With Hispanic Heritage Month kicking off this week, and the continuation of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, I wanted to write about my own reasons for including diverse characters in my stories.
Fact: I was born white and middle class in middle America. Nothing will change that. It’s my history, an essential part of who I am as a writer and a person. But I won’t let that fact completely define me, either. I choose how I live, who I love, and what I write. And more and more, I find the pull of diversity permeating what I do.
As a child, I was obsessed with penpals. I remember filling out forms with my hobbies and sending them to a company called Penpals International or some equally ubiquitous name and requesting penfriends from far away, exotic sounding lands. I’d eagerly await my penpal matches that arrived on colorful slips of paper. I’d try to pronounce the names and examine the countries – Zimbabwe, Ireland, China, Italy, and imagine what my new friends looked like and what life was like in their countries.
Sometimes an exchange lasted only a few letters. I exchanged letters with two girls, Chiara and Desiree, for years. Chiara was Italian and Desiree from Zimbabwe. To this day, I still wonder what these two girls are doing in life. Do they remember the letters we used to send in those wonderful white, blue and red airmail envelopes with an impressive amount of stamps showing off their own little tidbits of culture?
A deep love of languages and the amazing differences people can have from country to country took me to the Middle East for three years. It was here that I began writing, and my first character was not white, but Arab. And not a girl but a boy. An Arab boy. What made me think I could write about that?
In fact, the history, graciousness and humility of the people had worked their way into me, so that the first story to come to me was an Arab boy’s struggle to become a man in a land as ancient as any I’d ever known. It was completely foreign to my white, middle class upbringing, and yet, the struggle for my main character to transition from childhood to adulthood is familiar to anyone who’s experienced those tumultuous years.
I’ve returned to middle America, but increasingly my area of the country is giving way to a more diverse population which promises to bring a richer experience to all of our lives. And for young readers, I want to provide adventures that feature characters as diverse as the ones I’ve met on my travels, as varied as the children I teach here; characters who are a true reflection of where our nation is today, but even more, a picture of where we’re going.
So each day, when I sit down to write, I get to choose.
I’m choosing diversity. I hope you will, too.
Want more information on the #weneeddiversebooks campaign? Check out the official website http://weneeddiversebooks.org/
Photo credits: “World Communication” by digitalart at freedigitalphotos.net, “Yemeni Boy” by Kimberly Mitchell, “Read, Write, Live” by Natalie Mourton.