As a reviewer of MG and YA literature one of the things I have struggled with is to include diversity in my columns. It is difficult enough to include a balance of books between male and female protagonists but if you throw in having a fair number of titles with minority characters then it really gets tough. In the sea of titles with straight white female (blonde) main characters, there are disturbingly few that are African American, Native American, Jewish, Muslim, Asian American, Indian, LBGT and on and on. In some ways, it is a chicken and egg problem however - are their fewer teen books published with minority characters because publishers do not think they will sell or is the problem that writers capable of crafting such books from their own experience are uncommon?
In other words - are white writers (who are in the majority) afraid to write books with minority characters or are minority authors prevented from being published because the kids they write about don't have the purchase power of the white kids?
These are complicated questions and there are no easy answers. However anyone can argue that there is a glaring lack of books for teens with minority characters. It is ridiculous how many books are published each season with characters who look the same, sound the same and come from the same economic circumstance. Something needs to change. The questions put to the group this time addressed this issue in several ways. Do you think that writers and publishers address this identity issue strongly enough and in a balanced matter in current teen fiction? Can authors write characters of different race/ethnicity or sexual preference from their own and beyond that, what special responsibility, if any, do authors of teen fiction have to represent as broad a swath of individuals as possible? Here are their very well considered, deeply personal and fascinating answers (please note the book covers depicted are either mentioned in their answers or titles with minority protagonists I highly recommend):
Beth Kephart: As a writer who began her published life as a memoirist and autobiographical poet, it took me some time to trust my ability to write authentically (in fiction) beyond experiences that I myself have lived through, seen, or dreamed so thoroughly that they seemed my own. It was not until I began to write the historical novel due out next fall that I trusted myself to move beyond the knownâ€”not just the physical terrain and the conventions of language, but the emotional entanglements.
We have many responsibilities as authorsâ€”to respect our readers, to respect language, to tell stories that are as fresh and emotionally true as we can muster. Part of this means that we must write that which most thoroughly, inexorably interests us. No topic is, therefore, beyond any one author's reach. No voice should be considered off-limits (I've written a book in the voice of a river, for example, and I've written stories in the guise of a male, but I didn't feel as if I were trespassing into another's realm, or that I was reaching). But no topic or character type or voice should, I think, be embraced strictly because an author feels that that topic or type is currently underrepresented. We must be patient and allow the right people to write the right books. What, for example, made Marilyn Nelson the perfect person to write a YA book of poems about/sometimes in the voice of George Washington Carver? Simple: As a poet she had the language. As a woman who felt a passionate connection to Carver she had the right.
Kekla Magoon: As a reader, the characters I most identify with are not always those who are like me on the surface, in physical appearance, background, sexuality, economic status, etc. I absolutely think there should be more diversity on all those levels in teen fiction, and it excites me to find books that match me, but those factors alone don't dictate what characters will touch me deeply -- I loved Troy in Fat Kid Rules the World (K.L. Going), and Grady in Tribute to Another Dead Rock Star (Randy Powell) and both are white males. I woudn't want to be pigeonholed into reading only 'black books' and vice versa -- I'm deeply bothered by the prevalent assumption that books starring black characters will be of interest to those readers only. There is beauty and magic in identifying with someone who looks nothing like you do and acts nothing like you would, but still strikes a chord on a deep emotional level.
As an author, I feel driven to write POV characters of diverse identities -- black, white, biracial, latino/a, male, female, gay, straight and questioning. In fact, I think I've yet to write a character who's exactly like me on all points. Creatively, this excites me, but I do get nervous about putting such characters out in the world, because this society still tends to (perhaps subconsciously) view minority characters as "representative." I don't want to mess it up. But I also feel pulled as a minority author to build minority characters. I sometimes even feel guilty writing white main characters, in particular, because I wonder if I'm somehow shirking a responsibility that I carry as a black author. I try to shake it off, but the feeling lingers.
On the broader question of whether authors and publishers spend enough time on identity issues, my gut instinct says no. I've heard more than one colleague talk about shying away from a story they don't think they have the "right" to tell. Why? There's social and psychological value in, for example, black teen readers seeing more black kids on the front of books. There's value in teens of all sexual orientations seeing more LGBTQ teens in books. In my opinion, anyone can contribute to that effort. Literature is art, and artists have a responsibility to tackle controversy, and to push society toward the places we want it to go. But that can't be the only reason why we try to write outside our own experiences. We have to feel the stories first, and write from a place of passion. Above all, I believe that we shouldn't shy away from taking on these challenges because we fear a potential backlash -- be it censorship by others, or inadvertent perpetuation of stereotypes by us in our work. We should embrace the risky business of trying to get into someone else's mind and heart. I truly believe that kind of empathy is what fiction is all about in the first place.
Laurel Snyder: This is an issue I've bumped into myself recently. I realized that not only wasn't I writing in the voices of a broad range of girls, I wasn't even writing JEWISH girls (though I am a fairly engaged Jew, and write about it obsessively when I write for adults). But my own favorite books were all written long ago, and so written almost exclusively about WASPs, and I think that's colored my books to date.
This realization me start thinking about who populates the world I actually live in, and it made me want to paint those people into my work. The end result is that my new book has, as peripheral characters, a biracial girl, a little boy with 2 mommies, a Jewish girl, etc... it is by no means ABOUT the issues of those identities. But as my MC walks through her world, she sees that other people aren't all "like her." This feels like an important transition for me, a move toward writing more seriously "about" those lives.
But this is hard, and I've fought with people about the topic of who has a right to do that. I don't know. I don't like the idea of non-Jews trying to "capture the essence" of Jewish experience. That way lies simplification. I think there are real nuances to any cultural/family/growing up experience. Its hard enough to imagine and address and respect those nuances when you ARE entrenched. The idea of ME attempting to write in the voice of, say, a Dominican girl growing up in Washington Heights... or in the voice of a transwoman coming of age.... I would feel very nervous. I'd feel like there was no way I could get it "right."
Mayra Lazara Dole: We desperately need diversity in writing. There's a massive discrepancy between the amount of POC (people of color) YA books/authors, and white books/authors. When white authors write realistic, multicultural stories, or fiction, from the POV of a main character of color, regardless of how many friends they have of that race, or how much research they've done on that culture, they haven't lived it thus it's not authentic. POC and Latina/o LGBT people of color are severely underrepresented in the publishing world. We need to tell our own powerful stories in novels. On the other hand, literature is enriched when white authors include diversity and when all authors have the freedom to create what we wish. But, how many YA books with diversity written by authentic POC are out there? How many white teen YA books written by white authors exist? Is the problem that publishers can't find POC authors or that POC don't write?
I write contemporary fiction with Cuban-American and LGBT characters (people of my culture and subculture) that I grew up with and have known all my life. Cubans are over-the-top and I'm always asked to drastically tone down my characters. I've been writing and submitting manuscripts since I was a teen. Not until 2003 were my critically acclaimed bilingual picture books published by an exclusive multicultural press (Children's Book Press). Not until last year did HC accept my YA Latina/o LGBT novel. I've heard hundreds of stories about Latina/o writers who can't get published. Imagine Latina/o LGBT authors? POC are marginalized and must work a billion times harder than white authors to get one percent of the recognition they receive and deserve. The question is this: Can editors spend the time needed to help first-time writers of color hone their craft?
We need to share our POV and identity in books in order to move kids to love and respect POC and LGBT's. Unfortunately, not many of us are given the opportunity to publish our experiences and don't have the chance to shine or make a living from what we love.
I understand how white authors could feel inspired and motivated to write from another culture's POV or LGBT perspective. I suggest that editors have them consider co-authoring with POC or LGBT author whose manuscripts were turned down. White authors who write POC books almost always say they want to help POC by exposing cultures that wouldn't normally be read in American literature. If a white author refuses co-authoring to help a POC get published, then how about promoting the work of the culture you're using? If you use POC in your writing for all the right reasons, then wouldn't it be fair and a beautiful exchange to help YA authors of color (of the specific culture or subculture you used) achieve respect, a steady job, and accolades too?
Could Lawrence King, Mathew Sheppard, and other kids' lives have been spared if their killers were exposed to POC and LGBTQ literature/novels in school depicting them in a positive light? Might 1.6 million homeless Latino and black kids (1/3 are homosexuals) not have been kicked out of their homes by intolerant parents if they'd been required to read novels with diversity in elementary, middle grade and high school?
The bottom line in this cut-throat publishing business is MULA (and rightfully so. In these times if publishers can't be on top of their game, they sink). POC authors who didn't grow up privileged (many do and are well educated doctors, lawyers and millionaires) will get poor kids to read because we speak their language. I speak the language of underprivileged Latino kids who hate to read and of educated folks. I want to help these children and teens by writing fun books they can relate to. The young adults of color, after reading Down to the Bone, write me long letters about their lives, about how they don't read but that my novel spoke to them, made them laugh and cry. Some considered suicide until they read my book. They can't wait till my next work is published. We need more authentic POC books out there.
Loree Griffin Burns: A reader over at the I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) Blog recently posed the following question to a panel of writers who specialize in books of nonfiction for kids and teens:
How closely do you need to connect with your subject matter to write about it? Do you need to be female to write about amazing women? An environmentalist to write about Rachel Carson? Do you lose all your credibility if you're writing about African-Americans and you're not African-American?
You can read the entire post, including answers from Susan Goodman, Gretchen Woelfle and Rosalyn Schanzer, here.
For me, the answer to how closely I need to connect with my subject matter is this: very closely. But that doesn't mean I can only write about bookish, middle class white women with a penchant for science and nature. It means I have to remember at all times that I am seeing my research and my subject's world through my bookish, middle class white woman with a penchant for science and nature eyes â€¦ and react accordingly. For some projects, getting inside the story is more of a stretch than for others, but to some extent, at least in my opinion, it can always be done. Will I do it as well as another writer with a different life experience might do it? Who knows? In the end, my readers will decide if I've done the work justice. My job is to get inside the story and tell it as passionately and as truthfully as I possibly can.
Melissa Wyatt: Can a writer write about something they are not? Unless we are writing our autobiographies, we are all writing outside of our own experiences to some extent. Even if I write about a shy, nearsighted, Mid-Atlantic white girl from a bland suburb, unless I set it in the late seventies, I'm outside of my experiences. My two published novels have male protagonists. I've never been a teenaged boy. But I have also never been a teenaged girl in the twenty-first century, who texts her friends instead of slipping them notes, who lives in a post-9/11 world and to whom "safe sex" means more than avoiding pregnancy.
But the farther away from your own experiences you step, the more care you have to take not to rely on stereotypes--even positive ones--and assumptions and the more you have to examine WHY that story calls to you in the first place. When I start to consider turning an idea into a book, what I identify with is the "want" of the character, the longing, the universal emotions that are going to drive the story. If I can't relate to that, then it isn't a story I should be telling.
So I don't think the question is "can"--because I hate the idea of anyone drawing those kinds of lines for artists--but more like "how."
The simple answer to the responsibility question: the only responsibility I owe is to my characters, to treat them with as much honesty as I can and then secondarily, to the reader, to fulfill the promise I make at the start of the story. Other than that, I don't think I have a particular responsibility to put something into a story unless it serves the story I am trying to tell, or beyond my responsibility as a human being to be aware of the world around me and reflect that as accurately and sensitively as I can.
The characters that most spoke to me as a young reader were those who were least like myself! In fact, I remember distinctly reading a book that did reflect my experiences so well that I absolutely hated it. The thing is, it was a fine book, but I spent enough time feeling like that shy, nearsighted, ordinary white girl from a bland Mid-Atlantic suburb. Dear merciful goodness, I didn't want to read about it. The privilege of being able to reject what actually exists, I know.
Sara Ryan: We have a long way to go before we can say we're doing an adequate, let alone a good job representing the incredibly varied backgrounds and lives of today's teens. Institutional racism and homophobia remain significant influences on what, and who, gets published. But yes, I do think authors can write across boundaries, and I'd like to strongly recommend a book by Nisi Shawl (co-winner of the most recent James Tiptree Award) and Cynthia Ward on exactly this topic: Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. I recently read (for the first time, but not the last) Louise Fitzhugh's Nobody's Family Is Going To Change, and I think that's a fine example of a writer creating believable characters from backgrounds different from her own.
All that said, I get a little itchy at the word "responsibility." It makes me think of well-intentioned, earnest straight white liberal writers shoehorning one-dimensional Ethnic Sidekicks and Sassy Gay Best Friends into their books and feeling like they have thereby helped to Achieve Diversity. Please note that I'm not accusing anyone in particular here, just identifying a trend. And it's not restricted to books -- see also TV, movies, comics, games. Even though I think it's both possible and desirable to write about characters outside one's own background and experience, I think it's more important for authors from a wider variety of backgrounds to get published and supported than for authors from dominant cultural groups to write about minority characters. So am I putting the onus on publishers? To some extent, yes -- but also on readers, to be curious about, and buy books about, characters who don't look or act exactly like them. Elizabeth Bluemle recently blogged about The New Literal Mind, a disturbing trend she's noticed at her bookstore: "the tendency (of grandparents and parents) to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child's world." Readers (and the parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians of readers) need to understand that there's more than one way to identify with a character.
Garret Freymann-Weyr and I have talked about the identification issue in email. She writes: "If we only ask straight, white girls or Hispanic gay girls to read about people just like themselves, we don't just betray them, we betray writing. When I read Hamlet, I wanted to be Hamlet, not Ophelia. He had all the good lines. We should ask of the young what we ask of ourselves -- to seek out what is beautiful, truthful and haunting."
When I started thinking about my response to this question (and I have thought a lot about my response to this question), I started listing all the traits I could think of that have made me identify with characters. Some types I've identified with: smart kids, nerds, fat kids, queers, bohemians, tomboys, sophisticates, theater people, bohemians, musicians, writers. They could be different from me in any number of particulars, as long as there was one vector of identification. When I was in love for the first time, I identified with every fictional lover. And I remember reading a book about slavery in third grade, shortly after I'd dislocated my knee. When I learned that if you were a slave and you got injured, you'd still have to keep working, my knee throbbed. I can't recall the book's title, but I identified so strongly with that detail that to this day, I can make myself flinch just by thinking about it.
Race and culture aren't on the list of traits that have connected me to characters, but that's because I'm a middle-class white girl and I have the privilege of being able to read about characters with backgrounds similar to mine any time I damn well please. As Mary Borsellino said in a recent interview with Henry Jenkins: "As a queer person, or a woman, or someone of a marginalized socio-economic background, or a non-Caucasian person, it's often necessary to perform a negotiated reading on a text before there's any way to identify with any character within it. Rather than being able to identify an obvious and overt avatar within the text, a viewer in such a position has to use cues and clues to find an equivalent through metaphor a lot of the time."
Some specific characters and individuals I identified with as a kid and young adult:
L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, because she was a writer, and sensitive; Pauline and Petrova Fossil from Noel Streatfield's Dancing Shoes. Pauline because she was an actress, Petrova because she wasn't. (Identifying with characters doesn't always make logical sense.); Marcy Lewis from Paula Danziger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, because she was smart and fat; Dorothy Parker, because she was bitter and funny and wrote: "Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea, And love is a thing that can never go wrong, And I am Marie of Roumania."' Bilbo Baggins, because he liked his cozy home and didn't initially want an adventure, but rose to it; Maggie Chascarillo from Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets, because of her self-loathing, because she fell in love with Hopey Glass, because she was punk; Audre Lorde, as she wrote about herself in Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name, because she was smart and queer and let friends crash at her place even though they made long-distance calls on her phone that they couldn't pay for.
To sum up: in fiction, I think we need both mirrors where we can see ourselves and windows through which we can see others.
Zetta Elliott: I hate Halloween. It's my least favorite holiday because it generates endless opportunities for folks to impersonate the Other. Every year my attention is directed to grotesque images posted online by frat boys who got plastered, smeared black grease on their face, donned an afro wig, and went to a costume party with either a noose or a gold chain around their neck. I hate Halloween because it reminds me of the minstrel tradition and the license that gave whites to impersonate their IDEA of African Americans. Always more fantasy than reality, minstrel shows allowed whites to distort, degrade, and dehumanize blacksâ€”and then say, "It's just entertainment!" When it comes to literature, I'm still a bit wary because I know that many members of our society are oblivious to this history of misrepresentation, and therefore write the Other as a distortion that merely serves the interests of the majority group.
Not too long ago I read two books written by whites about slavery during the Revolutionary era; both won prestigious prizes, but only one, in my opinion, was deserving of its award. The other book, I felt, used an African American character as a listening device; she existed only to observe and report on the more important activities of the whites around her; the girl herself was a blank.
Writing a convincing character takes more than imaginationâ€”and that goes for EVERY writer. Just being black and female doesn't make me an automatic expert on everything having to do with black women. There are differences in class, sexual orientation, nationality, age, ethnicity, etc.
No one person can (or should presume to) speak for an entire group. I don't mind if men write about women, though I find few do so effectively. I don't mind if whites write about blacks, so long as they do their research AND enough soul-searching to be aware of their biases and blindspots. Also, because the publishing industry is so homogeneous, I'm not sure how many different pairs of eyes look at a manuscript before it winds up in print. I do, however, wonder about the overwhelming number of white authors who choose to write outside their race; according to the CCBC, in 2008 more non-blacks than blacks published books about black culture and history. I don't think that's right or fair, and it makes me wonder: are white editors more comfortable working with non-black authors? Is there something objectionable about the manuscripts black authors produce? Are they "too real" to handle? When I think about the character that resonated most with me, I think back to Jamaica Kincaid's Lucyâ€”a Caribbean teen working as a nanny for an upper-middle class white family in NYC. She delighted in making her employers uncomfortable with their wealth and privilege; she withheld the gratitude and affection they expected, and insisted that they confront the oppressive history that forced her to leave home and become a servant in their country. Lucy mocked their liberal politics by being radical and unrelenting, and I loved her for itâ€¦
Lorie Ann Grover: I do believe writers and publishers are bringing to the market a variety of story. With broad foreign rights sales, we are privy to an even wider range of storytellers in our country. To further unlock the untold, I believe we need to encourage writers of all walks to write their own stories well. At readergirlz we are constantly looking for unique voices to resonate in the field. What satisfaction to offer Rita Williams Garcia's No Laughter Here and discuss female circumcision and then Laura Resau's Red Glass and debate illegal immigration.
Authors can write of cultures and lifestyles beyond their experience, or we'd have no sci-fi fantasy, right? The challenge is to be faithful in full research and revelation. Red Glass is an excellent example of Laura Resau bringing to light a culture not her own. I also think of Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, and Patricia McCormick's Sold. Why would we ever inhibit storytellers who have a burden to share truth, even if the story doesn't spring from their own immediate life experience?
Concerning publishers, initially, maybe the books aren't placed as quickly because of sales concern. In truth, there might not be broad sales at first as the experiences are foreign to American teens. Hopefully though, the books are published, purchased, and read, with connections made through shared desires and emotions. Is it the library market that feeds the groundswell until the books can crossover to the stores, maybe? I have to believe there are dedicated middle grade and YA editors out there who will bring these stories to light for the love of truth, regardless of questionable sales. I'm hoping to place one now myself!
As to characters resonating through my life from different places than my own, I have to say: Djo from Frances Temple's Taste of Salt, Liesel from Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Junior from Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or how about Devon Hope from Nikki Grimes' Bronx Masquerade? My list could go on and on. These are characters who wanted the very same things I do and just happened to be reaching for them in a different place. Their courage empowers me. There are so many examples, and for that, I am thankful.
Jacqueline Kelly: Forty years ago, a well-known highly-regarded Southern writer called William Styron caused a big stink by writing a book called The Confessions of Nat Turner. There were many reasons why the book caused a big stink, but one reason was that Styron was a white man who was writing from the point of view of an African-American man. Today, as I write these words, they strike me as quaint. Today, I don't think anybody cares if you write in a voice that belongs to a narrator of a different race/gender/sexual preference/whatever. At least, I hope not. I think the only question is whether you have the talent to pull it off, and to pull the reader along with you in the waking dream that is fiction.