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Doing Diversity Right

sinc-report-for-change-cover-webresCan writers in the dominant culture be confident that they are speaking authentically, meaningfully, and vitally about this real America? In September at Bouchercon, Sisters in Crime held a workshop addressing the challenge of diversity. Panelists Frankie Y. Bailey [1]Cindy Brown [2]Greg Herren, [3] and Linda Rodriguez [4] join us at Writer Unboxed today to share some of the highlights and major takeaways, including, LGBTQ characters, disability in plotting, diverse settings and the extraordinary challenge of dialogue.

Frankie Y. Bailey [5] is a criminal justice professor at the University at Albany (SUNY). A native Virginian, she writes a series featuring Southern crime historian Lizzie Stuart. Having spent much of her life in upstate New York, she also writes near-future police procedural novels featuring police detective Hannah McCabe–most recently What the Fly Saw [6]. Her non-fiction focuses on crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture. Frankie is a past president of SinC and a past EVP of MWA. Connect with Frankie on Twitter [7] and Facebook [8] and on her blog [9].

A former theater professional, Cindy Brown [2] was the first director of ARTability, a national-award-winning organization that provides access to the arts for people with disabilities. She’s worked as an ADA consultant, written about accessibility for the Smithsonian Institution and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and received the Mayor’s Award from the City of Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues in 2004. Cindy became a full-time writer in 2007 and is now the author of the Agatha-Award-nominated Ivy Meadows series, most recently Oliver Twisted [10], a madcap mysteries set in the off, off, OFF Broadway world of theater. Connect with Cindy on Twitter [11] and Facebook [12].

Greg Herren [13] is an award winning author and editor from New Orleans. He has written over thirty novels under his own name and various pseudonyms, edited twenty anthologies, and has published over fifty short stories. His most recent novel, Garden District Gothic [14], is the seventh Scotty Bradley mystery, He also edited this year’s Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou [15].  Greg says, “As an out gay man who has been writing about gay and lesbian characters for over fifteen years, I would love to see more LGBT characters in mainstream works by mainstream writers.” Connect with Greg on Twitter [16], Facebook [17], and on his blog [18].

Linda Rodriguez’s [19] book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel [20], forthcoming this month, is based on her popular workshop. Her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, Every Family Doubt, will be published in June 2017. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear [21], Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart’s Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film. Connect with Linda on Facebook [22], on Twitter [23], and on her blog [4].

Doing Diversity Right

Naomi Hirahara [24] speaking this year as part of Sisters in Crime’s Report for Change [25] said, “Diversity is not something extra. This is what America looks like and crime fiction needs to reflect it.”

But can writers in the dominant culture be confident that they are speaking authentically about this real America? At Bouchercon [26] in September, the SinC into Great Writing workshop addressed the challenges. Frankie Y. Bailey [1], Cindy Brown [2], Greg Herren [3], and Linda Rodriguez [19] share highlights from their sessions here.

Frankie Y. Bailey–Writing Dialogue

what-the-fly-saw1One of the challenges for a writer who creates a diverse, multicultural cast of characters is what happens when they interact. What happens when they talk to each other? Worried about “getting it wrong” and putting her foot in her character’s mouth, the author may write stilted dialogue.

The solution to the problem is research. How do “intersections” (such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality) shape identities? What might be different about how a wealthy white male and a poor black woman experience the world? What are the “privileges” that the man takes for granted? What are the “microaggressions” (the daily insults, intentional and unintentional) that the woman experiences?

At the same time, how has each character’s unique experiences (such as the family he or she grew up in, hobbies, illnesses, pets owned) shaped who he or she is? How has occupational socialization shaped his or her world view?

Doing the research allows a writer to create three-dimensional characters who have conversations that ring true to who they are as people–not stereotypes.

Cindy Brown–Characters with Disabilities

oliver-twisted-cover-front-final-copyShould writers include characters with disabilities in their books? Definitely. Twenty percent of Americans live with a disability (that’s a lot of readers!). By including us, writers will accurately reflect their communities, and help us become more visible. Disability has been (and still is) too often hidden away. Writers can include characters with disabilities in any culture and/or time period, and be assured that they existed there. But by relying on empathy or imagination, writers make big mistakes. The old “I’ll blindfold myself to see what it’s like to be blind” exercise not only misses the true physical, cultural, and social barriers to a person who is blind, but creates woefully inauthentic (and sometimes even offensive) characters. All of us look at disability through different lenses or “models of disability.” [27] The best way to create a realistic character with a disability is to interview someone with the disability being written about. And though online research is better than no research, interviews (in-person, online, or over the phone) will give writers the personal details that will make their characters ring true.

Greg Herren–LGBTQ characters

garden-district-gothic-smallThe thing to keep in mind when creating LGBTQ characters is that we aren’t any different from anyone else: our personalities and our behavior is shaped by experience from interaction with our parents, school, etc. We want the same things in life that everyone wants—to be happy, to be loved, to live in peace, to have security and not have to worry about keeping a roof over our heads and being able to pay the bills and eat. Whether we are writers or not, everyone in our lives is a character we’ve created. We don’t, in real life, have the ability to know every experience everyone we’ve known have had, how they think, how they will react to any given situation. This is why even people we think we know intimately can surprise us. Just know the truth of your characters. It doesn’t have to be on the page, but if you know their truth, it will show on the page.

Linda Rodriguez–Writing About Other Cultures

cdp-cvr-frontWriters must learn to portray cultures other than the mainstream. An artist must paint a true portrait of the world, not whitewash it. (See the full talk with resource list. [19])

Some will be unhappy with your book. By writing about that Other, you may keep members of the culture from publishing books set in their own culture. A publisher who publishes your book about XYZ culture will often say to everyone else who submits, “We have our XYZ book already.”

Good research is vital. Regard those who first wrote about this culture as “unreliable narrators,” for they inevitably misunderstood informants and didn’t accept the culture as valid. Seek memoirs, fiction, or poetry written by members of the culture itself. Make friends from the culture (don’t try to exploit strangers) and ask for their help. Respect and courtesy are always important.

Dishonest, lazy portrayals of cultures of the Other play a major role in reinforcing the bigotry that causes hate crimes and everyday prejudice. You change the world for the better when you change that.

Now it’s your turn: Do you think writers in the dominant culture can be confident that they are speaking authentically, meaningfully, and vitally about this real America?