Changing Your Mind, One Book at a Time

Months ago, I came across an article talking about a study of Harry Potter, and how those that read it tended to have increased levels of acceptance towards people with different backgrounds from their own, as well as a lower inclination for notions of violence.

While books are pretty magical on their own, I’m not saying that people who have read Harry Potter are instantly better human beings than those who have not. While the study is conducted by reputable people, it is also inconclusive because there are about a billion variables at play that could skew results.

But if reading can change a young person’s perspective for the better, wouldn’t reading diverse books be a good way to do it?

At the moment, the issue of ISIS is huge and complicated. While I’m not clear on all the details, I am aware of how society is responding.

Their response is valid of course – the problem is real. But innocent Muslims are getting the short end of the stick when society (not everybody, obviously) starts lumping them all together in a group and then pointing fingers while saying awful things that shall not be repeated here on this blog.

The kind of hate I’ve seen reported of the offenders in the Australian media at the moment makes me mad. Stories of people ripping off Muslim women’s hijabs and getting spat on in public is despicable and it really makes me wonder why they think it’s okay to behave in such a way. I even saw a story the other week about how a school kid asked a classmate if their family were terrorists.

On the grand list of a billion things that are not alright, this is definitely one of them. A kid saying that when they’re young cannot be justified by touting the line: “He’s just a child”. An adult doing these things is even worse because you would assume that they know better.

So how do books come into play?

Education. Information. And just a better understanding of other people instead of alienating them.

People need to step outside their bubble and realise that we’re all human beings. Yes, there are extremists who do the wrong thing, but there’s no need to generalise. For people like me (22-year-old Australian Chinese Girl with a penchant for nachos), I admit to not knowing too much about Muslim culture beyond what the media feed me and through some friends. However, I feel that if more people took the effort to learn about others, they wouldn’t be so quick to judge and that maybe they’ll have a think before spouting off some racist BS.

Especially for children and young adults, this is important. Learning things whether it be from the influence of your friends, family, context, culture or books; they have an effect on you. I know younger people aren’t sponges and that they’re selective and capable of rejecting ideas but also remember that they can also accept them and it’s probably pretty important to foster ideas that are not going to cause awful and negative things like racism.

So after a lot of talking, here’s a short roundup of links that can recommend you some YA books that feature Muslim characters:

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What book had a lasting effect on you for the better when you were younger?

Advertisements

A Brief Guide on How to Read More Diversely

In this aspect, I am a huge hypocrite. I am the number one fan of sticking to my favoured genres (sci-fi, fantasy and historical fiction FTW) and my favoured authors. I am hardly one to #readoutsidethebox but I sure would like to change it. If there’s anything other great campaigns on diverse books have taught me, it’s that there’s not necessarily an absence of diverse fiction, but rather it’s not being talked about enough which usually leads to them largely being unknown, which consequently sucks.

"What d'ya mean you don't read diversely?" ft. My Judgmental and Possibly Overweight Cat named Po.

“What d’ya mean you don’t read diversely?” ft. My Judgmental and Possibly Overweight Cat named Po.

So how can you and I read more diversely? Here are some tips (from a complete novice by the way):

  1. Don’t depend on Goodreads

I am an absolute sucker for this one. I read reviews and browse through ratings on Goodreads before purchasing books a lot of the time and it’s a terrible habit. What I should be doing is reading it and then making up my own mind but what I end up doing is setting up expectations pre-read and either not getting the book at all, or being judgmental and nitpicky throughout the entire reading. Of course, Goodreads is still a great site/application. For example, if a book has thousands of reviews and an average of 1 star out of 5, it probably means it’s not that great for a variety of reasons. I also personally enjoy reading hilariously angry reviews by other people but hey, that’s just how I like to spend my Saturday nights.

  1. Have a peek at smaller publishers or authors who self-publish

Many smaller publishers specialise in diverse books or just an array of titles that you may never have heard of in the mainstream book world. Also, many authors choose to self-publish these days to get their books out there without all the red tape involved – google search and have a hunt around blogs and writing communities!

  1. Consider picking up a translated story

Authenticity gets bandied around a lot when it comes to diverse books. Does this author write about this particular culture of group of people well? Is it inauthentic? Or is it *gasp* A STEREOTYPE?! To combat this problem, who better to write a story with a semblance of authenticity to a particular race or culture other than a person from that country/society themselves? It may be hard to track down translated stories but it’s doable and you might discover something amazing (which you can then recommend to me 🙂 )

So, what other ways have you guys found diverse books?

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue

Writing Gripes: Physical Attributes

Today, I read an interesting post by Hannah Sutker at The Huffington Post called “Writing and Polite Racism”. Essentially it was about how some writers tend to approach writing race in characters in two ways: (1) Ignoring it; or (2) Watering it down into more ambiguous terms. Since Miss Sutker does such a sublime job at writing her own article, you can read the entire thing here but what I wanted to focus on was point number 2.

In the article, Miss Sutker provides some fine examples of the physical characteristics of ethnic characters being compared to food stuff. A part of me wonders whether it’s because as children we were made to learn poetic techniques (similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia – remember learning these fun tidbits for about 8 years?) and then forcefully inject them into every piece of creative writing we ever did. Did this contribute to the lack of originality when describing ethnic characters? Or is it really like Miss Sutker suggests? That authors “water down” racial character descriptions so as not to draw attention to race itself?

Nevertheless, this is not a topic that I feel like I have an informed opinion on. What I do have an opinion on however, is the bits of racial character descriptions that I see in books that annoy me (but not all are related to food!). Here’s the top 3:

1. “Almond shaped eyes”

A character descriptor most commonly used on characters with Asian heritage. FYI, I’m 100% Chinese and my eye shape does not resemble mildly delicious nuts. Just sayin’.

2. “A halo of frizzy hair”

Usually used when describing a character of African or African American descent. I suppose frizzy hair could be described as a halo if it is gravity defying and surrounding the head, but in my mind it just conjures up images of somebody with a doughnut made of hair that is hovering angelically above.

3. “Chocolate coloured skin”

Again, used to describe darker skin toned people. This isn’t quite as annoying as it is common because I feel like writers could think outside the box with this one because chocolate is not the only thing that is darker in colour. My dislike for this description is very much akin to my dislike for when writers harp on about how “the colour of her eyes were like fresh blades of grass in the spring” but when it comes to brown eyed girls and boys, it’s either “chocolate” or just “dark”. Come on guys, consider putting a little thought into it.

Now I realise that this whole post just turned into me revealing how nitpicky I am, but aren’t all roses flowers? Are Ferraris not cars? And are not blogs essentially spaces for opinion and occasionally ranting?

I’m sorry, I’ll dial back the melodrama in the future but for now, answer me this: What is your biggest gripe when it comes to describing ethnic characters in books?

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue

The Potential Perils of Writing Diverse Characters

Since it’s a Sunday (in Sydney), I’ll treat you all with a short blog so you can maximise the amount of time you spend in the glorious sun as opposed to laboriously scrolling through my posts on your smartphone/laptop/apple watch etc

So as you can see from the blog title, I’m going to talk about the potential perils of writing diverse characters.

First of all, I feel like I need to offer a disclaimer. I’m not the best at writing – I can come up with stories but implementing them into a cohesive narrative that people enjoy? Nope. In fact, when I took a creative writing class last year at university, I got a “pass” for the subject. A pass. I don’t have wildly high expectations of my grades but hopefully that gives you some idea of how much of an amateur I am when it comes to the whole creative writing business.

Nevertheless, I will endeavour to approach this topic with pretty much no grounds of credibility besides my observations through copious amounts of reading.

In my opinion, the number one reason for authors not writing diverse characters is because it doesn’t fit in with their own experiences. As a result, wanting to write diverse characters becomes a lot more effort and fear of getting it wrong takes centre stage.

This to me is quite understandable. If you asked me to write a books about a transgender character in ancient Egypt, I would have no idea where to begin. On one hand, I love researching history for the fun of it, but on the other hand, what do I know about transgender characters? And even if I did know a thing or two about transgender characters, would I do it justice?

Ramesses II disaproves of my story idea Source: Creative Commons/Flickr DuncanH1

Ramesses II disaproves of my story idea
Source: Creative Commons/Flickr DuncanH1

The answer is no. Well, more accurately, the answer is no if I put absolutely no effort into it.

Like many a lazy bones, effort is not something I exude naturally. But if I were to write a book so far outside my own experience, I absolutely would put the effort in because diversity in books is something I’m passionate about and is so so important. I’ll research the hell out of it, I’ll talk to people who do have these experiences who are willing to share so I can get the characterisation, In an ideal world I’ll even time travel to Egypt to get a feel of the culture and context.

I get that not a lot of people would bother writing something so far out of their comfort zone and that’s absolutely fine. You can still have diverse characters within a setting that you’re comfortable with. You don’t know the culture/background of a character you were planning to write about? Then ask somebody who does. You’d be surprised at how willing people are to share their stories and experiences if you just ask them (nicely. And throw in some free cake too).

As always, feel free to join in on the discussion using #readoutsidethebox and don’t forget to follow me on my Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr!

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Have you ever tried writing a diverse character outside of your comfort zone? How did it pan out for you?

BONUS: Head over to my tumblr for this super cool character inspiration drag and drop thing. I take no credit for making it but if you feel like writing a diverse character but are a bit stuck on the specifics, this is great fun! Feel free to forward me the end product because i would love to read 🙂

Running the Maze and Making Waves

Yesterday, I just finished my second cinema screening of “The Maze Runner”. Was it that great that it deserves two (very overpriced – in Australia anyway) viewings? Yes and No. To be honest, I only went a second time because my little brother is on school holidays and he didn’t want to go with friends because they talk during movies and he can’t stand it (and yet is too nice to tell them to be quiet). So out of sisterly love and any excuse to munch on more calorie laden snacks, I agreed to watch it a second time.

"The Maze Runner" by James Dashner (complete with an accidental advertisement for Dymocks!)

“The Maze Runner” by James Dashner (complete with an accidental advertisement for Dymocks!)

The interesting thing I found was that even though it was the second time I was watching it, it didn’t diminish my sense of smugness surrounding the racially diverse characters in the film (and book) – Which sounds weird, but hear me out!

I was having this conversation with a friend the other day, and we were marveling at how surprising it is to see Asians in big films that are actual characters as opposed to caricatures. In Hollywood blockbusters I’ve come to expect ethnic characters to suffer some untimely death or to succumb to some stereotype that makes me want to roll my eyes so hard that it stays permanently at the back of my head. It sounds awful, but that’s what Hollywood frequently presents. Ethnic characters take the back bench. They are rarely the protagonist. If there are some deaths happening, they bite the dust first.

And it’s not fair, but more importantly, it’s a damaging mindset in terms of representing racial diversity.

Enter “The Maze Runner” – a book by James Dashner that has been turned into a film. It’s about a boy named Thomas who meets a group of boys called the “Gladers”. The general point of the film/book is that their memories are erased and they have no idea what’s happening but they have to get out using the only route possible – a gigantic maze filled with these mechanical spider monsters called “grievers” (probably aptly named since they are very intent on giving you grief. Through death and exercise mostly.).

Putting aside the plot for a second, I was extremely impressed by the amount of racial diversity in the cast (and how casting directors for the film kept true to the books in this respect!). I was even more impressed that ethnic characters were not type cast because of their race.

tmrphoto

Some of the cast from The Maze Runner

It seems like I’m a fickle person. On one hand, I want diversity in what I read and see but on the other hand, I don’t want them exhibit “stereotypes”. Can I have it both ways? You bet your sweet bippy I can.

Thanks to James Dashner (and the film makers), ethnic characters are not only being represented but represented well. It may not be a groundbreaking first but it’s definitely something (so don’t take this away from me!)

Exhibit A – Minho

Played by Ki Hong Lee, the character Minho is not sidelined because of race. The below picture of an interview with him explains it best:

Ki Hong Lee talks about why he liked the role of Minho (Source: Tumblr user 'awaitingideas')

Ki Hong Lee talks about why he liked the role of Minho (Source: Tumblr user ‘awaitingideas’)

He is his own character, and his character and actions do not depend on the protagonist of the story (aka Thomas). He is athletic, strong and sarcastic. At no point does he suddenly start doing kung fu (Transformers: Age of Extinction, I am glaring at you) or start speaking with an accent. To see an Asian being one the main characters of a big film makes me so happy it’s almost ridiculous if it wasn’t so valid.

Exhibit B – Alby

Alby telling it how it is

Alby telling it how it is

Alby is the leader of the Glades and as an African American character, I am 1000% glad that he was not relegated to some damaging stereotype that the media feed us. He isnt’t a baddie, a violent man (except when he was, because he was saving someone else), the sidekick or comic relief. He, like the other characters, were their own person outside of their race. He wasn’t a harsh leader, but a compassionate one who pushed for harmony amongst the Gladers but made tough decisions when he had to. You go Alby!

So while these are only two examples, believe me when I say that there was a whole melting pot of ethnicities in the movie (and book, although it doesn’t go too in depth in terms of character descriptions for everyone) and boy was it beautiful. While this is only one movie in the grand scheme of a million, hopefully it sets a precedent amongst Hollywood directors who make young adult adaptions and movies. If I were even more optimistic, I hope that authors of YA books are more willing to incorporate racially diverse characters into their books because they are seeing that not only does it sell, but it feels hella good amongst readers and viewers to see some realism in books and media.

Anyway, I am the worst at word limits but thanks for bearing with me! As always, you can have a chat with me about this post or anything else on this site, my Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter.

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Have you watched “The Maze Runner”? Were you as impressed by the diverse cast as I was?