Today is the last day of the wildly successful We Need Diverse Books campaign. They have surpassed their $100,000 goal and have expanded their vision. I am proud to be a part of what will be a sea change in children’s publishing.
In Part 1, I shared a couple of snapshots about my somewhat sheltered journey understanding diversity. Today, I am writing about the journey I took to understand my job as a writer of books that “provide windows and mirrors for the whole population of readers.” (Jacqueline Woodson)
1989: I’ve written a couple of pretty good plays, which have had successful runs in Austin and I am approached to write a lesbian erotic movie (No theatrical release; straight to video, so to speak). I am not a lesbian. At best, I am bi-sexual. But really, in my twenties, I was bi-curious. After I’m asked, I don’t consider whether I have the card carrying lesbian credentials to write the movie. Instead, I wait and see if I get an idea. When I do, I sketch it out for the producers; they like it and we go forward with the project. I write a love story for women who love women. Before we start shooting, the director and cinematographer tell the producer that the writer should be a lesbian. We have a long (read: heated) discussion about the permission of artists. We finally, agree that as long as we are true to the characters and their identities, we can write outside our gender, sexual preference, race, and physical ability. That’s the privilege and responsibility we have as artists.
1995: I’m working at the Austin American Statesman in the Life/Style section. Each week we’re asked to pitch ideas for the section. At the time, there was a fury going on about the N-Word. Los Angeles Police Officer Mark Fuhrman had made 41 inflammatory references to African Americans. A lot of people were upset. And not surprised. I pitched a story to cover both viewpoints in Austin. You know, a “what does Austin think?” piece. My editor says yes. I interviewed University of Texas faculty and students, high school students and parents. A lot of people (mostly young) said they were claiming the word as their own and removing the stigma of it. Other people (mostly older) said that bringing the word back into currency is forgetting the past. Even though the story was generally praised, my editor gets reprimanded for allowing me (read: a white girl) to write it.
2013: My novel Evidence of Things Not Seen began with a dream. I saw a boy standing in a pull out by the side of the road and I wondered what he was doing there. I wrote into the dream and discovered he was a Mexican boy, a child of migrant workers. After I wrote his story, I expanded the world of the novel and wove other Hispanic characters throughout the book. I was not thinking: If I have migrant workers in the book, I better have other representations of Hispanic people. I was not thinking: Diversity in books is important so I better throw in some diverse characters. Here’s what I was thinking: my novel takes place outside a small west Texas town in and around a pull out by the side of the road so my novel needs to be representative of that area. I better make sure that all the characters I write ring true and are believable and three-dimensional. My job as a writer is to be true to the character’s heart and make sure that no one is two dimensional or superficial. Am I more careful when I write outside my wheelhouse of ethnicity, culture or the myriad of diverse orientations? Yes and no. In the case of the migrant boy, I did my homework. I interviewed migrant workers and farmers. I talked to people in agencies who interact with the migrant farm workers. I would do the same kind of research and reading for every character whose job, belief system, physical challenges, skin color, or culture is different from my own. But when it comes to the human heart, I do not believe that diversity divides us.
A key focus of the WNDB campaign is to address the inequities in the publishing world. See all the goals here. I am taking it as a personal challenge to be a better writer. How? By taking bigger risks in the worlds I create, by doing the research to make those worlds authentic, by working harder to make my stories true to the diversity of the world.
In the final hours of this campaign, click here to contribute. You will be glad you did.