Comics/Graphic Novels

On Writing Diversity: To Tell the Truth, As Best as We Can

Paul Montgomery

Staff Writer

In addition to comics, Paul thrills to Frank Capra and kaiju movies, crime fiction, TV dramas, professional wrestling, and whatever the Muppets are doing at any given time (hopefully in combination with those other things). He tweets as @fuzzytypewriter

Earlier this week, Hélène wrote about the limits of “writing what you know,” a maxim she noted as problematic, even detrimental, to creative writing when taken to its extreme–or perhaps, limited to its bounds. I tend to agree, though it’s something I’ve worried over, especially of late.

Fellow Panelteer Dave Accampo and I are working on our graphic novel The Margins with artist Amanda Donahue. Our main character is Asian Canadian and her girlfriend is Mexican American.


Art by Amanda Donahue, lettering and design elements by David Accampo

None of those modifiers apply to our writing duo, though I know it was important to both of us that we collaborate with a female artist and that we be as thoughtful as possible. It was actually our publisher Barbra Dillon who suggested that our lead be a woman, and her notes have been invaluable.

I think the vital distinction here is that, while our characters are WoC in a romantic relationship and that relationship is central to the story, it’s also an adventure story. Our intent, then, is to be as true as possible without making the disingenuous assumption or implication that we know the full and particular experience of these women. Or, to quote Hélène, our hope it to tell a story, not THE story. That’s a tricky rope to walk, but I’m hopeful that it’s something that will enrich the final product. Writing a little outside our own experience, while adding much of our own, has made for a more thoughtful process, and in the end, it’s not another story about a white guy and his problems. Which, to be entirely honest as a white guy with typical white guy problems, I largely find tedious, too.

Elevating marginalized voices is crucial. I think Panels editor Swapna and the contributors here have done a marvelous job in emphasizing that, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much talent out there with so much insight, and diversifying publishing catalogs and creative teams should not be seen as a chore or the satisfaction of some quota. It’s a gift that will only make the industry and the medium better. It’s a necessity that will keep comics–all media for that matter–all the more relevant, all the more honest.

It’s often satisfying to read something we agree with or that feels true to our own experience. Seinfeld made a career on it. Airline peanuts, am I right? Everyone deserves that feeling of identification and commiseration, but are often denied it. Even more vital than that though, it’s exhilarating to discover new insights, to luck into a different perspective and see a hitherto unexpected dimensionality to a world we thought we understood. Some’d argue that’s scary, even threatening. Me, it’s why I keep on reading.

So, in addition to talking up books by sorely unheralded voices and hopefully working with more people outside my own background, I think it’s important as someone who compulsively wants to contribute stories, that I also look outside my experience. If I’m going to add something, it should at least be something with its eyelids open. That’s not agenda or politics. That’s lucidity. That’s being truthful. Honesty and endeavor are vertebrae to insight, and if there’s no insight, there’s really no point in committing it to words.

Panels contributor and comics creator Gene Luen Yang talked about this in a speech some time back.

“But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.

“This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.

“After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.”

Gene goes on to explain that the very intent of drafting and editing is to try, to endeavor, and then to revise if necessary. It’s important to seek out proofreaders with critical experience, but also life experience. But the first step is to look beyond and take those first considerate steps into understanding.