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Writing Diverse Characters in Contentious Times: Take the Risk

Ten years ago, I walked into an appointment with a New York agent who liked my work, and with one look at me as I came through the doorway, my dreams of representation were history. “I thought you were a black writer. We can’t possibly sell your mystery about a black family written by a white author.” Since then, I’ve been collecting thoughts on this false assumption.

Despite Trump-era nationalism, a growing number of our planet’s inhabitants live in multi-cultural environments. And it’s only going to become more so. I can understand how it raises fear of change and disenfranchisement. White privilege is slowly on its way out. Sorry folks, all the marching in the streets with torches, chanting Nazi slogans and murdering innocent pedestrians is not going to stop it.

Embrace the future. I can’t imagine writing just about a bunch of white people. I’m white, but I’m also part of a melting pot that needs a wide variety of ingredients to serve up a world-class comfort soup.

Racial, ethnic and sexual politics are at the core of our shared history. In my Lucy Vega and Beatrice Middleton series I step inside a black woman’s head and share the things as genuinely I can—devotion to family, seeking the truth and fighting for love and justice. I chose to focus more on our shared humanity than on race.

There are no easy answers on how to write people who are not ourselves. Why should there be? Incorporating diversity has been a tough subject in society from the beginning and is only bigger and more difficult lately. As Susan Triss says this in her Sisters in Crime article Cultural Diversity in Mystery Novels: In our writing lives, I think a good start is to really listen to what people say and how they say it, to research, to question our own assumptions, and to be respectful. A caricature of any kind, a hateful name, even a stereotyped compliment, has no place in honest writing.

The author may not always get it right, but that’s life. Take the risk and open the dialogue.


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