Tag Archives: life

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Safely to port… or not?

Henrik Ibsen said: “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.”

Tiff says:

1) In a sea-going context, I believe the technical term for the situation where anyone is prepared to take the helm to be mutiny.
2) I know some people who, if they looked like they were preparing to take the helm of a ship I was on, I would begin preparing to jump overboard.

Master and Servant

Lately, I’ve figured out that a lot of people are finding themselves slaves to technology – or rather, to social media. I hear of people spending six hours a day (a quarter of their lives!) on Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest, or whatever.

I hear of people ‘disconnecting’, and deleting their accounts from everything, in order to regain control of their lives.

It’s a classic case of social media becoming the master, not the servant.

Now, that’s really, really sad. These people have not made a statement of strength: they have said that they do not have the ability to keep their own use of social media under control, so they only way they can prevent it taking over is to turn their back on it, including the advantages it offers. I would hesitate to call these people ‘weak’, because it’s such a value-laden word, and knowing your weaknesses and acting accordingly is its own type of strength, but they are certainly worthy of pity.

I can appreciate that it’s very easy to get into this position, and to think, like an alcoholic, that the only way to free yourself from technology-tyranny is to opt out completely, to go teetotal.

So I shall offer a few observations, or recommendations, on how to reap the advantages and rewards of social media without spending your whole life on Facebook.

1. Think, what does each social medium do for you? Really? What would your life lack if you deleted your account, and would you miss it?

Don’t think about it from your current state; think of it how you would like to be. If you have lots of real long-distance friends or relatives, then don’t give up your Skype or Facebook – it can be a cheap and convenient way of keeping in touch. But if the only people you interact with on Facebook are people you see or speak to in Real Life every day, then what does Facebook add?

I don’t have a Pinterest account because I’m not interested in collecting pictures, and I don’t have a StumbleUpon account because I’m quite good at searching the internet on my own for anything I might require. I have a Facebook account because it’s a useful way of contacting people, or of being contacted.

Do any of your social media subscriptions duplicate each other? If so, delete the one that’s least useful.

If you are in a servant-position, and you’re finding it difficult to evaluate what you need and what you don’t, then taking a couple of weeks of complete abstinence might help you get some perspective, help you realise which bits you really missed and which bits you hardly noticed were gone. But re-activating subscriptions that you really do find useful isn’t giving in, or being weak: it’s asserting your mastery, your determination not to deprive yourself of the advantages.

2. Don’t leave Facebook (or anything else, as relevant) running in the background when you’re working on the computer.

If you don’t get notified of people’s minute-by-minute status updates, you won’t feel you have to go and look at their pages, or comment. You can deal with that stuff more efficiently by allocating a short time each day to keep with anyone you need to keep up with.

3. Don’t be available.

The easiest method of not spending your time instant-messaging people instead of doing things you’d rather be doing is not to be available. Likewise, if you don’t want your mobile phone to ring while you’re at the cinema, switch it off. If you’ve got a smartphone, there should be an airplane setting where you can keep it on to use all the useful stuff without actually receiving calls. Remember, you have a right to privacy. Not being constantly available to everyone in the world is not rude.

Also, remember: If it’s important, they’ll call back or leave a message. If it’s not, they shouldn’t have been bothering you in the first place.

4. Don’t start playing online games/get loads of free apps just because they’re free.

These things always end up consuming more time than you think. Think, what are you really getting out of spending all that time playing Angry Birds? Everybody needs a bit of relaxation, but it’s not relaxation if you’re finding the temptation for just one more round too strong, or you’re playing minesweeper instead of getting on with your work, or interacting with, you know, Real People.

5. Keep your social network under control.

Do you really need to stay in contact with everyone you meet your whole life, from the kid who was in the next crib to you in the labour ward onwards? The bigger your social network, the more effort you have to put into maintaining it. With Facebook, it gets worse, because the site sends you notifications when your ‘friends’ update statuses and things. (Can you turn this off? If so, do it. For people you’re really interested in, you can go and look and see how they’re doing.) Ditch contact details for people you met once and are never likely to meet (or want to contact) again. Keep only those people you value, and who value you. This doesn’t mean just your best-best-best-ever friends and first-degree relatives; it means, that guy you met in a bar eight years ago and haven’t spoken to since – ditch him. He’s just cluttering up your system. It’s not an insult; it’s an acknowledgement that you can’t be ‘social’ with the whole world.

6. When you use technology, make it work for a living.

Can you use technology to save you time? If you have to keep updated in a particular area, can you subscribe to a news service that will find all the important news and deliver it to you so you don’t have to go looking? If you don’t have to read everything every day, at least you can then look at the headlines and only read what you need. And you’ll know it’s there if you need to find it again later.

Use an electronic to-do list program that will help you keep track of everything, including your deadlines. Life gets much more controllable when you’ve got it all pinned down in a list where tasks can’t writhe around and multiply without your permission. Deadlines never come pouncing out of the undergrowth at you, stressing you out. You can see them coming and beat them before they even get to you.

7. Don’t work harder; work smarter.

Constructive laziness, that is the key. Can you get the same result with less work?

Blogging, for example. I try to write a post every day. But if I have two ideas in one day, I don’t necessarily publish them both that day. The first idea will get published, but the second idea gets written up while I have the time, but set to publish itself at a pre-set time the following day. Then, if ‘tomorrow’ is busy, I’m still good – I’ve kept my blog alive but I haven’t had to take time out of an already crazy day to do it. You also save time and increase quality this way; the good posts get written, but you don’t feel you have to write something not-so-good because you need to post something but inspiration hasn’t happened.

What, you didn’t think I get up before 6am every day to do Thought for the Day did you? Nah, that generally gets written the night before. On the days I’m up at 5.30am, I need to get out of the house quick to get to work, so I still don’t have time.

Can you use technology to make your life easier, or, better yet, to do some of your work for you?

8. Keep reviewing.

Time can be spent as easily – or more easily – than money. We know to watch our money expenditures, but it’s easy to see time as free. Time is a resource; you need to spend it wisely. Take the time ( 🙂 ) every now and then to re-evaluate your use of technology. Can you ditch any of it? Are any bad habits creeping in? Conversely, has something new been developed that you can use to your advantage?

9. Set a good example.

I don’t have kids, but I vividly remember my childhood, and being fifteen (years, not months) before I had my first tape-player. And one tape. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat which I played over and over again until everyone was sick of it. I didn’t have a TV in my room, either, and I was about the same age when I dared to turn the TV on without parental permission. I grew up reading books rather than watching TV, and with a lot of hobbies involving real things like crafts and playing musical instruments.

OK, that was then and this is now. The internet, and web-2, are part of life. It would be wrong to cut children off from this, not only because they need to know all this stuff to be able to keep up with their friends at school, but also because it’ll be vital for later life. But if Mummy and Daddy aren’t in control of their own use of the internet and social media, how will children learn to keep their own balance?

10. Remember you are an individual.

Different people have different needs when it comes to technology and connectedness. If your friend has an account with every type of social media going, and spends hours on the internet, that’s not necessarily because she can’t control it (although it might be); it might be because her job needs her to be that connected, and every minute spent on social media is a minute well spent. Authors spring to mind – they need publicity; they can’t afford to only communicate with good friends. On the other hand, if your other friend doesn’t own a computer and only has a mobile phone in case she breaks down in the car, it’s not necessarily because she’s either mega-in-control or a techno-luddite. Maybe her social connectedness is all done on the land-line and in person and Facebook and so on wouldn’t add anything.

Different people have different needs; you need to evaluate your own technology and social media needs against your own life. What’s right for someone else might not be right for you.

*

So, there we are, ten ways to be the master, not the servant. Social media are here to stay, and the world is only going to get more connected. We cannot afford to just bury our heads in the sand, and declare that it’s all too much and we can’t cope. Now is an exciting time in that respect; social media are expanding incredibly fast, and we’re having to figure out new ways of working, new ways of living. We have to learn to take control and keep it, find ways of taking full advantage of the new opportunities without falling into any of the traps.

But we can do it. We are the masters of our fate.

Why I am not a feminist

I’m not a feminist. Never identified as one; never wanted to be one.

I’m an equalitarian.

Firstly, there’s the word itself. ‘Feminism’; I’m no linguistic expert, but it seems to have its roots in the belief in the superiority of, or at least support for, the feminine against the alternative, or alternatives.

Why don’t I like that?

Because I don’t believe women are superior to men; neither do I believe men are superior to women. Each gender has its strengths and weaknesses, but neither is better than the other. Equal, but different. Additionally, I don’t believe that all women (or men) are the same, that they can be easily put in a box marked ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. People are people; some women act or think more like the average male than like the average female, and the other way around. If I am a feminist, then what am I supporting? A chromosome type, regardless of the qualities that the person expresses? Or if it’s a set of personal qualities, then what if I don’t feel I share them?

The difference in male and female cultures is not just down to societal conditioning; on a population level, men are bigger, more aggressive. It’s a biological thing. Testosterone and all that. It’s hard to separate nature from nurture – do fewer women take part in traditionally male pastimes and careers because they just don’t want to, or because of lingering societal pressure even when the way is officially open to them? – but the research says that men are different from women. End of. So if we agree that men and women are fundamentally different on a population level, what about those individuals who fall outside gender norms? The girl who likes combat sports, and whose friends are mostly male? If we’re talking about feminism as promoting the feminine, does she count? She doesn’t display the ‘usual’ feminine traits.

If we’re talking politically, that feminism is about changing women’s status as the second sex, discriminated against either openly or subtly, why don’t I connect to that? Even as a not-very-feminine woman, surely I can relate to that?

Well, yes and no. But for me, it’s not about ‘up the women’. It’s about equality. For everyone. It’s not just about women wanting to be engineers (in case anyone was wondering, I don’t) and soldiers, and not having it implied that they have to sleep with the boss in order to get promotion. For me, it’s also about men not being discriminated against – being able to be primary school teachers without their female colleagues looking askance at them and treating them like a paedophile-in-waiting. About men being able to be midwives, if they want, without anyone making comments about them only wanting to do it because they get off on it. (To which I would reply, in that case, what about lesbians, and also, sack all the male gynaecologists too.)

Everyone has the right to make their own life choices without being discriminated against, not just women.

Then there’s the whole dungarees-thing.

I’m not against dungarees per se; I even own a pair. But even though dungarees are not nearly as fashionable as they used to be in feminist circles, their ghost is still alive and well and rattling its chains.

This is the school of thought that says that since high heels and nice dresses are symbols of male-dominated society and thus the subjugation of women, a feminist does not wear them because that’s Selling Out.

I mean, WTF? To be a feminist, I have to look dowdy?

Firstly, I object to anyone trying to make my wardrobe choices for me. Secondly, by refusing to wear high heels just because men see it as sexy, that leaves a woman’s wardrobe choices still in the hands of the men. The dungarees-wearers are still the prisoners of male choices, as it were – only instead of wearing high heels because men find them sexy, they’re wearing dungarees because men don’t find them sexy. Personally, I think that’s even worse, because not only are they still allowing others to make their decisions for them, but they also end up wearing something that they don’t like either. Which is, to me, a net loss and I find it hard to see how that could possibly be thought of as an advantage. Bra-burning (or not wearing) is another. I’m not making any comments on my level of endowment, or otherwise, but I will remark that the bra performs a very practical function, especially if one is going to do something more strenuous than a little light flower-arranging, or leaflet-distribution.

I prefer to be an equalitarian and wear what I please, without reference to whether people I don’t even know might consider me a sex object, or not. My choices are my own.

Then there’s the modern feminists who are now saying that it’s not just right for a woman’s place to be in the home, it’s better. A wife and mother is the best thing anyone could possibly be, and it’s an option only open to women. Women should stop wanting to ‘compete with men’ and concentrate on the things they are ideally fitted for by nature, which are more worthwhile, more morally valuable, than ‘men things’. Women should celebrate being women.

This kind of thing doesn’t leave me speechless, because very little ever does (have you noticed that?). But it does make me spitting mad.

This is another reason why I am not a feminist. I object to being defined as a person by my chromosome type, even if it’s a superior chromosome type. Allegedly. A patriarchal society puts all women in a box, saying ‘Women are all like this; these are the things they are good at, and these are the things they are bad at.’ Assigning qualities such as nurturing, compassion, gentleness, and so on to women and then lauding these qualities has a long tradition. It’s been going on for thousands of years, and usually been done by men who wanted to keep women subjugated. Now the feminists are doing it. This can be translated as ‘You can put us in a box, but that’s OK because we like it there; it’s a good box. We don’t want to go outside the box.’

I don’t want to be shut in a box, even a nice box. I want the freedom to choose whether to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, or a top-flight professional, according to my personality and talents. I don’t want it forced on me by anyone else, even by people who say that one way is ‘better’.

To finish with, I have a little illustrative story. It’s true, although it didn’t happen to me; it was told to me by the person to whom it happened.

The year is 1983; the height of the Cold War. The Russians have shot down a South Korean airliner; things are tense, to say the least. And CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) is holding a protest at Greenham Common, outside a Royal Air Force base which is one of the two from which planes would be launched equipped with the nuclear Cruise missile.

A young man, an ardent member of CND, goes on an organised bus trip to the protest camp. Wandering around the camp, he encounters a woman and makes some perfectly respectable comment (about the weather, or the camp, or the protest). He is told to “F*ck off, we don’t need any more men around here. Men are the cause of all the problems.” Supported by her friends.

The young man, astonished by this, leaves, and goes to talk, instead, to the guard on the other side of the wire. This guard is female. And they have an interesting talk about nuclear disarmament, the political situation, the protest, and several other things.

After that, the young man left CND.

OK, the moral of the story?

Well, the obvious thing is that, as my friend remarked to me, that kind of uncalled-for rudeness is enough to make even a man who supports equality into a male chauvinist. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

But think, we have two women here – who was the better ‘feminist’?

Firstly, the dungaree-wearing (she was, apparently, with a lumpy jumper) political activist feminist who antagonises the very people she should be trying to make into allies?

Or the guard who has forged her career, presumably successfully, in a male dominated area? She proves, every day, to everyone she meets, that she – a woman – can do ‘a man’s job’.

Yes, we need political activists – but we need people who do not automatically see everything as ‘if you’re not with us (and we define that by criteria such as chromosome type, so not everyone is allowed to be ‘with’ us whatever their beliefs) then you’re against us.’ We do not need people who are gratuitously offensive, or who play up to negative stereotypes, thus giving ammunition to our opponents. We need people who will show that women are to be respected, that we can be trusted with authority (a weapon as dangerous as the female guard’s rifle). We need people who can show that women are equal, and therefore it is wrong not to treat us as such.

We also cannot afford to see equality for women as a separate issue to equality for people of all races, or for people of all sexual orientations, or all ages, or equality in any other area. Equality is equality. Inequality spreads, like disease; you can only wipe it out if you wipe it out everywhere.