By Candy Gourlay
This time last year I guested on Luna's Little Library Diversity Month. Here's the piece I wrote.
Several times now, teachers and librarians here in the UK have asked me to recommend diverse authors like myself to perform author visits to their schools.
I always oblige, with a list of lovely author friends who I can guarantee will give them a good show ... but it does give me pause to be called a "Diverse Author".
What in the world is a Diverse Author?
Am I a Diverse Author because of the colour of my skin? Am I a Diverse Author because I am an "other" in a country of mainly Anglo-Saxon extraction (which by the way is debatable)?
Am I a Diverse Author because my books feature characters that might look like me, in settings that might look like the places I've lived in?
Am I a Diverse Author because my books reflect cultures that are unfamiliar to my host publisher's context?
Is it because in Britain, I am BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnicity)? In America, I am a POC (Person of Color)? Which makes my children "Biracial" in the United States or "Mixed Race" in the United Kingdom (Ugh! I hate those two words so steeped in colour coding and not in humanity - I prefer Verna Wilkins' term: "Dual Heritage")?
Many years ago I sent out my first attempt at a novel to universal rejection. One of the agents who read my manuscript got back to me with many compliments. She liked my idea, loved the characters and the humour, the little twist in the end, etc. etc. With every compliment, I sank deeper into despair. If she liked it so much, why did she reject my book?
She said since this would have been my debut novel, and it would have been difficult to sell this as my debut because I was Filipino.
You see, I had set the novel in England with English characters. Deliberately. Because all my research had made it eminently clear to me that apart from a few exceptions, there were no brown faces on the covers of books on display in libraries and bookstores. To get published, I was willing to hide behind the anonymity of my husband's English surname.
When I give talks I simplify this story. I say I learned one thing from that agent. It's not just "Write What You Know" ... it's "Write Who You Are". Her advice gave me the courage to writing Filipino characters into my books.
Write Who You Are has been interpreted in many ways.
One could take it as a call to shed all inhibition and truly put your soul into your story.
In one of the stages of mythic structure, the hero must "seize the sword". This I duly did. Except to Write Who You Are, you seize the sword by the blade and not the handle - because one's soul is a delicate thing filled with pain that one would prefer to leave hidden in the shadows.
To seize the sword, I wrote another novel (still unpublished) that explored what it was like to be left behind by a parent, based on the devastation I experienced when my own father left our family behind to work abroad (like 11 per cent of the population in the Philippines ... but that's another story).
One could also interpret Write Who You Are as linking your book to your own story as a good marketing platform. But this is not good writing advice and I don't think this was what the agent meant.
Write Who You Are could also be interpreted to mean: cast characters who look like you.
Pink-skinned authors have always written a veritable rainbow of characters. It's fully acceptable for a white author to write about African children or Asian characters or even Chinese fairy tales. But the path is narrower for an author who is "Other". The disconnect between writer and written becomes more pronounced when one comes from a minority background.
But this is not why I cast Filipinos in my books. I am not writing to be inclusive or to correct an imbalance or any of the other reasons that people cite when they discuss the need for Diversity in Literature. No, diversity is not my promotion strategy.
It troubles me that Diversity is creating tick-boxes. Here let's put a disabled character. How about a trans book to balance this publishing list? Have we covered Asian-paraplegic-autistic savant yet?
So many labels and yet the world is such a crazy cornucopia - race, social status, sex, culture, religion, etc etc etc. There is diversity in diversity and each individual in him or herself is diverse! The ticking of boxes is not good writing.
I wrote a piece the other day called The Many Faces of Diversity. I wanted to show that this vexed aspiration, Diversity -- which is dominated in the media by American concerns about racism -- has many, many interpretations around the world. I concluded the article with this piece of advice for writers:
The best story, the one that will captivate readers, should be built on truth and not on agenda.
I always describe myself as "A Filipino author living in London", even though I'm British, enjoy Radio 4, watch rugby, eat Fish and Chips, and have lived longer now in Britain than in the Philippines. I love my chosen home, but my soul was shaped in the Philippines and
it is important to me to be identified as Filipino. Write who you are.
I write Filipino characters not because I want to be a Diverse Author but because I'm BURSTING with stories that are inspired by my heritage. I feel an URGENCY to share these stories - it's an urge even more powerful than the urgency to share something extraordinary you've discovered on social media.
I just can't help myself.
Don't get me wrong. I am happy to be called a Diverse Author in the United Kingdom and to refer educators to other so-called diverse authors.
But in a perfect world the term wouldn't even exist. Because to me, diversity should not be about being different or about representing difference, it's the way the world is. It's a given. And if we authors are truly writing well, all our books would be diverse.
The truth is: all GOOD authors are diverse.
With thanks to Luna's Little Library for celebrating Diversity Month so thoughtfully.