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Guest Post – True Diversity in Fiction – a Provocation from Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh ShuklaMany posts have sparked lively debate on the Literary Sofa, but today is the first time I have knowingly provided a platform for a ‘provocation’ ! Although it’s not our topic, Nikesh Shukla’s second novel Meatspace is out in paperback today:  it too is provocative, thoughtful and very funny; an entertaining but uncomfortable read for anyone with a screen habit and for writers in particular.  Nikesh is a prominent voice in the call for greater diversity in fiction and when I saw him mention on Twitter that not a single newspaper had shown interest in a new piece he was pitching on that subject, that struck me as a bad thing (though hardly a surprise).  The angle he chose for today’s contribution is not at all the one I was expecting, but I think you’ll agree that it is provocative!  (My two cents’ worth follows):

I offer the following as a provocation, not as a pointing of a finger. I don’t want you to read the following and immediately rush to defend yourself and cite specific examples of where you did this or didn’t do that. I offer this provocation as a chance for you to look within: if we want true diversity in books, white people need to write about non-white people. It’s not just my responsibility, as an author of colour, to write about my people (the non-whites, all of them, because we, as authors of colour, while we’re the other, we’re non-white. I’m not a Gujarati, born of Kenyan and Middle Eastern parents, raised in London, I’m an author of colour, and in our numbers, we are one voice)… white people, it’s your responsibility too.

I’m not calling anyone racist. I’m not asking for that one time you mentioned a side character called Tariq who was having an arranged marriage. I’m not in the mood for you saying ‘I’m just staying true to the time period’. Because history… as the recent fracas surrounding the popular TV show Agent Carter has shown, is not an excuse.

Okay, so why? Why am I asking this? Because I once wrote After the Bechdel test, the Shukla test, about how every character in every film and novel was white unless they had to do something ethnic. And nothing changed. Because in 2008, DIPNET was banging on about diversity in publishing. And nothing changed. Because in 2015, a new report was banging on about diversity in publishing and nothing changed. Because people lost their shit when a black actor played Rue. Because because because.

Because what you call diverse… I call normal. Sarees and chapattis and arranged marriages and mangos with every meal, that’s my family life. Diversity is about celebrating ‘otherness’. And people of colour have got to a point where we don’t want to be seen as the other anymore. That’s where the fetishisation of bindis and keffiyahs and yoga lies. That celebration of otherness has a short shelf life because it’s not rooted in normality. It doesn’t portray a universal truth. It’s a romantic exotic view of other cultures. This is not the multicultural dream. The multicultural dream is that we live side by side, as people, accepting of each other’s cultures, flaws and attributes.

Once I read a review of one of my short stories, and the reviewer said that he was glad to see that Indians went through the universal experience. This was problematic for a lot of reasons, not least that the characters weren’t generically Indian, and of course they have the universal experience, what do we think ‘universal’ means?

Normality is key. Time to normalise. Shonda Rimes, the show runner of Scandal, talks about normalising television till it represents a world she sees and I think that is a valiant fight, one that is more important than calling for diverse books. Because the more we celebrate diverse books, the less chance we have of non-white people seeing the experiences, wants, likes, looks and habits of non-whites as normal.

So how to change this? White people – include non-white people in your books. Look to your books and ask yourself why can’t these people be black or Asian or other? Don’t ask yourself why should they be? That would be tokenistic. That’s not good enough anymore. Bim Adewunmi wrote about tokenism  ‘…“why put in a black dude in the cast just because?” Understand what is being said there: the story that is universal is white. The default is always white.’ What people say when they say that the role doesn’t call for them to be anything but white, we need to pull them up on this because if whiteness is the default, that means that non-whiteness has to be justified. People will, as Junot Díaz says (I’m paraphrasing), read a book that’s half in Elvish… but include a couple of sentences in another language or a reference to something culturally other, and it becomes a problem.

White people, please include a non-white character or two in your work. You don’t need to research them if they’re having a conversation that doesn’t require any ethno-specific interaction – if Barry’s meeting Steve at a pub to chat about a heist where Steve will be the getaway driver, why not call Steve Sanjay? You don’t need to be realistic. You don’t need to worry about cultural insensitivity. If you’re worrying about cultural insensitivity, that means that you haven’t written a person, you’ve written a trope, an archetype. Write a person, make that person black or brown, allow them to do normal stuff. We do normal stuff. Today, I changed my baby’s nappy, I went to work, I realised I hadn’t had breakfast, I bought myself a bacon sandwich, I ate it on the way to work, I got to work, I answered some emails… at no point did I do anything ‘Indian’. I just lived my truth (I mean, I ate mangos with chapattis wearing a saree when I got home, but that’s my private time, okay?)

Some writers have claimed that they’ve opted to keep their characters all white because they didn’t want to offend anyone. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to do some research if you feel you need it (Sanjay, the heist guy, might be from a particular part of India and you might want to find out what he’d wear and how he’d talk). It’s important to be real without being fetishistic or stereotypical. So just ask questions. We’re happy you’re including us, we’re happy you’re doing your job, so we’re happy to answer questions. I’ve read two books and a couple of short stories from friends because they were worried about cultural insensitivity, and they were happy for any feedback I gave them. meatpb

It’s important to self-reflect as an artist, and as a writer, to check in on yourself and see whether you’re representing the world. I’m asking the question so you look within. I mean, if there’s a narrative reason why your characters are all white, that’s fine, you’ve thought about it. If you’ve never thought about it, and you’re like, hmmm, this is interesting, I should think about this… that’s great. I’m just asking the question.

The #readwomen2014 campaign made me reflect, a lot, about how well represented women were in my novels. And in my first two novels, they weren’t. And I was ashamed. That’s why, in my third novel, the main character is female and there are more female characters. And it’s important to me that I reflected that. If I, as a non-white male can write a decent female (I hope, gulp, we’re still in progress), you can write a decent Sanjay the heist man. And if you can, you’re helping to normalise my life, and the lives of other people of colour who, like you, want to see themselves in books, not as ‘the other’, but as the ‘us’.

Thanks to Nikesh for this great conversation starter –  whilst he may want you to ‘look within,’ I’m keen for you to speak out and share your views openly.  I hope to hear from lots of readers and writers, whatever your cultural identity.  Reading this piece made me glad my stuff is set in London, Paris and New York because setting novels in big cities without non-white people wouldn’t just be odd, it wouldn’t be ‘normal’*.  However, if my focus lay elsewhere I think I might feel differently and possibly worry about tokenism.  Do you agree that ‘white writers’ have this responsibility? Do you feel provoked?

* I freely admit that I don’t read many novels by non-white writers and should do so more often.


Next week I’ll be posting a wise and beautiful piece from Antonia Honeywell, author of THE SHIP, entitled ‘Agented and Unpublished’.  It always impresses me when those who’ve made it admit they remember what that’s like.  

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


46 thoughts on “Guest Post – True Diversity in Fiction – a Provocation from Nikesh Shukla

  1. Excellent piece, thank you Nikesh and Isabel. This is something I’ve been reflecting on. I recently wrote a short story – it’s narrated in the voice of a young man called Curtis. I imagine that Curtis is black but I never mention this in the story and it’s not obvious at any point. I think you’re right that names are a good way of signposting race, without making race an ‘issue’ when it simply isn’t relevant to the narrative. Lots to think about, thanks again.

    Posted by JulietW | June 18, 2015, 11:58
  2. Excellent, I’m so sold on this idea, I’ll incorporate that right away.

    Posted by MarinaSofia | June 18, 2015, 12:09
  3. Excellent article! I think the hesitancy of a lot of white writers to include non-white characters comes from this issue of representation. We had lengthy debates about it on a writing retreat I went on once. It got quite heated. I’ve had instances in fiction I’ve written where I’ve thought of some characters of mine as non-white but there is nothing specifically to signify in the text that they are non-white. Part of the problem is that unless a white reader is specifically told or given an indication a character isn’t white they will probably assume that character is white. I love writers that can play with the reader’s assumptions. Andrew Sean Greer’s novel The Story of a Marriage is one of the best. For the first half of the novel it’s about a couple and there is nothing to signify that they are black so when a clear indication comes that they are the reader wonders if they missed something and asks themselves why they assumed they were white (if they in fact did assume this).

    It saddened me recently when Joyce Carol Oates’ novel The Sacrifice was severely criticised by Roxane Gay in her NY Times book review for her black characters’ use of incorrect dialect which she considered offensive and accused Oates of showing no empathy for the characters. I couldn’t say whether the dialect was authentic or not, but I felt the novel showed tremendous empathy as I felt for the conflicts and individual points of view all of her characters faced. If there are inconsistencies does this make this just a flawed novel? Or is it a novel which shouldn’t be read at all because it reinforces white people’s incorrect assumptions of how black people speak in certain communities of America? It’s a troubling issue and complicated further as Gay carefully points out that “Writers can and should write across difference, so long as they do so respectfully, intelligently, with some degree of accuracy.”

    Posted by lonesomereadereric | June 18, 2015, 12:18
    • I haven’t read the JCO book so I can’t comment on that but I think Gay’s right (she usually is). I think it’s often the difference between fetishing or stereotyping and portraying someone of colour as having something to say and do that doesn’t feed into their cultural identity because that identity doesn’t always play on our minds every minute of every day. James Smythe’s No Harm Can Come To A Good Man’s main protagonist is Amit and I love that all we know about Amit is his role in the unfolding thriller and, actually, culturally I know nothing more about him other that he’s having a really bad day.

      Posted by Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) | June 19, 2015, 09:21
  4. I agree with so much of this. As someone who writes about diverse communities this post really interested me. When I began writing my first novel about Asian woman, some of my Asian colleagues doubted that a white English woman would be able to articulate an authentic voice. However, two Asian friends agreed to read the book and supported me. To me, writing about people from different places is the most natural thing in the world. I live in a diverse community. It’s part of my real life and for that reason, it should be part of the world we create in our books.

    Posted by Michelle Flatley (@MichelleFlatley) | June 18, 2015, 13:01
  5. Wow glad you guys are so positive (so far :gulp:) – I really expected to get people’s backs up. Woooooop!

    Posted by Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) | June 18, 2015, 13:03
  6. Interesting post.

    Nikesh, you say “It’s important to self-reflect as an artist, and as a writer, to check in on yourself and see whether you’re representing the world.” I think the question is not if you are representing the world, but if you are representing the world of your particular characters in your particular novel or story. The flip side of this is the point raised above: “Part of the problem is that unless a white reader is specifically told or given an indication a character isn’t white they will probably assume that character is white.” I often leave out physical descriptions of characters as I like the reader to bring their own imagination to the story. And that imagination will be different not necessarily because of the colour of the reader’s skin, but their upbringing, their environment, their culture, their experiences etc.

    If we want to, as writers, we can play on assumptions and prejudices this way, and later reveal that Steve or Curtis are not in fact white, perhaps by sending them home to visit their mum, but there’s a bit of cynicism wrapped up in that which almost smacks of teaching the reader a lesson and doesn’t deal with the broader issue, which is that we draw the world as we see it.

    In my first novel The Night Rainbow, all the characters are white. But that’s because it’s set in a tiny parochial village in the South of France. If I made Claude into Sanjay it *would* affect the plot, because his history with the villagers would be different and people would – if I were being authentic – treat him differently. Which becomes a sub-plot in itself. As Isabel says, by setting a story in London, Paris or NYC, it’s only normal that the cast of characters is diverse. (Or if it isn’t, that would tell us something very specific about the protagonist). But not all settings lend themselves to diversity so naturally.

    My next novel, Everything Love Is, is set on the outskirts of Toulouse. The main character is a man and he is not white. And in fact, since much of the action takes place in Toulouse there is a huge mix of ethnicities in the cast. But this was informed not by a conscious decision to make some of my characters “not white”, but by the setting and by the story itself.

    So if I were going to be provocative in return I’d ask, is it the writers who are responsible for normalising your life and that of other “non-whites” in literature, or is it more about first normalising the stories we have to tell?

    Posted by claireking9 | June 18, 2015, 13:03
    • Very interesting stuff. I agree, largely, with everything you say in the post, as my intention was to provoke this discussion rather than issue an edict with no nuance. Of course there are universes we create that we must adhere to the rules and in construction things will often be a certain way. I think, my main problem with contemporary fiction, modern writers setting books in the most multicultural cities in the world, like Isabel mentions, who only feature white characters. Either it says something about the writer’s worldview/social life or it’s deliberate. I do think that in order to normalise my life, as it were, it is indeed about normalising other stories, the stories of different cultures as not necessarily being different, but being another version of normal.

      Posted by Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) | June 19, 2015, 09:25
  7. Thanks for this really interesting post, Nikesh. It provoked a lot of thoughts – in a good way! I think a similar parallel is the way some people think we can’t write authentically from the point of view of someone of the other gender. Which is crazy, of course. As writers, our challenge and joy is surely to imagine life from other people’s point of view, whatever their circumstances.

    The only thing that grated with me when I read your post is the use of the term people of colour – a phrase that makes me seethe. To me, it’s a completely racist phrase because it implies people who are white are bland, vapid, colourless, which is offensive in the extreme, don’t you think?

    Posted by Carol McKay | June 18, 2015, 14:52
    • Hey Carol, exactly. I totally agree. Which is why I’m making a concerted effort to have better gender representation in my books going forward.

      As for your second point, I’ve been slightly baffled as to how to approach answering this. I don’t want to make any assumptions but you know that being called ‘coloured’ is a racial slur, right? So, in the past, when I’ve been called a ‘coloured fucker’ by a drunk person in a pub, it’s made me seethe. I can only imagine, having to drink from the ‘Colors Only’ fountains during segregation made people seethe too. Coloured was used as a slur against ethnic minorities/foreigners/darkies because white, dictionary definition, means ‘an absence of colour’. So I don’t think ‘people of colour’ is a racist phrase. It’s an empowering reclaiming of slurs that have been levelled against us for centuries.

      Posted by Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) | June 19, 2015, 09:29
      • Hi Nikesh,

        Yes, I understand about those. Boycotted South African goods, and marched in Glasgow in support of freeing Nelson Mandela, and so on. Horrendous inequalities and inhumanity, which we need to continue to fight against.

        We keep coming up with new terms when the original ones take on negative meanings, don’t we? It’s dire, but that seems to be the way people are. i think ‘colored’ was originally regarded as a less offensive word than the ‘n’ word. Anyway, labels are important, as your passion demonstrates. That’s why I don’t support a label that strikes me as going too far the other way. But I didn’t mean to cause you offence and apologise that I did. (Thinking a bit more about society’s seemingly automatic divisiveness reminded me of when I was at school and was tormented for wearing glasses, and had stones chucked at me because I wasn’t Catholic.)

        To get back to your original point about normalising representation of people of colour… I was watching the second part of ‘Stonemouth’ on TV last night, having read your original post earlier in the day. It’s based on an Iain Banks novel and is set in a small town in northern Scotland, which is still overwhelmingly white. Whoever did the casting was exactly on side with the views expressed in your post, i.e. the policeman was a young black actor with a Scottish accent. With my background (socially, age-wise and as a writer) and having read your post and responses, he stood out for me and i had a good think about it – black, positive role, totally random i.e. his racial origin and skin tone were totally irrelevant to the part, and I thought the casting decision was brilliant. I’m hoping that younger people and children watching wouldn’t even notice anything different about it – would just take it as completely normal.

        Best wishes,

        Posted by Carol McKay | June 19, 2015, 11:12
  8. What an interesting discussion. I haven’t read JCO’s The Sacrifice but I am currently reading her novel “Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart” in which many of the characters are “people of colour” (I find that an OK term actually, Carol, it’s not offensive, but maybe a little clumsy?) I think JCO’s African-American characters, like all her characters, are well-drawn and certainly not tokens. JCO is remarkably good at portraying “working class” people too, of all races, and manages to make high drama of what are at times quite lowly lives. I think I’m possibly moving into JCO fan girl territory here, so I’ll shut up now!

    I have only written white characters so far, probably because I am white, although in a future novel (bubbling away in my thoughts) I will have an Indian character. Not because I want to include an Indian character in order to tick a box, but because that’s the character I’ve conceived, I thought of him in one fell swoop, the name, the ethnicity, the job, where his parents are from. Looking forward to creating him fully and learning more about him.

    Thanks Isabel and Nikesh for such a thought provoking piece.

    Posted by louisewalters12 | June 18, 2015, 18:05
    • It’s not clumsy though… it’s an empowering reclamation of the times we’ve been called coloured!

      hahaha – I’ve never read any JCO. My only real knowledge of her is some contextless tweets she made that came across as Islamaphobic, but again, I know not much about her! A real gap in my reading.

      Good luck with the creation, let me know if you want me to read anything!

      Posted by Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) | June 19, 2015, 09:32
  9. Interesting post and debate. Of course, it’s not just about ethnicity/skin colour, but gender, sexuality, disability, etc. As a reader, I appreciate diverse characters so seek to portray that diversity in my own writing. But badly done, it does grate, so there’s an argument for sticking with what we do best, which will probably reflect our own life experience, whatever that might be.
    Writers DO get criticised for treading into territory that is not their own – something I’m very alert to with the pending publication of my own novel on another “minority issue”. Different people will have different ideas about whether it’s a risk worth taking.

    Posted by Annecdotist | June 18, 2015, 18:47
    • Salena Godden recently said on a panel that publishers need to be braver when it comes to diversity. And I think that applies to us too. I write to challenge myself, to imagine new worlds and universes and people and not just rewrite myself all the time. So I think it’s ok to try and fail but when in doubt, check. Good luck with the publication.

      Posted by Nikesh Shukla (@nikeshshukla) | June 19, 2015, 09:34
      • Thanks, Nikesh, I think my publisher IS being brave in this instance, and I think it’s the small independent presses that are leading the way with this.

        Posted by Annecdotist | June 24, 2015, 09:56
  10. Great thought-provoking post. As a reader, not a writer, I eagerly search out books set in time periods and cultures other than my own and so do read authors from all over the world. Many of them don’t include a photo of themselves so I often have no idea what colour they are and I don’t care so long as the characters and scenes they present feel genuine. Nonwhite authors generally do include white characters – they are just there, no big deal. White authors however often don’t include nonwhite characters. I wouldn’t insist that a historical fiction author must be really, really old and by the same reasoning I don’t expect white writers to only write white characters. Indeed, it often seems very odd to read a novel where everyone is white because that’s not been my life experience at all.

    Posted by Stephanie Jane | June 18, 2015, 19:13
  11. Yes, it’s an interesting issue. The first story I had published was written from a Nigerian woman’s viewpoint. I wrote the story because I’d met someone who’d come over to work in the UK from Nigeria and was therefore separated from her 10 year old daughter. It struck me as a terribly difficult decision to have to make. I didn’t really think about her colour, although it came up in the story, and my character was pretty philosophical about it. She had difficult choices and i wondered how I’d react if I were in her position.

    Posted by mand | June 18, 2015, 22:42
  12. I agree with the challenge. My writing is generally set in the contemporary period and I really want to include characters from minorities. In fact I’ve just written a piece I’m going to workshop at a writing group at the weekend where I introduce a black character. It will be interesting to see if anyone makes any specific comment. In my limited experience of discussions of race in creative writing I think there’s a well intentioned desire not to ascribe any negative traits to a minority character in case the trait could be generalised and mistakenly thought racist. So people avoid confronting that dilemma. I’ve recently changed a protagonist in my novel in progress back to being mixed-race after I’d homogenised her following some advice to steer well clear of the issue.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | June 18, 2015, 23:06
  13. Very though provoking, Nikesh. I write crime novels set in E London’s Polish community (although my only claim to knowledge of things Polish is via my partner) and I’m aware that writing about a different culture adds a layer of angst and extra hard work that many writers will fight shy of. The reluctance isn’t helped by an (understandable) liberal oversensitivity – a fear of getting things wrong, being considered stereotypical, or even racist. Authors should lighten up – having a bad guy of a non-white ethnicity is clearly absolutely fine so long as you don’t imply his criminal behaviour is shared by his entire ethnic group… I do think though that it’s important to do your research to ensure authenticity – and I don’t mean about saris et al. I personally would hesitate to feature a ‘Sanjay the getaway driver’, not out of any fear of being dubbed racist, but because it mightn’t ring true to have a white E End gang, say, hiring Sanjay. I might be wrong but my impression is that crims tend to be quite monocultural – and in crime fiction, at least, I believe it’s actually pretty important to be realistic.

    Posted by Anya Lipska (@AnyaLipska) | June 19, 2015, 14:53
  14. This may seem strange, I am mixed race, but my 2008 autobiographical novel’s main character Helen Fleet is white, and there was never any question in my mind of her not being white. There is a peripheral Asian character and also a Jordanian character. And the main character’s brother has learning difficulties. My novel is primarily about illness and how illness can be misrepresented, and how it cuts across all aspects of our lives. The narrative is based on my own experience of illness, and I think because I wanted a fictional distance, I made my character not mixed race. I also often feel fake mixed race as my Asian father died when I was eight and I grew up in a white Scottish family, with my two younger brothers, my dad’s family were in Pakistan, we did not meet them until after his death. And my Danish stepfather who sadly died recently was with me for much, much longer than my father. Still, I am acutely aware of the lack of representation of non-white characters in fiction and drama. It peeves me greatly. I am in the slow process of fictionalising my dad’s life, he was a doctor who came over here from Karachi in 1950s/60s, there is a lot of material to explore. I have always known I would write about him, and there will be a mixed race daughter based on me and a brother or two. I just thought this was a slightly different take on things, so wanted to comment. Thanks.

    Posted by velogubbed | June 20, 2015, 02:41
  15. This may seem strange, I am mixed race, but my 2008 autobiographical novel’s main character Helen Fleet is white, and there was never any question in my mind of her not being white. There is a peripheral Asian character and also a Jordanian character. And the main character’s brother has learning difficulties (based on a close relative with). My novel is primarily about illness and how illness is misrepresented, and how it cuts across all aspects of our lives. The narrative is based on my own experience of illness and I think because I wanted a fictional distance, I made my character not mixed race. I also often feel fake mixed race as my Asian father died when I was eight and I grew up in a white Scottish family, my dad’s family were in Pakistan, we did not meet them until after his death. My Danish stepfather who died recently was with me for much much longer than my father. Still, I am acutely aware of the lack of representation of non-white characters in fiction and drama, It peeves me greatly. I am now in the slow process of fictionalising my dad’s life in UK, he was a doctor who came over here from Karachi in 1950s, there is a lot of material to explore. I have always known I would write about him, and there will be a mixed race daughter based on me and a brother or two. I just thought this was a slightly different take on things, so wanted to comment.

    Posted by velogubbed | June 20, 2015, 02:45
  16. I totally agree with this, and I have made an effort to include people of other ethnic groups in my novels. I am conscious, however, of going into dangerous territory. I’m not writing Star Trek episodes here — with a few exceptions, I can’t just make up Ensign Rao or Lt. Saad and have them all speak Federation English. If someone of color shows up in a small town in a very white part of New England, people are going to react to that, and the person of color is going to have to cope with that, and depending on who that person is there will be language, names, and customs to get right. I still do it, but I can sympathize with white writers who are worried about going there. The book I’m working on right now actually goes there and beyond — it puts the young protagonist in the position of saying something insensitive and having to cope with the aftermath of that. There are multiple characters I could “get wrong” along the way. It’s scary. But it’s also interesting, so I’m just hoping it works. But would I have the nerve to do this if I didn’t actually have a lot of personal experience with people of color, and a long marriage to someone from a different ethnic group, not to mention some background in “multicultural” publishing? Very possibly not.

    Posted by Sandra Hutchison | June 20, 2015, 04:29
  17. This is a great piece and I feel the same way about class in fiction and film, where they are either villains or ballet dancers trying to escape. I edit Proletarian Poetry (www.proletarianpoetry.com) with poems by well known poets from all backgrounds depicting working class lives beyond the stereotype and tokenistic. Thank you Nikesh and Isabel

    Posted by Peter Raynard | June 20, 2015, 10:03
  18. One of the most upsetting things I read about why this is so important was this post from a primary school teacher who found that his young students didn’t believe stories could be about people like them and their families – their own imaginations were already being restricted by the idea that stories are about white children with names like Janet and John. This struck me as devastating, both in terms of children’s enjoyment of literature and creative writing, but also how that must effect how they see themselves in the wider world.

    I write a lot about diversity in fiction, particularly around disability and sexuality, and I think much the same fear of tackling difference applies. Research certainly has its place, but so much of that is all about unlearning dominant narratives and arriving at a point where all characters are human and these kinds of attributes – race, disability, sexuality etc. – are not symbols or metaphors from which white, straight non-disabled characters get to learn.

    Posted by The Goldfish | June 20, 2015, 10:59
  19. This is a wonderful call to arms! However well-intended, diversity can become a bit of a lazy idea, I’m afraid, and it is great how you call out the exoticisation and tokenism that can go on in writing and publishing. I used to be an editor working in house, and I commissioned a lot of international writing by authors who (for want of a better word) came from diverse backgrounds – writers such as Rabih Alameddine, Edwidge Danticat, Rosario Ferré, Randall Kenan, Felice Picano. These were original voices telling original stories – and stories of some urgency, in some case.

    But I sometimes got/get the feeling that publishers (and readers? and maybe the writers too?) prefer it when writers from certain backgrounds stick to fairly safe tracks: Indian novelists writing about pickle factories or arranged marriages, gay novelists writing about sex and drugs, women writers writing about domestic issues, working-class writers writing about gritty working-class hardship … I don’t think it’s any great conspiracy. It’s probably mostly about publishers – and readers – being safe, i.e., unimaginative. But it can get predictable or limiting.

    I don’t think anything sums much of this up better than Binyavanga Wainaina’s How To Write About Africa: http://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/

    The moulds do need reshaping. Which is why I think it is so exciting when a brilliant stylist such as Junot Diaz takes on science fiction and fantasy. (Not least, science fiction and fantasy can be ghettos too!) I’ve also enjoyed the writing in Orange Is The New Black for how it takes stereotypes and shakes them up; it’s not afraid of playing to type as well as playing against it. And it’s funny too. And heartfelt.

    Something else, though: I think it’s possible that writers can become scared of writing about otherness for fears of claims of racism or cultural appropriation. Look at recent debates about works by American conceptual poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. They are writers who court controversy, and whose work is left open to interpretation, so it is perhaps inevitable that their treatments of subjects such as race have attracted certain hostile responses. It’s not helped by the reductiveness of social media, but the tone of the discussion around these subjects has become really angry very quickly, and when it escalates and grows uglier it could perhaps lead to a sort of self-censorship. Why risk offending?

    But it would be a shame if this creates a fearfulness about getting something wrong in writing about the other – or maybe we should say in writing about ‘others’. Perhaps the idea that there is just one way to write about ‘the other’ is something that needs challenging most of all.

    I like how you suggest that writers try out their work on the right sort of beta readers. It’s basically a form of fact-checking, isn’t it?

    I’m glad that Isabel’s given this subject a platform here. On a side note: I’m interested too that newspapers were not picking up on the pitch for your piece – can I ask what that was specifically about?

    Posted by andrewwille | June 20, 2015, 12:18
    • I think this sense of ‘the other’ is very interesting and the fear of getting it wrong. But this can be applied to any situation we fictionalise – unless we have experienced it 100% for ourselves, we are always inventing, taking risks, but when it comes to race, disability etc, there are perhaps inevitably going to be risks of offence. The point I was trying to make above – clumsily perhaps, as I left the comment very late last night – is I am mixed race and yet I am much more able to write a convincing white character or a mixed race character than a British Pakistani character. I too need to learn and check facts. I feel relaxed though about writing about disability/illness as I am myself chronically ill and I grew up with a close relative who had Down’s syndrome. I have much experience of volunteer work with people who have learning difficulties. So my point is, it is not black and white – no pun intended – half of me is Pakistani, but because of my family’s particular circumstances, I know much less about Pakistan than Scotland. It is not a case of white writers and non-white writers, there are grey areas. But yes, people of colour and people with disabilities are horribly under-represented in film and literature. And it should just not be a talking point when a main character is non-white or disabled, it should just be. For many of us, diversity is reality, not a niche trend.

      Posted by velogubbed | June 20, 2015, 13:57
  20. I really like the way Nikesh starts his post. It immediately encourages reflection rather than knee jerk defensiveness. Ethnic diversity and race are such complex topics. When I was planning my novel for my dissertation, I looked into views on how ‘other’ should and shouldn’t be represented in fiction. One of the pieces which shook me was Malinda Lo’s blogpost ‘Should white people write about people of color?’, in which she advises, ‘if you’re thinking about writing outside your culture and you’re afraid to get it wrong, be honest with yourself. Ask yourself why you want to do it.’ It’s a really good piece, and I agree with a lot that she says. However, I agree with a lot that Nikesh says too, in spirit if not necessarily in detail. I think that ethnic diversity should be better represented in fiction and while I would like to do all the things he says, I think that it is more complex than he describes. He may not mind if writers try and get it wrong but not everyone is so forgiving. Part of the problem for me is some of language that is used when diversity is discussed. In his blogpost there are several terms which I am nervous about using because their meaning can change and I am never sure how what I want to say might land. Nikesh used the term ‘non-white’. I am not sure whether it is okay to use this as I have seen people object to it, on the basis that it implies that white is the norm. Similarly I thought that the term ‘of colour’ was no longer PC. Tricky to pin down are: ‘otherness’, ‘normality’ and ‘universal’. On Twitter yesterday, I replied to a tweet by Denise Mina, saying that people are scared to discuss race because it is so politicised and emotive, and because offended-itis has become a default mode, particularly on the internet. Nikesh encourages us to take risks, to ask questions but I am also not convinced that everyone is okay with people asking questions. My novel deals with culturally sensitive themes, my main character is Bangladeshi and at least half my characters are from non-white backgrounds. This is because I really want to explore specific cultural differences and understand them more. But I am aware that I am extremely nervous about offending. Great post, definitely thought provoking,

    Posted by Vicky Newham | June 20, 2015, 16:59
  21. Sorry, I should probably have gathered my thoughts in one post…I just also want to recommend American writer Percival Everett’s very funny novel, a satire on the publishing industry – his publisher demands a ‘black novel’ from him, and this novel becomes a novel within the main novel, I reviewed it a while back: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/816147629

    Well worth reading.

    Hey, Carol, I too noticed the young black policeman in Stonemouth, he stood out for me too, I am always acutely aware of the under-representation of dark-skinned people in TV drama – not sure though if I would call it a brilliant casting decision, that is a compliment too far! It was simply realistic, it reflected the world as it is. I think you are right, younger people would not even notice (I hope). And I actually forgot to watch part two, first ep. was very enjoyable.

    Posted by velogubbed | June 20, 2015, 23:40
  22. Yes, this needed saying. I’ve found short stories with characters of colour are snapped up by journals, but perhaps because they are actually craving diversity. Novels are a different matter which says a lot about who is reading, ie, buying the most perhaps. It irks me to say it, but white readers may be happy to spend a short time with someone from outside their cultural default, but when it comes to sharing a full novel with a main character of colour, well, that may be beyond the pale (sorry). FYI, I am a white Irishwoman who has published short stories with African and Middle Eastern main characters, and have others on submission. My first (unpublished) novel has Arabic main characters as well as white Westerners, and I have repeatedly been told by Beta readers and a few industry ‘experts’ that I should choose whose story it is and lead with the white character. This would reduce my Arab characters to bit players, and so far, I’ve refused to do that. I’m shelving that novel, but cherry picking it for short stories, eg, currently working on one featuring Syrian Sami. Great post, Isabella and Nikesh.

    Posted by Safia | June 25, 2015, 04:49
  23. Excellent piece, Nikesh. I’ve got a short story or two brewing in my head and I was thinking of making my characters more diverse, but I was worried about getting it horribly wrong. Your piece has given me the incentive to do a bit of research and try it out. Thank you very much 🙂

    Posted by Marija Smits | July 15, 2015, 10:37
  24. I came across this while seeking to learn and think more about diversity in books. I appreciate your reflective tone and your effort to get us to think about these topics. Your recommendation to me, as a white author to write diverse characters and to write them with respect, is welcome. Some on this debate (generally, not here) have taken the position that white writers cannot write diverse characters and that literature without diverse characters is not needed. Although the position this puts white writers in has been dismissed as unimportant because all it does is make the white writer “uncomfortable” and this “discomfort” is unimportant because what is important is getting more books by diverse authors published, this viewpoint fails to recognize the damage it causes. There have been some pretty severe on line attacks on authors. This sort of bullying could lead to the silencing of important voices that readers need to hear. We need to be open to and encourage the voices of people of color without silencing other voices. Also, it must get really tiring for people of color to constantly be called upon to be spokesmen for their diverse group. Surely sometimes, they just want to tell a good story without such emphasis on their otherness

    Posted by Stephanie Lee | September 20, 2015, 18:53


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