsburgh to work with urban teens. They are in the library ALL THE TIME (thank you Carnegie Library for being such a welcoming space!) Yet so few of the book covers that surround them, look like them.

So what’s my problem with #WeNeedDiverseBooks? I guess I shouldn’t really have one.

But, for one thing, I don’t like mass movements. They don’t allow much room for discussion and they often only preach to the choir. I witnessed a Twitter conversation yesterday between a couple of #WNDB folks that was beautiful- respectful, humble, sweet. Both people were changed by it. I even popped in to say, “This is a wonderful conversation!” because I loved it so much. But I also have muted people in the movement because all they do is rant about it.

So here are three kinds of Diverse Books we need… and three we don’t.

WE NEED: Well-written books by authors from varying backgrounds writing what they know, as well as well-written books by authors writing what they have researched like crazy.
WE DON’T NEED: White straight middle-class neuro-typical folks (like me) who decide they need to write a diverse book, so they throw a couple of gay/bi/Black/Asian/disabled characters in the supporting cast. I can’t tell you how much I feel like a poser because Carter, one of my book’s main characters, is Deaf and I am not, even though I put in hundreds of hours of research, took two semesters of ASL classes at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, and had deaf beta-readers correct my mistakes. I am still unworthy to represent this culture to the world and need to lean on the experience of others.
Takeaway: If you are writing “diversely,” please let it be from a place of respect and admiration that serves the story, not just because you feel you should be writing diversely. Also, please research THE HECK out of it, and please know people from that culture who you can point curious readers toward, because you will never be an authority. If you are a “diverse” (again, I hate labels) author and are on the fence about writing from your own experience, please do! I’d love to read it.

WE NEED: Books about cultures other than white, middle-class suburbia.
WE DON’T NEED: Books that POSE as cultures other than white, middle-class suburbia but are really just suburbia disguised as “diverse.” My book is set in my hometown of Westfield, NY, population 3,161. Needless to say, it is very rural. Two years ago, a big-name NYC agent read my first page and said, “I would pass. I don’t understand why a 50 year old woman is trying to set up a teen girl with some guy!” My (silent) reply: “You obviously weren’t raised in a small town!” Just because something doesn’t happen in your world, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all.
Takeaway: The gatekeepers of American publishing (who tend to be white middle-class folk) need to be open to books that do not reflect their own culture and/or views. (There also needs to be more diversity among gatekeepers. Hm…)

WE NEED: Books that fully realize diverse characters as main characters with meaning and nuance and splendid story arc, who are unique individuals.
WE DON’T NEED: Books that use diverse characters to be “edgy” or trendy (or get a debut published in this #WNDB-movement era). We also don’t need a “diverse” character to represent AN ENTIRE CULTURE.
Takeaway: A character is a person, not a tool to make your book more marketable. Also, a character is ONE person, not a representation of their culture. To look at a character as a tool or as a representation of their culture is to objectify them, defeating the purpose of your “diverse” character to begin with.

In conclusion:

I guess I am part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. And I hope my book is a positive contribution and enriches the lives of those who read it, Deaf, deaf, HOH, or hearing. I hope it adds to the conversation about diversity in literature, and I hope it offers a window into a culture that hearing people don’t often consider.

Will I tweet more #WNDB things? Maybe. Probably. I like the people I’ve interacted with personally, and I’m excited to have or witness more conversations like the one I saw yesterday. So if you have any questions about my book or Deaf culture, email or tweet at me: @LLAWrites. Just a warning: I may send you to somebody who knows more than I do. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Diverse Books We Need (and don’t need)

  1. Nigel Mitchell says:

    Even though I support diverse books, I agree with all your points. Well meaning attempts at diversity in the 70’s led to the debacle of blaxploitation movies. Diversity should be a natural growth of a more diverse pool of readers and authors

  2. s.a.klopfenstein says:

    Awesome awesome post! I could not agree more! You pretty much mirror my thoughts exactly. There are way to many edgy or trendy things going on with #weneeddiversebooks. We need diverse books, absolutely. We need diverse writers moreso than anything. I think that we need novels with a diverse array of characters apart of a bigger story, rather than the diversity be the point of the novel. Not that those don’t have a place.

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