There are few things I like better than dressing up. I have gilded memories of the costumes my immensely talented Nanna made for me and the Halloween theme at this year’s SCBWI Conference was a gift for me.
I also loved dolls with national costumes: I so yearned after a glossy satin Flamenco dancer in the Canary Isles, it hurt. I sought out books and my childish heart went out to those scenes with Children of the World linking hands. I confess: I went all gooey in ‘It’s a Small World’ at Disneyland.
Rarely have I been happier than when my Aunt from the US brought me a cowboy outfit – and a bow-and-arrow set. What I really really wanted was a Tiger Lily outfit, though: eagle feather head dress and everything. Now, I understand, costumes are a subject of dispute. Is it OK to wear a Native American outfit if you’re white? Part of me is very sad if it isn’t.
When I wore my Flamenco dress that Nanna created out of a shiny underskirt and red felt roses, I was Spanish. I had a fan and high heels and my hair piled up with a comb and a lace veil in it. This version of me was haughty and grown-up. I don’t think I was looking down on anyone Hispanic – rather, wistfully yearning to be them.
The same goes for the beautiful women from all over the world I saw in films and cartoons and illustrations. I’ve been a ‘South Sea Islander’ from South Pacific, a Russian Princess and Heaven knows what else out of the dressing-up box. I used to draw children in national costumes – and was ever so disappointed England didn’t really have one.
I do understand they were stereotypes. I know there is far more depth and variety to any aspect of Chinese culture than, say, Lin Tang the splendidly villainous daughter of Fu Manchu or much more to say about black women than Lieutenant Uhura. Yet they were characters I loved to be – and they weren’t white.
It’s a similar issue with books. I wholeheartedly want there to be more diverse books in every possible dimension. Long ago I took on the teaching:
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
― Mahatma Gandhi
I must be open to characters of any kind in my work.
A few years back, after a visit to the National Maritime Museum, a young black man ‘asked’ to be part of my Work-in-Progress. I wanted to do the right thing – so I went to the top: I asked Malorie Blackman.
‘Treat him with the same respect you would any other character,’ she said, ‘ do your research.’
So I did. And I learned all sorts of wonderful, terrible and unexpected stories. As it happened, Abednego took a bow – though he waits for his own story, I think. But one thing really stuck with me – the criticism of white writers, film-makers and so on who tried to show anyone who wasn’t the same as them.
I have absolutely no doubt that much is deserved reproof. I am braced to accept that I am over-sensitive, and that as a privileged, white woman [ oh do I hate those labels!] I haven’t a an angsty middleclass leg to stand on. Yet, to be frank and vulnerable, it put me right off trying.
I had no intention of tokenism, cultural imperialism or recreating Magic Negro stereotypes: I didn’t know what they were. The more I read, the more confused I became – and the more worried. The bolder part of me wanted to carry on regardless. Everyone has the same sort of lungs and spleen and tendons whatever shade of skin they bear – so they feel the same beneath, surely?
Yet I also knew that a person’s background shapes those feelings and how they are manifest. I just didn’t want to get it wrong. So I suppose I ducked it. When I reckoned up the gender balance and there were far too many male characters, Abednego disappeared. I miss him.
Portrait of Olaudah Equiano
Three key incidents confirmed my decision. Early on, I watched Rich Hall’s fascinating documentary ‘Inventing The Indian.’ Sadly, it’s not currently on i-player, though there’s a clip to give you a flavour. The main thread was how the media’s portrayal of Native American Peoples has born so little resemblance to their own truth. I knew some of this and learnt more.
Then the presenter got to ‘Thunderheart‘. He tore into it and I felt distraught. I had loved the film and OK, rather belatedly, it had made me respect Sioux culture. Was my judgement so crap? Had I no idea about anyone else but my narrow community?
Second was reviewing ‘Ghost Hawk’ by Susan Cooper. Although the book has its flaws, I thought the Pokonoket Indian boy’s journey to manhood both bold and fascinating. I mentioned this to a friend – whom I really, really respect. I think she would describe herself as ‘a person of colour’. She was not impressed. My mouth closed. My heart sank. How could I have got it so very wrong?
The third was another writer friend. She had been shortlisted in a competition promoting diversity. She had said how disappointed and small she felt when she went onto the stage for the awards. There in front was a sea of hopeful faces of every colour – but on the stage, the writers were all the same: white.
Neither she nor I can help our family background. I truly, truly wish there to be more diverse books written by more diverse authors – featuring characters of every stripe. And these books shouldn’t be shoved into a worthy-and-improving ghetto.
Griffon on the front
It’s perhaps only a small thing but I was enraged by the difference in the two covers for a book I was writing about for Serendipity Reviews – ‘Transcendence’ by CJ Omololu. One clearly showed the mixed heritage [am I even supposed to say that?] love interest – but the other ditched him. Being seen is crucial. Books are both windows – and mirrors.
So that leaves me with a big question to which I have no answer. Is it better to have more characters from different backgrounds which are not that well done – or a fewer that portray cultures more accurately?
For myself, I tend towards the better-a-bit-of-a-caricature-than-nothing camp. Stalking invisible elk in plastic beaded moccasins is better than never trying at all.
You may well have different view – I would welcome the debate.
Some resources you might enjoy too:
An illustrated guide to writing people of color
Long list of History’s greatest Black achievers.
Happy to add more – just tell me in the comments.