Jon O’Bergh Makes a Case for Diversity
I’ll make a confession: I thrive on diversity. I’ve always been that way, ever since I was a kid. Perhaps growing up gay heightened my sensitivity to difference, but it could just as easily have been something intrinsic to my nature. I like diversity not only because it’s healthy for society, but because, well, it makes the world more interesting. As writers, we are supposed to be especially attuned to the human condition. We try to get inside a character’s head even if we’ve never lived that character’s life. When we perform our craft well, that should include an ear for diverse voices.
When we think of diversity, we tend to focus on categories that have traditionally been marginalized in western culture in extreme ways: race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation. But diversity is much broader, encompassing religion, physical ability, geography, class, culture, and much more. Reducing people (or characters) to categories, of course, is a basic human tendency and weakness. Southern California beach culture is part of my background no less than being gay. But neither defines me, and you won’t understand me if that’s all you see.
It’s exciting to see diversity exploding in the horror field. With the enormous success of writer/directors like Jordan Peele (Get Out), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), and Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), in whose work diversity plays a primary role, the mainstream is starting to take notice. Women authors have long been active in horror—Shirley Jackson, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Mary Shelley being among the better known—but contemporaries like Kristi DeMeester and Helen Marshall are getting their due. (In another Ink Heist blog post, author Renee Miller makes the case for why we need to pay more attention to women authors.) Writers such as these bring a unique perspective, partly through their relationship to being a member of one or more categories, but more broadly through their own particular experiences and backgrounds. Horror writing is enriched when we celebrate these differences. And so is our society.
In my own work, I draw on different backgrounds to create a tapestry of characters. Something as simple as paying attention to a character’s name can open up possibilities to engage readers, who themselves come from diverse backgrounds. It’s important for me to consciously fight the societal tendency to keep certain communities invisible, and to avoid perpetuating clichés which are not only the crutch of lazy writers but, in the final analysis, not even realistic.
At the same time, different cultures have unique spins on horror that offer a wonderful well from which to draw. My own Scandinavian heritage is rich in frightening creatures, such as the she-werewolves known as Nattmara, or the clever, fearsome Nøkken that dwell in freshwater locales. Japanese spirits in Noh plays like Tsunemasa are not the same ghosts known to European cultures, instead drawing on Buddhist principles. An Afro-Caribbean witch may share certain characteristics with a Massachusetts witch, but the rituals, imagery, and practices are different, reflecting origins in diverse cultures. And that makes them both distinctive and interesting.
You can’t talk about diversity and fiction without bringing up the rise of “sensitivity readers” in the publishing industry. A recent blog post by independent author service Book Baby ignited a firestorm of comments. Some readers decried a politically correct culture fearful of offending someone. Others welcomed the practice as another form of feedback to strengthen a story. I can understand both points of view. One writer was advised to change the ethnicity of an antagonist to white because someone might be offended, even though it would undermine the sense of location. That reminds me of the Good Times episode where Thelma is asked to change key elements of her play, and finally stands up to the censor. The important thing, whether an author uses a sensitivity reader or not, is just to think before putting something out into the world. I don’t mind a gay villain—such people exist, after all—but just be mindful of the larger context. A little nuance or balance can go a long way.
I’ll close with what I consider a particularly fine example of diversity in horror. In The Cabin at the End of the World, author Paul Tremblay has created a family comprising two gay men and their adopted Chinese daughter. Tremblay is neither gay nor Asian American, yet he understands these characters. They are not stereotypes, and their behavior and dialog feel authentic. They represent the real world in all its strange, beautiful, sometimes terrifying richness. And isn’t that ultimately what each of us, as authors, strives to do?
About Jon O’Bergh: Jon O’Bergh is an author and musician who loves a good scare. He has published four books, including the horror novel The Shatter Point, and released over a dozen albums in a variety of styles. After many years living in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., he now spends most of his time with his husband in Toronto.