On Writing Diversity

While I write, my main question is always: “What will make this story more interesting?” It’s not like I’m trying to meet a quota or anything; I just find diversity more interesting than a lack thereof. That’s from my own experience. And, of course, I do always have the option not to. But diversity is interesting to me.

There’s merit in narratives about people struggling with their identity, but those aren’t the kinds of stories I want to tell. Which doesn’t mean identity is absent from my stories, it just isn’t the main conflict. This reflects my own experience. I also think narratives about people who aren’t straight/cis/White/able-bodied and -minded/skinny/etc. should not be limited to conflict over their identities.

Because, to be frank, I’m tired of Asian characters’ conflicts being purely about their heritage. Like the age-old microaggression, “Where are you from— no where are you really from?”, requiring that all Asian American narratives be about their origins, and struggling with their heritage, is like saying “you must feel like you don’t belong here (because you aren’t white).” Which is patently untrue. We have every right to feel like we belong. And part of that is being able to read fiction about ourselves, and not being shoehorned into the role of the perpetual foreigner.

It’s hard to find fiction with Asian characters that’s #ownvoices—I’ve found more than a fair share of Asian characters written by white people, whether they “do it right”* or not. There’s also the difference between literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction. While it’s not exactly easy to find stories about Asian Americans, it’s a sight easier to find literary (see: Joy Luck Club, The Samurai’s Garden) and upmarket fiction (see: The Ghost Bride, Shelter) with Asian protagonists than commercial genre fiction (I can’t think of any, but if you have recs I’m all ears). Which doesn’t mean it’s hopeless; there are writers like Zen Cho, Aliette De Bodard, Ted Chiang, and Ken Liu, all of whom are excellent. But the fact of the matter is, I can name all of them and count them on one hand whereas there are countless white writers of commercial genre fiction.

*According to Ellen Oh, “Libba Bray, Laurie Halse Anderson, Shannon Hale, Martha Brockenbrough, Miranda Paul” and “Ryan Graudin and Leza Lowitz”. I have not read any of these authors and so cannot comment.

In commercial genre fiction, the plot drives the story, not the characters and their inner conflicts. I’ve seen hardly any genre fiction starring Asian American characters. When I was writing Witchstone, in which the protagonist, Cal, is Chinese American, I could have written about feelings of isolation with regard to being American born Chinese, or the fight against cultural or familial tradition as so many others have written. Instead, I decided to write a story about a more external conflict: A hunt and a murder mystery. Cal’s identity conflicts don’t drive the story. Cal’s biggest concern is the world around him, not anything internal.

I chose to write Witchstone this way because characters are more than their identities. It’s reductive to write diverse characters whose only conflict or effect on a story is related to what they are. It’s another form of stereotyping. The point is, their goals and motivations should be as many and varied as characters who are white/straight/cis/able-bodied and -minded/skinny/etc. The point is, craft your characters with intent, knowledge, and sensitivity. The point is, diversity is important—not only the diversity of the characters but the diversity of their narratives.