One of my most anticipated sessions at Desert Nights, Rising Stars was with YA writer Malinda Lo on Writing Diversity: How To & Why Not. Malinda began by explaining that she’d proposed the topic as a way of addressing questions she is constantly being asked about who has permission to write what, how to write diversity well, and how to avoid criticism. She started by noting that ‘diversity’ is an imperfect word, ‘shorthand’ for people of colour, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and disabled people, ‘in other words, everyone who is not the white, straight, cisgender, abled norm’. She then answered the question of who has the right to write diverse characters very directly, saying, ‘Every writer has the right to write whatever they want, but every reader has the right to read what they want.’ (For Malinda, this means choosing not to read white men writing on Chinese women). She added that writers not only have rights but also responsibilities, and that to write diversity well means doing the work — there are no shortcuts.
In terms of the ‘why/why not’, Malinda’s first point was to ask ‘Why do you want to write it?’ If your intention comes from guilt, however well-meaning, this will colour your story and is unlikely to result in good writing. Better to appease your white guilt by buying books written by people of colour. Loving another culture – or more commonly, a single aspect of another culture – is also seldom grounds enough to write about it, often resulting in the fetishisation of that culture. ‘Allow your love to take you a little deeper,’ Malinda advised. Her second question to ask was ‘What privileges do you have?’ Unless you are made aware of your privilege, she said, your writing is likely to lead to oversights and biases. She directed us to resources on her website www.malindalo.com (click on ‘blog’) that address privilege. Her third question was, ‘What power differentials are involved?’ Here she highlighted the self-doubt that results from growing up, not seeing yourself reflected in anything (books, movies, etc). She noted that white writers risk oversimplifying matters because we have not had this experience.
In terms of ‘How to’, Malinda’s take home message was: ‘Do you research with humility and respect — there are no shortcuts.’ Step 1 is ‘Approach with Humility’. Do not mistake your hobbies for expertise. Respect the culture that you’re writing about. Step 2 is ‘Avoid cultural misappropriation’. Cultural misappropriation, Malinda said, ‘occurs when a more powerful culture cheerypicks aspects of a subordinate culture and uses those cultural artefacts in a way that is completely divorced from its original context or intention.’ It ‘is not the same as cultural exchange or cultural appreciation’. It is fine and natural to be inspired by another culture, but you need to be aware of context to avoid stripping away meaning. Research is an important part of this, and it means ‘moving beyond Wikipaedia’ to Step 3, ‘Do your research. There are no shortcuts.’ Effective and thorough research involves reflection, reading a lot and asking a lot of questions. Paying ‘sensitivity readers’, better called ‘cultural experts’, is also recommended, though Malinda noted that as a writer, you don’t have to take all their advice. She added that there is no way of doing research that avoids making mistakes altogether; and that criticism is ‘not the end of the world’ but rather an opportunity to learn. Two novels recommended as effective examples of authors writing across cultural boundaries are: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olin Butler, and The Boat by Nam Le (that last one was my suggestion).
Prior to Malinda’s session, in an effort to step outside my usual comfort zone, I attended a panel called Where do we go from here? – After the Apocalypse with Matt Bell, Benjamin Percy and Paolo Bacigalupi. This fascinating panel took in differences between dystopian (‘the world got broke’) and post-Apocalyptic (‘the world is falling apart and we slowly have to put it back together’) literature, how post-apocalyptic literature reflects the anxiety of the age, and the ethics of writing violence. Matt Bell and Benjamin Percy try to avoid writing violence that is enjoyable, less it spills into what Benjamin called ‘gore-nography’. Paolo felt that imposing moral judgments on what should and shouldn’t be writing closes off avenues of creative exploration. Any violence, he suggested, should align with the values of the overall story. There was also discussion about how to avoid didacticism in post-apocalyptic fiction – or how to be political without being polemical. One suggestion was to avoid giving good people good values and bad people bad values. Another was to think beyond simplistic concepts – such as the ‘strong man’ structure (good vs evil) at the heart of novels like The Hunger Games – in favour of more complex models. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood were among the authors recommended for their non-didactic fiction.
For my final session of the day, I had the great privilege of being a late ring-in for a panel called Writing borderlands: Geographic and personal boundaries with Acoma Pueblo Nation poet and author Simon Ortiz and author Benjamin Alire Sáenz. I mostly listened to my fellow panellists as they talked about their experiences of marginalisation – ‘growing up as Americans even if we don’t feel American’, as Simon put it – and the importance of resistance. Benjamin, who grew up in the ‘liminal space’ of the US-Mexico border, argued that ‘borders are false’. In a blistering critique, he said that ‘borders are to keep poor people out. Rich people can go anywhere – there are no borders for them.’ He added that Americans ‘are not taught to break down borders, we’re taught to build walls.’ My own small contribution was to challenge the idea that Australia was a land without borders, with reference to the AIATSIS map of Indigenous languages that shows the boundaries that existed prior to white invasion, and to talk a little about being a white writer aware of this legacy. (I added that I would not have been on such a panel had there been an Indigeous Australian in the room). I had a couple of participants tell me later that the AIATSIS map was a real eye-opener for them.
After a faculty dinner (‘faculty’ being the collective noun for conference guests/teaching staff) at ASU, a few of us kicked on at Casey Moore’s Oyster Bar, stopping for last drinks at the Gringo Star in Tempe, where we talked about the value (or not) of social media to writers. Upshot: it don’t sell books, it takes up a lot of time, it connects you to your readers (maybe) and also to trolls. Merry-go-round and swings, really. An intense, inspiring day.