I had a long post about diversity and its importance in literature. I talked about ring born into a diverse world on a military base. I reminisced about growing up in the white washed world of northern Maine. I pontificated about a lot, but I wasn’t saying much. Now that I’m sitting in California, swept up in the diverse cultures intermingling, I feel I’m finally understanding what I was attempting to say. My identity, what makes me, well, me is but one thread in a beautifully woven tapestry of mankind.
I’ve lived all over the eastern seaboard of the United States. My father was in the military and we moved frequently. I grew up with this exposure to rich and vibrant cultures. My closest friends came from Korea, Polynesia, and Zimbabwe. I’ve been blessed to know that my family’s history and more importantly our unique and far from the status quo. I sit in a cafe in San Luis Obispo California, and there is a subtle beauty in occupying space with histories vastly different from my own.
I grew up different, a feeling that for the most haunted me. As a teen all you want is to fit in, but when you know there is an underlying difference than your peers, you begin to ostracize yourself. It’s only later in life I took the opportunity to embrace these differences and as they say, “Let my freak flag fly.” And fly it does.
So how does this impact my writing? I started traveling in the past few years as part of “life is more than work” lifestyle change. I needed an adventure, something to take my out of my bubble and start letting me see something bigger than my little slice of life. The more of this wonderful world I see, the more I feel the need, no, the urgency to include it into my writing. Let’s be honest, the diversity in literature movement is strong, but it has a long way to go. As a cis white male (even a gay one) I feel obligated to bring this richness into my writing.
Representation is something that has become a hot topic in the literature world. There tends to be three camps: bigots, those who believe the story dictates representation (bigots) and those who feel a story can be expanded to include representation. Originally the cast of the Nighthawks fell into the second camp. Other than Vanessa being labeled as “green,” I let the reader imagine who they wanted. In a moment of clarity, I recall saying it was a coward’s move. I stand by this epiphany, and let me just say, my writing has flourished because of it.
Dav5d is an autistic black man. Conthan and Dwayne are gay. Jasmine is a Mexican-American Catholic, Alyssa is Muslim and never once have I thought that this interrupted the story. In truth, I chose these aspects of their identities based on the students in my classroom. In each class, this is what I see, and the more I thought about it, I thought it important to let them know, “I see them.” This became such an important aspect for me, that it even worked itself into Night Legions as Azacca (a man with MS) uses the phrase to let his parishioners know that he sees the individual, the soul of a person.
There is an authentic aspect to this as well, and I’ve been called out on it. I speak very openly about how Conthan was always meant to be “me” and in my first book I was terrified to make him gay. What would fans think? What would those crazed superhero folks bring up if I made him more than the overtly effeminate homosexual (and there isn’t a damned thing wrong with that either!) A reviewer brought it up, loved the book overall, but found an awkward approach to the initial spark between Dwayne and Conthan to be contrived and reeking of a straight man terrified of writing gay characters. I was caught.
By book three, Conthan and Dwayne’s relationship is undefined and messy in the fact it’s not labeled in a neat box. Rarely have my relationships been as simple as calling a man my “partner” or “boyfriend.” I’ve had many “friends with some weird romancing.” I’m letting their relationship hover (they’re trying to save the world after all) and by Night Covenant, we get a solid definition, and not the one I think many fans will see coming.
But why is it important? Can’t readers just ignore these labels and let the reader plant themselves into the story? Truth is, the world is white washed to a degree that even people of color read characters as white unless otherwise stated. I would much prefer to remove this and let the reader know there a clear visible person they can connect with. Will I get them all? No, of course not. But I can show representation, broaden my reach and begin working toward a story that reflects the real world. Now, I hope that when a person picks up one of my novels they can stop and say, “That’s me.”
Write the stories we needed as kids. I needed these stories. For the next generation, I will do what I can and continue to question my own definitions, because the world outside my window is diverse, rich, and needs to exist to make my novels more than a story. I want characters a reader can connect with. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m aware of it, and I’m working at it. I will continue to work at it.