Today I want to talk about the subject of diversity. It’s become a bit of a catch-phrase; which, frankly, always makes me nervous. It’s a bit like Political Correctness. Now, don’t me wrong, I am totally for BOTH diversity & political correctness. What I don’t like it people hiding behind these terms. Or using them as ‘band-aids’ as something to say (or write) to get out of actually dealing with the core issues of diversity (& political correctness, because seriously, can one be without the other?)
I’m a massive supporter of diversity in art. I want to see more social, cultural, sexual, age, religious, political, geographic diversity in all forms; in art, in business, in science… in other words, in life. But as Artists, we are in a privileged position. I believe that through art (visual, dance, music, writing, you name it) we open understanding and dialogue. I want to see more gay characters and non-Christian characters is books and in movies. I want to see more paintings and sculptures by and about indigenous people across the world. I want people with various religious beliefs depicted beyond stereotypical cliché’s. I want people of all ages represented in media and fiction. I want to discover new traditions and legends and myths. I want physical & metal health issues portrayed in movies and see people valued for their skills and talent and not just their cup size or height. I want to see plays and music and dance written and performed by groups I’ve never even heard of; so that I can hear of them and learn from them and understand them.
OK, so, have I made it clear I’m Pro-Diversity? Great. Now let’s talk about what I DON’T want to see, hear, read, touch, smell, taste.
A few days ago there was a link on Facebook to an article where Oxford University was recommending people not refer to pork products/references in novels because it might offend Jewish and/or Muslim readers. I will openly say I think this is taking political correctness too far. I also have to wonder why the same ‘study’ did not also recommend not mentioning beef products in case Hindu readers should be offended, or all meat products for fear of offending vegetarians, or all meat and dairy products, should that offend vegan’s. Sometimes things are so ‘politically correct’ that (in my opinion) they are simply wrong.
Personally, I think articles and studies like this are both divisional and unfair to the same people the studies are proclaiming to support/protect. I know a lot of Jewish and Muslim people; a lot. I would NEVER serve any of them pork, just as I never serve a vegan a piece of cheese. Having said that, my Muslim and Jewish friends don’t expect me to change everything about myself because their lifestyles vary from mine, after all, isn’t the point of diversity to acknowledge our differences and embrace what we can and accept openly even that which we ourselves do not adhere to.
Diversity. I want to see it in all its incarnations. Even so, there are things I do not want to be exposed to. I don’t wish to be exposed to bad writing or bad art. I don’t want to taste the bitter taste in my mouth with someone randomly picks a character with a political view or cultural background they know nothing about.
I don’t want to be made aware of just how poor an artist’s research is into a social group, or culture, or religion, has been.
I don’t want to be insulted, as a reader or a viewer, or an audience member (etc.) with any of these.
What I’m saying is this. Don’t write a Koori single mother into your novel and that’s it. Don’t create a gay or transsexual character and not do your research. Don’t make your character one dimensional, simply for the sake of being able to ‘label’ it GLBT or Ethnically Diverse (or similar).
Yes give me an Orthodox Jewish character but don’t end it at that. I want to know who this person is. Do they work in their own community or the larger community? Show me their struggles with meeting their religious obligations (religious holiday’s for example) while also being effective in the greater community. Give them dimension. Are they also mad-crazy about a sports team? If so, how do they manage their personal passions with their family commitments? Are they loud, are they introverted, are they studious, or do they like to go for a jog every morning? Have they struggled with inter turmoil or demons? Have they questioned their faith, or their place in the world? Have they been exposed to violence, a health issue, financial struggles?
THIS IS WHAT I WANT. I want a detailed, evolved, creative tapestry of character traits and experiences. I want interaction and intrigue and love and lust and danger and symbolism and manic behaviour and sadness and joy and hope and loss and opportunity… I want WHOLE genuine characters I can relate to, learn from and support. I want to be shown their world not simply told they are an Orthodox Jew or a lapsed Christian.
Think about it. Do you have gay friends? Conservative friends? Muslim or Hindu friends? Communist friends? How do you introduce them? Do you say, “This is Sue. Sue just move in next door.”
(because that’s what I’d say)
I bet you don’t say, “This is Sue. She used to be Peter, before the operation, oh and by the way, Sue is a Communist.”
There is nothing natural about the second version. Everything after “This is Sue” will (or should) be part of the development of the character. I want to be drawn in, shown who Sue is, what struggles Sue has faced, why she is who she is. I want to learn about the relationships Sue has. This is what I mean by TOKEN. If ‘Sue’ being a Communist is part of her character arc, fantastic, lead me on the discovery. If it’s simply a line you throw in here or there, as a way of saying “look at me, I’ve got a Communist in my book” that’s a diversity fail for me.
If you’re going to create a character like ‘Sue’ DO YOUR RESEARCH.
I’m not gay, nor a man.
My current WIP has a male main character, (actually its duel POV so it also has a lead female character, but you get my point). When I write in a male voice I work hard to channel my inner guy, but I also make sure I have male reader’s giving me their opinion. My male MC has a best friend who is mixed race and openly gay, and has a crush on my straight male MC. In this particular WIP there is a lot of out right sex, drugs, violence, lust and magic (it’s a re-tell BTW). There is also a lot of suggestive stuff. Some of the sex scenes (outright and suggested) are gay and to do justice to my character’s as well as my gay friends, I have various people read scenes not long after I’ve written them. I want the scenes to sound and feel authentic. I want them to be true to the people I am representing and I DON’T want them to come off as cliché.
Because of this (and other reasons), the current WIP is taking me a very long time to finish even draft one. But I know it’s worth the struggle because, frankly I don’t want to insult the cultures or the friends I’m representing. I don’t want them to be cardboard cut-outs. I don’t want them to be stereotypes or cliché. I don’t them to be single dimensional. Being labelled diverse IS NOT ENOUGH, they must be real and true and thought out and developed and multi-faceted.
A few years ago I finished the first novel in a series. It was (is) a historical dark fantasy which begins in 10th century Europe and finishes (Vol#3) in 2038. The history is based on Croatian, Bulgarian & Austro-Hungarian (royal) history and the mythology is Pagan Slavic mythology. I had one agent tell me they liked the writing but STRONGLY suggested I pick a better known history and mythology. I didn’t take this advice. I didn’t take it because this is what I know and this is what I wish to share. That trilogy has been set aside, but not shelved forever, as I work on other pieces. Personally, I believe that piece of advice was wrong Wrong WRONG. I know that I can make the trilogy stronger, when I do eventually return to it; and I will. I also know that my culture and history has a market. I write what I know and what I’ve studied. I write (and paint) what comes to me, naturally, infused within my core. I write this because I know the voice will be real and genuine.
I did explain that I happen to live in Melbourne Australia and African-American’s are very few and far between. In fact, I have only ever met two African-Americans. One while living in France (and trust me USA friends, she was not the kind of person I’d want to base a cultural representation on) and the second, less than two months ago. The second woman is ½ African-American & ½ Turkish. She also happens to be Muslim. Her father and mother split up when she was a toddler with her (African-American) father returning to the US and having practically nothing to do with her until she was in her late teens. In other words, she knew (and still knows) virtually nothing about being African-American. She considers herself a mixed-race Muslim Australian.
What’s my point?
Do not write about people you have little or no knowledge of, without GAINING knowledge. If I happen to write about a group I‘m not so knowledgeable about, I make sure I have REAL people I can talk to, study and ask to read pages, in order to ensure I am doing them justice.
But wait I hear someone screaming, do I write about Koori’s (given I’m in Australia). My current WIP refers to Koori culture; however, as there are so many Australian Aboriginal languages, I tend to refer to more generic aspects of Koori life. For example, in my current WIP I use the myth of The Rainbow Serpent, (which I mix with Slavic, Druid and Celtic beliefs). I’ve known several people from various aboriginal groups. And because I have known several, I also know that each group has their own uniqueness. As I cannot do justice to any one group, I use my overall knowledge to represent Koori people but I don’t go into specifics, the same way I would for say a Croatian or French character.
Why? If a Koori were to read my novel(s) I don’t want them feeling insulted or misrepresented.
So I write (& paint) what I know and if I need to study a culture, or belief, or tradition, or geographic environment or era, I REALLY study it. And that is what I expect when I interact with another artist’s work.
I titled this post, Diversity; Life Imitating Art – Hopefully, as I believe that through art we open discussion and acceptance. But as artists we have an obligation to represent uniqueness and diversity with integrity and honestly. We have a duty beyond not falling into clichés; we have a duty to break them. We have a responsibility to push boundaries rather than perpetuating (often wrong) stereotypes. We have a calling to show humans for what they are, one race, and to help other’s not push people and groups into pre-conceived boxes.
We must encourage diversity but we must also acknowledge each of us comes from our own unique place. We should draw on the relationships we have and then expand our knowledge, our circle. We should be reading non-fiction as well as fiction. We should be the leaders in expanding our horizon’s, before expanding our art.
But most of all, (I believe), we should have a need, a hunger to present diversity with respect and with conscious endeavour to embrace all, not simply want to follow a catch-phrase or trend. We have the power to effect change, both as a consumer and as a creator. Or we can perpetuate indifference and lack of tolerance either by not embracing diversity or by not respecting the responsibility of creating diverse art. OK, jumping off my soapbox now. I would very much like to hear what others think about this post.