Help Me Teach Diversity in Fiction!

Lawson addressing Seton Hill University
The Thermodynamics of Publishing address at Seton Hill University

I have been invited to submit a proposal for speaking on diversity in fiction at a writing workshop this summer. The workshop is hosted by an MFA program at a university where I’ve spoken twice previously on other aspects of the publishing industry.

As I sat down to work on the proposal it struck me I have participated in a lot of diversity related panels at conventions. One thing that wears on you after a dozen years of being on the convention circuit is how most conventions host similar panels, and on those panels similar items pop up. Over and over again.

So I thought to myself, “Keep it fresh, J-Law. Take it to the people.” With that in mind I ask you: what would you want a workshop presentation about diversity to include? What is missing when you attend panels on this subject? Please post your suggestions in the comments below.

And remember, it can be anything. I dropped some hardcore cold water on the writers my first time there with troubling facts and trends in the publishing industry, and they still had me back to make another presentation last year. Thank you in advance for any and all contributions on this matter.

15 thoughts on “Help Me Teach Diversity in Fiction!

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  1. Hey J-Law, what’s up, bro? I haven’t attended many conventions or panels so my experience is limited. i don’t know what has been discussed to death and what hasn’t. That being said, I do have a question that I wonder if it has already been discussed or if it even worth a discussion. As diversity in speculative fiction gains steam and voice I ask, “How receptive is the audience (POC) to characters (POC main characters) who are not so good. Damaged personalities. Damaged anti-heroes in no win situations or who do less than heroic things to survive at the end. Great villains who are POC. Always curious on how far POC writers are in terms of feeling comfortable enough to even venture into Grimdark waters. Hope this helps. Good luck.

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    1. Thank you Kirk! That is an excellent question, regardless of whether you’ve been to cons or not. A legit example of a vibrant and powerful damaged villainous good guy (in his own mind, at least) is Mr. Glass played by Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable. That’s the only one popping to mind right now, although if you’ve read Pimp by Iceberg Slim there’s another damaged person rising to power any way they could, which had a powerful effect on me when I was young. Don’t worry, I didn’t go turn into a pimp after reading that one! Regardless: I’ve felt for a long time this is an area that needs to be explored if we’re to see full-spectrum authentic voices and representation for people of diverse backgrounds. I’ll have to be sure to touch on how this can all be handled effectively, and hunt down genre examples for the audience to examine. Good stuff.

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      1. Cool. Glad my suggestion helped. You know, Donald Goines has some anti-heroic protagonist in some of his novels. I remember Daddy Cool being one of them. I imagine there would be a lot to choose from the indie “street lit” novels. But none that i know of in the spec-fic realm except maybe The Killing Moon. And Denzel’s Training Day was interesting. If Ethan Hawke wasn’t in it as the hero, would that film be compared to Keitel’s The Bad Lieutenant. And rightfully place in the neo-noir genre.

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  2. I know I said I was going to get to this last night. Sorry I’m a bit late. One thing I think I’ve found challenging for myself as a POC writer is understanding that not everyone in the community is going to flock to or even give your work a look because you might have the “uplifting of the community” at heart. In my experience amongst some in the African-American community there is just an out and out resistance to speculative fiction. I know I kept my love of comics secret almost all throughout middle and high school for that reason. Do you throw any tips out there for young POC writers on how to combat that or at least swim through those waters confidently?

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    1. Hey, thanks for checking out the blog and providing input. You raise some excellent points. A lot of folks in the African American community view work that isn’t about God or family as influenced by the devil, and another segment is so into their image and the party life that anything less than “Sex a Baller” is unseemly/not keeping it real.

      What I would tell young POC writers in any field or genre is to go ahead and make your name within the publications of your ethnic community if you can, but make sure you are being seen outside your community as well. I remember after the Treyvon Martin murder folks were calling for a form of protest that was “just show up in public.” The thing is, people within and outside our ethnic communities rarely think specfic, sequential art, and so on are acceptable paths because so few of us are seen treading that path. Reporter? Sure. Not necessarily as respectable as an office job with benefits, or doing something with your hands, but still.

      I started showing up at industry conferences a dozen years ago and–lo and behold!–people realized they had been publishing a dude who wasn’t white after all (we didn’t have social media back then). It worked out. I made connections, got known, got award nominations. There are a lot of resources now for helping people of diverse ethnic backgrounds attend events and ensure we become ingrained as part of specfic culture, such as the Con or Bust travel grants (I’ve received three in my time) for POC fans and authors.

      Also, being part of groups like the Black Science Fiction Society, or something local like the Black Writers Guild of Maryland, can help keep you going. Some ethnic-oriented groups might not be receptive to genre work, but usually there are a handful of other creators in your area with whom you can form your own group.

      I’ll be sure to address this the next time I speak on diversity in fiction. Thanks again!

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  3. Question: What about non-POC writing about POC? I have something that I’ve been working on for a long, long time and while it includes a bunch of characters, some of the most important are a black family and an albino black man named Ludlow (he’s based on a real person and he’s my main protagonist). Actually, the family are based on people in my own family. And some of the white folks in it are also based on my family. Here’s my trouble: I know what my background is and it *feels* totally natural and comfortable to be writing about all of these characters regardless of color, even when addressing the differences in race. The only thing that gives me pause is when I think outside myself–the reader has no idea what my background is. Look at my picture and all you see is a white chick. If it’s problematic for me, it’s got to be doubly problematic for other white folks without the mixed background. And I’m of the school that, as a writer, everything is game, and to shy away from writing about anything that is “other” than yourself and what you know is a cop-out. So, in order to do that, how can we white folk do this?

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    1. I can’t speak for John, but for me I think a sincere effort goes a long way. If someone genuinely takes the time to do the research, understand the nuances, and actively seek out advice and direction from people in that group then it should work out in the end IMO.

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      1. Thank you. I think that if you’re a writer attempting to write outside your personal experience, you’d better have a fairly fine-tuned level of empathy and sympathy in your life as a whole. If you’re not feeling and believing that every day, then you’re probably not going to pull off a character too different from yourself (and you’re probably going to catch hell for it, and you’re probably not going to understand why). The best kind of research is living it. =) I will always do my best.

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    2. In your particular case I’d think an afterword from the author would go far toward assuaging whatever misgivings readers might have. Or, if it can be done without giving away elements of the plot, an author’s note in the beginning would suffice. I agree with your stance, however, that it is our obligation to go anywhere our writing takes us, and encourage you to continue doing so.

      My advice to people writing outside their socioeconomic, gender, or ethnic background is always to *not* just write someone as fully as they would write a person of their own background, because the character will have life experiences (or a lack thereof) which will deviate significantly from the author’s, thus shaping drastically different decision processes, public behaviors, and reactions. Having talked with you previously about your family situation throughout childhood and adulthood I’m confident understanding the black experience won’t be a problem for you, Kriscinda.

      If you are concerned, though, I’d recommend handing off the mss to beta readers of the background you are writing–which is what I also suggest to other authors writing outside of their own background. I’ve been such a beta reader, and have seen how the process helped strengthen the work after I handed in my notes.

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