March 17, 2014
When I was writing Steel, I had to think about diversity and representation. Not because it was politically correct or because I was looking for a pat on the back. I had to because it would make Steel a better, more historically accurate book.
I decided from the first that a historically accurate pirate story would be a better pirate story. I wanted to make sure my readers learned something true and real about pirates, sailing, swordfighting, and the early 18th century Caribbean. To put my readers in the middle of the grit and mayhem and bad food and all the smelly bits. So I did a bunch of research.
It took about five seconds of reading about the “golden age” of Caribbean piracy to realize I couldn’t write about it realistically without talking about slavery. Piracy existed to such an extent in that place and time because of the ridiculously vast amount of wealth coming out of the Caribbean during the plantation period. That wealth was produced on the cheap labor of slavery and the capital generated by the Atlantic Triangle Trade. To talk about Caribbean piracy and not mention the slave trade is to ignore why that piracy existed at all. So my pirate ship, the Diana, captures a slave ship. Its quartermaster, Abe, is a former slave. The crew encounters Granny Nanny, who helped many others escape slavery and founded a town of former slaves in Jamaica.
Another decision I made when writing the book was making Henry biracial. I did this specifically in response to discussions of diversity — I was writing the book when the news about the whitewashed cover of Justine Larbalestier’s novel Liar were all over the web. As part of the fallout of that I read a blog post by a young reader wondering why main characters’ love interests in YA novels were almost always white, or if there was a triangle maybe featuring a boy of color, why did the protagonist always end up with the white boy? And I thought right then — Henry isn’t white. And as soon as I decided that, it felt perfect, because I’m absolutely certain that someone just like Henry really did exist in that time and place — someone with a white father and a black mother who ran away to join a pirate ship. He could speak with great authority about how a pirate ship was the only place he could be himself and find acceptance, more than any other character I could have put there. He felt true.
It’s possible to tell a story about Caribbean pirates that doesn’t address slavery or feature any characters of African descent. Hell, it’s been done lots of times. But it wouldn’t be a realistic story. It wouldn’t be true.
And really, that’s what calls for diversity in fiction are all about. Not about some political agenda or quotas. They’re about taking the blinders off and seeing parts of the world that are underrepresented, or have been outright ignored. Like slavery in pirate stories. It’s about showing the world as it really is, and not just one little corner or perspective of it.
Diversity made Steel better than it would have been without it.