At the National Book Awards last year, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) loosed an “ill-conceived,” racist joke on award-recipient Jacqueline Woodson during his introduction for her wonderful book “Brown Girl Dreaming.” The joke poked fun at Woodson’s watermelon allergy, and employed as its trope a tired, racist stereotype of southern blacks. It was idiotic, inappropriate, and not even remotely funny. The fallout was immediate, with the slighted Woodson playing the graceful and stoic author (though really, what else could she do?), and Handler scrambling to express how sorry he was. He quickly—to evince his apology—put his money where his mouth is, spurring a movement to raise tens of thousands of dollars for We Need Diverse Books.
It is not often such a positive comes out of something so negative.
It’s important to talk about Handler’s joke, to understand that this is yet another example of white privilege, that this “slip-up” is indicative of an overwhelming attitude within our culture and industry; the misconception that one must be overtly racist to be racist, that somehow we’ve left racism behind. Woodson has already done this, as well as others. So, rather than rehash Handler’s infraction, let’s ask an obvious question:
If we need diverse books, why aren’t we writing them?
The first answer to this is that we are. “We” are writing diverse books, as in “writers” are, in fact, writing diverse books.
But you, probably, aren’t.
I dislike platitudes. They’re lazy, and usually coupled with misunderstanding. And yet in our writer culture of workshops and twitter they abound. Phrases such as “Kill your darlings” and “Show don’t tell” appear to say something when, in fact, they’re so overused and frayed they fail to say anything at all. Yet such statements are repeated so often they’ve become Psalm-like within the writing world. It is important to show the reader things, because books are based on images; but just as important is avoiding reams of purple prose. It is imperative you remove passages you love if they’re disposable, until you look at run-on narratives like the ones Bolano uses, where the clutter of thought and numerous asides inform the text as a whole.
But worst among all platitudes, the cavity rotting away at the core of contemporary writing, the most overused, the most beguiling, the most aggressive plea for mediocrity is one you’ve probably used yourself:
“Write what you know.”
“Write what you know” is sinister for what it doesn’t say, which is to not write what you don’t know. It argues that you shouldn’t employ the narratives of other cultures, other genders, or those from different demographics, or with different sexual orientations. It narrows invention for the sake of plausibility. It implies there is a “way” to write certain characters and the only people who know how to do so are the ones like those characters.
This is wrong. And it is the worst kind of wrongness, because it perpetuates itself.
People are infinite. There is no “way” to write them, except believably.
But to do so you have to try.
“Write what you know” justifies writers not taking risks—not daring to venture out and explore other perspectives, learn about other cultures, feeling OK not penning minority characters at all. “Write what you know” keeps the writer safe by comforting them, saying their creativity never needs to extend beyond themselves. It lets writers lean on established stereotypes by the very fact that said stereotypes are established, creating derivations of derivations of derivations that are uninteresting, insulting, and blatantly pigeon-hole specific point of views.
All of which broadcasts to our dear, precious readers that these derivations are truth.
Now don't get me wrong. There is a way to write what you know–when what you know is unique, is nuance, is something unheard or unexplored. So write what you know because you are a clarinetist and can turn the carving, cutting, and breaking in of a reed into a metaphor for love. Write what you know because you are a botanist studying the similarity between the roots of goldenwave and photos of dendrites. Write what you know because you've experienced disability, loss, accomplishment, joy, oppression. Write what you know because what you know is nuance, and that nuance can be a gift to us, your readers.
Don’t write what you know because you are white and heterosexual and 100% healthy and only feel comfortable writing 100% healthy white heterosexual protagonists. And when you write characters different from yourself, make sure what you write is not what you’ve already read—invent dammit!
Dare to be different! Dare to be diverse! And, equally important, dare to read diverse books, and talk about them, and tweet them, and loan them, and review them.
We need diverse books.