Guest Post from Diana Renn, author of LATITUDE ZERO

You all know how much I loved LATITUDE ZERO!

I'm excited to have a guest post from author Diana Renn on a subject dear to my heart: diversity in literature.

Tricky Terrain: Incorporating Diversity in Travel Fiction

I write mysteries about globetrotting teens. Tokyo Heist (2012) takes sixteen-year-old manga fan Violet Rossi from Seattle to Japan, on a quest to recover stolen van Goghs. Latitude Zero (2014) takes aspiring investigative reporter Tessa Taylor from Cambridge, MA to Quito, Ecuador, as she uncovers the truth behind an Ecuadorian cyclist’s death on a bike race. And Blue Voyage (coming in 2015) takes a politician’s daughter, Zan Glazer, to Turkey, where she gets entangled with an international gang of antiquities smugglers.

I’ve always loved to travel, and so I love writing travel fiction + mysteries. My books are love letters to places where I’ve traveled or lived myself. But the terrain of travel fiction necessarily involves writing across cultures. And that can be precarious terrain to navigate.

We all know there is a need for more diversity in YA fiction. We need more diverse characters – main characters – so everyone can see themselves represented on the page. When I set my books partially or fully in foreign countries, it might seem like an easy answer to this imbalance. Of course my teen sleuths will encounter diversity. They will meet people from different cultures, or people with roots in these cultures..
But every time I begin one of these novels, I have to think very carefully about the relationship of my teen sleuth – a white American female, like myself – to the cultures and people she encounters.

These are some of the questions I wrestle with as early as the brainstorming stage and all along the way through a draft:

  • Could the sleuth be from this culture I’m writing about? In each of my books, I’ve started with this question. After numerous attempts and a great deal of soul-searching, my answer, so far, has come up as no – not if I’m the one telling the story. I haven’t yet felt qualified to tell these stories from the insider perspective. I’ve come to accept that mine is the perspective of the outsider, the tourist, which is also the perspective of my narrators. I In Tokyo Heist I would have loved to see the same story told by Reika, Violet’s best friend, who spends her summers in Tokyo and knows the culture well. In Latitude Zero, I really wanted my sleuth to be Mari Vargas, an Ecuadorian-American bike mechanic. But in both cases, I felt too removed from their experiences to write authentically in their voices for an entire novel.

  • If the sleuth is a white American girl, how can I incorporate diversity in a meaningful way? One solution has been to create strong supporting characters from other backgrounds. Each of my sleuths has one or more friends to team up with in her investigation. This carries an additional risk, though: the person of color as sidekick. Reika, Violet’s friend in Tokyo, plays this role. So in Latitude Zero my goal was to make Mari Vargas more of a co-sleuth with Tessa, as opposed to a sidekick. Mari is not Watson to Tessa’s Holmes. She brings a distinct set of skills to her role in the investigation, and she sometimes goes off and does her own thing. She and Tessa also have very different motivations for solving the mystery. This issue is something I have to continue to think carefully about in my books. It’s helpful to have an “insider” on board who knows the language or culture and who can help the primary sleuth investigate. But that person should not always be a person of color in a secondary role. In my future books, I’ll have to think even more carefully about how to handle this problem.

  • Is my sleuth “saving” everyone? In recent years, Nancy Drew has gone global. Many of the newer Nancy Drew novels are set in foreign countries, and a graphic novel series published by PaperCutz takes Nancy to India, Turkey, and other places abroad. Nancy’s fallen under some criticism, though – and rightly so – because she arrives in these countries to save the day. Why should she fly to India and “save” a woman with whom she spoke on a customer service line? (Unless she had some really amazing customer service?) Don’t people in other countries have their own resources? The white girl saving the day is a tired trope, so it’s my goal to find ways to activate teams of people, across cultures, who all play a role in investigating crimes or bringing criminals to justice.

  • Am I portraying other cultures as monolithic or multifaceted? It’s so important to do good research and not fall into easy stereotypes. Sometimes I want my white characters to have some stereotypes in mind – to talk about them – and to have them challenged. Characters can even talk directly about stereotypes and wrestle with them. In Latitude Zero, for example, Mari expresses dismay that people associate Latin American countries with drug cartels and other criminals. Characters can also realize that their initial impressions of another country were incorrect. In Tokyo Heist, Violet comes to realize that Japan is neither a manga nor a Miyazaki film. Her expectations of Japan were romantic, fueled by entertainment, and once she’s there she becomes aware of herself as an outsider who has much to learn. Finally, it’s important to show that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in every culture. My criminal networks in my novels are always international.

  • Are people from these cultures comfortable with what I’m writing? With all my books, I have people from these cultures read them. I ask them to check for stereotypes and clich├ęs, as well as accuracy. Does anything cause offense? I urge them to be completely honest. I try to have at least two readers for each book. This is the scariest part of the writing process for me, but a step I would never skip.
My teen sleuths uncover more than clues and red herrings in my mysteries. As they investigate crimes, they meet people from diverse backgrounds. They bump into their own expectations and preconceptions about other cultures, sometimes uncomfortably. Maybe some readers will too.

I hope that my books inspire curiosity about other cultures. The Readers Guides to my books include questions designed to spark important conversations about diversity.

I also hope that we’ll see more mysteries featuring sleuths from all kinds of backgrounds. I’m always looking for good recommendations!  


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