On writing dialogue about race and sexuality

Sometimes I read reviews of books (I’m not talking about reviews of my own books, honest, because I don’t read those.) in which people criticize a book for having moments that feel explainy or educational around tough topics such as race, sexuality, politics. I agree that reading dialogue about these issues can sometimes feel didactic or after-school-special-like, but at the same time, these conversations happen in real life. For example, in the past people have said things to me like, “Are you a lesbian?” And I’ve said, “Yes, yes I am.” (They probably didn’t get that Melissa Etheridge reference.) Or they’ll say, “How do you feel about the word ‘queer’?” (This seems to happen a lot lately.) And I’ll launch into a description of the history of the word ‘queer’ and explain how I don’t feel bothered by it but some people do, and I’ll probably have to explain the whole LGBTQ acronym, etc.

Also common: “Where are you from?” And I’ll say, “I grew up in Colorado but I was born in China,” because I’m trying to forestall the “But I mean originally?” part of the dialogue. And then we’ll go into a discussion about whether I spoke English at home and potentially other 101-ish things about immigration and race and American identity.

This stuff happens in real life. It’s hard to put it in a book without sounding fake or like “I have a lesson to teach you,” but … it’s reality.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m trying to figure out how to write this kind of dialogue in a realistic but non-didactic sounding way. The problem is, I can’t predict which kind of reader is going to read it. The kind who has had these conversations before in their own lives and thus knows they happen, or the kind who thinks they only happen in after-school specials. It’s difficult to reach both readers.


I wrote the above on Tumblr, and then I thought of an additional clarification. A couple of people commented that it's important to stay in the voice of the character, and ... well, yes. Dialogue should certainly be written in the voices of the characters speaking the dialogue. That's actually not what I'm getting at.

I'm getting at the fact that even when these kinds of interactions are written in character, some readers will check out of the narrative and think, "This is not realistic." Some readers always balk at straightforward grappling with race and sexuality and would always prefer that these issues are elided or only mentioned obliquely. To be honest, I fear that this is a result of privilege. People who have never had to have these kinds of uncomfortable conversations in real life are probably less likely to believe they happen. They may also misinterpret awkward behavior for being out of character.

As author Ellen Oh wrote in her response on tumblr:

Yes, this happens all the time. And everytime it happens to me I feel like I have to explain myself and my culture. It feels stilted and awkward when I have to do it. So it makes sense that it might feel explainy in a book or article or show, etc. But this is what happens every day across America. It’s part of our life.

As someone who's had these conversations in real life, I myself don't feel entirely "in character" when I'm having them. That's because the person who's asking me these questions — someone who is unfamiliar with certain aspects of my identity — is seeing me as those labels ("Asian American" or "lesbian"), not as who I am (Malinda). I'm not forced to explain these things when I'm in comfortable situations with friends who know me well, where I can be fully "myself." I only have to explain these things when I'm being asked to represent some superficial traits about myself to strangers. Yeah, it's awkward.

"Character," of course, isn't one static thing. A character has many facets, and they show different sides of themselves in different situations. In an uncomfortable situation, they may be awkward, formal, or distant, and that can translate to the reader as being out of character. So when writing these kinds of situations, the question is how to convey this apparent out-of-characterness in a way that is clearly deliberate to the reader (whoever that reader is, whatever their experience with this stuff in real life) and not didactic. It's a challenge for sure.