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?