I have a black grandma, or had, as she’s been gone from this world for some time now. Since I knew her, she had thin grey hair that was snow white and straight. Perhaps because of her hair, perhaps because we don’t notice people in our family, I didn’t know she was black when I was very little, even if she had brown skin and was interested in afro-Brazilian religions. See, white people over there can be involved in those, too. I realized she was black and I was partly black when I met distant uncles and cousins in Rio de Janeiro, which wasn’t where I lived.
But that’s not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to talk about hair; curly, bushy hair, to be exact. I had the most lovely curls as a baby and toddler. My mother even cut a golden brown curl to save and remember it, and it was a good idea, as my hair was straight throughout the rest of my childhood.
Then, when I turned twelve, everything changed. I think it started with a haircut, and then, boom, super bushy. I suffered with it for some time, even straightened it a couple times, until I learned I shouldn’t brush it when it’s dry. It may sound obvious, but I didn’t know it. After I learned how to take care of my hair, I learned to appreciate it and enjoy my curls. I’ll be honest and say that I thought my hair was super amazing. I still think so, but it doesn’t grow as long as before and it has been getting straighter, even if it is still thick.
So I had curly hair throughout my youth. But in Brazil, there was and there still is a huge trend of straightening hair. In theory, that’s fine. People should be able to choose what they look like, and changing their hair is part of it. I dye it, who am I to say anything?
The issue is how straightening curly hair became an ubiquitous practice considered part of preening, just like waxing or shaving, let’s say. All right, we could debate the merits of those, but regardless, you can’t go to work with a skirt and unshaved legs. In some places in Brazil, and for some people, that’s how they see the need for straightening curly hair. Generally speaking, they’ll consider straight hair beautiful and curly hair ugly. I feel it stems from racism. In a very mixed population, straightening curly hair seems to come from a need to hide their African roots. And it’s a shame. African roots are pretty cool and I’m proud of mine.
And I had people ask me why I didn’t straighten my hair. I decided I would never straighten it, especially after reading articles talking about “taming” your curls. I’d rather leave them wild, thank you.
Recently I learned it’s not something that happens only in Brazil, but in some other Latin-American countries, too. I have a friend who’s also partly black and from a country in the Caribbean. She showed me some photos of her when she was young with her pretty curly hair and said she was an exception in not straightening it. But it wasn’t something considered positive. Once she heard someone saying that she was beautiful but it was a pity she didn’t take care of herself and was sloppy with her looks. Again, as if straightening her hair were as essential as getting rid of body hair. She now has her hair straight, from cultural pressure. And we see this trend everywhere. People like Megan Markle, Selena Gomez, Salma Hayek, rarely—or never—show their curls. I’m not criticizing them, especially if they are actresses who don’t have a huge say on their looks, I’m just noticing a pattern. And individual choices are not the issue, but a society that believes straight hair is better.
And why am writing about this? Because I find it important to have heroines with wavy, curly, and even bushy hair. It’s not much, but I think it helps with representation. I don’t see that many bushy-haired heroines. The clearest example that comes to mind is Harry Potter’s Hermione, but her bushy hair was always described as a flaw in her looks, always something negative. And the racial implication there is interesting. When Noma Dumezweni was cast for Hermione in The Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling said that in canon, Hermione has bushy hair and big teeth, meaning that Hermione’s “ugly” bushy hair can be interpreted as a black person’s hair. Before we praise or criticize Rowling for being “woke”, let’s again remember how Hermione’s hair is never described as beautiful. In fact, Hermione’s only described as surprisingly beautiful once she straightens it.
I know not only black or partially-black people have curly and bushy hair. Still, most of the non-white population in the world, excluding some South Asians and all the Eastern Asians, tend to have curly or wavy hair.
Because of that, I try to write heroines, and some heroes and villains, too, with curls. In Portals to Whyland, there are two main girls, Karina, who has curly brown hair, and Cayla, who has straight black hair and I tend to think about her as more Asian-looking. I’ll confess that in the cover for Step Into Magic, Karina’s hair doesn’t look very curly and looks a bit too light, but at least the curls were fixed for Within Magic. Sian, who’s an important male character, has curls and brown hair.
In The Sphere of Infinity, the heroine is of mixed race and has bushy hair. Her love interest isn’t necessarily white, as he’s albino. In Star Spark, Saytera has wavy hair, still not straight. Dess has straight black hair because I also thought he could look Asian.
Is it enough? I don’t know. I feel there’s such a stigma on curly hair that at least I’m doing something. I also find that by having some brown-eyed, brown-haired girls with curly hair and international names, they can represent more ethnicities. Maybe my younger self wished there were more girls looking like me and I’m doing something. Maybe it’s just natural to write people who look like me. Who knows?
And then you might ask: well, why don’t you clearly state their ethnicity, then? Well, because that’s not how life works. Believe it or not, must visible minorities don’t spend their days thinking about their visible-minorityness. Incredible, right? Plus, many of my characters are from other worlds, where ethnicities are different.
In my current books, Karina is the only human character living in a city in our world, but she lives in Montreal. I picked this city because it’s the only North-American city I know. Lazy, yeah, but it didn’t really matter much for the story, so I decided to make my life easier. Anyway, in Montreal, there are so many immigrants from all over the world, there are so many brown and black people, that she wouldn’t be thinking of herself as different for not being white. She thinks about school, boys, kisses, finding herself. Visible minorities think about that, too, you know. Now you may ask: oh, so she’s not white? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter for the story.
I don’t think I have to write characters for white people to read and think: look, a visible or ethnic minority character. I could do that, and it’s neat when authors do that. It’s nice because it allows white readers to empathize with people from different ethnicities.
Still, I don’t feel I need to do it all the time. If white readers want to identify with the characters and think they are white, it’s fine. If non-white readers want to identify with the characters, it’s perfect, too, and that’s where some physical characteristics can make a difference. And I’m aware I need more diversity and more black characters.
I’m not writing this to say my books are diverse. I wouldn’t put my current books in lists with diverse characters because, as I stated before, most characters’ ethnicities are ambiguous, not clearly stated. I love it because then more people can identify with the characters, but I wouldn’t be able to state that I have a book with Latino, Middle-Eastern , or mixed black characters, even if Karina, for example, could be any of these.
I guess I’m just writing this to explain why I give curly, wavy, and bushy hair to many of my characters. It’s beautiful hair and we should celebrate it, not say it’s ugly or try to hide it. They are beautiful characters with beautiful hair.
I’m not sure if books can make a difference, but hey, the other day I was reading a book in which a main character made cookies, and I decided to bake cookies, something I hadn’t done for over 10 years, since I started to avoid sugar. So there might be something there.