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My Thoughts on Diversity in Fiction and Writing Characters of Color

So I hesitated to post this because of how charged the atmosphere in M/M is right now. Hurt feelings abound on all sides over a book that was recently released (and no, I won’t be naming it here). The topic of racism is not one I take lightly, having dealt with it all my life, but I leave that discussion to people much more eloquent than myself. I do, however, have some thoughts about the subject of diversity in fiction and writing characters of color, specifically in M/M, and I want to share them here.

In the past, I’ve written blog posts calling for more diversity. I think it’s something we all recognize is needed at this point.

I’m Puerto Rican. I’m open about it. I write a lot of Hispanic characters because of it. And when I wrote a Mexican MC, I wrote with the awareness that Mexican culture and Puerto Rican culture are vastly different.

I reached out to Mexican readers and asked if anyone would proofread my story to make sure I was doing that character justice. Because being raised in a Mexican neighborhood doesn’t make me infallible or all-knowing or any kind of authority. I was still brought up in a Puerto Rican family and there are differences aplenty (just as there are differences between Mexicans and Spaniards or Colombians and Dominicans, etc).

I know a lot of authors hesitate to step out of their comfort zone and write a character of color. It can be intimidating, and in my opinion, it requires research and due diligence if you want to give an accurate, sensitive portrayal. If you’re nervous, yes, you’re probably right to be nervous. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we have to do the things that make us uncomfortable, and if you are uncomfortable, I think you’ll be likelier to approach your writing with care and tact.

That being said, lately I’ve been getting the feeling that some authors think they have to start including characters of color in their books because the subject of diversity has been the focus of so many recent panels and discussions.

And my opinion is this: don’t do anything you feel you have to do.

If you’ve noticed the lack of POC (people of color) characters and you truly want to change that, awesome! Two very enthusiastic thumbs up from me! But if you’re not willing to be mindful, and if you don’t feel it’s worth the effort to research to avoid stereotypes or possibly offending or hurting your readership, it’s probably best not to do it.

In the long run, I think you’ll be happier and less stressed. And the POC readers will be happier too. We want representation, yes. We want to see characters that reflect our cultural backgrounds, but not if it only comes from a sense of obligation, not actual desire to change the (mostly white) landscape of M/M—or romance and fiction in general—to reflect the glorious, multi-colored reality we actually reside in. Not if you plan to portray us as caricatures. And definitely not if you can’t handle criticism if you wind up getting something wrong, which you very well might.

If you don’t feel comfortable writing a character of color, keep doing what you do. It’s all good. Sincerely. No judgment from this author/reader. But if you do want to try, there are people out there who are absolutely ready and willing to help you try to get it right, and believe me it is worth the effort!

We’re all human. Being a minority, a person of color myself doesn’t mean I’m above screwing up. Not by a long shot. All we can do is acknowledge mistakes when they happen (and they will happen). We can apologize and try to do better. And most importantly, we can listen when someone tells us they’re hurt or offended.

Don’t invalidate someone’s feelings. It’s not your (or my) right to tell someone if they should/shouldn’t be offended by something or to tone police or tell them to “speak more politely.” That only takes away from them and their experiences and turns the attention back to yourself and your own comfort.  Sometimes it’s hard to be calm and polite when you’re angry and hurting. Sometimes people only hear you above the ruckus if you’re screaming—especially if you’re part of a community that has been dehumanized and marginalized for centuries.

If someone is yelling “This hurt me and here is why!”, maybe you should take a minute to listen and try to understand. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that empathy, compassion, and sincerity go a long way.

People of color… we’re just people. We only want to see stories about genuine characters like ourselves falling in love or saving the day or going on that epic adventure. Not stereotypes. Not for tokenism. Our personalities are varied, and we fall all over the spectrums of sexuality and gender. We’re rich and poor and everywhere in between. Educated and not. In other words—we’re just like everyone else. And yet we make up a mere fraction of the characters you find in books or films or on television.

Trust me, if you found it this difficult to find characters you could relate to, if you never saw characters who looked like you, or who reflected your reality, you’d yearn for more representation too. And when you thought you’d found it, you’d latch onto it fast.

Hey! This person. They’re like me! I can do that too! I can be the hero!

Sometimes there’s no better feeling than that.

Depression and Writing Struggles

Over the years I’ve occasionally mentioned that I’ve been depressive since childhood. I don’t tend to talk about it much because there’s a certain stigma attached to any kind of mental illness, including depression, which many people think you should just be able to snap out of and brush off your shoulder.

My depression tends to happen in cycles. For weeks, months, I’ll feel… mostly good. Mostly positive. Then my mood takes a sudden downturn, and for weeks, maybe months, I become mired under this dark, crushing weight. But then, usually, the upswing starts. I come out of it and I go back to my normal (for lack of a better term).

A few weeks ago I scared some people when I vanished from most of my social media accounts for a good week or so. I didn’t mean to cause anyone concern, but it was as if my brain suddenly said, “nope,” and I didn’t want anything to do with… well, anything. Apps got deleted from my phone. Emails fell by the wayside.

I’d had a moment not too long before. An “I am not okay” moment, when I realized this depressive cycle felt more like a rapid decline into nothingness. It seemed—and still does seem—impossible to imagine any kind of upswing. But when my thoughts went from dark to potentially dangerous (for myself), I knew I needed to do something.

I sought out a therapist, and after seeing one who sent up about a dozen red flags, I found a different one through GMLA (the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association), who is familiar with dealing with clients who fall on the GLBTQ spectrum. Let me tell you, when I walked into her office and saw rainbow flags, I nearly lost it. After meeting one therapist who was not only lacking in tact, clearly didn’t have a clue how to deal with a client like me, I was so afraid I might have to start making long drives into Chicago to find someone who fit my needs. So far I’ve seen this new lady twice, and it’s hard to say what kind of results this therapy will bring. But at the very least I feel hopeful that maybe with her help I’ll be able to dig myself out of this.

During our first visit, she said to me, “Sometimes I might say something you don’t agree with. I’m human, and I’m not always right. Feel free to tell me to fuck off. Go ahead and say, ‘M, get fucked.’ I promise it won’t offend me. The only way I can figure out what’s working for you is if you tell me when something isn’t.”

With snot and tears flowing, I nodded, and I thought to myself, We’re going to get along great.

So that’s what’s happening with me. To the people who already knew or who reached out to me when I disappeared, thank you for the support. It means more than I can say.

I can’t lie. This post was hard for me to make. In fact, I’m only discussing the situation because literally everything in my life is being affected, and that includes my writing. Even though I wish this wasn’t the case, all of my projects are currently on hiatus. Because, well… if there’s no me, there certainly won’t be any future books either. So I have to focus on getting myself better before the words will start flowing again. I’m hoping that any readers who might have to wait a little longer for the next book in the Portland Pack Chronicles or my other series will understand the delay.

Happy New Year, everyone! Aside from one last “Authors I’m Thankful For” post next week, this will be my last post of 2015. Here’s hoping I’ll be back with a vengeance in 2016. 😉

Small Acts

Today I posted on Facebook that I had a bit of an existential crisis this morning. Or at least in part. It’d been building up for a while now. Those who know me or who’ve followed me on social media for a couple of years know the issue of youth homelessness—especially LGBTQ youth—is near and dear to my heart. It’s why I asked my publisher, Less Than Three Press, to help me organize the Project Fierce anthology, which was a collection of stories about homeless LGBTQ youth meant to raise money for the charity, Project Fierce Chicago.

I regularly donate to Project Fierce and another Chicago-area homeless charity, The Night Ministry. They’re LGBTQ friendly and in addition to their other shelters, they even have a dedicated overnight shelter for LGBTQ youth called The Crib. I was looking at their website the other day, searching for volunteer opportunities or what their clients might need most. I wanted to do something that felt more immediate and tangible than donating cash. I printed out some of their paperwork to look it over.

Then today I started thinking about them again. I looked at the paperwork, and for a moment I felt so overwhelmed. Like, what can I do? I might be able to donate a few things, but these people need real help. In the shower I got sad. I felt useless and just…small. Inconsequential. But then I bucked up and told myself, “It doesn’t matter. Do something. You’ll feel better.”

So I went to the store and spent a couple of hundred dollars on their wish list items. I came home and put together a dozen hygiene kits containing shampoo, conditioner, soap, a wash cloth, and other toiletries. I bought some diapers, wipes, socks, and six big bags of trail mix so I could separate them into a couple dozen 1-cup bags as they requested.

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I’ll be driving to The Night Ministry’s admin office to drop all this off tomorrow morning. I know some of you might be thinking, “If you wanted to donate to The Night Ministry, why didn’t you just do it quietly? Get over yourself.” And if you’re thinking it, there’s not much I can say to make you think differently, but for the record, I’m not sharing this to brag about how special and generous I am. No. I’m sharing this in the hope that someone else out there might see it be inspired to do the same. Because I realized something this morning: small things matter. Sure, I might wish I had a few million to spare so I could build some shelters and keep them stocked with essentials at all times. But just because you can’t do something huge doesn’t mean what you can contribute doesn’t have value. Sometimes the tiniest act of kindness can have a tremendous impact.

So if you have a local shelter you regularly contribute to, and you’re able, consider dropping off a box of the supplies they need most. I know how it feels to be bogged down by thoughts of “I can only afford to give so much. Will it even make a difference?” Yes, it will. To the person who has supplies to shower tomorrow because of your donation, it matters. To the person whose stomach is growling, that trail mix might not ease it much, but it helps. It’s something.

We can’t all do big things. We don’t all have the means. But small acts matter. It was a lesson I needed to learn.


ETA: Dropped off the donation today (May 15). 🙂 

TNM

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