ALAN: Last time you promised me that you’d tell me about some writers who have handled racial and gender issues without getting all preachy and twee about it. So please tell me more…
The Diversity Troop
JANE: Okay… First of all, I’m not saying that these are the only writers who have done so. I think there have always been writers who have handled what my friend Yvonne has dubbed “the diversity trope” well.
ALAN: That’s quite true. Shakespeare had a lot of crossdressing characters in his plays and that wasn’t because, in his day, all the female parts were always played by men. The question of female competence was a very real issue at the time – Elizabeth was Queen of England, and there were those who strongly disapproved of a woman being in charge of the country. You only have to look at how Kate is brought to heel in The Taming of the Shrew to see an example of a woman being put firmly in her place.
Racial issues were also very familiar to the audiences that Shakespeare was writing for. Look at how Iago taunted Desdemona’s father in Othello, and how evil and manipulative the Jew Shylock is in The Merchant of Venice (also Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was another contemporary example).
JANE: Exactly… The question of how to deal with issues of gender and race is as old as the human impulse to say “I’m better,” rather than merely “I’m different.”
However, these days, a writer can come up for criticism from some corners if the characters in a novel aren’t widely spread to embrace every gender and racial option. Also, if “minority” characters aren’t on the side of “good” (whatever that is for the work in question), the writer also risks being slammed.
Furthermore, if an otherwise “good” character even hints at feeling conflicted regarding racial and/or gender issues, again, the hydra-headed supporters of the diversity trope rear their many heads and howl “Unfair!”
ALAN: But I think these things are perfectly legitimate issues for a writer to address. After all, they do reflect the reality of the world.
JANE: Yeah, me too, but…
I’ve always written books that are diverse both in the gender of the characters and the races, but only where appropriate. I’ve also included two other categories that often get ignored, even by those who are touting diversity: older people and children.
You can imagine how shocked I was when a couple bloggers criticized Artemis Awakening because the cast was not diverse enough – this in a book that has a small cast, covers a relatively short span of time, and takes place in a very narrow geographical area.
It’s enough to give one pause.
ALAN: Not diverse enough in what way? Is there some secret mathematical formula that properly defines how diversity works in any given time and place among any given group of people? It’s all too easy to criticize a book for the things it isn’t about. That always leaves the writer without a leg to stand on and leaves the critics feeling smug.
JANE: Gosh, that’s an interesting way to look at it and one I hadn’t considered at all.
I had a brief – and I wish it could have been longer – chat with Mary Robinette Kowal at Bubonicon this year on the issue of diversity in historical fiction/fantasy. She said that to her, when she was writing, it wasn’t about putting in something that wasn’t there, but including that which was there and was often ignored. I think that’s a valid position and why diversity issues may be easier to handle gracefully within a historical, rather than contemporary, setting.
ALAN: She’s a very interesting writer – I recently read a collection of her short stories and I was most impressed. From what you say, clearly she has an interesting view of the world. I’m going to have to seek out more of her work.
JANE: Agreed. Thanks to your review of her short story collection, it’s now on my short list.
I’ve mentioned Libba Bray’s two “Diviners” novels a couple of times, so let’s draw an example from them of an author handling diversity well. They’re set in the New York City during the Roaring Twenties, when Prohibition was the law of the land and an entire sub-culture had been set up based around those who either ignored the law or profited from it.
ALAN: I’ve always felt that Prohibition was a failed social experiment whose lessons still haven’t been learned. After all, we are still banning things and then wondering why they become even more popular. New Zealand recently banned a YA novel because of its sexual themes and content. I wasn’t at all surprised when sales went through the roof…
JANE: Really? I’m not surprised.
Anyhow, Prohibition era culture is a great time in which to set a story that wants to investigate “marginal” characters, because they would find a place within a sub-culture that (at least ostensibly) declares that doesn’t agree with the mainstream.
Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable that Henry the piano player (who also longs to be a jazz composer) is gay. Or that Theta, Henry’s straight, female roommate (they pose as brother and sister, although most assume they are lovers) would meet and fall in love with a black poet (who is also a numbers runner) when visiting a Harlem nightclub. The second book introduces a character who is half-Chinese, half-Irish… and uses her to take a really searing look at racial prejudice and immigration laws.
And then there are the Diviners themselves, a sub-culture of people who have psychic powers. How society alternately embraces them and rejects them, depending on which voice of public opinion is shouting most loudly, provides a really good look at the fickleness of so-called “morality.”
However, none of this is in the least preachy or pedantic. We simply have a suite of interesting characters who are doing their best to exist in a culture that wants to deny their existence.
ALAN: (Scribbling a note). I’ve never heard of these stories or this author, but from what you say, I think they’d be just my cup of tea.
Sometimes, however, the same thing can be overdone. I sincerely enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory, which is quite a compliment, since on the whole I find steampunk isn’t my flavor. However, there were points when I felt that she had a diversity trope checklist and was working her way down it: gay characters, transvestite character, various minorities.
But, again, her setting was one in which characters who didn’t fit into mainstream society would find acceptance – in this case a high-class brothel and the semi-underworld in which it functioned – so I was able to feel that such a group just might assemble, and, as with “The Diviners” novels, there was a lot more going on.
ALAN: That’s the secret, isn’t it? When there’s a lot going on, diversity is just one element among many and so there’s much less of a feeling that the reader is being preached to.
JANE: But this series of Tangents started with your reaction to reviewers who are obsessed with the diversity trope, and Karen Memory was definitely getting kudos for satisfying that element.
As I said before, dealing with such issues in contemporary society is not as easy – in part because rather than gays being universally closeted, we live where there are Gay Pride parades in many cities, and even politicians and preachers can be publically gay.
Ditto racial issues… “Bigot” is now a term with opprobrious connotations, rather than the relatively mainstream position of only a few generations ago.
I’m not saying problems have vanished. Far from it! However, the fact is that intolerance is finally a problem recognized by most. Even those who make a public stance that includes some form of intolerance need to footnote their position with justifications.
ALAN: That’s a very positive thing which needs to be encouraged. But by definition, these attitudes can’t be applied retrospectively. Like it or not, we were what we were. By denying that, I think we still come across as bigots.
JANE: Interesting… Bigoted by denying that people of another time thought in patterns shaped by their culture. In other words, refusing to acknowledge their difference.
I really enjoyed how Rick Riordan dealt with the diversity trope … Although his setting was contemporary, again, using a historical perspective came into it. I thought about explaining more, but changed my mind because that would provide some major spoilers for those who haven’t read the books. I’ll just leave it with, Riordan did something interesting and creative, and I raise my cup to him for it.
ALAN: Criticism based on the diversity trope is something that affects all forms of fiction. But I think that science fiction has a “lit crit” aspect of its own that no other form of fiction has.
JANE: Does it? Hmm.. Tell me more…