Stray Thoughts About Diversity

Image by <a href="">Gordon Johnson</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The Fantasy/Sci-Fi Readers Lounge on Facebook is celebrating diversity this week, and the discussion sparked ideas I’d like to share.

I do not address diversity in my stories.

Now, before you react to my statement, let me clarify. Diversity is a politically charged and motivated topic. It’s a reflection of the worst in our societies and hope for the best. Diversity awareness overwhelms some and is never enough for others, often depending on where each falls in the representation scale.

No one is calling for an exact ratio in fiction/entertainment of different classes, races, abilities, cultures, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other factor. At least not that I’ve heard. But many of our cultural groups are to some degree insular, and this leads to subconscious comfort and discomfort depending on how well the people you’re supposed to identify with reflect the reader/viewer. There are many people who rarely, or even never, see someone they can identify with easily while others are rarely pushed to see beyond their worldview.

This is a complex, nuanced concern that sets people against each other.

It’s also why I acknowledge I do not address diversity in my stories.

If you’ve had the chance to read my books and short stories, you might find the above statement confusing. My stories are not about diversity beyond economic strata, which is one of my favorite themes because of my influences. I have a mix of classes, races, and if you know my short works as well as novels, you’ll see people with many elements that set them apart or bring them together.

What I have is characters. They spring up often in whole cloth, and their traits come with them. I don’t look for a diverse element on purpose, but I grew up in a diverse community and have always found monocultures strange.

My stories are a reflection of my norm.

When I’ve lived in all-white communities and primarily Asian communities, or worked jobs that drew on a specific demographic rather than a scattered one, I’ve noticed the difference whether I blend in or stand out. I’m most comfortable in a mixed community because I find people fascinating, and the broader the culture base, the more I can learn from them…as long as we share languages, that is. Whether living in a Mandarin-speaking complex or hanging out with the deaf community, when I am unable to understand, I learn much less, but I can still observe.

This is why I don’t see myself writing diverse stories. I make no deliberate effort to do so. It’s not part of my worldview even when I understand the issue and often would prefer to be more conscious of the need. When I try to press the issue, though, it seems forced to me and draws away from the story rather than enhancing it. I haven’t learned how to balance this element as well as I would like yet.

Now, many of my characters do “fit the profile,” but they’re not there for a purpose. In The Steamship Chronicles, Henry depends on his housekeeper, a black woman he grew up with. Bessie is not there to represent the non-white community in England during the Victorian Era. She’s there because it’s what Henry’s family would have done when they met an intelligent young woman who wanted to expand her horizons through travel but lacked the opportunity. They offered her a job to keep an eye on their two boys as they traveled around Europe and Africa, even as far as India. When they returned to England, she chose to stay on with her adopted family rather than continue exploring.

Bessie (not her original name) takes care of Henry’s London house and his business when he’s in the country. I can’t remember if all the above even exists on the page, but it came with her when Henry returned from a late night patrol in Safe Haven (the prequel). He is welcomed home by a housemaid (at the time) who clearly had a deeper friendship with him than as a member of his staff. Her role grows in the second volume of the series, because when Henry needs help, there she is.

Also in The Steamship Chronicles, Hassan came to be through a sideways comment about steeping tea in Threats. On a trading ship, tea is an important staple in part because stored fresh water can go bad easily. Boiling it reduces the chances of illness running through the crew. Tea, though, has complex cultural significance and traditions. How you take your tea can set you apart, especially when sugar and milk are in short supply. Hassan likes his tea dark and bitter, something more common in areas with Moorish influence, while ships will pick up crew members based on reputation or desperation wherever they find themselves in need. Sure, the majority of the crew came from its home port in Dover, but Hassan is not the only member hailing from elsewhere. I don’t even know where everyone is from as I learn about them when they nudge their way into the main story. Otherwise, the cast grows too hard to remember even for me.

Seeds Among the Stars lives up to its name once training begins. Ceric is a colony founded by European stock because that’s who financed the original ship, but the Spacer Guild draws from all sources, ship and colony alike. This means many of the trainees may never have known anything more than their own culture and get a crash course in expanding their viewpoints. The population on Bazralen, which you’ll meet in Apprentice, came from the Middle East. Like Ceric, though for different reasons, it remained true to those genetic origins even as centuries on another planet influenced their evolution.

I’ve had cases where the focus on diversity in the greater context clashed with my approach of glancing around the room in my head and describing those I found there. An editor told me I couldn’t have a lesbian couple in an opening bar scene unless they had a reason for being there. They had a reason, but it was more to set the scene of a future where being gay was as expected as being straight than story relevant. Or rather, in the way my creative process works, they showed up sitting there. I considered what my subconscious was trying to convey after the editor told me they needed a purpose and realized that to be the right reason.

The above example is in a still unpublished short story, so I can’t point you to it to see for yourself, but the diversity in my shorter works is more flexible because it doesn’t need to match the world of a whole series unless it’s a series-related story. I try to stay true to the world of the story more than the conversation in our world, but very few genres/periods are as confined on the issue as you might think from the lack of representation. This is how I end up portraying a diverse cast without meaning to, and something to consider when faced with a singular portrayal. There has to be a reason for it.

Monocultures don’t occur naturally. They are driven by environment or philosophy when a more natural culture is influenced through trade and interbreeding. Just look at the latest discoveries about the Neanderthals for a solid example, or the influx of different skull shapes into the Eastern European genetic base.

Diversity is all around us, and where it isn’t? There’s something to explore.

I hope it’s clear what I meant by my initial statement. If it isn’t, I’m happy to answer your questions.

Meanwhile, what do you think about diversity? Do you find reading about people different than yourselves as fascinating as I do?

On a panel at BayCon (last year, I think), someone asked about writing female villains and how they would differ. My response came from cultures where women are given subordinate roles so I said female villains would be more vicious. They know how to go for the gut because they’ve been raised by society (even if their parents felt differently) to tend to others’ needs. Those who are not given the dominant roles cater to the rest as a matter of survival so need to understand more.

Cultural insight tends to travel in one direction unless deliberately sought out. While the main draw of diversity is seeing people that look like you, it has the secondary effect of opening minds to other cultures, positions, races, etc. This way everyone is more aware of the obstacles specific to each group rather than assuming shared traits exist because those assumptions have never been challenged.

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