I am the least diverse person I know.
Not disadvantaged socio-economically (though, I am proud of my Northern working class roots).
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. Despite this lack of personal diversity – or maybe because of it – I have a natural tendency to write diverse fiction. I would even go so far as to say I have a passion for it.
Following my successful win of the 2014 Commonword Writing Diversity for Children Prize, I was asked to discuss why I write diverse fiction at a social gathering of the Golden Egg Academy. This blog post is essentially the contents of my speech, so apologies if you’ve heard it all before.
I am extremely proud to be the current holder of the 2014 Commonword Diversity Prize. Despite my non-diverse credentials I managed to create a story about a Hindu boy that was compelling and genuine enough to be taken seriously. Irfan Master, author of A Beautiful Lie, and a writer I have great admiration for, described my novel; The Multiple Lives of Haroon Patel, as fresh and original – he also loved the title! I am the first male winner of the prize and the only male to have ever been shortlisted – another source of great pride for me.
Writing my novel did not come without controversy. During critique sessions, as part of my MA in Creative Writing and other writing groups, I was interrogated at great length – I think they prefer the term challenged, but to me it often felt like the Spanish Inquisition. Why do I want to write about a Hindu boy? What do you know about Hindu culture? Why are you interested in ticking diversity boxes? Why is it so important to write about diversity to you? What do you know about…you get the picture?
The thing I found most intriguing was the fact that I was only ever questioned so fiercely when writing from the point of view of a character from a different culture. When writing from a female point of view, I was never challenged. When writing from the point of view of a Martian, I was never challenged. Why? I’d argue that I understand more about Hindu culture than I ever could about the female of the species, or even a Martian for that matter!
Such intense scrutiny led me to question my writing. Why is diversity writing important to me? Am I doing the right thing? Should I stick to writing about Martians? It also led me to wonder why fellow writers were so concerned about my subject matter. Why was it such an issue? Upon reflection, I think the answer lies in fear. Fear of doing something wrong. Fear of causing offence. And then there’s the valid concerns over misappropriation. I think this is why so many writers, who are not of a diverse background, dismiss the idea of writing about something they are not familiar with or part of. They don’t want to cause offence, or upset, or get something wrong – totally understandable, I get it, I really do. To be honest, I have the same fears. In fact, when I won the Diversity Prize I felt a little embarrassed. I was faced with an incredibly diverse audience. It was an honour to be a part of the ceremony, but just before they announced the winner, I suddenly felt very self-conscious and a small part of me even hoped I wouldn’t win – I didn’t feel diverse enough.
In the end I did win, and to my surprise the audience were delighted, several of them made the effort to come and speak to me at the end, they expressed their delight in the fact I’d won. Some even commented on it being the right choice, saying the writing was great, and they loved the story. That’s when I finally got it.
It’s not about me.
It’s not about my background or my race or my culture.
It’s about the story.
The theme. Realistic characterisation. Convincing sense of place. Authentic voice. These are the crucial elements. It’s not about my skin tone, or my culture, or my abilities, whether I’m rich or poor, gay or straight – it’s not about me at all.
So, to any of you budding writers out there, or even established ones, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, to push the limits, it’s only when we do, that we produce some of our best work.
John F Kennedy once said, A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats. I think it’s vital that we writers are part of that tide. Until writers of all backgrounds and denominations take part in creating fiction that’s representative of modern society there’ll always be a paucity of diverse fiction. We can’t afford for that to happen.
Don’t be afraid, go for it. And good luck.