Tuesday, 1 September 2015

What Diversity? There Are Only White, White, White Books...

*This was one of the toughest post I've ever written on this blog. At some point, I even considered not publishing it. I really wanted my points to be understood and not sound preachy or offensive. Anyway, I hope you'll enjoy it:)

Alright guys, today we’re opening a big can of worms *shivers*. I’m going to talk about one of the nasty, pesky, disturbing issue that the big guns in the book industry cheerfully pretend doesn’t exist or perhaps simply don’t think matter. We’ll be wading in the dark side. They’ll be blood, tears, sweat and—Nah, I’m joking! Sometimes, I have trouble keeping my melodramatic self at bay *sighs*.  Just keep an open mind and you’ll be fine:)

Soooo, I’m black. Yes, black with a capital B, originally from Ivory Coast but born and breed in France. And currently living in England. Basically, I'm a first class globetrotter. I don’t know why I’m giving you a mini bio but whatever. Maybe it’s a surprise to some, though I guess it isn’t since my dull looking avatar (someday I’ll just put a real pic of myself) is brown. But anyway, whether you were aware of it or not, I confirm that yep, my skin is high on melanin.

You’re still with me so far? Okay, good. We’ll be sinking right into the topic at hand soon, but first a little backstory is needed. 

I haven’t been a voracious reader for all of my life but for a great part of it. In my lifetime, I met many a hero and heroine that I was really fond of: Percy Jackson, Rose Hathaway, Edward Cullen (once upon a time, but I’ve been exorcised during the summer 2010), Kate Daniels, Mackayla Lane…etc. And the list goes on. It is indeed a long one.

But here’s the catch, how many among the characters I loved weren’t vanilla coloured? Eugh…*look sideways*…Well…*cough*. Basically, I can count them on the fingers of my hands *cries*. A little something tells me I’m not the only one in that case.

As a black girl who loooooooves reading, the fact that my race and the ones of all those that aren’t white are barely represented in books truly bothers me. Even though our society is becoming increasingly multicultural, characters in books are still for the vast majority white. This situation is especially dire in fantasy which is my favourite genre. There are very few authors of colours in this genre and even less characters that are non white. 

I’ll be honest, this issue doesn’t simply bother me; it angers me. I find it maddening because we live in a colourful world, with many different types of people. However, unfortunately, writers and their publishing house which are both overwhelmingly fair-skinned have decided that it isn’t the case. 

Please, please don’t “POC should write their own stories” or “writers can only write what they know.” And if you tell me that POC stories don’t sell, I swear I’m pulling out my katana out of their sheath.
 I’ve watched Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 a dozen of times, so it’s gonna get bloody. You’re warned.

Of course, there is no unwritten rule that bind white authors to pen ethnically diverse characters. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least try to. Writers can exist because there are people willing to read their work. It happens that a lot of readers are in fact person of colours. Considering that they or rather we invest a lot of our time and money into books, it would be only fair if we were represented in them, right?

Yes, authors of colours could write their own stories and they do, but their work is rarely promoted as much as their white counterparts. And when you want to sell something, whatever it is, if the PR machine isn’t spun, well that’s pretty much a lost cause.  
Besides, it’s much harder for non-white authors to get published in the first place. 

People have been telling and writing stories since the beginning of time. Therefore, every possible tropes and characters have been done and then done once again. Consequently, in a way, every novel published has a clichéd element attached to it. 

However, if instead of being pale skinned and let's say red-haired with blue eyes, the only girl in the entire world who can defeat the evil sorcerer has a swarthy complexion, dark-hair and dark eyes and if instead of being based on European folklore, the supernatural elements in said book originate from South America, it is much more likely to be rejected by an editor on the ground that it isn’t relatable. That’s sad but that’s how it is. 

Differences aren’t appreciated in the literary world, quite the contrary. If you don’t believe me you can read this article and this one. And this one for good measure. Care to check that out? Promise this is the last article!

While it’s true that it’s harder to write properly about something you don’t know, I think it’s far from impossible, especially nowadays. Let’s say you want your main character to be a 16-year-old girl born in the United States from a first generation family of Korean immigrants but you’re a middle aged white man. Talk about cultural shock, right? 

But...we shall not despair because...we have magical things like internet! The greatest invention of mankin, even greater than Coca-Cola allows us to make all kind of research and connect to all kind of people anywhere in the world. Furthermore, there are tons of centres and associations which focus on specific ethnicities, culture or faith. 

Considering all the tools at our disposition, if you have doubts would it be so hard to find someone originally from Korea and ask him for advices or to look over your work and give you feedback? Seriously, would it be that hard?

As a twenty-one-year black girl, I certainly won’t have lived the same experiences as a white girl the same age as me. However, both of us would have had our moments of sadness and joy, ups and down, fears and doubts, success and failure. What I’m trying to say is that regardless of age, ethnicity, religion, gender or even sexual orientation, people are people. As simple as that.

How hard can it be to write about a fellow fully fledged human being? If you’re able to write an interesting white character, what could make you unable to write an equally fascinating black character?

This thought especially occurs to me when I’m reading books like The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Okler where the lead is a teenage black girl even though the author is a thirty-something (?) American woman. 

By the way, it’s not just about having POC as main characters; it’s also about including them as secondary characters.  I have read so many books with an all white cast, I can’t count them anymore. I don’t mean personality-less token characters, but one with a background AND a personality. 

I’m aware that some writers opt not to add diversity in their writing because they’re afraid to get it wrong. It’s true that it’s better not to be represented rather than being made into a caricature. I know that writing is hard, and it’s even more challenging if you have to make lots of research. For those writers who genuinely want to show different voices, when in doubt, just ask for advices or feedback politely. Or even better yet, if you can try to contact a person from the ethnicities/faith/whatever you want to write about.

Talking to strangers can be very daunting. I’m a journalism graduate and the three years of my degree were for the most part spent contacting people I’ve never talked to or even met for interviews. What I learned from this experience, is that if you’re polite, show interest in what they do and use the right words, people will talk to you. This is coming from the Founder, CEO, St Patron and Mascot of Forever an Introvert inc. 

The lack of diversity in the book industry is an issue for me and many other bookworms. Rome wasn’t built in a day and as such the literary world can’t and won’t change overnight. Still, I believe that in order for change to happen, areas with problems should at least be pointed out and explained instead of being disregarded. 

What is your opinion on this topic? For writers reading this post, what's your take on diversity in books? Do you try to craft ethnically diverse characters or not? Whether it's yes or no, tell me why :)


  1. I agree that we need to see more diversity in YA, as well as other genres. Strangely enough, I've read more adult books that are diverse than books for younger kids and I find that kind of strange. It definitely seems as though there is unequal representation, and the same goes for book covers. I've seen a few authors under heat for having a white character on the cover of their books when the character is actually a person of color.

    1. You're absolutly correct. I've noticed too that strangely there is a bit more diversity in adult books. I think it might have to do with the fact that there are a lot more authors of colour whose work have been published in this genre. Cover whitewashing is so common. It's so sad because publishers and authors seriously think that having a non white person on their cover will impact their sales in a negative way. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I know what you mean. We need a lot more darker skinned people in our books, and I think we are going to work up to it. I hope we do at least. I have to say Malorie Blackman is one my favourite authors and the majority - if not all of her main characters - are black. So I think you should try some of her books because I just love them! But yes, we do need a bit of change and I can't wait for it to come along. Props to you for posting this ^^

    1. Yes hopefully little by little there will be more brown and black folks in books:)

      That's funny that you mention Malorie Blackman, because just yesterday I came accross a review for one of her book and thought "I NEED to read this woman's books!". She's definitely an author I will check out! Thank you and thanks for commenting!

  3. Have you checked out the "We Need Diverse Books" website? They're a group of people who want what you want: more diversity in fiction, both YA, MG, and Adult. (here's the link: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/mission-statement/)And I do believe that people are getting better, most likely because of people like you.

    As a blogger, I scream for diversity. As a writer, I quake at writing it. For my NaNo novel, I've got a mute girl, a Hispanic boy, and a girl who's ADHD just on the main cast of characters. But I go to write something, and I start second guessing. Am I playing into stereotypes unintentionally? It's just this cycle of what if what if what if. But then, I know that I'm going to offend someone no matter what I do; why not write diversity?

    Thanks for stopping by Writing on a Vintage Typewriter!

    1. No I had never heard of them. Thanks for the link! That's great that you're one of these writer who actually try to to add diversity! Exactly, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't; so why not take a risk?

      And as I said in my post, you could do some research or try to talk with people living the experience. In general, I found that people love to talk about themselves or about things there are passionate about. As long as you're polite and interested, you'll be able to get something from them. Thanks for commenting!


  4. Yes to this, I wish I could see more of myself reflected in the fiction I adore to read. I would recommend to you N. K. Jemisin if you haven't read her books, she writes breathtaking fantasy with strong, complex WOC.

    Aentee at The Social Potato

    1. I already know her but thanks anyway :) Yes, she's an excellent writer and she isn't afraid to add diversity to her writing!

  5. You're mention of The Summer of Mermaids and the main character being a POC made me realize that I didn't really know that. And then I looked at the cover again and saw how the girl on the cover is so whitewashed. Which makes me wonder how many covers actually have a person of color on them....hmmmmmmmm.....

    Anyways, I 100% agree with the lack of diversity in YA. Especially in the fantasy genre, and that is SUPER surprising seeing as it's fantasy, and the author can basically create an entirely new world with new cultures and ethnicity. But then for some reason, the characters end up staying white? Why? It makes me sad. And it REALLY doesn't hurt to just ask someone about accuracy. AND WE ARE LIVING IN THE TIME OF THE INTERNET. You literally have the all the information at your fingertips. And I'm SURE there are tons of writing websites out there dedicated for all the information that you need!!!

    Awesome post Sarah! I am really glad you brought this up!

    1. Very little, unfortunately! I have noticed that generally if a POC is a main character, he's put on the cover. When he is, that usually means he's light-skinned or could pass as white. Exactly, writing about something that already exists should be much easier than making something up, shouldn't it? I'm glad you enjoyed my post! Thank you! And Thanks for commenting!

  6. As a POC, I want, no NEED, diversity in my reading. I grew up reading historical, classic lit featuring white characters. I'm fond of my classic lit, but as I grew up I started seeking more COLOR in my reading. I am glad to say that I have found it in the historical and literary genres. Now, Fantasy - not so much. I recently read Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. Holy crap, it is great. 2 POC main characters! Not one, but two! I've seen a lot of my blogger friends who actually love that book. If you haven't read it, please do so!

    As far as diversity in books goes, I think that a lot of white authors are afraid of that rejection. Or afraid to write a hero or heroine of color, because of what their friends may think. There is a lot of hate roaming around. People who claim not to be racist/prejudice ARE in fact just that. Things have changed, sure. But, they haven't really. Publishers stick to what they think will sell - white characters. So their clients are encouraged to give them what they want. And the clients want to be known, so they stick to what they think will get them there.

    The whitewashing on covers is what angers me. I hate nothing more than to crack open a book with a white character on the cover, only to find out the MC is of color. It's truly sad, really.

    1. Fantasy is definitely struggling in this aspect. Oh yes, I'm planning to read Sorcerer to the Crown! I'm reallye excited about this book. You're absolutly right, there is definitely still a lot of hate around. Also, I think that publishers have a lot to do with the lack of diversity. A lot of them cling to the idea that POC don't/ won't sell. Therefore, I think they prevent authors from writing about them.

      I hate whitewashing on covers too! Also, I've noticed that when the main character is a POC, they tend to not put him/her on cover. What kind of message does it send? It's ok if you're there, as long as you remain hidden?

  7. I reeeeeally loved how you put ALL sides of the story into this post! :D Like how you said maybe why authors are failing in multicultural casts and why it makes sense -- BUT IT'S STILL NOT OKAY! SO YAY. Yay for a balanced post. ;) I do understand that a lot of authors probably write about the world's they live in. So if they live in a middle-class, mostly white, sort of society (where I guess a lot of writers come from) that's what their books reflect. I think it's understandable, but you're like 100% right. WHY IS IT HARD TO MAKE A RANGE OF SKIN COLOURS IN CHARACTERS?!?! It's not! It shouldn't be!
    But I kinda think this goes for all diversity, too. :( It's just not really there enough....I think authors are working on it though and I hope in a few years none of this will be an issue because we'll be having TONS of multicultural character casts. I hope anyway.
    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

    1. Yes, I believe authors' background does play a lot in what and how they decide to write. But also, I think that publishers have a lot of powers over the writers. Therefore, if publishers don't want a diverse cast because they're afraid it won't sell, then the cast will be lily-white. And it's not as if, writers can disagree. It's hard enough to be published as it is. A few years is too short, lol. More like in a decade or two, haha. Hopefully, someday, we'll get there.

  8. I love this post so much, because it's so true. It's more than a little sad that the publishing world seems to ignore a vast majority of the population. I think, if we tallied up all the people of different skin colors, white wouldn't even be the most predominant one (although, don't quote me on that :P). That's actually why, when I started writing my current work in progress, I decided to base my fantasy novel in an African-like setting---so all the characters, main and secondary and whatnot, would be POC. It makes me rather nostalgic for Ivory Coast, to tell you the truth.

    Anyway, this is a great post. Diversity in literature is so important, because we need to make the effort to understand what other people might be going through, not just the ones in our own little circle. Hopefully the publishing industry will catch on to that.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed my post! OMG that's so great that you're writing a story set in Africa with POC as your main characters! Are you going to post an excerpt of it on your blog? I hope you will because I'd loooove to read it.

      Hopefully they will but I'm putting my hopes too high, lol.

    2. Well, it's more of an African-like setting, so it won't be exactly the same, but I'm trying to stay as faithful as possible, given that I don't live there any more. :P And I've actually posted several excerpts a while ago--if you want to read those, you can go to the writing tab on my blog, and you'll see them under snippets. (I hope that helps. :P)

    3. Also, I just wanted to clarify because I realize it might come across as awkward. In one of my snippets, my MC mentions that she's not human. That's not because she's a POC. (I didn't want you to think I thought POC weren't human--that would be awful.) :P

    4. Oh no, don't worry! It never crossed my mind, lol. I have a story where my MC would be considered black due to her physical appearance and other character would be POC by our standard, but none of them are human, haha. They're a vampiric race.

      I actually fairly creative and original to have POC characters that aren't human. I don't know why but even when someone isn't human, authors tend to make him or her look like your regular white person. It's nice to meet someone who try something different.

      I'll definitely check your snippets! Thank you!


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