Windows and Mirrors Help Open Diverse Possibilities
by Maggie Lynch
May 24, 2022
When I look into a mirror, I see myself and behind me I often see all the things that are comfortable or a part of me. However, also when I look in a mirror I see those things about me I don’t like. Sometimes it’s the shape of my hair. Other times it’s the raised bump on my cheek. Now that I’m getting older, I sometimes wish I didn’t have some of those wrinkles.
Looking out a window gives me a different view—a view of how other people live, other people look, other people move and dance and smile or frown. All those other people are different from me. As a child, I wanted to know everything about the people out my window, whether that was at home or traveling by car.
As a reader, I want to see both windows into “otherness,” but also a mirror to something comfortable. As an author that combination of reader needs can be difficult to achieve. Some authors tackle “otherness” through fantasy or science fiction by making the world around us so different from our own that nothing is the same. But even in those worlds, authors tap into universal needs of all humans. That is the need for love, for recognition, for being part of something important. Those are the mirrors, the reflections that a reader can say: “Yes, I have those feelings. I’ve experienced that in my own world.”
Another way to meet both needs is to write contemporary fiction that includes both the differences and the sameness among us. That means diversity in racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds. It also means including characters with different opinions, values, and life experiences. I know I don’t want to read only about people like me.
Looking for Diversity in Life and Incorporating that Into Stories
I’m very fortunate because in my own extended family there is a lot of diversity in every way. That means my mirror is very large when it reflects beyond myself to those around me. On religion, some of my family are Christians, a few are Muslim, a few are Jewish, several identify as Pagan or earth-based spirituality. And others are either atheist or agnostic. Then there are a large group who are “spiritual” which means they have a combination of beliefs about what beyond ourselves guides our life without adhering to any one religion.
I learned early in life that many people do not have the same health or learning abilities that I did. It happens that a certain type of deafness is genetic in my family. Out of 9 children, only two didn’t get the gene—myself and the youngest. Everyone else has differing levels of deafness ranging from 50% on the low end to 80% on the high end. In addition, I have two brothers who are autistic—one is moderate functioning and has been able to work as an adult and do many things (like drive a car and mostly take care of himself). The one thing he has great difficultly with is understanding the complexity of relationships—erring on the side of everyone is trustworthy, kind and helpful. Consequently, he needs help with negotiations, managing money, and not being taken advantage of by those who would use his disability to steal money or things from him.
Another brother is very low functioning and lives in a family care home, as he is nonverbal and has great difficulty relating to others at all. The care home is very good about providing the constant needed routines and providing him a variety of things to do that give him purpose. He seems to be very content there.
On race and culture, we’ve been an inter-marrying family for a long time beginning with my mother’s generation. One of my aunts married an Tlingit man from the Yukon territory. My uncle married a Havasupai woman from Arizona. One of my sisters married a Mexican man and they raised their children bilingual and bicultural. Another sister married a man from India, the Punjab region. My closest cousin married a woman from Vietnam. I grew up in a multicultural neighborhood, so it isn’t surprising that family felt not only comfortable with differences but enriched in learning and embracing those differences in friends and in life partners.
Other differences in my own family revolve around gender identity. When I was growing up I didn’t really know about LGBT people. Actually, I’d never heard any of those terms. Part of it is likely because it wasn’t as safe to talk about it back then in the 1960s. Looking back, one of my close cousins was identifiably gay from the time he was seven or eight, though my aunt and uncle couldn’t see it. When it became obvious once he was in high school, they didn’t know what to do or think. As a child and teen that didn’t seem bad to me, just different. It wasn’t until he moved from his home that he officially came out and has now been with the same man for over 40 years.
I have several 2nd cousins who are not straight. One identifies as gender fluid. Another is transgender male to female. Another cousin married a man who is now a woman, and they are still together. Unfortunately, those cousins have had a difficult time as their mother and father were also not accepting of it. But they have found their way to a relationship of some kind now.
I share all these things from my own experience to say that knowing and loving people who are different from me has provided me with a much richer understanding of the complexity of human experiences. More than that, it has always made me more eager to learn more. Even with all of our differences, we have more in common than different. We all want an amazing relationship. We all look for friends and partners who love us as we are. We all want to find purpose in our life and to make a difference. We all want to be seen and heard.
Scholastic Publishing did a survey of their readers around why diverse books are important to them. You may enjoy reading the responses here.
Novels Can Act as Windows for Diversity
Novels can provide an escape into imaginary places—even when they are based on reality or contemporary conditions. Be them better or worse than our everyday lives, they offer an alternate universe from our own. Even though a novel is a window to different experiences, it can still “mirror” some parts of our everyday experience, reflecting scenarios and situations that ring true to everyone.
I am drawn to writing characters that are imperfect, just like me—characters who struggle between the reality of the world and the way they think it should be. Whether I’m writing women’s fiction, fantasy or SF, all my main characters want the same things that I do—they want to figure out how they fit in the world. They want to find a purpose that matches their needs and still helps others. The problem is doing that is not easy. They don’t always make the right decision. They don’t always control everything in their life.
Diversity, for me, is about giving voice to those diverse lived experiences that not everyone may encounter. I don’t set out to write a book with all the races or cultures represented. I don’t set out to write a book that has an LGBT character. I don’t set out to write a book that explores mental health or physical disabilities, or economic differences. But I DO start every book with a theme about navigating a world that doesn’t always treat people well. When I see an opportunity to work in diversity within that theme, I will.
My Sweetwater Canyon books are all white people. Looking back, perhaps I could have made a different choice. However, at the time I was using my own and my husband’s experience in the music world, the touring world. I was already stretching to feature an all-women band (having to do research on those relationships). And I had already chosen three common themes across the four books: 1) How women with full-time artistic/creative jobs build relationships—particularly intimate relationships when their past relationships were awful—abandonment, abuse, rape, ridicule; and 2) How found family in close friendships is critical to support.
My SF and Fantasy books are more diverse both culturally and economically. For me, it is easier to explore racial, economic, gender, and power differences in an SF world because the tropes of political and religious life in our current world are removed or extrapolated beyond our world. I can provide a different lens in which to explore the questions we all face. No one can say a purple person wouldn’t do that, or a shape-shifter wouldn’t say that because those don’t exist in our contemporary world. No one can say an indentured space colonist wouldn’t act that way, or a human chameleon wouldn’t have those powers because they don’t exist today. It is easier to be diverse in SF, Fantasy, magical realism. Yet, so many people don’t provide diverse characters even in those environments.
Overcoming the Fear of Writing Diverse Characters and Experiences
Even though my personal background and extended family includes a a lot of diversity, including those experiences in my contemporary writing hasn’t come naturally. Part of that has been the fear that I’m not “allowed” to write diverse characters because I’m a CIS, straight, white woman. However, three years ago I took a class from Barbara Binns about diversity in writing. I learned that it is not about being “allowed” to write diverse characters as much as it is about not writing stereotyped characters, or not claiming knowledge I do not have.
As with all writing, it is learning how to do it well. Just as I may research historical, scientific, or geographical elements for books, I need to do the same research for characters. That includes knowing and involving those people who have lived that different racial, cultural, immigrant, LGBT, or different abilities experience. Even though there are many races, cultures, religions in my extended family I can’t assume I know everything about them. Fortunately, I have people to ask and to read, and to correct me or provide more insight into my character development—people who know me and trust me. Other writers, who don’t have this immediate network, can employ “sensitivity readers.” These are writers, readers, editors who do identify with the background of your character and will read your book (usually for a fee) specifically to provide feedback on where your character may not be reflective of their experience or may appear to be stereotypical. SFWA featured an article about transracial writing for the sincere. It talks about the steps to take and research to do when writing about characters that aren’t like you.
For me, it’s important to explore both the diversity of experience and the commonality. We are all different. No two people experience life in the same way–even if we grow up in the same family. Yet, as humans, we all want to be seen, heard, loved, understood. That is my goal in my writing.
My Current Book Project is Purposefully More Diverse
All the above prepared me to write a series of upper middle grade books about children in foster care. It is a project I’ve wanted to write for more than forty years but never felt ready. For me, writing children’s books requires better writing because young people are so much more open and easier to suspend disbelief than adults. They can be sponges for learning and believing and acting. That means I need to be more careful with my words, my plotting, my inter-personal relationships reflected in the books. I want to provide scenes and scenarios that aren’t easy but that still provide hope through examples of how people work together, support each other, find a way forward even when the path is peppered with boulders.
I grew up with hundreds of foster children. My maternal grandparents took in foster children from the time I was eight and into adulthood. Until I entered high school, we all lived within walking distance of each other’s homes. Their foster children became like cousins to me and to this day the majority of them are part of our extended family. We keep up with each other and maintain that family bond thanks to the ability of social media to keep us connected across the country, or even in other countries. The foster children came from diverse races, cultures, economic backgrounds. The reasons they were in foster care were also diverse—though poverty did play an outsized role for many of them. A few were only in care for six months or maybe a couple years and then reunited with their family. Sometimes they were adopted. But most of those, who came to my grandparent’s home, stayed until they turned eighteen.
For me to write a series of books that reflect those experiences, I will need a large variety of diverse characters and situations. It wasn’t until after twenty-seven books, that I felt ready to write these books. One is done and looking for a publisher, and the next two are outlined for me to start. Asking more in-depth questions, doing some historical research and sociological research provided even more insight into writing diverse characters now versus forty years ago. It is important to recognize the times we live in and the extra burden for care in the writing.
I believe this experience will help me in all my writing—both children’s books and adult books. It will also be more natural to include diversity in future books moving forward.
Maggie Lynch is the author of 26 published books. Her fiction tells stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Her novels span women’s fiction, SF & Fantasy, suspense, and romance. She is currently working on a Contemporary Upper Middle Grade children’s series. Her current nonfiction provides authors with information and tools for self-publishing from the basics of creating a professional package to getting books distributed around the world, and finally marketing options. You can check out her personal website at maggielynch.com