Diversity Myths by Steph Bowe
One of the many great reasons to read fiction is that it helps to develop our empathy. Fiction allows us to imagine life as it isn’t, to really get inside someone else’s head and see things from their perspective. The trouble, of course, is that if you’re reading to expand your worldview, there are a whole lot of novels out there that only represent a very limited set of experiences.
If you’re a heterosexual, cis-gender, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle-class white person, most characters in Young Adult fiction are going to look like you, and are going to be easy to identify with. But they aren’t likely to challenge your preconceived beliefs and ideals, or have you imagining the world from another perspective.
If you belong to a cultural or religious minority, if you’re LGBTQ+, neurodiverse or have a disability, or if your identity is one of many others that are rarely represented in fiction, you’re going to find it a whole lot more difficult to find characters that resemble you. When you feel different in real life, finding stories you can relate to is immensely comforting. Every young person deserves to see themselves reflected in fiction.
This is why movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices are so important, and the increasing diversity in Young Adult fiction – both the people writing it and the novels being published – is so exciting. But, as with all new cultural movements, some of the old guard of writers are resistant – stemming, I think, from a lack of understanding about what writing diversity actually means. So, let’s break down some of the mistaken beliefs people have around what it means to write fiction while considering diversity.
MYTH #1: Writing diversity is writing about ‘issues’
Some people think that diversity is somehow ‘issues’ based. It’s not. Young people with many different identities and experiences exist and have always existed, and the idea that there’s a default is clearly false – it’s just been reinforced by seeing so many stories that represent dominant experiences and identities in our culture. To write novels that feature totally homogenous characters is not only boring, it’s completely unrealistic.
MYTH #2: Writing diverse stories is promoting an agenda
There’s also the idea that deliberately writing diverse stories is a kind of overt agenda and doesn’t belong in literature. How trying to create fictional worlds that better reflect reality is an agenda is beyond me. But regardless of how we go about writing it, we are conveying our worldviews in our fiction – much of it with little conscious awareness. Your work is informed by who you are as a person, the world in which you grew up, and your political and social and religious beliefs, among many other factors.
When you write without really interrogating these things, you tend to default to what you’ve been indoctrinated with or what is familiar to you. This is why there are so many old fantasy novels where, in worlds full of dragons and magic and elves, men and women still fulfill stereotypical roles – because they’re written by people in our world, who have grown up in a patriarchal society.
This is why I think it’s incredibly important as a writer to consciously think about how to better reflect reality and ensure that any implicit attitudes or beliefs we have aren’t sneaking into our work – like the idea of the white, straight character as ‘default’. The wider culture of society affects writers, but writers also have a chance, through their work, to affect change in culture. I would so much rather write novels that are inclusive, compassionate and thoughtful.
MYTH #3: Freedom of expression is under threat
Some writers are opposed to the idea that they have to be thoughtful and considered when writing about minority groups they themselves do not belong to. I have heard people invoke terms like ‘thought police’, as if their creative freedom is being trampled upon. The suggestion that socially privileged writers take into consideration the perspective of disempowered members of society before writing about them is hardly Orwellian. Writers in positions of privilege writing about oppressed people with little regard for offending or misrepresenting them seems far worse.
Here are some things that I think are helpful to remember: When you’re writing outside your life experience, research is essential. Have respect for the real people who share that identity, listen to and learn from those people, and know when it isn’t your story to tell. Support marginalised #OwnVoices writers. Always be willing to evolve, and reassess your beliefs. Hopefully in twenty years the homogeneity of publishing will be a thing of the past, and YA will be more exciting and more diverse than ever. I’m looking forward to it.
Steph Bowe was born in Melbourne in 1994 and lives in Queensland. She has written two other YA novels: Girl Saves Boy and All This Could End. She is a Stella Prize School Ambassador for Queensland and a 2016 May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellow.
Steph's novel Night Swimming is out now from Text Publishing
(Photo credit: Catherine Lowe)