Evolution of a Diverse Books Writer

Rebecca White

Evolution of a Diverse Books Writer or How I Went From, ‘Why Not Have a Dark-Skinned Character?’ to ‘Everything I Write for the Rest of My Life Will Include Diversity for the Sake of My Son and the Rest of the Non-White and Disabled People on Earth’.

Step One: Why Not? It was 2003, and I wanted to write a book. I’d had ideas developing in my mind for years, and it was finally time to put them down on paper, so to speak. The book’s largest theme would be the injustice and loss that follow nationalism, shown in a story about a girl who escapes one kind of inequality only to find herself in a country where she’s not only a minority, but a minority from a much hated race. The girl’s adventure, relationships, and character development would keep people reading.

It wasn’t until I started pounding out the first scene that I realized I needed to know what the girl looked like. As I sat there in the college library, trying not to listen to the conversations of some un-conscientious types, I decided that in order to move the plot properly, I needed my two nations to look very different from each other. Because of the world’s geography it made more sense to give my protagonist darker skin, so I wrote a brown-skinned protagonist, and that was that.

Step Two: White People Need to Get Over it. Almost ten years after I began writing my first novel, Kergulen, I had given up on traditional agents and publishers and gone indie. (I had absolutely NO idea what I was doing, but that’s another blog post for another time.) When I started passing around the cover art/font for feedback, I was ASTOUNDED to hear that ‘people won’t buy a book with a picture of a black girl on it’. I heard this from light and dark-skinned people alike, and I just couldn’t believe it, naïve me. My response was to be stubborn and insist that there is no reason why white people shouldn’t read books about non-white characters. It’s ridiculous. If my son (who is black) can be expected to read books about white people, why can’t white people read about people of color? They need to get over it.

Step Three: What? Almost All Books Are About White People? Being a European-American, I had never thought about it before. I only became aware of the issue when I finally started looking for markets that might be more open to the book I’d published and the sequel I had in the works. I learned that there are LOTS of people craving a good, non-white lead to read because they just can’t get their hands on enough of them. I began looking at diversity as something we need, not just something white people needed to accept. Many of the characters in my second book, Kings of the Red Shell, are various shades of brown and tan. The heroine is no longer a minority.

Step Four: My Son Could Use a Hero. Our son has diverse role models in real life, but it finally sunk in that he might very well want to read about characters who look like him when he gets older. They should be powerful, believable characters who overcome struggles and still embrace life with gusto. In Kings of the Red Shell, my main character has grown much stronger, more confident, and pro-active. She still has doubts and things to work through, of course, but she’s more courageous and selfless than ever. She’s the kind of character we wouldn’t mind our young people emulating.

Step Five: Huh. Disability is Part of Diversity. My son has a severe physical disability that renders him ventilator dependent when he’s sick or sleeping. A condition like that would be hard to reproduce in a fantasy, electricity-free world, but other disabilities could easily work. And that is why one of my more interesting secondary characters was dealt a disabling blow near the end of book two. Despite being an amputee, he’ll return as an important character in book four. I’ve also been thinking over other ways to incorporate disabilities without making the stories about disability any more than they’re about diversity. In the future, I also intend to include adoption.

Step Six: Everything I Write for the Rest of My Life Will Include Diversity for the Sake of My Son and the Rest of the Non-White and Disabled People on Earth. This statement is only partly true. Everything I write will include diversity, but not just for the sake of the non-white and disabled. All of this evolution has brought me back to the beginning, the belief that diversity is good for everyone. Maybe if we produce quality diverse content, diversity will become the norm. Then my original motivation for writing a non-white heroine would be sufficient. Why not?

Please consider assisting our efforts to diversify everyone’s bookshelf by checking out the We Need Diverse Books website and seeing how you can help. It’s super easy, just click —> HERE – it’s vital, folks.



R.A. White grew up in the Pocono Mountains, sharing her childhood with as many as six siblings and foster siblings at any given time. In her early adult years, she spent two years living in Moscow, Russia. More recently, she and her husband, both white Americans, adopted an African American child. Growing up in a racially diverse family, living as a foreigner, and raising a child through trans-racial adoption all make her well suited to write novels about the complexities of multiracial communities. A lifelong love of the fantasy genre led her to set her story in an imaginary world.

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6 thoughts on “I #SupportWNDB – The Series: EVOLUTION OF A WRITER

  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s protagonist in the famous Earthsea is a brown skinned young man. However when Scifi channel made the Earthsea series into a miniseries, they whitewashed it and Ursula K. Le Guin complains about it in this article: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/12/a_whitewashed_earthsea.html

    I grew up reading classic books, and some of them featured non-white characters. I didn’t really care about the color of the characters. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book features an east Indian boy, one of the best characters in children’s literature.

    The blind ranger character in R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy (the second book titled Exile) is one of the epic characters with a disability in fantasy literature. A must read for everyone.
    And here is a great list of books, 19 must read scifi and fantasy books by women of color, featuring non-white characters: http://www.buzzfeed.com/akpatel462/19-must-read-science-fiction-and-fantasy-novels-by-15qst

  2. Yes! I often hear the argument “If there was a market for it, there’d be more diverse books,” but there IS a market. The push-back stems from this false idea that the white-heteronormative-male experience is universal and everything else needs a special market. As you said, people of color are expected to read books with white protagonists, but if a book contains a person of color on the cover then it gets labeled as “exotic” or “race-themed” or something. Glad to see more people speaking up!

  3. Rebecca, your post is great and reminds me of my journey with my first series for young adults of color, The Coco Butta Kids. I cannot tell you how many people – agents and publishing folks – told me they loved the book and couldn’t put it down, but I didn’t really serve a profitable market. Wha? Huh? It’s absolutely frustrating and I find the situation, more than ten years after I wrote those books, is still, pretty much, the same old bullshit. It’s just the the folks in charge have gotten much smarter and hip to using the right rhetoric.

    Perhaps this is just me, feeling quite negative and venting, but I find today’s publishing world to still be quite white-centric and homogenous. They’ve let in a chosen few and want the rest of us to just shut up. And I say to them, in the words of the late, great Whitney Houston, hell-to-the-no!

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