James River Writers Conference 2012

As with anything that’s successful and grows, change can be upsetting to some. James River Writers had held its annual writers conference at the Library of Virginia for several years. As a first-time attendee at last year’s conference, I saw it was obvious the conference had outgrown the Library, wonderful venue that it is. Last minute room switching because some presentations were more popular than others meant clogged hallways and confusion.

The Greater Richmond Convention Center hosted this year’s James River Writers Conference (the tenth!), and I was pleased. Light, roomy, airy, the space almost made the conference seem small, but the meeting rooms were larger, as was the exhibit space. The conference fee this year included lunch for both days of the conference, which was very convenient, and the food wasn’t too bad either. Also, the conference was part of the Virginia Literary Festival this year, and it’s a good fit.

Still, there were plenty of people who lamented not being at the Library of Virginia, but some people just can’t handle change. I, for one, am pleased to see the success of James River Writers’ annual conference. It has the potential to be a showcase event for the Commonwealth–and heaven knows we need to emphasize our contributions to the arts since we’re stuck back in the 19th century in so many other areas.

I attended a total of six workshops over the two days, all good, but one in particular stood out: Writing Diversity. I almost didn’t go to this one, and am I glad I changed at the last minute. I had slated myself to go to “Publishing Industry Issues Demystified,” but when I arrived at the conference on Sunday morning, I realized this would probably be repetition of several articles/blogs I’ve already read on the publishing industry. “Your Day Job and Your Book,” wherein you learn how to apply project management concepts to writing, seemed too much like my old job, and “How to Survive a Plot Collapse” just didn’t sound appealing. So, “Writing Diversity” it was.

The description didn’t do this workshop justice: “Panelists discuss the importance of diversity in fiction and nonfiction, issues of cultural appropriation, and ways they write people of many ages, ethnicities, classes, and more.” It was a powerful discussion of why literature should reflect the make-up of society and a challenge to writers to write outside the boundaries we find so comforting.

The panelists were Jonathan Coleman, Camisha L. Jones, Malinda Lo, and Lila Quintero Weaver. They are, respectively, an older white guy, an African-American poet, an Asian who proudly describes herself as “queer,” and a Latina, who lived the life of a South American immigrant in rural Alabama. That’s probably the most diverse panel I’ve encountered in two years of attending writers conferences.

The panelists told us that by sticking to characters who reflect us (in my case, a middle-aged white woman), we limit our focus as writers, and in that aspect we limit our voice. There was understanding of the reluctance to write a character who’s gay but you’re straight, who’s ethnic but you’re not, but, as Malinda Lo said, you can overcome that by “doing your research.” Lo emphasized that the overall civil rights struggle is ongoing, especially for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people. “There is a need,” she said, “for stories where it’s okay to be gay, stories that normalize what we now consider the ‘other.'”

Most of the panel directed their remarks to writers of young adult or middle-grade fiction with an emphasis on showing those age groups strong characters who are like them. Jones said by doing this, writers “help people see one another’s humanity” through their stories.

A question from the audience encompassed what many of us were thinking: If you write about a character you’re not, will you be taken seriously? Coleman replied, “If your writing is good, if it’s your best work, you’ll be taken seriously. Just don’t over think it, and take a risk.”

Jones added, “Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you can’t write about diversity. I would like to see stories by white people about the pressure on them to conform to racism. That’s an important story to tell.”

Weaver said, “When you don’t see yourself reflected in literature, it’s not interesting to you. You have to have characters who look like all your potential readers.”

The final question engendered a passionate response from Lo. A writer indicated that she deliberately wrote characters for her middle-grade books so their gender and ethnicity were “ambiguous” and asked if that weren’t the better way, so any child could see themselves in the story.

“Say what a character’s race is,” Lo said, “because ambiguity reads as white. A character should not be a blank person.”

I could have gone to a day-long workshop on this subject with these panelists, and this was one panel whose challenge I’ve accepted. This panel and these writers, more than anything, made this conference a complete success for me.