BY RACHEL LAKE
I loved going to graduate school and being immersed in writing. Having the opportunity to study with my mentors and peers was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life—and I learned a lot during the two years it took for me to get my degree. But there was something auspiciously missing from most of our discussions—how to create diverse characters.
Junot Diaz talked about his experiences at Cornell where he felt alienated in an institution without any POC—people of color—as members of their writing faculty. I had the good fortune of attending an MFA program that was more diverse; I worked with faculty who belonged to different ethnicities, professors who were queer, religious, progressive, atheist, professors who challenged gender conformity and offered reading lists on authors who came from a myriad of different backgrounds. The problem was that we never applied multiculturalism to writing specifically—in other words, we didn’t talk about how to create diverse characters. Race, disability, sexual orientation, religion—these issues were never brought up in fiction workshops, even though we often read examples of other authors exploring these themes.
When I was a kid, I remember using oil pastels to draw one day. I was experimenting with skin tone and shading when I started to get nervous. Was it okay for me to draw someone who belonged to a different race? I thought about the portrait I’d drawn of a girl with dark skin and braids and worried that somehow, I wasn’t qualified to finish it. The same doubt creeps into my writing. There’s the old adage, write what you know, and I worry that what I think I know about other people—what I’ve observed, the books I’ve read, the discussions I’ve heard about other people’s first-hand experiences—isn’t enough to create a realistic and sincere character. As a woman, for example, can I ever come to understand what it’s like to be a gay man? No, not entirely. So should I write the character?
One of the problems is that I come from the generation that was taught to be "color blind" when it comes to anything resembling a cultural identity different that WASP. When my friend in high school tried to talk to me about her mixed heritage, I told her she wasn’t black or white, she was purple. I didn’t mean to be flippant or dismissive (even though I was). I reacted ignorantly, and even if my intentions weren’t bad, the results (whitewashing, invalidation) were absolutely wrong. Multiculturalism is something I’ll spend my whole life trying to understand, and I know I’ll have more blunders in the future—which is why it’s so important to address it even when it makes us uncomfortable.
I don’t mean to suggest that writing diverse characters is something that could be taught in a workshop. Sure, you can talk about the Bechdel Test (which is a great tool), and why diversity is important in the media, but it isn’t in the nature of people (or characters) to be static. Like any other aspect to writing, there isn’t a formula. Still, I think that it needs to be included in workshops more than its current manifestation as a looming but silent taboo, something everyone is too afraid to talk about.
Midnight Breakfast contributor MariNaomi interviewed various comic artists and writers to assemble an illustrated guide to writing POC characters that I’ve saved to my desktop for guidance whenever I find myself at a loss. Although this obviously doesn’t cover anywhere near the breadth of the issue of representation in literature, the advice in this guide is truly indispensable, and it seems appropriate to end with one of my favorite quotes from the article by Jennifer Camper: "Creating only white characters to avoid writing about race is writing about race, albeit in a manner that is unrealistic, sad, and boring."
Rachel Lake is a graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program and lives in Queens with her partner and two cats. Her work has previously appeared in Bodega, Spry Literary Journal, Stone Highway Review, and Glassworks. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and poems. To reach Rachel, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’d love to hear from you!