Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writing Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn (Part 2 of 2: Co-author Day Al-Mohamed)

Last week I welcomed Danielle Ackley-McPhail to discuss her re-thinking of the classic tale "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". Now it's time to hear the perspective of her co-author, Day Al-Mohamed. Welcome, Day!

*   *   *
Diversity and Writing the Neutral that Never Was
by Day Al-Mohamed

Several years ago, I wrote a story with a Chicano protagonist.  I submitted it to my writing group and the first comment I received was, “Why did you make him Hispanic?”  It actually came from several people with the intimation that “adding race” was unnecessary.  At the time, I was taken aback.  The only answer I had was: Because I wanted to. There has been a significant increase in the push for greater diversity in speculative fiction.  #WeNeedDiverseBooks has some great articles, and I strongly advocate reading some of those written by N.K. Jemisin or the ever awesome Daniel Jose Older.

Today, I don’t want to talk about diversity on a personal level, and trust me as an LGBT woman of color with a disability, it doesn’t get much more personal.  But it is also a professional issue that should be addressed by authors.  If you were to ask me (and this was a question I received from a recent convention panel): Do I think writers have an obligation to write diversely?  I would say, “Yes.”  Immediately, people bristle at being told they should do something, and get worried about writing something they are not, getting it wrong, tokenism, cultural appropriation etc. but let me explain.

Writers have an obligation to build fully realized worlds, and yes, that means diverse worlds. Look around.  In a single day, how many women do you meet? How many people of other races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, or disabilities do you see? How often do we see signs or menus or television programming in other languages?  How many expressions of faith do we come across? What about unique ways of dressing or speaking?  If this world has so much diversity, then so should those worlds we create. It isn’t just about diverse writing but about good writing.

When we’re young and when we first start writing, without meaning to, we’re taught to write to the default.  What’s worse, we’re taught to think to the default and that default is white, male, and heterosexual.  Let me give you a recent example. In the current World Cup excitement we heard commentators, regularly referring to Landon Donovan as the "all-time U.S. leading goal scorer." He has 57 international goals. The all-time U.S. leading goal scorer is Abby Wambach, with 167 goals. The second highest scorer is Mia Hamm at 158 goals, followed by Kristine Lilly who, at 130 goals has more than doubled Donovan’s scoring. Notice something? They’re all women.  When we talk and think about the sport, the “neutral” is men’s. 

Valerie Alexander in her recent article gives another example: “When Sonia Sotomayor was being confirmed for the Supreme Court, members of Congress repeatedly asked her (repeatedly) if, as a Latina, she would be able to remain neutral. I don't recall ever in the history of confirmation hearings, anyone asking, "As a white male, do you think you'll be able to remain neutral when deciding issues of law?"” Here, the neutral is Caucasian.

And yes, as writers we fall into this default thinking too. We write the default.  And just like my writing group, whether they meant it or not, we feel like we have to have some reason, or qualification for the character to be something other than the default. Why does the character have a disability? What is the significance of their race? Because it makes them who they are.  Shouldn’t we want wonderful complex characters who interact with their society from a variety of feelings, thoughts, and identities?  Shouldn’t we want a richer world with the complicated push-pull of politics, religion, race, culture? The default can make for a good story, diversity will make for a great one.  
*   *   *
You can learn more about Day Al-Mohamed on her website.

You can purchase Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and other retailers.


  1. YES! We should want richer worlds and complex characters.

  2. Our world IS made up of wonderful and complex characters. Stories should be made up of wonderful and complex layers, too.

  3. Hey, thanks for reading! :) As I said, it is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I'm fascinated at how easy it is for us to fall into writing these defaults and how we're indoctrinated to thinking that these defaults are "neutral."

    Race is only one of those areas. Disability, gender, even body size/image. Television and magazines telling us a certain size woman or "look" is the default. It is only in the last few years we see people fighting back, particularly when they see what it is doing to young girls.

    Writing a book set in another part of the world with characters of a different ethnicity in "Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn" was a conscious effort to try and escape that kind of limited thinking. In some ways, I think we didn't quite push far enough and in others, I think we were more successful than we ever anticipated.

  4. Thank you both for reading, and we hope you'll check out the book. It was so much fun writing in another culture and between us Day and I found or knew so many interesting tidbits to bring into it to bring that culture alive. We're looking forward to more such adventures!