Only One You: How to Write with Diversity

depression era

Finally!  Post III on Diversity!

(Click here for Part 1 or Part 2)

No  more talking about Mormons and gays, it’s time to talk L-O-V-E, specifically how The Grapes of Wrath stole my sixteen-year-old heart.

I was like, “You go, depression-era workers!” In their honor, I turned my back on land-owning California cheats, even the ones still alive. It wasn’t hard. Growers were white and old and lame. Field workers—mostly Hispanic those days (and these)—had Maná and La Macarena on their side.

I felt awesome for three seconds.

Then realized I was the granddaughter of a white, land-owning California grower.

My grandpa gave me thumbs-up during most of my tennis matches and already had the cancer that would kill him. He wanted to live to see me get married. He would make it. Barely.

I didn’t feel just dumb for my thoughts. A part of my childhood–the black-and-white part–died.

Growers were bad. Grandpa was a grower. Grandpa wasn’t bad.

It turned out Grandpa’s father was raising cattle during the depression and sneaked into the prosperity of the WWII era with only a quarter of his land, selling off the rest to feed three generations.

I was relieved. That was the answer, right? My family fell into the “good” side of a desperate struggle in a desperate time because they lived in relative poverty.

But, wait. My mom became a school teacher, like her mom and her mom’s mom. She married an electrical engineer. Two of my brothers became doctors. My sisters and I married professionals. I’m about to be an author (note: this is my blog and I can predict the future however I want: so I’m about to be an author, got it?) My family did not live in relative poverty then or now.

Does that mean we were in the “bad” camp?

Someone belonged in the “bad” camp, right?

I couldn’t find an answer I liked.

Meanwhile, I lived. I wrote a novel. I rewrote it. I re-rewrote it. (I re-, re-, re-, etc.) To abate jealousy, I read lots of nonfiction and stumbled on There is Power in a Union, by Philip Dray. It’s great and it has fires and bombs in it, so you should pretty much read it today. Part of the ground it covers is the debate still raging between field-laborers and growers.

Laborers want more pay. Growers want more profits. Grocery stores and customers want cheap produce. Hitch is, there’s only so much money to go around. There are race issues and illegal-worker issues and health concerns over pesticides. Police have arrested labor-bosses for imprisoning workers as slaves. Poverty breeds crime and gangs. An illegal-status keeps some from turning in drug dealers or getting their own kids immunized from disease.

I was amazed. I thought, “Someone should write a book about this.” (Well, beside Philip, who already did.) Because, seriously, I understood my conflict after reading John Steinbeck. Class-tension and culture-duels were my childhood. They were the underbelly of sleepy little Manteca, California where I grew up—the underbelly of the whole state, the whole nation. How the heck do you solve all that? Okay, forget solving it. How do you even grow up in it and keep from hating the other side, or making them hate you, or misunderstanding each other forever? Can you? Did I?

Well, did I?

I told myself that someone who was smart and well-rested enough to tackle those questions in novel-form really ought to. Someone who’d witnessed gangsters gun each other down, or who could at least stomach a scene like that on TV. I cringe at the F-bomb. I mentally cheer when a female movie character wears modest clothing. (Like, thanks for not objectifying us. Like, bring it on, modern feminism.)

As I said, I’m a writer at heart. I started a story set in D.C. about conspiracies that were going to involve, I don’t know, ambassadors and financial fraud. The plot felt forced and my writing stalled.

Instead I found myself reading the childhood experiences of jailed POC gang bangers and second-generation migrant workers. I watched documentaries of teen gangs in El Salvador and read up on Mexican and Columbian drug cartels while listening to rap artists with names like King Daddy Loco. Oh my gosh, the language was so bad. So offensive to women. So clever. Like a Mona Lisa made from cat vomit. I stopped listening.

And I did something I thought was crazy.

I threw out nearly everything in my plot—changed names, ethnicities, settings and story-arcs. I practiced writing from different races’ POV and spent hours practicing a version of Hispanic gang-dialogue entirely stripped of cussing. Scenes based on my teen years came out of me—scenes of guns drawn on me and my best friend and an eight-year-old shot through a living room wall because the gang members didn’t get the freaking address of their enemy correct.

I had the chance to reevaluate childhood fears based on experiences as a parent and teacher, something I hadn’t taken the time to do in such detail before. I pictured my most hardened students, the ones with homeless parents and cops following them out of class. As a writer, I had drawn characters from these kids—kids for whom I ached—and had literately written them into a corner, a definition. They were VILLIANS.

I rewrote the whole plot again.

Because, dang it, there has to be some hope out there, I don’t care how bad the world is. Your life’s position doesn’t make you good or bad, you do.

I ended up with a YA mystery that’s all about sleuthing and snarking and the inherent mistrust of California’s two worlds, as I remembered it. There’re bombs and fire in it. There’s the great and holy DIVERSITY which we writers are told we must have or we’re anti-Ghandi. And since this article is about how to write with diversity, here’s my take on it finally:

Write. Don’t skip the stuff that’s hard or uncomfortable or requires research. Religion, politics, biases, stupidity, frailty, culture-clashes, sorrow—it’s all fair game.

Read and have others read. Find the messages embedded in your writing. You might learn you’re not as noble as you thought.

Dig deep. Decide what you really believe.

Rewrite. Put your true self out there. Own it. There’s only one you. That’s as diverse as it comes.

And as brave.

Good luck and enjoy the journey!

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10 Responses to Only One You: How to Write with Diversity

  1. Christine Krogue says:

    Great post Nikki! I like reading about your novel and how you wrote it. Sounds amazing. So..question….did you really get a gun drawn on you while growing up? You can tell me about it this weekend…which reminds me, did you get my latest email and let me know what you think! See ya!

    • Nikki Trionfo says:

      He was “joking.” My friend and I were on a walk during a birthday party, in a neighborhood we didn’t know. We were 13, I think. We ran into some guys who flirted with us, which of course we didn’t know how to handle. We giggled and were flattered, but nervous because they looked like serious bas news, with bandanas all over and baggy pants and probably some tattoos. We tried to walk away and the oldest one said, “Hey, I want to show you something.” He pulled a gun out of his pants and said it was, “fake.” Now we were really nervous, but we had to pretend to be interested, because what else are you going to do? Piss off the guy with the gun? He made both of us hold it and then we walked back to the house with like eight guys following us by then, all of us flirting the whole time. I couldn’t feel scared until it was over and by then, well, it was over. For a few years, my friend and I would brag about it, like it was a mark of distinction, but then we stopped doing that. Because a gun is a gun, you know? Those kids living with every day . . . I can’t imagine.

  2. I can’t decide if my favorite quote is “Your life’s position doesn’t make you good or bad, you do.” or “Like a Mona Lisa made from cat vomit.”
    PS Grapes of Wrath was also my favorite book in high school.

  3. Brenda Bensch says:

    Herb says to tell you “WOW ! ! ! . . . Just WOW!” And that was after I’d read it and said how AMAZED I was at you and your incredible post! Then I read it aloud to him. We’re both just . . . well . . . “WOW ! ! !”

    • Nikki Trionfo says:

      Haha. Brenda, I love you! And Herb! I seriously picture you two together and smile. Thanks for replying. 🙂

  4. Neira says:

    Love your posts! Seen the drugs, seen the gangs, heard the gunshots and enough f-bombs for several lifetimes. I get it. I also agree with Karen about the quotes.

  5. Nikki Trionfo says:

    Neira, you’re an inspiration. I often think about your dad, looking down and being so proud of you. Miss him.

  6. Janice Zacharias says:

    I’m just wondering where the heck your mother was…oh, wait… Some things are just better to find out when your kids are all grown up, you know? Great post, really made me think 🙂

  7. Joan Stradling says:

    Great post! I also read the ones before this. I love your thoughts on diversity. I, too, am a Latter-Day Saint, and have struggled with some of the same issues with homosexuality. I teach my children what I believe, that the practice is wrong, but the feelings aren’t. I have a younger sister who moved away and is going through a sex change. I don’t love her/him any less, but it’s been a struggle because while I don’t agree with what she’s done, she’s still my sister (even though she looks like my brother physically). It’s been hard for my kids to deal with too, since she used to babysit them. But she’s still the same person inside even if she’s different outside. That’s the thing. We’re all that way. No matter how we may change what we look like, we are who we are. Sure we’ll grow and change our minds about who we are as we struggle our way through this life, but it’s all part of the process. It all leads us to finding the truth about ourselves, finding the truth about others, and accepting it all. It’s okay to accept the person even if we don’t believe the same things they do.

    Life isn’t meant to be easy for us. We are here to learn and grow and do the best we can. That doesn’t mean we’ll never offend anyone–because chances are high that we will. But we have to live our lives according to who we are (even if we aren’t sure or don’t know). Like you said. There’s only one of each of us (even twins). We are all diverse in our own ways. We need to embrace it. But hopefully we can also find something within ourselves that allows for accepting those who are just as wonderfully diverse as we are.

    • Nikki Trionfo says:

      Beautifully written. I know what your brother is going through must be so hard. I have a close friend whose relative made a similar choice and it’s so tough to redefine the relationship. It’s even hard to know, like you referenced, how to refer to her! (She used to be male.) I know it’s hard for you, too. I really hope these differences of belief help us to be humble. And meanwhile, hopefully we can laugh and love together, too. And cry, when that’s necessary! But not all the time. I hope you and he both find peace, and thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

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