Why Do I Write Diverse Stories?
First published in Writers and Publishers Network, May 31, 2021
Recently a reader asked me if I write #ownvoices crime fiction to instruct, to
share my experiences as a woman of color in America, or to improve society. As if I might catch readers unaware and use stealth to fill their heads with useful insights while they believe they are just idling away the hours on a break.
I thought about those questions for a good while, because I’m sure all of these elements are indeed in the short stories and contemporary mystery novels I’ve published.
But I decided my answer was simpler: I write to entertain. I love to read a good story and hope to write them too. I try to build intriguing, multi-faceted characters and then throw them into tough situations. I enjoy exploring the contemporary lives of Black people in a complex urban setting filled with neighbors and colleagues from all walks of life.
My characters are diverse in terms of ethnic background, national and regional origin, language, age, education, sexuality, economic resources, religion, and gender identity. This rich variety reflects where I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and it is the source of the stories I tell. But it’s not why I tell the stories I do.
I remember when a different reader commented on my main character, “He suffers from PTSD, doesn’t he?” I answered, Yes, he does.
But then I thought more about that. In fact, Rook never uses the clinical term, nor does he ever use the word trauma. He is indeed traumatized by his war experiences and injuries, by his rocky upbringing, and by his wandering on the lowest of streets in New York City. He is traumatized AND recovering. But that’s not how he sees himself. He’s not a social worker, psychologist, or counselor. He’s not a case study. Rather, he’s an ordinary guy we follow through his work as a private investigator. He is healing and recovering throughout the novels, straining to make emotional connections as the long arc of his story progresses. He’s building a career, a family, and a community.
These questions got me wondering about what readers want. I think readers may impose lots of expectations on Black characters they encounter in crime fiction. That’s the nature of readers, always looking to make connections or find solace or justification. But I think writers have a different job. We want to tell a ripping good story through a protagonist who gets under our skin in the best possible way.
I do believe that as #ownvoices writers in the crime genre we’re well placed to infuse our stories with issues non-Black authors often miss:
the problematic role of policing in our communities, because the cops are not our friends, and the first one you call when a crisis hits isn’t the police;
the effect of grinding multi-generational poverty on the psyches and possibilities of everyone in the story;
the roles of well-intentioned liberals and “uplift” in transforming our communities;
the particular burden borne by Black women who must be strong, but rarely get to be protected or cherished,
the problem of how to re-define masculinity for a Black hero without falling for the standard tropes of guns, cars, booze, big money, violence, and sexual aggression.
So, I think our job as writers is to weave some or all of these questions into our stories without turning our PIs into guest lecturers in a TED talk on YouTube. Who wants to read a sociological treatise? As a reader and writer, what I want is a cracking fine story. I think we writers can do this by shifting the vantage point so the assumptions that govern the world our PIs work in are different from those of other authors. I think if we assume Blackness as the foundational given, rather than a sociological checkpoint, then lots of exciting new avenues open for our stories and for our readers.