Category Archives: Writing

A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Diverse* Fantasy or Science Fiction Novel

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer and DiYA co-founder Malinda Lo.

* “Diverse” = a book with a non-Western setting or inspired by a non-Western culture; or with a main character who is non-white/non-Western, LGBTQ+, and or disabled

sffmonth-graphic

iwouldrobabanktosavemylibrary said: Hi! Thanks so much for doing this. What suggestions/resources do you have for a white writer writing other races? I’ve found the writingwithcolor tumblr, know I need to find some beta readers, listen and process, and do more and more research, but do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help? Especially ones that have intersectionality? Most of my MCs are not white (and I am), so I’m trying to find everything I can to write as genuine a character as possible. Thanks!

daybreaksgaze said: In regards to writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy, how does one go about researching cultures other than their own (if they’re using other cultures)? And how do you know when ‘enough is enough’ in regards to research?

Questions about how to do research are among the most common questions I hear when it comes to writing books based on non-white cultures. Often the questions are like the first one: “do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help?” (emphasis mine) The answer is: no. There is no guarantee that any resources will be universally seen as true and right. The first thing you should do is forget about hoping for a 100% accurate resource. The second thing you should do is forget about the word “genuine” when it comes to writing a character, because “genuine” implies “authentic.” It implies that there is a true way to be something (e.g., an “authentic” Chinese person), and in reality, everybody is different. You should aim to write a character who is multifaceted, complex, and human.

That said, it is certainly very important to research the cultures you’re writing about, and although many writers know that they need to do research, they often seem flummoxed by how to do it, as the second question illustrates. That’s why I’ve put together this beginner’s guide to How To Do Research. It is truly a beginner’s guide, so if you feel like you have a handle on how to do this, the post may not be for you. Toward the end of the post there are some more advanced research ideas, as well as links to further reading.

One thing I want to stress is that this is a long process that takes a lot of work. If you want to write about cultures you know little about, you have to put in a lot of time. You cannot expect to get all your answers from one person or one website or even one day at the library. There are no shortcuts to doing research properly. If you’re not willing to put in the time, then it might not be a good idea for you to write this kind of book.

A second thing I want to say up front is this: If you’re interested in writing about a culture different from your own, do you have any friends who are from that culture? I mean relatively close friends — someone you can talk to about your families. If not, then why do you want to write about that culture? I fear that if a writer has no personal knowledge of that culture via at least a close friendship, they may have a difficult time seeing the culture as a living experience. Research can tell you a lot, but shared, personal experiences between you and a close friend can tell you a lot more.

Because this post is quite long, I’m putting the rest of it behind a cut. Continue reading A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Diverse* Fantasy or Science Fiction Novel

Truths and Lies About Diversity in Speculative Fiction

By Corinne Duyvis

duyvis-otherbound

I don’t know who first said it, but there’s this idea of getting “One Big Lie” as a science-fiction/fantasy author. That Lie is generally the one speculative element in the book that distinguishes the world from ours: it can be that there are vampires amok, that some people are born mutants, that there’s an unstoppable alien virus spreading through the population, or a thousand other things.

A Lie doesn’t have to be an outright lie, of course. In this context, it’s simply an element of a story we’re asking the reader to accept, one which can be hard to take at face value. It can be a speculative element, but it can also be something else particularly implausible, like a teenager working for the CIA or a completely outrageous family.

The point is that, beyond their one Big Lie, authors need to work with what they’ve got. Adding in more Lies can make the story fall apart, requiring too much suspension of disbelief and mental gymnastics to keep track.

Of course, having multiple Lies can work wonderfully. There’s a wealth of stories out there, and we should never let arbitrary rules limit us.

That said, I do like the sentiment behind this “rule.” To me, the Lie is often the story, and the aspects beyond the Lie—keeping it true to life where possible, allowing your characters to react in realistic, human ways—are what ground that story and give it heart.

What I find fascinating (read: bizarre), however, is the implicit idea that an author writing diverse science-fiction and fantasy automatically engages in multiple Lies.

While every genre has a diversity problem, contemporary literature included, it feels particularly severe in speculative fiction. It’s as though having a protagonist who doesn’t fall into the straight-white-cis-abled-thin paradigm is automatically stretching believability and putting a burden on the reader. This is particularly the case when authors actually realistically address their characters’ marginalization rather than keeping it to surface mentions.

According to this idea, majority characters are the normal, unseen default, and a character with any other kind of background is a distraction. After all, why clog up a book with the microaggressions that a character from a marginalized group might encounter? Why deviate from the expected internal narrative by having a character consider issues that need never cross the minds of many privileged people? Why add in something so unnecessary as diversity, when we’ve got an asteroid hurtling toward Earth or an outbreak of zombie zoo animals to worry about?

As you can probably guess, I’m not a fan of this line of thinking.

For one, it assumes that majority characters really are invisible to everyone. This is true for many—marginalized or not—as a logical result of growing up in a society like ours. But for plenty of people, it’s the opposite. The more aware you are of imbalance, the more you see it in the word around you. I notice actions a character might take that only white characters would be able to get away with; I notice lines of thinking that make it clear the character has never had to worry about their mental health or disability; I notice heteronormativity and gender binarist assumptions. I notice stories that pretend I don’t exist. And so do plenty of other readers.

In other words, an attempted lack of distraction can be a noticeable and bothersome distraction to many. In particular, a lack of diversity and understanding of marginalization often results in oversights when it comes to the many complex social issues that can be tackled in speculative fiction.

For another, it’s skewed to think of it as a distraction or unnecessary element, rather than a reflection of human life. Writing stories with speculative elements doesn’t magically turn the world homogeneous, and it’s disingenuous to pretend that writing the story in any other way would be “too much” or a “distraction.” Marginalized people are not an optional add-on—we’re just as much part of the world as anyone else.

A lot of these ideas are deeply embedded into our brains, however. That means that the best way to go about countering these narratives is to be aware of them and purposefully defy them. To me, that is a large and important part of writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy.

duyvis-ontheedgeofgoneSo I take my Big Lie in Otherbound—a boy from our world seeing into the eyes of a girl from another, magical world every time he blinks—and take the rest of the world as it is. That means a Mexican-American family, physically disabled characters, bisexual characters, all having the same adventures and conflicts as any other protagonist in a fantasy novel might.

I take my Big Lie in On the Edge of Gone—a comet will hit Earth in 2035, and the wealthy are escaping the planet before it’s destroyed—and stick to the world around me for everything else. That means Surinamese-Dutch characters, autistic characters, trans characters. And, just as now, my Amsterdam of 2035 has gentrifying neighborhoods, structural inequalities, people who are racist and ableist and clueless despite their best intentions.

My other stories have their own Big Lies, and I explore those to the fullest; at the same time, I include asexual lesbians, abrasive trans boys who haven’t yet discovered they really are a boy, insecure teen girls dealing with severe anxiety … Sometimes, these identities play a significant role in the story. Other times, they’re entirely incidental.

When it comes to science-fiction and fantasy, I write precisely what I want to read; to me, none of these elements are extra Lies that confound and distract.

It’s the opposite. It’s honesty.

Fact is, even when my books aren’t set on this world, they will be read here.

I want them to resonate here, too.


corinneduyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It’s received four starred reviews—Kirkus called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”

Find Corinne at her Twitter or Tumblr. She is a co-founder of Disability in Kidlit and team member of We Need Diverse Books.

sffmonth-graphic

Should white people write about people of color?

By Malinda Lo

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions in email, twitter, and tumblr like this one:

“I can’t help but feel that as I white girl that it’s hard for me to write from the POV of a person of color. I realize that’s probably completely and utterly ridiculous, but I was wondering what you thought? Is it insincere for white YA authors to write from the POV of a person of color?”

Probably because I’m co-founder of Diversity in YA and I’m not white, I seem to be some sort of authority on this, but the truth is: There is no one right answer to this question. Everyone has a personal stake in this issue, whether they realize it or not.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have a very low tolerance for cross-cultural errors in works of fiction that are based in Chinese culture. The reason I have such a low tolerance for these cross-cultural errors is because (1) I am Chinese American, and (2) I did my B.A. in Chinese Studies at Wellesley and my M.A. in East Asian Studies (focusing on China) at Harvard. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about China and Chinese culture, and I have a deeply personal stake in these narratives.

That personal stake is because of my personal background. I was born in China but immigrated to the United States with my family when I was three and a half years old. When I was born (in China), my parents gave me a Chinese name. This is not unexpected. When we moved to the US, I still had that Chinese name, and that’s how I was introduced to people. However, non-Chinese-speakers could not pronounce my name correctly. They totally messed it up. Other kids made fun of my name. This happened when I was very little, from four to six years old, and I still remember it today.

Because of most Americans’ inability to pronounce my Chinese name, when I was six years old and about to start first grade, I chose an English name to use: Malinda. And yes, I personally chose the name Malinda. I’m pretty fortunate I didn’t choose something horrible!

When I became a naturalized American citizen, my full name became Malinda [Chinese Name] Lo. To this day, when non-Chinese people ask me what my Chinese name is, I might not tell them. Sometimes I say, “I’ll only tell you if you promise to not try to pronounce it.” Sometimes I say, “Sorry, I’m not going to tell you.” Without fail, every time I do tell an American what my Chinese name is, they think it’s hilarious and they try to pronounce it — even though I’ve told them I don’t want them to.

I can’t help it: This offends me. Why? Because it underscores my difference, my foreignness. It turns me into an exotic exhibit for them to gawk at.

Also, it contrasts significantly with how Chinese people react when I tell them my Chinese name. They either simply proceed to pronounce my name correctly, or they tell me that my name is beautiful, which is a compliment to my parents. Here’s my Chinese name: 駱曼琴.

I posted it there in Chinese characters to illustrate the fact that my Chinese name exists on a totally different cultural plane than my English name. If you can’t read Chinese, the name will mean nothing to you. Even if you hear it spoken aloud, you won’t hear the poetry that some Chinese speakers hear. Instead, it will sound strange and probably ugly to English speakers.

Maybe you think I’m making too much of this. Maybe you think I should get over it and realize that curious non-Chinese Americans just want to learn about Chinese culture, that their interest is innocent and I shouldn’t be offended. Well, I admit I have a chip on my shoulder about this specific situation. I don’t know if I will ever not be offended when an American wants me to perform my Chinese name for them. It’s personal.

That’s the way I feel about white people writing books based on China. I have a personal stake in it, and it’s difficult for me to overcome that. Beyond my personal background, I did spend all those years studying China, and I know how much there is to know and how much I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of research on China. I know enough to spot cross-cultural errors, and when I spot them, I’m always thrown out of the story.

The other night I was watching a third season episode of The Good Wife, a show that I’ve only recently started to watch. In episode 3.6, “Affairs of State,” the case being investigated involves a character named Chen Jin-Pyn, who is supposed to be the son of a Taiwanese diplomat. The plot hinges on the fact that attorney Cary Agos realizes that the Taiwanese character would sign his name with his surname first, which means a receipt signed “Chen Jin-Pyn” indicates it was not signed by the Taiwanese character.

I’ve been enjoying The Good Wife, but this episode was just astonishingly factually incorrect. First, “Chen” is a surname, but everyone in this episode believes the character’s first name is “Chen” and his surname is “Jin-Pyn.” This is so wrong it’s ludicrous, not only because “Chen” is not a first name but also because what kind of name is “Jin-Pyn”? Honestly, to me it sounds like a Chinese name that a Westerner would invent. (And secondarily, when I looked up an episode recap to confirm my memory of the show, I saw that the name is spelled “Jin-Pyn.” The usage of the letter Y shows the screenwriter had no idea how to properly romanize Chinese characters.) Thirdly, what Chinese person signs their name in ENGLISH with their Chinese surname first? I don’t sign my name Lo Malinda. (Although sometimes I do get junk mail to Lomalinda.) In CHINESE, of course I would write the character for my surname first. But in English? That would be bizarre, because I know that English speakers already get confused enough by Chinese names. In English, I would sign my first name first.

The episode also refers to the fraught issue of political recognition of Taiwan versus the People’s Republic of China, but because of this simple name error — which could have been fixed by asking basically any Chinese or Chinese American person off the street — I stopped paying attention. I couldn’t believe that anybody who got that name so wrong would know anything about the complexities of the PRC and Taiwan.

So: Those are my personal stakes involved when I encounter a book based on China and Chinese culture. They are high for me. I am quick to put down a book that has cross-cultural errors in these areas, but it’s also important to remember that I am one person. My personal stakes are not the same as everyone else’s. Someone else might read a book based on China or Chinese culture and have absolutely no problem with it, even if it does actually contain those cross-cultural errors.

Anyone who wants to write outside of their culture has to remember this: Books are personal, and one person’s reaction does not mean that everybody is going to react the same way. In fact, it’s likely that every single reader will have a different reaction.

This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to blithely write whatever the hell you want about a culture that isn’t yours. Writers who are writing outside of their culture do have to work extra hard to research that culture, because they have much farther to go to get to the kind of instinctual knowledge of it that allows someone to hear my Chinese name and feel that it sounds poetic.

When white writers come to me and ask if it’s OK for them to write about people of color, it seems as if they’re asking for my blessing. I can’t give them my blessing because I don’t speak for other people of color. I only speak for myself, and I have personal stakes in specific kinds of narratives.

It also feels as if they’re asking for a simple answer, and frankly, there is no simple answer. Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t. The writer must put in the time so that they become confident in their decisions, and there are a million and one decisions to make when writing a novel.

If you’re a white writer who wants to write about a culture not your own, go for it. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do it. Some people will prefer that you don’t, but those people don’t speak for everyone. On the other hand, if you’re terrified of writing outside your culture, you don’t have to. There’s not necessarily any reason for you to do something that makes you that uncomfortable. I believe that writing is a personal thing, and you should write what you personally want to write.

And yes, writing is hard. It isn’t physical labor and it’s not rocket science, but it sure is hard. It requires you to be honest with yourself. So if you’re thinking about writing outside your culture and you’re afraid to get it wrong, be honest with yourself. Ask yourself why you want to do it. That’s where you start. I can’t tell you where you’ll end up.


Originally published at MalindaLo.com.


mlo-by-andiepetkus-300x300Malinda Lo is the author of several young adult novels including most recently the sci-fi duology Adaptation and Inheritance. Her first novel, Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Her novel Huntress was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Malinda is co-founder with Cindy Pon of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. Malinda lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog. Her website is www.malindalo.com.

Just know this: we all mess up from time to time. But do not be afraid to tackle female/PoC/LGBT characters. Is there a chance you might go horribly wrong? Sure. Is there a chance that people will crucify you for it? Yes, and probably rightly so. Diversity and feminism are topics that your writing should treat with utmost care. But! This should not intimidate you to the point of not trying. Female/PoC/LGBT people are just that: people. We’re humans. Write us with the same confidence you apply to your straight, white, male cast.

Author Marie Lu, “Writing Diverse Fiction: A Practical Guide” (Publishing Crawl)