Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On Writing Diverse Characters...and Moving Past Passive Aggression

What do you do when you stumble across a book that is so hurtful you physically recoil? These past few months, I've developed an almost pathological obsession with such a book. Every time I see mention of it, I flinch and my gut roils. I subtweet about it. I message friends and wonder what, if anything, can be done about it. And I tried to just grin and bear it. I know, I know, you're all thinking, "Suleikha, why didn't you just call this out publicly? That's what you do."

Yeah, that's what I do. And that's what exhausts me, what makes many label me as histrionic or one of those Angry Women of Color who doesn't want white people writing diverse books. Inevitably, one way or another, the hurtful book will still continue to hurt me. I will be the Bad Guy. Sure, sometimes it can be fun, even vindicating, to be the Bad Guy. But, mostly, it eats at you. Because you know that calling out race-fail is ultimately worse than writing something racist. That's the lesson we're taught. Being a whistleblower often means you get the blowback.  

So, I'm going to try and channel my anger and frustration into something more positive. Here are five basic things to keep in mind while writing a character of color, in particular characters of South Asian origin.

Chandramukhi is not here for your bullshit.
1. There are more roles for WOC in both historical and contemporary settings than prostitute or stripper. East Asians, Indians and black women do not exist to be your geisha, your white hero's exotic piece of sex candy or bout of Jungle Fever. It's not all that groundbreaking to write a biracial or multiracial prostitute in historical times; it's kinda lazy because you're assuming that's the only income available to a woman of color. It's also not all that complimentary, unless you're trying to reclaim sex work as a positive subject for romance. So, try something new! I've always wanted to be pirate. Somebody write me a Bengali girl pirate!

His name is Anthony Gonsalves. He's alone in the world.
2. Research, research, research. You can't just pluck names out of the air. Names in India, particularly, are rooted in religion, caste, region, etc. Would you name characters from Greenwich, Connecticut, Bobbie Jo and Billy Bob? Probably not. Similarly, Rashmi Patel is Gujarati while Mala Bhattacharjee is Bengali. And a Farah Khan might be from any Indian state, because that's a Muslim name and not a Hindu one. Some names, like Ayesha and Kabir or the surname Choudhury, straddle both Hindu and Muslim usage. But most don't. Sometimes, you can actually build your character's background FROM their name. Because it gives you regional origin and language, religion and, if Hindu, caste.

Basically, making up an Indian name because it sounds pretty is the equivalent of getting a Chinese character tattoo and finding out it means "asshat" instead of "peace."

3. Talk to actual people of color from that area! Social media makes it easier than ever. You have no excuse. I may seem like a ranty beast on the Internets, but I answer TONS of questions for people and direct them to other sources if I don't know the answer.

Funny story: I was moaning about how the hero in my romantic suspense WIP is black and English and "I'm not sure if I'm getting him right," and fellow author Alyssa Cole goes, "My family's black and English. You could just ask me." Duh. Yeah.
4. Writing a diverse book doesn't make you an activist. It makes you a writer. Your book should be your biggest priority. That is your lasting contribution. Ain't no one going to remember that time you tweeted support for a hashtag. Write a solid, well-researched book. That is the best thing you can do for the movement.

5. Let your characters be human. POC aren't paragons. We're not exotic or wise or magical. We put our pants on the same way as everyone else. Sure, there are cultural, religious, sexual and ability factors that make every person unique, but at the core, we're just people. If you can write a werewolf, you can write a black woman. If you can spell Daenerys Targaryen, you can spell Priyanka Gavankar. An Indian guy or a Polynesian may be as sexy as hell, but he's sexy because he's HIM, not because he's Indian or Polynesian. (Trust me, every culture has ugly dudes and unfortunate women. Our race doesn't automatically make us sexy.)

I don't want to be the Bad Guy, folks. I just want to help—so that, ultimately, I don't have to hurt.


  1. Thanks for this excellent & informative post! I've never heard that suggestion about naming before, but it makes perfect sense! My WIP is set in Chennai, so I'll make sure to do more research on names specific to that area.

    1. Yes! Absolutely look into the specific naming traditions of that region. A lot of people forget that India isn't a monolith. It's an unruly union of hundreds of cultures and their languages and dialects.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for this informative post. I will definitely do more research next time when naming Indian characters. It looks like the common baby name websites don't do a very thorough job of showing Indian name origins, so more specialized ones are needed. I thought that as long as both names were Hindi, it would be okay, but I didn't consider regional differences.

    1. Yeah, a lot of Hindu names can cross languages, especially if they're Sanskrit-based. And now that we're in more modern times, many parents name their kids whatever the heck they want regardless of cultural roots (just like in the States!). So, it's the surname that will actually indicate which state they're from and what their mother tongue might be.

  3. Great points about the origin of names, Suleikha. Excellent post. It's funny you mentioned the point about writing a black, British man. I just wrote an interracial romance with a white British male. I spent so much time researching language, but I avoided just asking someone. Seemed too intimidating at the time, but it's the best way to get a real flavor for the region and language.

  4. I researched, I had my book betaread by multiple PoC of the ethnic group and profession I wrote MCs about, names and behaviour were fitting the setting and mixed corporate culture I was describing, and my story still attracted the usual round of SJWs scream murder and bloodshed and maintained I got it wrong, I appropriated, I misused this or that (though, as said, multiple betas of that ethnic group were perfectly fine with these things, or even suggested them) and castigated me for daring to write a PoC main character.

    You know something? I'm done doing that. I will not only not anymore try to write diverse, I will actually avoid writing PoC or ethnic groups other than my own. Life is far too short and I am not masochistic enough to spend months in detailed research and additional proofing, only to become the target of someone with a chip on their shoulder.

    These days any white author who includes PoC "appropriates" and the interpretations of what is right or what is wrong with the included PoC varies so much from one such reader to the next, that you can't satisfy anyone and are guaranteed to get harangued over your daring to write anyone not from your own racial group.

    I decided once and for all that the typical criticism of failing to be diverse is much easier to deal with, then getting lambasted over errors existing only in the minds of people keen on finding something to criticize because there just has to be something there given an author is white.

    Possibly not what this whole diversity movement set out to achieve, but you can't have your cake and eat it too. Something everyone eventually has to learn.

    1. Every time I see this sort of petulant "well then I will just never write about PoC or women and you people brought it on yourselves be being such meanies" from an author, it makes me so sad.

  5. With reference to the comment above, yes when we write characters different from ourselves, we are going to get things wrong, however hard we try and however much we do our homework. I think the trick is to accept that with grace, put things right if we can - and in the meantime to do what we can to support those writers who are writing out of their own experiences and may be struggling to get their voices heard.

  6. Thank you so much! Very informative. Favorite line "if you can write a werewolf, you can write a black woman"

    As a white writer, I've been really struggling with diversity because of fear of backlash, like no matter how well I research, I'll get it wrong. This article has eased some of my fear. And yes, I will make sure I talk to people when I write PoC characters. I don't want to appropriate anyone's culture, I just want to represent the diversity of the world. Not everyone is white. :D