Faux Diversity in Fiction
With increasing frequency, I'm seeing a certain word in Tweets and blog posts about publishing: diversity. Agents and editors clamor for books in all genres featuring diverse characters. They want books that represent a wider range of human experience than "mainstream middle-class protagonist faces first-world problems."
This is a fine goal, but it's harder to realize than you might think. Most writers and publishing professionals are mainstream middle-class intellectuals, including yours truly. When we attempt to portray fringe voices in fiction, our own experiences and cultural conditioning undermine our efforts. In the end, we don't create diverse characters. We create mainstream middle-class characters wearing skin of a different color.
What Is Faux Diversity?
When a writer puts a solidly mainstream character in a diverse costume, I call it faux diversity. A certain fantasy we'll call Silence is an example on multiple fronts.
The premise: The heroine, Fang, lives in a completely isolated Chinese village without sound. The population lost the ability to hear generations ago. Soon the villagers start to lose their sight, too. Then one night, Fang wakes up to a sound. Using her newfound "magic" ability, she courageously leaves the village to explore the outside world and save her people.
The reality: The heroine, Fang, is a feisty Western girl with an Asian name. One Goodreads reviewer says, "If I dressed up in traditional Chinese clothing for Halloween and started calling myself Ling, I would actually be more Chinese than this book." (Ouch...but accurate.) And though sound is but an old legend to everyone in the village, Fang thinks like a person who lost her hearing late in life. She constantly bemoans that nobody can hear, which is like someone who grew up with bedtime stories of magical ancestors constantly bemoaning that no one can fly.
The author probably had golden intentions when she set out to write Silence. Her editor probably had golden intentions when she okayed the manuscript. But because neither of them were familiar with either Han culture or deaf culture, they thought giving the heroine black hair and putting the dialogue in italics would cover all the bases.
The Problem with Faux Diversity
In the case of Silence, the author's missteps were mostly harmless. She disappointed and alienated a lot of potential fans, including me, but at least she didn't portray Chinese or deaf culture in a negative light. No readers will close that book with new prejudices or erroneous assumptions they didn't have before.
However, in other cases, well-meaning authors have done more harm than good by writing about groups they didn't understand.
Another book we'll call Shadow Bride is a historical Japanese retelling of Cinderella. All right, cool. The fairy godmother character, Hikaru, is a beautiful concubine ("Shadow Bride") who turns out to be trans. Also cool...until Hikaru tells her backstory.
"I was one of many, many children. Some strange accident of fate gifted me with this face and this slender frame, and my parents knew that a child who looked like I did would be valuable. Of course, I would have been more valuable as a girl...so they raised me to talk, move, and even think as a girl would. I barely realized that I was any different from my sisters. When I was eight, they sold me to a kabuki theater....
"One of my patrons was a minor lord who thought it would be a very fine joke to arrange for me to dance at the Shadow Ball....I was convinced I would die. A man pretending to be a woman in the Moon Prince's chamber....I asked [the prince] if he ever wished I had been born a real woman. He said that my heart was a real woman's heart, and that was all he was concerned with."
Aw, how heartwarming. And how utterly infuriating!
According to this sweet little story, Hikaru has a "real woman's heart" because her parents brainwashed her into thinking like a woman. Therefore, if her parents had given her swords instead of silk fans, and told her to take a wife instead of a husband, she would have grown up to have a "real man's heart" instead, right?
The natural and insidious conclusion: all trans women in the real world must be acting that way because their dads let them play with Barbies.
I'm alarmed that no other readers are bothered by this. At least nobody complains about it on any site indexed by Google. Readers also say nothing about this frightening exchange at the end of the novel, after the heroine runs away from the palace with her love interest, Ochieng, an African nobleman.
"Ochieng," I said abruptly, "what would you have done if you had come here but I did not change my mind and agree to go with you?"
"Gagged you, thrown you over my shoulder, and taken you anyway," he said promptly. "I have some ropes braided around my waist. Actually, I do not know whether to be relieved or disappointed that it is not necessary."
And this threat of sexual violence is...funny? Flirty? Ochieng is super hot and adorable, according to reviewers—especially when he physically grabs and shakes the heroine in anger, kisses her without her permission, and otherwise acts like a big sexy African brute.
How to Avoid Faux Diversity
Just like you can't stick heroine in combat boots and call her strong, you can't simply stick a label that says "Asian" or "African" or "LGBT" on a character and call it diversity.
1. Research the culture.
Last year or the year before, somebody submitted a query for a middle-grade novel to a critique blog. The premise: the principal of a junior high asks a young Asian girl to organize the Chinese New Year festival. But the girl isn't Chinese...she's Korean! Incensed, the girl decides to sabotage the festival to teach the school a lesson. Hilarity ensues.
The problem: the lunar new year, Seollal, is actually one of the biggest holidays in Korean culture. A real Korean girl in this situation might be miffed that the principal assumed she'd make a good organizer just because of her ethnicity, but she wouldn't fly off the handle because she's "not Chinese." Most likely, she'd be proud to share her heritage with her classmates.
If the author of this manuscript had done some cursory research about Korean traditions and holidays, she wouldn't have made such an embarrassing mistake. Since she was clearly not Korean herself, she should have at least watched a couple of Korean TV shows. Just like most of our sitcoms have Christmas episodes, most Korean family dramas have at least one Seollal episode in which everyone makes dumplings and dresses up in traditional clothing, and the young people bow to their elders to earn their red packets.
2. Question cultural assumptions.
I admit that it's better for a writer to assume diverse characters are "just like me" than it is to assume they're totally different because they have a different skin color, religion, or gender identity. I'd rather people erroneously portray Chinese characters like individualistic Americans than like buck-toothed caricatures in old movies who start every sentence with "Confucius say..."
But still better would be for these writers to question their assumptions. People tend to think their values are the only values in existence.
For example, we in the West grow up watching countless movies and TV shows that teach us standing up for ourselves is "strong" while smiling for the sake of harmony is "weak," so we assume Chinese characters would think the same way. We're annoyed by real Chinese characters who lower their eyes to abusive elders.
Or we're dependent on our hearing to communicate and the thought of losing that ability scares us, so we assume a deaf character would be angry about her condition and long for sound. We're shocked and appalled when people in the deaf community don't want their children to undergo surgery to "fix" their hearing.
Or we all agree that marriage should be based on true love, so we think arranged marriages are horrifically backwards and misogynistic. When we write books or movies about young Hindi or Muslim or Orthodox Jewish women, we tend to go on and on about how put-upon they are.
3. Rethink what "diversity" means.
Do the agents and editors asking for "more diversity in fiction" mean, "I want to see more arbitrary Latinos because that's where the money is?" No. (Well, maybe for some unscrupulous trend-chasers, yes. But you don't want to work with those people, so ignore them.)
What "more diversity in fiction" really means is, "I want to see new and interesting perspectives." Adding diversity to publishing means writing about a variety of characters who see the world in different ways, who have different values and beliefs and face different unique conflicts.
If everyone sees the world the same way but wears different hats, that's not diversity.