Writing People of Colour & Irish Culture • Inspiration Wall 01

I’ve decided to do a weekly Inspiration Wall so that I can talk briefly about writing resources I’m using, pictures that inspire me, books I want to read, things I’m listening to etc. during the week, so read on if you want to know what I’m up to in between writing sessions!

Firstly, a few inspirational quotes for the week!

writing quote writing quote writing quote

Writing people of colour

In my novel for NaNoWriMo – which I’m currently still working on (note to self: must come up with title) – one of my main characters is a black girl with natural afro hair. One of the things that’s always made me a little nervous about writing is how to describe different ethnicities, particularly East Asian and black characters.

Obviously I don’t want to write characters in a way that’s offensive (not only is that insensitive, it takes away from who the character is rather than what they look like) so I decided to search online to see if there were specific words that were particularly frowned upon to be aware of when I’m writing.

I found a great site called Writing With Color, which discusses different suitable and unsuitable words used to describe people of colour. One of the words in particular that I had intended to use was “kinky” to describe my character’s hair. I thought it was a good descriptor but the people who run the site aren’t super fond of it, and I actually picked up much better suggestions while scrolling the site.

writing people of colour

Other words not recommended for usage included “nappy”, which is a derogatory word for natural afro hair, and “wooly” due to the animal connotations. Needless to say, I learnt a lot on the site and I’m glad I checked it out as I feel much more confident about writing people of colour now.

There are so few people of colour in fantasy books that I don’t want to create a black character and then describe her in a problematic way. Quick research like this is so easy to do and can make a big difference to readers who don’t often see themselves represented in fiction; there’s really no reason not to do it.

Main character inspirations 

I have certain ideas in my head of what my characters look like, but I love searching for models/pictures of people who resemble them so that I can properly visualise them as real people.

I’ve finally found three girls that look very similar to how Anika, Neave and Thea look in my head. Thea is the girl with long black hair, Anika is the red head and Neave is the girl with natural afro hair that I spoke of above.

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I’m currently about 60,000 words or so into my story and I know I’m nearly through the tunnel (and into the trenches for the many editing sessions that are coming my way!) Here’s to the next 60k for book 2!

As well as looking for character inspiration (I find that sitting in a café and people-watching is a fantastic way to round out existing characters – the mannerisms and habits and flaws of real people can help make your character seem more 3D) I love checking out aspects of different cultures that I could weave into my stories. I’m Irish myself and we have a very rich cultural tapestry spanning thousands of years, so I’ve been looking into Celtic myths and legends lately.

Irish myths and culture irish culture

One thing in particular I’d like to add to my current story is the style of Irish dancing dresses. If you’ve never seen one, they’re quite short and covered in triple spirals and Celtic-inspired designs. They’re also usually very colourful and bright (and topped with a curly wig). I wish I was any good at art as I’d love to draw out my idea for traditional dresses worn by the women of the country I’ve created in my novel. Basically the colours will be muted in comparison to the loud and proud hues of traditional Irish dancing dresses, but they’ll still feature the heavy spiral designs and they’ll be floor length.

Music to set the scene 

I’ve also been taking some inspiration from sean nós singing – which is a very old, traditional style of singing as gaeilge (in Irish) – as well as Enya (pretty much her entire body of work) and choir music. I don’t know if you write while listening to music, but I’ve recently gotten into it and find that it can really help set a scene in your mind.

Wish listbook wish list

I’ve heard so many good things about ‘Binti’ and ‘Akata Witch’, both written by acclaimed writer Nnedi Okorafor, but I’m not exactly flush with cash right now so I’ll have to wait to buy them.

What has inspired you this week? Let me know in the comments!

Opinion • Diversity in the Man Booker Longlist

The longlist for the Man Booker Prize was recently announced, and although I didn’t post about it immediately, I’ve had time to have a think about a few issues surrounding the books chosen, namely about diversity.

I read an article a few days ago by a journalist called June Eric Udorie at The Guardian who said the longlist was a “disappointment for diversity”. In short, I don’t agree with her.

The first problem in her argument is that her article doesn’t offer any examples of books by non-white authors that should have been included on the list. In fact, she seems to be making the argument that more authors should have been included just for the sake of their skin colour.

Man Booker Longlist diversity

I agree that the publishing world in general in the West does lack diversity, but the Man Booker Prize is ultimately about the book, not the author. It is about quality. If we introduce some kind of quota for diversity, does that not cheapen the award? Does that not do a huge disservice to people of colour who then go on to win because their book was genuinely the best?

The Man Booker Prize is a big deal, as there’s £50,000 pounds up for grabs for the winning book, as well as £2,500 and a specially bound edition for those who reach the shortlist. It’s the highlight of the literary year and represents the cream of the crop of books published in the UK, though it is open to people of all nationalities.

Three writers on the 2016 longlist are people of colour: Madeleine Thien (a Canadian woman of Asian descent), Paul Beatty (an American black man) and Ottessa Moshfegh (a woman of Iranian descent). There are also six women in total on the list, with seven men. That seems fairly diverse to me seeing as the list was dominated exclusively by white men for decades.

Last year, seven women were included on the longlist, with six writers of colour, four of whom made the shortlist and Marlon James went on to win with his fantastic novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, a fictional story of Jamaican history and culture based on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. He is now doing incredibly well, with his book having sold hundreds of thousands of copies and it has just been picked up for a TV series.

Man Booker Longlist diversity

Just because this year’s longlist is not as diverse as last year’s list, does not mean that we’re not progressing. More and more diverse writers are being recognised, and we don’t need to see a constant upwards trajectory for that to be apparent. Did Udorie want to see seven people of colour on the list? Would that have been progress enough? I suspect that if there were five writers of colour, she would still consider that a regression, and I don’t believe that is the case. We are moving forward, slowly but surely, and talented writers of colour who would have gone unnoticed in the past are getting the recognition they deserve.

In 2014, the case could be made that the longlist was not that diverse with two people of colour (an Indian man and a half Irish, half Turkish man) and just three women; this is ironic as the Prize was opened up to all nationalities for the first time. However, in 2013, there were seven women on the list with Indian, Malaysian, Japanese-Canadian and Zimbabwean writers included.

This year’s judges are mostly white, this is true, with two women and three men including one man of colour on the panel. Udorie also criticised this lack of diversity. According to demographics, 92.12% of the UK is white, with 4.39% made up of Asians and 1.95% made up of black people. Taking these kind of figures into account, is the judging panel made up of four white people and one person of colour not to be expected? What if there were four people of colour, one white person and no women? Would that be fine? Or no men but all women? Where do we draw the line with how much diversity is necessary?

When it comes to the publishing world, there is absolutely a problem with books by people of colour not being published as often as books by white people. And colour representation on book covers is a blatant issue as well. However, this is a major problem that we should be looking at and trying to improve, but I don’t see the value in complaining about the Man Booker longlist for not being diverse enough when the past few years are more diverse than it has ever been before.

Man Booker Longlist diversity

To my knowledge, nine people of colour have won the Man Booker Prize since its inception in 1969. In that time, V.S. Naipaul won in 1971 with ‘In a Free State’, ten years later Salman Rushdie won with ‘Midnight’s Children’ in 1981, Kazuo Ishiguro won with ‘Remains of the Day’ in 1989, Ben Okri won with ‘The Famished Road’ in 1991, Arundhati Roy won with ‘God of Small Things’ in 1997, Yann Martel won with ‘Life of Pie’ in 2002, Kiran Desai won with ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ in 2006, Aravind Adiga won with ‘The White Tiger’ in 2008, and Marlon James won with ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ last year in 2015. This shows that more writers of colour are winning more often than they were in the past, and we will only see more of this as time goes on. Progress is happening.

This year’s longlist of 13 books (out of 155 submissions published between October 1st 2015 and September 30th 2016) was selected by a panel of five judges including Amanda Foreman, Jon Day, Abdulrazak Gurnah, David Harsent and Olivia Williams.

 

The 2016 longlist includes:

Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld)

J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)

A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)

Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK)

David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber)

Wyl Menmuir (UK) -The Many (Salt)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)

Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)

David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

The shortlist will be announced on September 13th.

What do you think about the diversity of this year’s longlist? Do you disagree with me? Should there be more people of colour on the list? Let me know in the comments!