Sunday, June 14, 2015

Diversity in Your Characters: Racial and Ethnic Inclusion with Agatha Award Nominated Lamar Giles

Today, I am honored to introduce you to Lamar Giles.

Lamar writes novels and short stories for teens and adults. He is the author of the 2015 Edgar® Award Nominee FAKE ID, a second YA thriller ENDANGERED, a third, currently untitled YA novel from HarperCollins, as well as the forthcoming YA novel OVERTURNED from Scholastic Press. Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. 

Fiona - 
So welcome. You are helping me develop what I hope will be an interesting series of conversations that explore inclusivity and diversity in our characters to bring depth and breadth to our writing.

Let's talk about your
diversity initiative. Can you tell me how it
began, what you are doing now, and where
you aspire to go?

Lamar - 

Thanks for having me. I'm a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. We're a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. We started a little over a year ago with a twitter campaign (#weneeddiversebooks) that quickly gained international attention...

In the year since, we've become a non-profit organization, and have begun instituting many initiatives. Including our Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Diverse Works (the inaugural award will be administered next year), Grants for unpublished writers, an internship program to help marginalized interns afford living in New York while they intern with major publishers.

We hope to make a difference in what has been a decades long tradition in children's books, where most books are written about (and essentially for) straight, cis, white, able-bodied children, which doesn't really represent the make up of youth in our country. We want all children to have windows through which to see those who aren't like them, and mirrors to see themselves.

[definition note: "cis" - cisgender means a person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, where a transgender person identifies with a gender different from what they were assigned at birth.]

Fiona - 
One of the reasons I was so excited to talk with you today is that readers will often send me questions hoping that I can find an expert to help them. Last year, a reader asked me if I could find someone who could help them describe their characters demonstrating their ethnic backgrounds without saying the East Indian, the Latino, the .... and so forth. Each of his young characters came from a different background, and he was deeply concerned with offending by stereotyping. In your book, you did a great job with diversity. Can you help our fellow writers with how to write descriptions and avoid the pitfalls?

Lamar - 
Those are the types of questions that I hear a lot, and there aren't easy answers. 

When I'm writing outside of my culture, I'm as afraid of getting it wrong as anyone else. And I make mistakes, too. But, there are some things you can do if you're writing a culture you don't know. 

First, have you been reading books by authors from that culture? If so, you'll probably see great examples of how members within the culture speak of themselves. Are you friends with people in the culture? If so, ask them to read what your write and take their feedback without being defensive. Have you eaten food from that culture, visited neighborhoods? These are all things you can do to increase your knowledge. BUT, know that you can still mess it up, and if you do, again, take feedback without being defensive. Learn and grow, it's an ongoing thing.

Fiona - 
Can you give me an example of a movie and a book that you feel exemplified your goals with diversity?

Lamar - 
Sure! As far as books, right now I'm reading PRETTY TINY THINGS by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, and it is an excellent story that features wide range of characters from all sorts of backgrounds. High recommend there. 

Movies...this one is a few years old, but I absolutely loved ATTACK THE BLOCK and the range of characters in it. If you're not familiar, it's a science-fiction movie about aliens invading a housing project in London. The lead is John Boyega, who's going to have a big role in the new Star Wars movie. Awesome, awesome film that nails diversity...because it's diverse but not ABOUT diversity. 

But, if I'm talking of movies, I have to say I think Hollywood productions, in general, miss a lot of opportunities to be more diverse. Though I'm seeing improvement here and there (The Fast and Furious Films, for example).

Fiona - 
As you were talking about immersing oneself in various cultures that you are trying to portray and that you won't get it all right even with a beta reader helping you with your representations, it made me think that there's a continuum of ways to explore that for example - 

  1. "Diversity is no big deal we barely notice (or we enjoy) the differences.
  2. We're okay but the people around us are not - for example in an interracial romance
  3. There's racial antipathy where the groups feel they are fighting against each other.

Can you discuss portraying racial conflict from the second scenario where some of the characters are tolerant but some of the characters are diversity intolerant?

Lamar -
Well, in those scenarios (we're okay, but the people around us are not, and the groups fighting for or against each other) I think it's especially important to seek people who've been through it if YOU haven't been through it. Because outside looking in is never going to give you the emotional resonance of inside looking out. 

And this isn't limited to race. Without insight from the group in question (interracial couples, group A who has a problem with group B), you run the risk of oversimplifying, giving uninformed judgements, and simply being offensive. If you're not in it, you can't presume. Seek the insight, or leave the topic alone. In my humble opinion.

Fiona - 
Does your initiative have any programs/seminars/information available for writers to help them explore using diversity in their writing?

Lamar - 
Not at this time. WNDB is really focused on the programs I've described (grants, internships, etc.), but we've had individual team members do those sorts of workshops at various conferences/events across the country. 

Because the diversity topic is such an important, ongoing conversation, I would encourage anyone who's interested in that sort of thing to keep an eye out for writing conferences that might be offering panels or workshops on the topic. There are so many organizations committed to increasing awareness, that it shouldn't be hard to find those sorts of learning opportunities if that's a desire.

Fiona - 
How can interested authors reach out to your organization?

Lamar - 
On our website ( there's a GET INVOLVED menu, under that, there's a Propose a Partnership link where people who want to connect can give us the requested info, and that gets reviewed quarterly. 

If there are appropriate opportunities for authors to connect with us, they will be contacted after the review. Our VOLUNTEER link is currently closed due to the massive amount of interest we've had. Otherwise, there's a contact link for general inquiries, and an FAQ for the most common questions we get.

Fiona - 
Let's say an author reads this article, has an Ah-ha! moment and decides to make their work more balanced, what advice would you give them?

Lamar -
I'd say that by "balanced" it doesn't inadvertently become "cliched" and/or "stereotypical". It's more nuanced than simply changing a white character to an Asian character, or adding a sentence about some supporting character being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Honestly, while I appreciate the effort of writers who want to be more inclusive in their work, I'd like them to understand there's always a learning curve, and I'd ask them to consider if the best move is to change the way they're writing (that MIGHT be the best move) or seek out writers who already do it well, buy their books, and encourage others (bookstores and libraries) to buy those authors books. 

Is the thinking behind it "A-ha! I get that the exclusion of so many people in literature is a problem, so I'm going to help support diverse literature" or is it "A-ha! I get that the exclusion of so many people in literature is a problem, and *I'm* the solution"? One of those makes me more wary than the other.

Fiona - 
What are some of the other great communities/organizations who do a lot for raising awareness on the topic? 

Lamar - 
Diversity in YA (, Brown Bookshelf (, Lee and Low Books (, Children's Book Council (, and many others....

Fiona - 

Can you address inclusivity in your own work?

Lamar - As for my own work, I include different cultures because I've always been around a lot of different people. It's just what I'm used to. And when dealing with unfamiliar cultures, I look for the experts, and ask for help. Again, I don't always get it right, but it's not for lack of trying.

Fiona - 

Can you tell us about your newest book?

Lamar -  
ENDANGERED - Her name is Lauren, but everyone calls her Panda. What they don't know is that behind their backs, she also goes by Gray. As in Gray Scales, the photoblog that her classmates are addicted to because of the secrets Gray exposes: a jock buying drugs, a teacher in a compromising position, a rich girl shoplifting. But no one knows Panda's the vigilante photographer behind it all. At least, she thinks no one knows—until she gets a note from the Admirer, who's not only caught her red-handed acting as Gray but also threatens to reveal everything unless Panda plays a little game of Dare or . . . Dare. Panda plays along. Anything to keep the secret she's protected for years. But when the game turns deadly, Panda doesn't know what to do. And she might need to step out of the shadows to save herself . . . and everyone else on the Admirer's hit list, including some of the classmates she's loathed and exposed for years.

Fiona- It is a tradition on ThrillWriting to ask you about your favorite scar.

Lamar - I don't know if you'd call this harrowing, but I once cut a 1-inch gash in my left hand opening a tube of toothpaste. 

I was in 7th grade, and it was before school. This was one of the Crest Neat Squeeze tubes (I don't know if they make them anymore) with this tight plastic seal over the cap. For some reason I couldn't get the seal off, and I was running late, so I grabbed one of my mom's new Ginsu knives, and jabbed it through the seal. The knife did the trick, it was as sharp as advertised. So sharp, in fact, that I didn't even feel the blade slice my hand. I brushed my teeth, finished getting ready for school, and was almost out the door before I glanced at my hand and realized the skin on the back of my hand was open. I could see muscle. The craziest part was it hadn't started bleeding. The blood only came once I knew it was there. I don't understand why--there must be something to mind over matter, I thought I was fine, so I was fine. Once it did start bleeding, it BLED.

Anyhow, it's not swimming with the sharks, but I do have the scar (looking at it right now). Sort of let me know that if I could injure myself opening toothpaste, I should err on the side of caution in all physical endeavors going forward. 

Fiona - 
Thank you so much for hanging out with us today. To stay in touch with Lamar: 
follow @LRGiles on Twitter.

Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keepThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


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