December is the month of festivities not only in the west, but all over the world. In celebration of that, I wanted to invite an up and coming author to talk about a hot topic in fiction: diversity. Ella Johnson is an avid writer on Wattpad, massing nearly 90k views on her book “Wrath in the Ashes”. It features a middle eastern settings and characters, a fresh new take on fantasy. While we have seen stories in the Middle East, she also creates retellings of biblical stories that are geared to gain your interest. A proud promoter of diversity, I’m glad to have her here today.
Riya: Ella, is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself?
Ella: Thank you for having me, Riya! I think you just about hit everything–I’m also an avid classical music fan, stationary collector, user of kawaii faces, and devoted cat lover. (Alas, I have no cats. (╯︵╰,))
Riya: Ooh, quirky and talented, that’s great! I wish I could do stationary work, but I’m not talented in that area, what a shame. Besides that, let’s get into your writing! You have many fans on Wattpad who love your books (including me), and you are a supporter of increasing diversity in fiction. What made you reach the point where you wanted to promote different cultures in your writing?
Ella: Thank you!
I think for me, the idea to incorporate more diversity in my fantasies and historical fiction was when I noticed that I didn’t really see myself in Wattpad. The first time I remember having an experience that I could describe as otherwise was with the book Nomvula, written by Hlumelo (a wonderful writer in the African corner of Wattpad). Even though the protagonist of the book–Queen Nomvula, a pacifist who ends up facing war between the tribes–comes from a very different place than I do (I’m African-Caribbean, she’s fully African and speaks Xhosa despite the fact that it’s a fantasy world), I still felt that pull, that connection, and I knew that others should be able to feel that way about themselves too.
Hlumelo also mentioned in a blog post of his here on Wattpad that, after so long seeing those who don’t look like us show up on TV, in advertisements, writing books, etc., we’ve grown complacent in being overlooked. Whenever our ethnicity or our minority group (whatever that might be) is suddenly thrust into the spotlight, we feel like we have something to hide. I think that’s a really great point as well.
Riya: I agree. It wasn’t until writers like Saaba Tahir did I see main characters that look somewhat like me. It’s really nice to find a role model in a book that can relate to your experiences, and I find diversity really important. That’s why I push that in my own works.
One thing I’ve also noticed is the lack of Latino representation in books. We’ve seen a surge of black as Asian representation, but not Latino. What do you think about that?
Ella: Oooh, that’s definitely a good question. Like you, I’ve noticed a lot of Asian rep recently (and I am not complaining, since most of these had me on the edge of my seat), but I think that Latino rep is somewhat lacking. I think the problem here is that not too many people want to explore that side of the world or even step out of the shadows to tell their own story, and I’m really hoping that that changes for the better.
I do know of one novel that’s coming out soon–though it’s more South American-inspired than American (USA Latino)rep–and it’s Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez. It’s slated to release January 7, 2020 (which just so happens to be my birthday! ♪ ヾ(*⌒∇⌒)八(⌒∇⌒*)ツ), and though it’s unlikely I’ll be getting an ARC, I’m hoping that this really boosts the interest in Latin America and its culture.
Riya: That’s amazing! I definitely want to look out for that book. My MC, Varona, is Latina, so it’s more of a subtle representation. Now, I’m not Latina, so I had to conduct some research before diving into her story. You’re not Middle Eastern, so what do you to prepare for the cultural aspect of your MCs and books? From what I’ve read, you do a pretty good job at preserving culture.
Ella: Well, research is definitely the key here. It takes countless hours of reading articles, looking up terminology, exploring Pinterest boards and all of that before I start to feel comfortable with tackling that culture.
It also helps that I have friends that speak Arabic and are always willing to lend a hand <333
Riya: Research and experience are absolutely the keys to nailing diversity. For all of you out there that are worried about getting a culture or time period wrong, all you have to do is invest time and effort into your work, which is what all aspiring authors should do.
Now, while diversity is a positive thing, have you ever encountered a situation where you got something wrong and were attacked for it? If so, how do you handle that?
Ella: Surprisingly, I’d have to say no. The community on Wattpad has been very supportive towards me and my work, although I have seen other writers get attacked for their diversity, Simone Shirazi (@simonesaidwhat on Wattpad) being one of them. She has this amazing fairytale series that she’s writing that’s set in modern times and one of the books she’s received a lot of flak for is Arabian Nights, a retelling of (you guessed it) Arabian Nights.
The backlash has mostly been because of two things; the fact that she created a kingdom of her own to go with the story–with its crown prince, Zayn bin Mohammed al-Haydar, as a Muslim–and the fact that the main female protagonist, Blair Bakhtiar, is Persian, not Arab, and barely religious.
She explains her position in length in two Wattpad articles in her rant book “simone said what?”, but I admire her strength because she doesn’t let the haters get to her. The entire book is well-researched, the characters are relatable, and I keep coming back to the series again and again.
(If you’re looking for the link to the articles (and the book) I’ll leave them here for you guys:
and finally, the magnificent masterpiece that is Arabian Nights:
Another instance that I know of is the controversy over Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao–slated to be released in June of this year, it was pushed back to November(by the time you read this, Blood Heir should be out and about in the world and making waves) because of a Twitter storm induced by a scene in the book where May, one of the characters in the book, gets killed after escaping a slave auction. Now, the uproar was because many people assumed that May was African-American and that this was a reference to the slavery of the 1800s.
Honestly, though, there’s no evidence that May was African American. In fact, her character is described as having “ocean-coloured” or “aquamarine” eyes, even though her bronze skin and brown hair are referenced several times.
YA Twitter was spilt over this, honestly–some sided with Zhao, while others accused her of being insensitive to the African-American community and stood by the “Twitter mob,” as it was called.
I could probably keep talking about this, but I think the main point is that some people aren’t comfortable with diversity and others see that diversity as coming across wrong.
(If you’d like to read the article that mentions the Blood Heir controversy (warning: this was written in January, before Zhao announced in April that she and her publisher had agreed on a later release date for BH), I’ll leave the link below:
Riya: Goodness, I didn’t know about any of this! Yes, readers right now are very very sensitive on diversity cause they want it done right, but I also do want to point out that its…fiction. It doesn’t have to follow the rules and customs of our world. Well-researched books are key, but also, there is a lot of grey area because the author is making a new world, and they’re including diversity because every world has diversity.
I also think that it’s a reason why writers like to stay with the typical straight white character. There’s less room for backlash, and no one will reprimd you for a mistake. On the other hand, with racial and sexual diversity on the rise, people are really sensitive about it, and sometimes scare writers away from diversity (most the time they don’t even read the book). I think it’s important to stand your ground and stay confident in your book if you know you didn’t mean harm, stay strong with your decision.
On the topic of touchy subjects, what cultural references and events should stay out of fiction?
Ella: Oooh, that’s an interesting question, to say the least. I think, in this day and age where racial tensions are high and political tensions are even higher, that there really is no topic off limits. Books have been coming out (note: I’m not endorsing any of these, I’m just telling you what I’ve heard) about the #BlackLivesMatter movement (The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas), sexual assault/consensual relationships (Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold, slated for February 2020), racial tension in America (I’m Not Dying With You Tonight, Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal), Arab diversity in fiction (We Hunt The Flame, Hafsah Faizal–though it’s Fantasy, I highly recommend this one), Asian diversity in fiction (Spin the Dawn, Elizabeth Lim), drug use (The Poppy War & The Dragon Republic, R.F. Kuang), etc., that there really is no subject that can’t be taken and spun into a narrative.
I do think that we should be sensitive when dealing with these issues, however, so that we don’t offend those who are actually part of these minorities or have experienced these things themselves.
Riya: That’s a really good answer. I also think no topic is off-limits as long as you deal with these issues with care. You have to be considerate while writing about someone else’s experiences.
I’ve seen writers talking about how we have to mention the identity of our character explicitly because diversity in writing is so lacking now. In your opinion, how far should that go? Should readers be reminded that characters are a certain identity throughout the book?
Ella: Ah, here’s where Simone comes back into focus again–I’ll use her as an example because of her stories. In Simone’s cast lists, she tells you who the characters are, who their face claims are, and technically leaves it at that. Sure, you may see a reference to their race or religion a couple times throughout the book, but the cast list is always there for you to go back to.
I do the same with my books because I think there’s a danger in repeating certain characteristics over and over again. If you say that Character A has “dark-chocolate skin,” for instance, and then you bring it up every chance you find, the readers will quickly get disinterested.
I do, however, feel that whitewashing is a real issue, and as such must be dealt with. That’s why I always provide a cast list at the beginning of my work–if after that you still want to whitewash or tell me that Emma Watson would be a better fit for a POC character (which, by the way, has never happened to me but I’m creating an example here), that’s your issue, not mine.
Riya: Hahaha that’s true, that’s true. In my books, sometimes I forget to mention it at all. Like with Akuru, people didn’t even realize he was black until I mentioned him. Then, while reading the 1st draft of OSAS, I realized I put a ridiculous amount of emphasis on Caspian’s eyes, so I think balance is key here.
Also, a lot of times names and cultural lifestyles give it away so you don’t have to mention it.
I read an article once about “writing with color” which I found really insightful and helpful if anyone’s interested. I’ll link it here:
The article covers the controversy of referring to POC’s skin color in the name of food. They list a lot of points like it’s a refrence to slavery, oppresion, and overal POC hardship. I, a person of color (Indian, if you were curious), never thought of it that way. I think the reason authors use it is simple: it’s easy to imagine. The author of this article also states that there’s not a similar issue with referring to white skin and food or dairy products like “milky” or “peachy” because they aren’t POC, which makes sense…but also doesn’t. They acknowledge it might be weird.
Here are my 2 cents on these topics: Writers do this because it’s easy. Because calling someone ebony or umber might not communicate, but food products like chocolate and cinnamon are almost universally understood. While I try to limit the use of food as descriptors, I don’t completely stay away from them.
What’s your opinion on the topic?
Ella: I think that’s a perfect way to look at it. I’ve read that article before during my research and learned that I, myself, as a Black person, find it easier to describe characters like me as having “chocolate” or “cocoa” or even “ebony” skin because it makes me feel proud of who I am. There’s something about describing someone using something tangible, something real, that makes all the difference.
I also understand, however, that it might be different for others. For them, describing themselves using food or objects makes them feel like an object themselves, something relentlessly solidified by years of slavery in the United States. And for non-POC, they might view as a normal thing that you have no need to get upset over because “it’s been done before.” I try to keep both sides in mind, but I also do what’s best for me and my work, tweaking it as I go along. Sometimes, you end up having to pick and choose which advice you take because of the story that you write, and you’ll end up dealing with the consequences in the end.
And, to be honest, my readers aren’t complaining–so it seems to be working after all!
Riya: Yes! I haven’t seen this as an issue raised up in my works either, so i suppose we’re on the same page.
As a POC and a writer, diversity is often important to you. Sadly, in published books that are extremely popular, the characters aren’t diverse at all. A lot of authors say that it’s because they’re writing a story in the west when there weren’t people of color, or that it didn’t fit in their story. What’s your response to that?
Ella: *cackles* And here is where I get to put an end to all of this hogwash by saying one thing: HAMILTON.
No, but seriously, though, loOK AT HAMILTON. Everyone knows that the Founding Fathers were White and so were their wives, their friends, etc.
But does Lin-Manuel Miranda care? The heck naw, people–he read an 800-page biography on Hamilton by Ron Chernow, took that very, very white book (that doesn’t mean the book was racist, by the way, it just means that it stuck to the historical narrative) and turned it into a musical where the original cast had Puerto Ricans playing Hamilton (our very own cinnamon roll Lin) , his son Philip and his friend John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), a Chinese-American playing Eliza, his wife (Phillipa Soo), Black women playing Angelica (Renée Ellis Goldsbury) and Peggy Schuyler (Jasmine Cephas Jones), both Eliza’s sisters), and Maria Reynolds (also Jasmine Cephas Jones, *cough* Hamilton’s little *cough* mistress *cough*), and a swath of Black men that played Aaron Burr (Leslie Odem Jr.), Thomas Jefferson/Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and Hercules Mulligan/James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan). The only White person in the entire play that was a main character was Jonathan Groff as King George III.
ONE White person, y’all, there was ONE White person. So if this doesn’t effectually crush all complaints about “I can’t have a POC in my book because of the time frame” or “It takes too long to research” or even “But I’m not a POC, and I don’t want to have to hire a sensitivity reader,” then I don’t know what will.
Learn from Lin-Manuel Miranda, you sluggard XD
Riya: XD yes! That’s exactly what I have to say to. Obviously, writers, you don’t have to go to the extent of Hamilton. Hamilton made a point about including diversity in work, because unless it’s a biography or nonfiction, your work can afford a bend in reality. You write your own narrative. That also means you don’t have to listen to any of this, but think about it. How hard is it to add a sprinkle of diversity in your book?
I hope there’s a day where an interview about this isn’t necessary, where it’s the norm to have characters that people can relate to.
Adding onto that question, what’s your opinion on not mentioning race at all?
Ella: That’s definitely a controversial topic. Before, I think, you could have gotten away with that because diversity wasn’t all that common in fiction. But now, there’s a risk that comes with not mentioning the character’s race because we are programmed to whitewash people. If the author doesn’t say that the MC is from the UAE, for instance, most of us will think that “Oh, she’s the typical blond girl, etc.,” and then get thrown for a loop when the author comes back and mentions customs and religions that fit the UAE.
But I’ve also known of instances where, like I said earlier about the cast list, authors have told their readers about faceclaims and those same readers comment later on in the story about how “I love your writing, but this character would have been better as a Caucasian” and stuff like that. And again, like I said before, if I tell you the ethnicity of my character and you choose to whitewash them, that’s your issue. But I also feel like we should do everything within our power to prevent that from happening because of us or something we overlooked.
Riya: I agree. I sometimes forget to mention it, but always try to slip it in occasionally. I also think the characters style, names, and worlds, kinda say it for them.
Are there any last points you wanted to touch on/talk about?
Ella: One last thing that I really wanted to mention is that despite the whole controversy in the YA world about diversity, I’m finding that it’s growing more prevalent today than before. I have found so many books from POC authors that I have come back to again and again–even if someone else has told the story before they did–because there’s something about their books that seems real to me. I can connect with everything, with everyone, and my library has been getting bigger because of it.
My favorite authors that I gravitate towards, for some reason, are mostly Indians, East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, etc.), and Middle Eastern authors. I do read books from African-American or Black authors, but I find them more on Wattpad than in the real world. Since the YA world is getting more diverse, of course, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them in the future. (I have my eye on several promising “roaring 20s” debuts that are coming out from 2020 onward, so let’s keep our fingers crossed o(≧∇≦o) )
I’ll just place a few of my favorite books that include diversity and/or are written by POC authors below, because you guys deserve some diverse fiction <333
Here you go:
We Hunt The Flame by Hafsah Faizal
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
The Wrath and the Dawn duology & Flame in the Mist duology by Renée Ahdieh
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, an anthology edited by Ellen Oh & Elsie Chapman (authors include the two editors, Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong)
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (just started reading this and I’m in love with it already)
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (diverse characters)
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (diverse characters)
The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen by Tosca Lee (diverse characters–I’ve read this three times already because it’s so good)
Riya: Thank you so much for those references! I’ll have to read one of those this month!
But really, thank you for the wonderful, detailed interview. I’m sure it’s stimulated thoughts within the readers and offered a plethora of wonderful reads. This has been invaluable.
If y’all don’t already follow Ella on Wattpad, please do so! She writes amazing work and has really put her words into action. Her username is @ESJohnson. I’ll link her socials down below.
I hope everyone took sometime from this conversation today. If you did, please click that like button and follow this blog and my email list. That’s all for today!