Oct 15, 2016
The need and call for diversity is so high and very much acknowledged in the book community - especially in recent times. While the inclusion of diversity - whether it's in the form of main characters of different ethnicities and religions, stories set in foreign countries, characters of different sexualities and orientations and addressing disabilities and mental health - is something that's greatly appreciated, it's also important to note the authenticity of that inclusion and representation. After all, no one would want a stereotypical, unrealistic and purely wrong portrayal of their own minority. It takes away the entire point of having diversity at all.
So that made me think. How can one achieve authenticity in their representation? Unless it's the case of #ownvoices - writers who belong to the minority they're portraying in their book - it is quite hard to be entirely true to the subject matter the author has chosen to embark on. But at the same time, there are certain things a writer can - and sometimes should - do in order to pull off an authentic representation of diversity.
So today, I thought of listing them down for you. I am no writer, but as a reader, a diversity advocate, a person who has befriended enough authors and an aspiring writer, I believe I have some knowledge to offer. Of course, everything might not be relevant for you, or there might be more important things, but here's what I could compile, and let me present to you a guide for featuring authentic representation of your diverse subject matter.
This is a given to any writer, but there is added importance when you're writing diversity. Read diverse books - fiction and non fiction. Read foltakes, origin stories, histories and myths from the ethnicity you want to feature. Read medical reports, analysis and autobiographies when you're tackling disabilities and mental health. Read enough transcripts to know both the medical/technical and the emotional/personal side of being LGBTQIA. Know your subject matter 100% before you decide to write on it.
2. Make sure your research is credible
If you're trusting wikipedia pages, blog posts from seedy sites, and rumours, conspiracy theories, stereotypes and what not, sweetheart, you're in big trouble. I've read an author interview of a writer who wrote a book based on Indian mythology, in which the author stated that she had no first or second hand experience of India, but rather based off her research on Wikipedia. Like, what even? Make sure your research is coming from trustworthy sources, and make the effort to go find for such resources, without finding the easy way out.
I am not saying that you should take a plane to China and spend months there researching, if you are going to write a story based on China. Well, having said that, if you are passionate enough to do that, I have all the respect in the world for you. But experience the aspects of your subject matter. If you are taking on a culture, make an effort to live it. Taste Indian food, learn to make it, master the distinctive tastes ; dress up in Arab clothes, know their textures, experiment with the jewellery, the hues and the fabric ; listen to Korean music, know the names of the artists, get familiar with their style ; learn the Chinese fighting methods, their ethics, know the moves, what's right and what's wrong ; learn languages, get to know distinctive phrases and customs - use and practice them.
The same goes to all the other aspects as well. If you are going to write about a Muslim, experience how wearing a hijab feels like. Visit rehabs and talk to psychologists and anyone who's suffering from mental health, and acquire the knowledge and the experience. Because after all, if you don't know what the colour of the pill looks like, you can't write about depression.
This actually works, trust me. There are enough people in the book community who belong to specific minorities, or have gone through the exact journey or experience you are tackling in your book. If not, you can always ask around. Make up questionnaires, surveys and spread the word. Get your friends to spread the word as possible, and you will get definitely get yourself some insider information. I once had to know what it feels like to be an Asian living in a country like USA. So I asked around in twitter, made a questionnaire, and bam, in a few days, I had so many word docs filled of answers that gave me enough and more insider info on something I've never had knowledge or experience of.
5. Choose CPs and Beta readers with experience
This is a good way of double checking whether you've actually gotten everything right. Whatever your diverse aspect as, choose a beta reader who has first hand knowledge of it - who belongs to that minority - so that they will have the insight which you might not have. If you're choosing two beta readers, make sure that one knows everything about the subject matter, and that the other knows next to nothing - this will ensure that you know the responses of both types of readers, and once you've made sure that both extremes enjoy and love the story, then you have your green signal.
6. Don't forget the little things
We sometimes forget the littlest and trivial things when it comes to writing. But sometimes, they might not be that little or trivial. Take names for example. Whether you are using the correct surname for the correct country or ethnicity. You might think that that gorgeous Indian name you came across while doing random research, will be so suitable for your main heroine, but in reality, the word might actually mean a food item or a city in that particular laguage *cough* Panju *cough* These little mistakes might not seem as a big thing, but when someone's culture or identity is represented in a book, you can't blame one for checking everything with an eagle's eye, and being displeased when something's not right.
AND that's what I could come up with! What do you think one should do in order to portray diversity with authenticity in books?