In my last post I checked out some statistics in the one hundred best young adult novels ever according to NPR readers. You remember them: gender and publishing date. Some statistics I didn’t look at: race and sexual identity.
Yet these are important things to consider in literature, and especially in young adult literature. Adolescence is a deeply formative time and identity questions are at the top of the list for most young people. Young adult novels can help that process by either tackling the issue explicitly, as in an issue novel, or by simply normalizing something that the reader may be self-conscious or confused about, like sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial identity.
S.E. Smith has an excellent article on this subject, which I’ve only discovered now almost a year after it was originally posted. The fact is that YA lit is mostly written by straight, cisgender whites, about straight, cisgender whites, for straight, cisgender whites.
I have to admit, I feel a little awkward getting into this conversation because I am a bisexual cisgender white female whose protagonist is a straight cisgender white female. My novel does include a number of supporting characters who are people of color, and I have at least one lesbian cameo that I know of (I haven’t really explored the sexuality of all my major characters yet, but I can bet there will be more lesbians); but my heroine still fits the norm.
Am I allowed to talk about diversity? Honestly, sometimes the internet makes me feel like I’m not just because I’m white, and being bisexual doesn’t seem like enough to earn me a membership in the diversity club. (That’s a whole other issue, really.) Hell, my being white and raised in a homogenous environment contributes to my interest in diverse fiction. I want to read the issue books for that reason; but I would love to see more diversity in literature across the board, just as the normal order of things. That’s the world I want: one where people are just people and they define themselves the way they want to, and sometimes it’s relevant but most of the time it’s not. I believe that the more this happens in literature, the more we’ll notice it in the real world.
I don’t feel guilty about my white heroine, because I was taught “write what you know.” I would rather stick to an experience that I understand than be accused of misrepresenting anyone, or of writing a minority protagonist because of my white guilt, or anything like that. No matter how much research I did or how many interviews I conducted, I would never be able to completely understand and accurately portray an identity experience different from mine.
To be fair, my novel is a fantasy set in a world where racial and gender tension is pretty non-existent, so I’m in a better position to include such characters. I can, do, and will to the best of my ability. But the problem isn’t necessarily that straight white people need to write more about non-straight, non-white people. The problem is that the publishing industry doesn’t know what to do with books that are about so-called atypical characters. From agents to editors to bookstores, they shunt these books–the small portion that even get published–into “issue” shelves, or “gay” shelves, or “African American” shelves, etc.
As Smith says in the linked article above, “This tendency, to think that books by or about minorities are only of interest to people with that identity, is very common.” But Smith also makes the very important point that:
“The reality is that we don’t go around being walking issues; we have lives, we do things, our minority identities are part of us but they aren’t the focal point, and with YA in particular I think it’s critical to make sure that representation includes not just a centring of issues, but also a showing of us in our natural habitat, so to speak.”
I know that there are plenty of people from all walks of life out there writing. What ends up published is a miniscule percentage of all the wonderful stories being produced in our world. So this is less an issue of who’s doing the writing and more an issue of we as readers (and writers) not demanding a restructuring from the industry. Write to publishers and complain about the lack of diverse characters. If you’re a published author, discuss it with your agent and your editors. Demand that your book, if it has one of these under-represented types, be marketed by genre or style rather than the character’s identity. Ask the managers at your local bookstores why the books are segregated that way. Do anything you can to open this conversation.
EDIT: Just found a great article on LitReactor: Taking From the World Tree: Mythology and Cultural Appropriation. It’s specific to using folk stories and mythology as inspiration for fantasy lit, but this sort of sums up my fears of writing outside my bubble:
One of the threats of cultural appropriation comes with modifying the original source, often a simplification of the ideas present in the original culture. Something quite subtle and nuanced and beautiful can become homogenous and blunt and cliched.
The issue becomes even more charged when talking about minority or colonized cultures. In these cases, power and privilege become issues. And no matter how well-meaning or how researched such stories may be, there’s still the danger of not honoring where these stories came from. Of trivializing the source.