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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

February is Diversity in Literature Month - so say I

I am kicking off the 2012: The Year of the Writer with our first theme month, 
February: Diversity in Literature.  

Diversity can be a touchy issue for writers, especially if you want to write about someone from a different heritage, religion, mental or physical ability than yourself.  Ramifications can be ugly.  For instance, I've seen scathing reviews of Kathryn Stockett's The Help claiming that she's just another white person getting rich on the black experience.  Ouch!  Does anyone want to receive criticisms like that?  No thank you!  Nor do we want to paint the world as a tapestry of people who look and behave just like we do.  Weren't we all taught in English class that good writing holds a mirror up to the world?  Is there any way to win? 
Well, according to the incredible Mitali Perkins, there's hope.  Mitali, who is a phenomenal writer as well as a powerful advocate for diversity in literature has graciously allowed me to reprint a blog post of hers, from Sept. 19, 2011, on this topic.  For a lot more on the topic of diversity in literature, stop by her blog.  She also has a great, though troubling, chart comparing census data to book content in children's literature here.  (Thank you so much, Mitali!)

How To Write Fiction Without The "Right" Ethnic Credentials

By Mitali Perkins 

Fiction, lest it morph into memoir, always involves the crossing of borders. We create characters who belong to different classes, genders, and generations. But when it comes to writing stories in our racially-charged  North American setting, we writers hesitate to cross borders of ethnicity.

Yet boldly there we must go, to shatter any kind of artificial, controlling apartheid with rules about who can write for and about whom. Do I give white or black authors the freedom to create brown protagonists? Of course! I want the right to include white and black protagonists in my fiction. I don't want to write only about Bengali-American girls growing up in California — been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali-American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well?

As with most resounding affirmations, though, there are caveats. My theory is that when we feel we lack an authenticity credential in our idea for a story, we must compensate with three powerful tools: imagination + empathy + research.

Read widely, writers. In this case, our imagination is best fed by reading the works of writers who are different than we are. When is the last time we finished a novel written by an author of a different race or ethnicity than ours?
Tread carefully, writers. If a particular community is processing a shared experience of suffering through the healing power of story, maybe it's time for our "outsider" version to wait. When we have more power in society than our protagonist, it's always good to ask whether to speak on his or her behalf. If we still feel compelled by the story, we must lean heavily on the gift of imaginative empathy. Always, love deeply within that community and listen well. Someone once said that to cross a border of power to tell a story, a writer better live there first, shut up, and hold a bunch of babies.
Study diligently, writers. Authenticity rings in the details of story. Dialogue and nonverbal gestures and postures come instinctively to insiders; outsiders must become A+ students of cultures not our own. Books, visits, interviews, academic journals, photographs, videos, movies ... each border-crossing novel should generate a bibliography, and feel as intense as a thesis when it comes to mastering the details.
The bottom line is that even if we've covered the bases of imagination, empathy, and research, we'll still make mistakes. But so what? Nobody, insider or outsider, has ever written a novel without something cringe-worthy in it—even if the author's the only one who notices it. All we can do is swallow our pride, admit to and learn from errors, and keep pressing on in the good work of storytelling.


What are you thoughts on diversity in children's literature?  What are your favorite books for kids that feature diverse protagonists or show a rich tapestry of people?



  1. I am not an author, but I enjoyed reading up on how authors approach diversity in their writing. Thanks for the great insight.

  2. Thanks gweenpea. Glad to shed some light on the subject and happy it was interesting, even for non-writers. :)

  3. Thanks Sarah for posting this. Great approach. My 14 yr. old granddaughter wrote a poem about Diversity and I'm asking her for permission to share it with you, if you'd like. It won first place in her 9th grade Berkley School District. Mature beyond her years.