Diverse experiences are about more than hardship

Some interesting things are happening with trends in diverse fiction — one is that there is definitely more than at many points in literary history, but the number of books written by diverse creators is actually remaining static. In other words, authors who don’t share the backgrounds of the characters they’re writing about are growing in number, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Some people are claiming that diversity is ‘trendy’ and ‘marketable,’ making it appealing to dominant authors who historically didn’t have much of an interest — I’d argue that market pressures are clearly playing a role here, though, with publishers responding to demand but still playing it safe by preferentially buying from dominant authors.

One thing doesn’t seem to be changing, though, and that’s the amount of fiction focused specifically on hardship and misery, especially in the realm of contemporaries.

Let’s be clear here: Many people from marginalised backgrounds have experiences of hardship and misery and it is important to tell those stories. Some people find things they identify with in them, and that’s a valuable experience for them. Other people interested in learning about people from backgrounds they don’t share, meanwhile, can get a lot out of reading books with people who don’t look and think and act like them. I’m not here to argue that hardship narratives, or tragedies, should never be written.

Nor am I here to suggest that coming of age/awareness stories don’t serve a role, because obviously they do, especially in young adult literature. For young gay youth, for example, it can be empowering to read a book with a gay character who is coming to terms with their identity. That’s huge and shouldn’t be discounted, and while adult readers may be tired of things like coming out narratives because we’ve read them a gajillion times, young adults haven’t, and deserve that.

But I am here to say that I would really like to see more diverse fiction that features characters doing cool and interesting things that are not about their identities, something I discussed in my piece about the diversity triangle. There are a lot of reasons for that, one of which is that everyone should be able to read stories featuring ordinary people doing interesting things that feature characters who share their experiences — a lesbian princess can save a kingdom from a dragon, a Black warlock can defeat evil, a trans girl who loves baking can win a cake competition, a fat astronaut can discover new planets.

The other is that when your life is only represented in terms of hardship, it can be very alienating. What’s a young gay to do, for example, when every book he reads is about how terrible it is to be gay, and how difficult it is to come out? It’s hard to avoid internalising messages from pop culture depictions like that, which turn your experience into a tragedy for prurient consumption. Instead of seeing hardship as part of the diversity of experience and something that may happen to you, it begins to feel like an inevitability, because it’s all you see.

That’s also harmful for people from dominant backgrounds, either. They come to think of differing identities as exceptional and something that must be singled out, and they retain some damaging social attitudes in the process. You can’t just be a Latina heroine: You have to be someone in a Latinx Coming of Age Story. You can’t just be a bisexual girl: You have to be a Girl Exploring Her Sexuality and Being Punished for It. That exceptionalisation of identity means that it’s harder to relate to people who don’t share your lived experience, because you perceive a massive gap between you, for all the wrong reasons.

There’s a reason diverse fiction sometimes gets shoved into a specific section of the bookstore — because it’s not ordinary fiction about people doing stuff while happening to be from diverse backgrounds. Instead, it’s Special Learning Experience Fiction about Special People. That’s not good for diverse people, who want to see themselves represented in all stories, and it’s not good for dominant people either, because it reiterates the notion that differing lived experiences and identities represent a segregated world apart.

A story with diverse characters doesn’t have to be A Diverse Story. It can just be a story about people, because that’s what it is, and I want to see more stories like that. Such stories don’t have to erase or elide differences and should in fact acknowledge them and factor them into the story — as for example when a Black character has a different relationship with law enforcement than white characters. Acknowledging difference and interweaving it with characterisation need not equate to turning every single character into a special object lesson, though, which is something that people seem to be struggling with.

This is hard, and it can be a fine line, and no book is going to satisfy everyone. You may feel that either your book is too preachy and self conscious and Very Special Episode, or it doesn’t dedicate enough attention to detail in the differing experiences of characters. You may hear people accusing you of tokenism when including diverse characters, or people commenting that you didn’t do X or Y right. It’s tempting to say ‘there’s no way to win’ or to shrug and ignore criticism because it’s so varied and complex, but that would be a mistake. Instead, confront it, and as you work on projects — as writers, as agents, and editors — think about what kinds of social tropes, norms, and attitudes they feed, or reject. It’s worth it. I promise.

Image: Reading, ThomasLife, Flickr