Saturday, September 5, 2015

Thoughts On Writing Diversity And Other Complicated Things

[ETA: There are a lot of things wrong with this post that (as of a couple weeks later) I now see and wouldn't write today. However, this were my real and honest thoughts that accurately represent a period of my life, so I'm going to leave this up. Please read mindfully -- I hope to have follow-up posts soon.]

Crap, crap, crap. I shouldn't write this post.

Crap. I'm writing this post.

Let me start out by saying that this is NOT a post about how to write diverse fiction. NOT EVEN CLOSE. This is NOT a post about how to talk about diverse fiction. NOPE, NOPE, NOPE. This is a post about my experience as a straight, cis, white girl with mental illness who cares, cares, cares about the whitewashing, straightwashing* and otherwise homogenization of fiction to exclude marginalized groups, AND DOES NOT HAVE A FREAKING CLUE WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT.

Brace yourselves. This is going to be a long one. You might want to grab a drink. I know I'm going to need a drink.**

(brb getting water)

(got the water. drank the water. now let's do this.)

Okay. Okay.

First, before I go flailing like a chicken with my head cut off into territory I don't understand, let me give you some background into what I HAVE experienced. Because although I don't have a FREAKING CLUE what it's like to be a person of color or LGBTQIA+, I do know what it's like to be marginalized in fiction.

Exhibit A) I am a girl.

And I know: females are not a minority group. But in fiction? It sure as heck feels like it. I have lived my entire life in a world where speaking male characters outnumber speaking female characters by a ratio of 3 to 1,••• where the precious few women who do make it through are stereotyped and objectified, where stories about men are considered universal and stories about women considered "niche." I fought my entire life against a world that tells me MY stories are not important, that MY voice is not worth listening to, that I will never ever be as 'relevant' to the human experience as that neighbour boy down the block. And I HATE IT.

When I have spoken up about this, when I have protested a fictional diet of active men and passive women, when I have cited statistics and studies and anecdotal evidence, I have repeatedly been told to sit down and shut up, to get the chip off my shoulder, to forget about female representation, because there are more important things to worry about. But I do not sit down, and I do not shut up, and for this I make enemies and I shed a LOT of tears. I am familiar with the experience of being told I do not matter.

Additionally, I have serious mental illness. To be more specific, I have lived with moderate-to-severe anxiety and depression since I was about five years old. Sometimes it's not so bad. Sometimes it's a living hell. Currently, as I write this, I am living through one of the worst depressive episodes of my entire life. Some days, it takes literally everything I have to get out of bed by 9 AM, eat, shower, exercise, read my scriptures, pray, watch a couple YouTube videos, and go to bed at a reasonable hour without killing myself. I am not saying this because I want your pity. I do not want your pity. I am not saying this because I want you to worry about me. You do not need to worry about me, although I will happily accept any good thoughts and prayers you want to send my way. I am saying this because I am sick and tired of living with a legitimately life-threatening illness that everyone pretends isn't real. I am saying this because the other night as I was sobbing in my mom's bed because all my broken brain would show me was repeated demands that I smash my brains out against a wall, that I hurt myself cut myself kill myself MAKE IT STOP, part of me was STILL whispering, "you know this isn't really a thing. mental illness isn't a thing, and if it is, you don't have it. you're probably just selfish. you're doing it for attention. grow up and get a life."

Not okay. This is not okay. I am no longer okay with living a world where the thing which threatens my life is dismissed as laziness, or bad character, or immaturity. I am a hard worker. I have to be, to stay alive. I am a positive thinker. I have to be, TO STAY ALIVE. I have more willpower than you would freaking believe. EVIDENCE: I AM STILL ALIVE. I keep the door to self-harm or suicide tightly shut, locked and superglued, and I get up every morning and go at another day in spite of living in a world which tells me I had better not exist, and where there is next to no one like me represented in the media.

I know what it's like to be discriminated against. I know what it's like to be marginalized.

I don't know what it's like for you.

I do not know what it is like to be targeted by racism, by homophobia, by transphobia, by physical ablism, or by any of the other things that make YOUR life hell. I cannot even imagine wearing my differentness on my skin. I could pretend I do, try to compare it to the way I experience sexism or the fear I sometimes experience as a woman, but we both know it's not the same.

I have spent most of my life in an unusually homogenous environment. For the last eight years, I have lived in a small town that is not only overwhelmingly white, but in which 80% of people belong to the same Christian faith. This is not good preparation for writing diversity.

I am aware that the burden is on me to educate myself. Problem is, self-education has proven to be more difficult than it looked in the commercials. This is partially because of my anxiety issues, and partially due to a horrific tendency I have of speaking before I think and the fact that I tend to try to lighten all moods with humour ... which usually results in me saying something hideously offensive and then I want to crawl into a hole and die because A) my ignorance is showing, and B) I KNOW WHAT THAT'S LIKE. I have been the one cringing in my seat because someone else just said something nauseatingly sexist, or they have innocently reflected a whole society's worth of damaging stereotypes about the mentally ill. I know what it's like to be hurt by someone who's not intending to hurt you, but is just accidentally stupid today. And I have also been that stupid person. All the freaking time.††

And all this is made even worse when I see white, straight, cis authors (who appear to genuinely care) make attempts at including diverse characters in their fiction, and mess up, and then I see the Internet rip them to pieces and spit on the remains. And I get it. I get that the voice of the privileged should not take precedence in conversations about marginalized groups. But when I see privileged authors who attempt to write inclusive fiction villainized for their mistakes, the message I get is YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE. WE DO NOT WANT YOU HERE. GET BACK TO YOUR SIDE OF THE PLAYGROUND AND NEVER COME BACK.

And then I think, oh crap. If I attempt this, I am going to mess up so bad. And so I slink away and write another MS with another white protagonist, in a very white cast where everybody is straight and able and Hollywood beautiful. Because it's safe. Because it's where I'm comfortable. Because, ultimately, no one wants to be where they do not feel wanted. Not even straight, able-bodied, white people.

And yet I still want to write diversely, because honestly? Although POC writers should absolutely be the loudest voices in fiction about POC, although queer writers are the MOST IMPORTANT sources of queer representation, although women know best how to write about women and we mentally ill writers SHOULD represent the mentally ill, I honestly do not believe that our society will ever progress to the place it needs to reach unless those who are privileged put in the effort and the courage to write about those who are not like them. Plain and simple.

Unless men write about women, white people write about POC, and the mentally able learn to write stories about the mentally ill, marginalized authors will always be "niche." Nothing is ever going to get better, and I will continue to write long, rambly blog posts with random passages bolded. I don't know about you, but to me, that future looks pretty bleak.

So, please, CORRECT MY MISTAKES. Correct all the mistakes, because bad representation is worse than no representation, and those who are not oppressed do not know what the heck they're saying about those who are. When I do something racist, or homophobic, or otherwise hurtful, PLEASE, please, PLEASE CALL ME OUT ON IT, and EXPLAIN. Otherwise I will never get better. You will never get better. None of us will ever get any better.

Just ... try to show a little compassion, if you can. Try to have a little patience, even with the ignorant. Especially with the ignorant. Because some of us are like five-year-olds, and we speak before we think, and we will make stupid mistakes, because we have not hurt like you have, and we do not understand.

Help us understand. And by all means, make your voices heard. You are the only ones who can get us out of this mess.


[P.S. I'm not editing this post, because I've learnt long ago that if I 'edit' something for postage online, I will end up deleting the whole thing. So I'm just going to post it, and you can let me know if you see any typos or otherwise strange things I should fix? Thanks. Really, really thanks. <3 S]
* Is that a word? Let's pretend that's a word.

** Of water. As a Mormon health food junkie, I strongly advocate the drinking of water. You can, of course, drink whatever you want. But I suggest water.

*** In animated movies/this is an approximation/blah, blah, blah. I don't really want to nitpick about statistics. You can look them up yourself if you want.

† I have not officially been diagnosed, because ????. I have had a handful of doctors say things like, "Yup, you have depression," and "I think you just have serious depression," to which I reply, "You don't say, I never would have figured that out thank you for your help." /sarcasm

†† If you know me in real life, you are nodding along. I have the insatiable curiosity of a novelist and the tact of your average five-year-old. Baaad combination. On so many levels.

††† Lots of things have happened on Twitter since I wrote this post. (This post originally happened because of things said on Twitter.) I have a lot of different thoughts, and conflicting thoughts, and new thoughts. But here is the ultimate thought:

With my writing, I want to help people more than I hurt them.

I don't know how to do that. I don't know if that's possible.

Maybe the only way is to write lots of books about white, straight, cis, mentally ill girls like me, or maybe there is a place for my carefully-researched-novels that will never ever ever measure up to the Real Thing -- books by people who have LIVED the experiences they're writing about. It's hard, because I know the industry is biased towards me right now, through no virtue of my own, and so any 'diverse' books I publish will tend to obscure the voices we really need, by making people think that's enough, we have diversity, game over. When really, what matters is the diversity behind the author name, and I'm not it.

For once in my life, I really don't know what to do. That's where this post came from, even if it doesn't communicate it clearly. I want to find out what I'm supposed to do. It seems that I am, by default, part of the problem. I want to do whatever I can to change that, but I will need the help of people like you to figure out how.