Monday, March 26, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Karen Sandler

Thanks to everyone tuning into this blog series on diversity. I wanted to share with you the winner, by random number generator, of Danette's beautiful book is Christy Farley! Congrats Christy!!

Today I have another wonderful guest post by Karen Sandler the author of Tankborn, a truly excellent sci fi/dystopian novel released by Tu Books.


It's another cover that wowed me when I first saw it and has a fantastic premise (genetically engineered non-humans) in a lush and detailed world with a scary caste system. It's a crazy good read! So after you've read her wonderful post, please leave Karen a comment for a chance to win Tankborn.

And now I gratefully turn the blog over to Karen:



I like to say that Tankborn is a book that took me 25 years to write. That statement is a bit misleading; I wasn’t actually working on Tankborn for 25 years. But the book was adapted from a science fiction screenplay, Icer, that I wrote back in the mid-80s. Yes, I plagiarized myself (authors are allowed to do that). I picked and chose what I lifted from the script: the genetically engineered slaves, Kayla’s name and her “sket” (skill set). But what was originally an action-adventure story for adults (movie-Kayla was in her mid-20s and pretty kick-ass), became a young adult book in which life was much more complex for GENs like Kayla, and much more perilous.

A screenwriter writing on spec isn’t supposed to “cast” the movie in their screenplay. For example, unless it’s key to the story that a particular character be black (as in this script for The Help: http://www.dreamworkspicturesawards.com/_pdf/the_help.pdf), we’re not supposed to specify the ethnicity of a character. So I wouldn’t have the license to identify Kayla as of mixed race since in Icer the story isn’t about her being mixed race. It would be up to the director to decide how to cast the movie. This pretty much sucks, but that was the reality of Hollywood then (and still is in large part today).

What I was able to do was to include this line in describing my genetically engineered slaves:

Their skin color varies as well, from deep black to white, with every shade in between.

I learned this trick of slipping in diversity while attending the Hollywood Networking Breakfasts put on by Changing Images in America (http://www.changingimagesinamerica.org/). The organization seeks to develop, produce, and support programs that promote and embrace diversity in American culture. Their focus is specifically on the entertainment industry. They got me thinking about how I could promote more multi-ethnicity in Hollywood via my screenwriting.

Later, as a novelist, I made it a point to include POC in my books. I was writing romances and due to the restrictions of that genre, my hero and heroine were always white, but I would mix in African, Hispanic, and Asian characters as minor characters. Would Harlequin have accepted a book proposal from me with a non-white hero and heroine? I honestly don’t know if they would have let me, a white author, write non-white characters (although my second to last book for Harlequin did feature an Hispanic hero).

I admit that part of my hesitation in writing main characters who were POC had nothing to do with the strictures of the romance genre. I kept thinking, well, that isn’t my story. I should leave that to someone else to write. I also worried about offending someone of another culture who might think I’m “co-opting” their culture. I think that objection is fair, and I still haven’t completely shaken those feelings.

But I also felt it was time for me to step outside my comfort zone. I wanted to write the characters of Kayla and Devak as ethnically diverse, to explore their worlds, and do my best to portray their culture accurately (which was helped by the cultural expert Lee and Low brought in to vet the book before publication).

With all the freedom that comes from writing a science fiction book like Tankborn, I could make the world any way I wanted. Finally I had a canvas that could be filled with as much ethnic diversity as I wanted. It was exactly that diversity that helped me to write Tankborn’s story.

Why is diversity so important to me in the first place? Partly, it’s for selfish reasons. I am a busybody, endlessly fascinated with where people come from, what their lives were like growing up, what they’re like now, every detail from food to dress. I’m that rude lady who will ask you, So, where are you from? And I’ll soak up everything you say.

But also, particularly since I’m now writing young adult, I’m completely behind the mission of my publisher, Lee and Low: “to meet the need for stories that all children can identify with and enjoy.” Not only should children of color be able to see themselves in the main characters of books, all kids should see that diversity. We can become too easily accustomed to things “being the way they are” (as I mentioned above regarding Hollywood). If children see diversity in the stories they read right from the start, diversity will become the norm for them.

What does diversity mean to me, anyway? It’s inclusion, it’s variety, it’s learning about each other because we all have something to offer that’s unique and valuable. It’s being grateful to have the opportunity to taste a new food, to hear about a new custom, to share what delights us and what moves us. There is so much world out there. There are so many people. Why would we not want to get to know them all?

23 comments:

Jaye Robin Brown said...

Wonderful interview, Karen - love these posts, Ello

Katie DeKoster said...

Love this. It seems like so many readers and writers feel a certain (negative) way about white authors crafting stories with non-white MCs. I think in some ways I can appreciate that perspective, but I also feel certain that the world needs more great books featuring people of color. My students are in desperate need of literary role models who look like them - and I do NOT mean white girls in pretty dresses! I'm thankful for authors like Karen who are working to ensure that more books with diverse casts of characters are getting put on the shelves.

Danette said...

Another great post! Thanks for sharing, Karen. BTW, I just ordered your book and can't wait to dig in!

Christina Farley said...

Fantastic interview. I loved how introspective Karen was when working on her book and really thinking it through. I loved the cover too!

And yay! I'm a winner! That just made my whole day full of sunshine.

Bish Denham said...

Great stuff here. I disturbs me that writers somehow feel they are not capable of writing from a different cultural perspective. If that were true, how could anything historical be written? I wasn't there, it didn't happen to me, it wasn't my experience therefore I'm not capable of writing about Cleopatra because I might offend an Egyptologist. What it takes is research and a willingness to be open.

Karen Sandler said...

Thanks to all for your encouraging comments. I loved writing Tankborn, particularly the diversity of its cultures.

Mike Jung said...

Bravo! I do think that as authors we must be very diligent and thoughtful when writing characters with ethnic and cultural backgrounds different from our own - it's the willingness to put forth that effort which makes all the difference, and Karen clearly has made the effort. A great post in a great series.

Ey Wade said...

Wow, I hadn't realized how political it is just to write a screenplay. Such a shame because it gives the producers the right to never include POC. A privilege which has been abused far too long.
Great interview

Karen Sandler said...

Thanks, Ey. It's a self-perpetuating cycle with Hollywood. They feel can't make movies with POC because they don't sell, but if they never make those movies, how will they know? Also, since so many producers and directors in Hollywood are white men, they have a white man's perspective. I think it doesn't occur to them to put a POC in as a main character. Will Smith and Denzel Washington are two exceptions who have created powerful, wonderful POC leads. There should be more, not to mention women of color joining those ranks.

Okay, I'll climb off my soapbox now.

Karen Sandler said...

I wrote a sort of companion piece to this interview here.

Larissa said...

Loving this series so much, Ellen.

Karen, TANKBORN sounds wonderful!

Charles Gramlich said...

I do like that premise. It's an intriguing idea for sure.

Mary Ellen said...

Thanks so much for this Karen and Ello! Hollywood (and advertising and the fashion industry and....) has such a problem featuring people of color (and women) in authentic ways. As an aspiring YA author, I am inspired by both of your work! How could I win Tankborn?? (I'm in college...not too much money to spend on non-school books sadly!)

inluvwithwords said...

Tankborn sounds great. Thanks for this introduction to Karen and her book. I enjoyed reading the story of how the story came to be.

Petra @ Safari Poet said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing Karen.

Sarah said...

This sounds like a wonderful, innovative story. The author raises some very important points about including POC in fiction. Thank you for sharing this :)

Jennifer said...

What a great post, Karen! Tankborn sounds amazing, and the story of how it came to be was compelling. Such a great series, Ellen!

Annie said...

Hello thank you for the post

andimjulie said...

I've heard so many great things about Tankborn! Officially going on the TBR list!

Heather Ayris Burnell said...

Very well put, Karen. Thank you.

Llehn said...

Definitely given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

Jayrod Garrett said...

Karen it is so good to see you out and about in the multicultural community sharing what things you've learned as you wrote Tankborn. I'm so glad that I was able to meet you at LTUE. You are an inspiration to me. Thanks.

Ani Louise said...

Good post with a lot of food for thought!

"So I wouldn’t have the license to identify Kayla as of mixed race since in Icer the story isn’t about her being mixed race."
-----I hope this changes to allow for more diverse casting, and to give the writers more freedom to imagine their stories.

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