I didn’t get to many panels this year at NYCC and the ones I did get to were a mixed bag. The first two faced similar issues in the make up of the panels but one handled it less well than the other. First up is a panel called “Fight What You Know” presented by The Mary Sue.
The description for this panel was as follows:
The geek world needs better representation in the media, but aren’t you supposed to write what you know? Truth is, the whole “write what you know” thing is bull honkey. A Writer who can’t appreciate the perspectives of others is no kind of Writer at all. Writers from all backgrounds and experiences join to talk about research, listening, soliciting criticism and how to make sure you’re writing well when you’re outside the comfort zone of your own perspective.
Susana Polo (moderator) – Editor at Large of the Mary Sue
Brendan Fletcher – Gotham Academy, Batgirl
Amber Benson – the Callipe Reaper-Jones series
Wendy Xu – artist/writer Angry Girl Comics
Danica Novgorodoff – novelist
The moderator opened with a quote from Nikki Giovanni, “Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” Her introduction touched on the idea that in order for there to be better representation and diversity, writers needed to write outside of their personal experiences and backgrounds. The panel was here to discuss ways that they do that.
After the initial introductions they opened the subject at hand with how as a writer do you get started when writing about a culture that is outside of your realm, personally. Most of the writers gave props to Google, particularly Google images, to help them get a feel for the places they are writing about. Danica also mentioned traveling. She felt that in order to truly write about a place you needed to experience it, you need to “find the reality of what you’re writing”.
Then they touched on when in the writing process do you bring people in. Reaching out through email and social media to get more insight or backstory. Wendy mentioned doing a story about a Chinese/Nigerian girl and how she used social media to reach out to people who were mixed race and asking them to share their experiences. This way she could better understand her character.
They then discussed how to know if you haven’t overstretched you grasp and gone too far. They all agreed that listening to trusted friends and mentors take on the work was extremely important. Some also felt that internet feedback could be helpful if there was a an overwhelming consensus on something you’ve written, rather than random harsh comments.
The final question asked about balancing representation while still allowing characters to stand on their own. The writers said to write from the heart, put the character first and don’t just make a character different for diversity’s sake alone. Make sure that’s who that character is. If you do your job, they all agreed, the character will stand on its own.
As a writing lesson this panel worked but it was not what it purported itself to be. The problem was the glaring issue with the panel. Three white women, a white man and an Asian woman were not a fair representation. It is very difficult to be taken seriously when discussing diversity among a group with not one person of color. What happens is the tone becomes, “white people can handle writing about diverse people and help solve the problems of representation”. Well no, that doesn’t solve it at all. The point of representation is having everyone at the table to share their stories and while you don’t have to be Latin to write about Mexico, not having a Latin writer there to talk about their experiences cheapens your argument. Diversity and representation is a large, thorny issue and won’t be solved by a Google search.
In fairness to the panel I am positive not one of them felt that was the argument they were making. They just weren’t the right mix of people for this discussion. It lent the wrong air to the subject. The moderator initiated a different discussion, one larger than the panel description described, but was asking basic writing questions, not delving deeper into the issues because there really wasn’t anything there to delve into. I also didn’t expect this to be all about writing fiction. I thought it was more about media writing and how to report and write opinion pieces about things out of your comfort zone and not just writing a book or comic about a character who doesn’t look like me. That may well have added to my negative experience.
The bottom line is, when planning a panel know what you want to talk about and get panelists to support that. Don’t have a vague premise that can easily go in directions you didn’t intend. If this is what was intended then don’t quote Nikki Giovanni and think that makes you authentic enough to talk the talk about diversity without walking the walk with representation.