Diversity in Fiction: A Conversation with ZB Simpson.
Hi folks. Early on in my writing career, I had an epiphany: I was really terrible at writing diverse characters. I embarked on a mission to improve the diversity of my characters, and it’s this topic that I sat down to discuss with ZB Simpson, a writer who I have a lot of time for.
Ian: Hi! First off, thanks for making time to chat about this topic.
ZB Simpson: All good.
I: So let’s get straight into the topic at hand. Why do you think it’s important to have diversity in literature?
Z: Well there are three main reasons, I think, that diversity in literature is so important. The first is that reading about the same people all of the time (like straight young white men doing straight young white male things) gets really boring after a while.
I: It’s only really going to work for people like me that fit that demographic. I think people forget that straight white men don’t make up the majority of the world’s population.
Z: Exactly; yet straight white men seem to be what the majority of literary fiction focuses on. (They also make up a disproportionate amount of literary author award recipients, which is why the Stella Prize was founded)
I: Good point. Sorry for cutting in so early!
Z: It ties into my second reason anyway – fiction is a reflection of the real world. Even Fantasy and Sci-Fi authors use narrative to try and make sense of the world that the author lived in, and themes explored in novels tend to reflect the times that the books were written in. It’s not a coincidence that dystopian fiction, for example, has been experiencing a renaissance of late; authors are addressing the sense of fear that has been permeating our society for the last decade. Therefore it stands that a reflection of a world as diverse as ours should should also be diverse, even if it’s presented to us with the trappings of dragons or space ships.
Thirdly, and most importantly: Reading fiction inspires empathy. Studies have shown that every book you read up until your early twenties actually creates new neural pathways in your brain, and those who read fiction showed significant improvement in the areas of the brain associated with empathy.
This stands to reason – you might not feel inclined to offer help to somebody in a situation that you’ve never experienced yourself, such as coming out as gay, but if you read a novel where the protagonist is kicked out of home because of their sexuality, can’t marry their partner or gets bashed up because they kissed their partner in public, you might develop a different perspective.
I: That’s a great way of articulating how fiction build empathy.
Z: I think so – Former children’s laureate Jackie French explains this point better than I do.
I: So in terms of your story, when did you first notice a lack of diversity in what you were reading?
Z: It actually took me a long time, and there was no one single moment of clarity.
I was a tomboy as a kid. A lot of what I read and watched were action/adventure books, and they had male protagonists because that’s what we were served up in the 90s. Katniss Everdreen wasn’t on the scene until I was finishing high school.
Now, I thought I was a tomboy because I didn’t relate to other girls, but my best friends and real-life role models were girls and women, so that wasn’t it. I realised (much later) it was because I bought into the idea that climbing trees/making forts/fighting dragons couldn’t be done in a dress, and therefore couldn’t be done by girls unless they cast off everything else about femininity. Where did I get the idea that girls couldn’t fight the dragon to save themselves? In every Disney movie and almost every book I was reading.
As I got older I started seeking out heroines I could relate to, but even now my reading isn’t as diverse as it could be. Very few characters tend to be gay or non-white. I should work on that.
I: You can do it! And I think Disney may well be one of the last bastions of diversity resistance as times goes on – though there are some encouraging signs.
Z: I absolutely adore Brave.
I: How did you go about finding more diverse characters?
Z: I just looked around! A lot of articles and things have been written relatively recently about diversity in fiction, and they tend to come with recommendations. My friends, family and partner all seem to know what I enjoy reading and they make recommendations, too. The Stella Prize is also a great recourse; it was set up as a feminist answer to the Booker Prize.
I: True. I love the Stella Count & its focus on ensuring women are represented in reviews as well. Are there any authors that stand out in your mind as writing different perspectives particularly well?
Z: Jasper Fforde is one that stands out for me as an example of a man being able to write a woman convincingly. Check out the Thursday Next series if you like fiction about fiction.
I: I’m definitely going to be checking out Thursday Next – I remember us discussing it earlier, and it sounds fantastic. Now, following on from broadening your literary horizons, how has you desire for diversity in literature affected your own writing?
Z: I write what I want to read. I write about characters, especially women, who do things rather than who have things happen to them. I’m sick of stories where a woman’s murder, rape or kidnapping serve to motivate the male characters’ actions, while we barely get to know the victim at all. It’s lead to a rule that I’ve made for myself- always give your victims depth and, where possible, revenge.
I: Revenge. I love the sound of that. One last question from me: are there any authors you’d recommend checking out?
Z: I absolutely recommend reading anything by Kameron Hurley, starting with this non fiction piece. She writes epic fantasy fiction and it can be pretty heavy going, but one of the main reasons I loved her book Mirror Empire – and intend to read the rest of the series – is that she puts women and minorities front and centre. These characters make up the bulk of the leaders, armies, and plucky protagonists, while most of the men play roles like the timid househusband, beautiful dancer, and the young leader facing judgment from society for being promiscuous. There’s trans characters and people of every colour, and Hurley has copped a lot of criticism for it. Some people don’t like their gender norms challenged, I suppose.
I also just finished the first book in Charlie Priest’s Clockwork Century Universe and can’t wait to get my hands on the rest. If you like your Steampunk fantasy with a bit of an edge and featuring tough women, Priest is perfect for you.
I: Those are great recommendations, thanks heaps. And thanks for taking the time to chat about this topic, I’m really looking forward to seeing more diversity in fiction as awareness and action grows.
Z: Me too.