Is your hometown diverse? What about your books?

I’m in the final stages of preparing my new novel, Hangar 18: Legacy, for release. And here in the U.S., it’s Dr. Martin Luther King Day, where we celebrate the life of Dr. King and his fight for civil rights–equality for all people regardless of race or gender. As I worked through the final proofread and formatting of my book, I noticed it had a fairly diverse cast.

Teenagers JumpingDid I do this intentionally? Yes and no. It was something I thought about, for my book takes place in Dayton, specifically at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. And neither would be accurate if it wasn’t racially diverse.

Lisa Stark, the heroine of Hangar 18, is Asian.This was intentional: as a child adopted by white Americans, in an all-white small town, she looked different, but really wasn’t–she’s as American as I am. In contrast, my hero looks like a typical military guy, but he has unique, psychic abilities. But with other characters, I didn’t necessarily plan them to be black or Hispanic, I just imagined them that way. And no, they aren’t all in stereotypical, subservient roles, but do a variety of jobs–just like in real life. I’d like to think that I imagined a diverse cast of characters because this mimics real life.

My Saturn Society books are similar. Some characters just appeared to me as non-white. For example, the head of the Dayton Saturn Society House, Chad Everly, is Hispanic. Since the time-travel ability originated in Latin America, this leads into some interesting backstory for him, which isn’t in any of the books (yet). Theodore Pippin, who ran the Dayton Saturn Society House in the 1930s, is black, and that was done for a reason. At first he wasn’t, but I had a problem: he was in pursuit of Tony, the main character, but I needed a reason he couldn’t just walk into the restaurant where Tony was eating and apprehend him.

TimesEnemy211The solution was perfect, as it fit into the time period. It also emphasized how monumental a thing Tony had done by going into the past. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Tony hesitated as he reached for the door handle of Irving’s Restaurant. The narrow, old frame structure and its hand-lettered front window reminded him of the tobacco shop where he and Charlotte had found refuge during the flood.

But it was the sign above the door that made the enormity of what he’d done hit him like a sucker punch to the gut: Whites Only.

He’d gone back a century in time by will alone. A time where men still tipped their hats to women—ladies—and offered them their seats on the bus, and no one got offended. A time before civil rights, when it was acceptable to deny someone entrance to a public establishment solely on the basis of race. Even an honest, respectable businessman like his friend Bernie.

Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of people like Dr. King, it’s hard for me to imagine this kind of discrimination, as I can’t remember a time when it was allowed. As Dr. King said, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go. Discrimination was real (and unfortunately still is, albeit to a lesser extent), it was historically accurate, and giving my book a diverse cast helped me to lend this extra little bit of historical authenticity to Time’s Enemy.

What about you–have you read books where everyone was white-bread American, or were they diverse? If they didn’t reflect reality, did you notice? Have you read any good, racially-diverse books lately–or any where the historical lack of civil rights was a key part of the story? I’d love to hear from you!

12 Responses to \

  1. This is an excellent issue to raise, today especially. I grew up during the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s, and remember the sad day when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I joined hundreds of white people who participated in a Procession of Penance through the streets of Baltimore the following weekend. Our society is far from perfect yet on this issue but we’ve come a long, long way.

    I think if we authors immerse ourselves in the time and place of our works, the appropriate level of diversity comes out. My books are set in the Baltimore area. Maryland was founded by Lord Baltimore as a colony where his fellow Roman Catholics could flee the persecution they were suffering at the hands of Protestant England at the time. But Lord B insisted that the colony allow religious freedom (one of the first to do so). I think this is part of why Maryland and Baltimore are very diverse today.

    My main character, Kate Huntington, is a lapsed Roman Catholic of Irish descent. But as I started to populate her life with friends and acquaintances, some of them were just naturally African-American or Hispanic. They are fully assimilated and successful members of the mainstream culture, but I love letting little glimpses of their ethnic heritage show now and again, such as when Kate’s boss, a black woman whom Kate describes as “the quintessential professional,” lets a “honey child” slip out. Or when Kate’s friend, Rose Hernandez, who’s tough as nails, mutters a “Dios mio!” and makes the sign of the cross when things get dicey.

    Your time travel books have been on my TBR list for awhile. I think I’m going to bump them up, especially Time’s Enemy. It sounds great! My hat is off to you, Jennette, that you are willing to research the social climate of both now and the past in order to write these stories.

  2. I read a lot of YA. Last year there was a big discussion about YA covers and how it’s rare to see diversity on them. You’ve got me thinking now what I notice in this regard in the stories. I do see some diversity in what I’m reading and my own writing, but I’m not sure how much of it was purposeful or a reflection of what I know. Very interesting topic…

  3. Like Coleen said above, your article really got me thinking more about diversity. I just released a YA titled Robin in the Hood where the conflict is between wealthy whites and so-called white “trailer trash,” but now I realize I need to spread my net even wider. Great topic!

  4. I love that you’re asking this question, especially today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. The book that comes to mind right now is The Help by Kathryn Stockett because I blogged about the controversy the book stirred up at the time. Some critics questioned whether Stockett was right/wrong to write from a black woman’s perspective, also because she used slight ebonics in the voices of her characters. I’m of the opinion that any writer can create a character and its part of our job to do research about that person, especially if you’re writing a book surrounded by historical events.

    As for YA books, I think I see more vampires than actual diversity. LOL. I think television has gotten much better, but I don’t know about literature. I bet with the way the publishing industry is going, and self publishing increasing, we’re going to see more simply because more people will be writing and publishing their books.

    Happy Martin Luther King Day! Thanks for posing this question!

  5. Kassandra – your books sound like they’re a good representation of a diverse Baltimore! I love the examples you gave of characters’ ethnic heritage slipping out. 🙂 And thanks for your kind words about my books!

    Coleen, I think I remember reading something about the lack of diversity in YA a while back. And I have to admit, the YA book I wrote for NaNoWriMo had all white characters – though I suspect that was a reflection of my own experience in a rural/suburban high school. Good reminder!

    Diane, thanks! Thing is, honest, hardworking people come in all colors – and so do thugs and lowlifes. Sounds like you got that part right!

    Jess, when writing books that deal with race in a historical setting, it’s always a question of political correctness vs. historical accuracy. I struggled with this in Time’s Enemy, where the restaurant owner called Pippin an offensive name. Couldn’t bring myself to use the worst one, but there are plenty of others, and that fit with his character. And LOL at YA – I bet you’re right!

  6. Great questions, Jennette. My town is very diverse and in my day job I work with a very culturally and racially diverse population. In my own stories, there is diversity in some, others are not. Sometimes I make deliberate decisions to include or exclude a specific race, other times it’s a subconscious thing. I like to think it’s mostly a matter of story. I’m certain the reality is that it’s based on my life’s experience.

  7. What an interesting question Jennette. How diverse is my area? There is a lot of asian people, namely Japanese and Vietnamise. And hispanic to be politically correct. 🙂 Funny, but we really dont see that much of these cultures in books. Or maybe I am missing that? You bought up a great point. I was just thinking about this earlier today as a matter of fact. Hmm. You’ve got my wheels churning girl. Sounds like your book is almost ready to be hatched! 🙂

  8. Where I notice it for me is that I often have Hispanics in my writing. Growing up in South Texas, I can hardly imagine a world without Rodriguezes, Lunas, Garcias, et al. I forget at times that not everyone even knows how to pronounce Villareal. I also have a mixed-race (black/white) character in a prominent role in my first novel. I don’t think about writing diversity, though. It’s just there because we’re diverse. It’s that “write what you know” approach, I suppose.

    Thank God for people who stood up in this country for racial equality, like Dr. King, so that my generation and others could experience such diversity.

  9. Lynette, it’s always best when it serves the story!

    Karen, I know there have been specific lines and imprints especially for Latina and African-American romance. These often also get their own section in the bookstore, which makes it easier for those specifically looking for them, but unfortunate for others who may be looking for a good story but miss them. Glad my post made you think!

    Julie, I definitely picture a lot of Hispanic people when I think of Texas! And cool that you have a biracial character.

  10. Great topic. This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to recently. I actually cut out several characters in streamlining one of my manuscript and lost some of my ethic individuals as a result. I try to pick the players in an effort to be diversity conscious.But I think that has been more of a recent choice. In the begining I wrote what I knew.

  11. Debra, it sounds like you’re making a conscious effort to make your books more true-to-life, which is important even in fantasy!

  12. Pingback: Link Feast For Writers, vol. 38 | Reetta Raitanen's Blog