Of Diversity and Fairy Dust
Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, editors
Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
Twelfth Planet Press, 2014
Turns out the author is not dead after all. But I guess we knew that.
Recent years have seen widespread campaigns for diverse books: for stories reflecting the reality of readers’ worlds, and for protagonists with a range of identities beyond middle-class white people. There’s so often a disconnect between the stories we read and the world we experience. And between the worlds the writer creates, and the lived experience of the writer.
Surveys and research raise time and time again the overt and subtle exclusions, appropriations, misrepresentations and stereotypes presented in fiction—particularly in writing for young adults and children—and the impact these have on generations of readers and their views of the world, and of one another.
Elena Monoyiou and Simoni Symeonidou outline a few sample studies:
A recent analysis of 90 realistic novels written in the USA between 2000 and 2010 for children aged from 9 to 14 years reveals that most mixed race characters are portrayed in negative ways (i.e. they are struggling to make a living or they are just managing; one or both of their biological parents is probably dead, absent, or peripheral; their environment comprises mostly white people; and the protagonist is the only biracial). Disabled characters are either presented as ‘poor little things’ who experience a personal tragedy and they are passive and unable to defend themselves or as ‘superheroes’ who manage to thrive ( Ayala 1999). Even relatively recent children’s books written from 1990 onwards often reproduce oppressive terms and segregational attitudes (Symeonidou 2012; Tassiopoulos 2006) and present unrealistic ‘happy ever after endings’ (e.g. the disabled character is ‘cured’ in a miraculous way, Beckett et al. 2010). (2015: 590)
Findings like these are not new, and the need for change is now accepted by some publishers, by library and literacy organisations, writers’ centres and guilds, and by many writers and illustrators of books for young adults and children.
Part of the response is a call for greater diversity, particularly in activist communities of readers and writers of children’s and young adult (YA) literature: on social media, on blogs, in library and literary sector journals, and in mainstream media. There are variations in the language and emphasis of the debates in different countries (which sometimes leads to misunderstanding), but the dialogue is transnational and often online and immediate, flaring up and evolving rapidly. What follows is a brief survey of some of the prominent positions that arise in those public exchanges, and of the ways in which the discussion about the nature of diversity has developed over the past few years.
One of the key players (among many) is Malinda Lo, author of magical and inherently queer fantasy novels for young adults. She, with other YA authors including Ellen Oh, began the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, a US-based movement that is largely responsible for the momentum behind the current debates.
In her ground breaking count of young adult books with LGBT main characters (Lo 2013), Lo found that 45 percent of books published in the US in the decade to 2013 featured a cisgender male protagonist, and 35 percent featured a cisgender female protagonist. Only 6 percent featured a main character who was identifiably queer, and a further 4 percent featured a transgendered protagonist. 12 percent of YA novels also addressed LGBT issues as issues, or, as Lo put it, ‘situated as a problem to be overcome’ (2014); for example, coming out stories (sometimes the ‘problem’ affects a minor character rather than the protagonist).
A year later, she reported that mainstream publishers had dramatically increased the number of books about LGBT characters:
In 2014, mainstream publishers published 47 LGBT YA books. This is a 59 percent increase from 2013, when only 29 LGBT YA books were published by mainstream publishers (Lo 2014a).
But Lo’s 2014 analysis of leading titles by US publishers found that 85 percent featured white main characters; that all but two of the books classified as LGBTIQ featured a gay male protagonist; and that only 4 percent featured a character with a disability (Lo 2014b).
This data about representation complements what we already know about inclusion and exclusion on the basis of gender and gender identity in literature—or, more broadly, in the industry around literature—including reviewing and bookselling.
More recently, discussions around diversity of representation in fiction have focused on the identities of writers and illustrators, rather than on characters and the situations in which they are portrayed. Importantly, the ongoing public conversation has also raised issues around intersectionality, and around the ways in which books with diverse characters, or books by writers from diverse backgrounds and identities, are received and discussed.
The annual VIDA count of gender representation has, since 2014, investigated beyond gender to interrogate intersectional factors affecting the reception of writing by women. It found, as you would expect, that male writers are more often reviewed and commissioned to write reviews, and that women, and particularly women who are queer, Indigenous women, women of colour, women with disabilities, and transgender people appeared less regularly in the pages on leading literary journals.
The Stella Count has also surveyed female-identifying authors whose books have been reviewed, since 2013, to test whether women of certain identities are less likely to appear in the literary journals, books pages and awards in Australia.
So if there is now little debate about the lack of representation of diverse communities in fiction (and elsewhere), the question remains: how do we address it? And who gets to address it?
There’s no one answer to that question. Publishers, booksellers, editors, librarians, educators, reviewers, researchers, arts funding bodies, parents and carers, and young readers all have parts to play.
Public debate still rages, however, on the most fundamental role of all—the creator. If the world needs more diverse stories, who should write and/or illustrate them, and how? And what happens if all those straight white male writers start writing ‘diverse’ books?
The campaign for diversity has become a process of questioning who writes diverse works, and about creating space for writers who are marginalised in the publishing industry to write their own stories, so that, in turn, readers can find and experience their own stories.
Australian author and illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina has articulated some of the issues around the emerging idea of diversity as a synonym for visibility—and specifically that an enthusiasm for diversity might lead to interventions by mainstream publishing and writers:
A lack of diversity is not a ‘diversity problem’. It is a privilege problem.
… When a lack of representation of Indigenous peoples and people of colour in kids’ lit is misunderstood as a diversity issue, the focus tends to be solely on accuracy of representation (and it is of vital importance that marginalised peoples are accurately portrayed). But in order to begin to address the cause of the lack of diversity (privilege), the question writers need to ask themselves is not simply whether they can accurately portray someone else’s experience, but whether they should be telling the story at all.
… A defence to poor representation framed in terms of someone’s good intentions can also carry an unspoken assumption that a desire to ‘help’ the marginalised is an act of charity or kindness for which marginalised peoples should be grateful (Kwaymullina 2016).
Ellen Oh, co-founder of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, unpacks some of the complexity that has arisen in the embrace of diverse books:
Yes We Need Diverse Books. But that doesn’t always mean that we want YOU to write them. No, it means we want you to support them. We want you to read them. We want you to promote them, talk about them, buy them, love them. We want you to recognize that these stories told by authors in their own voices has as much importance as all the white ones that are published year after year.
I’m going to keep saying this over and over again. Diversity is not a new hot trend for you all to jump on and write about because you think it will help you get published. That’s not what this is about. White writers can write about whatever they want, they have that luxury. Whether or not they do it well is of course subject to debate. White writers don’t have to worry about writing main characters that are white and being told “Oh we have a white story already so we have to pass.” There is no arbitrary quota of stories for you all. We get 1 maybe 2 books allocated to Asian stories – so when it is taken by a white author writing about Asian stories – guess what happens to the Asian writer trying to write their own stories (Oh 2016).
The award-winning author Meg Rosoff recently caused a storm by rejecting the idea of own stories and representation in literature to reflect readers’ lives:
The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what ‘needs’ to be represented … You don’t read Crime and Punishment to find out about Russian criminals. Or Alice in Wonderland to know about rabbits. Good literature expands your mind. It doesn’t have the ‘job’ of being a mirror (qtd in Flood 2015).
This is tricky territory, as evidenced by the furious online response to Rosoff’s comments. On one hand, there is nothing artificial about a genuinely diverse cast of characters, such as a group of friends who come from different cultural backgrounds, identities and lives. It is, simply, how life is for many of us. Seeing that reflected on the page or screen ought not be unusual, but it is. For that to change, all writers may have to create representations of people who may not be like them. Some will do it well, like some of the best Australian YA novels of recent years, others not so much.
On the other hand, sometimes diverse books can feel contrived, most often due to the sketching of barely-there characters as gestures towards diversity, rather than as fully realised people. Even when they are intended, as Oh suggests, as positive stereotypes, they are still stereotypes: thoughtlessly created and often ill-informed. This is where we most often see diversity as an ally of tolerance, or even a token gesture, rather than a natural aspect of acceptance.
Which brings us to Kaleidoscope, an anthology of diverse YA science fiction and fantasy stories, in which many of these questions are at play. It was conceived in the wild days of the diversity debate a few years ago, in a genuine attempt to deliver representation of a range of characters and themes, and to directly deal with a lack of diversity.
As is the case with many anthologies, there’s some beautiful writing here, some frankly pedestrian, and plenty in between: chilling, adventurous, challenging, funny and bleak.
In some cases, the cynical reader in me suspected that a character’s gender or cultural background had been changed in order to fit the editors’ submission guidelines. It reminds me of the time I met a man who was writing a detective novel. He told me that the protagonist had originally been male, but he’d decided a lesbian would be cooler, and so he just changed the pronouns. Not the nature of the character, just the tiny signifier. Does a lesbian character, then, have the same attributes on the page as a male detective?
But this begs the question: what expectations of representation do we, as readers, bring to the text? How are binary genders or sexuality, say, indicated to us as aspects of fictional characters? Do writers indicate the femaleness of a character purely by physical description, and if so, where do our descriptors come from? Or does the writer signify some concept of femininity through personal characteristics—and from which gender system do these come? If it’s a wholly imagined world, how does gender operate? The same questions might be asked of portrayals of a wide range of people who are currently under-represented in popular culture, or represented by stereotypes.
In Kaleidoscope we have at least two fairly heartless and possibly violent butches, and a number of characters with little characterisation outside their existence as examples of diversity, such as a young woman with a pushy Chinese mother, a pair of gay dads, and the odd gay or bisexual best friend or person in a wheelchair. We see the trope of magic as metaphor for autism or an undefined difference, but we can also read stories that interrogate familiar tropes, such as the miracle cure for disability.
Of course, when we argue for diversity, we also argue for ordinary representations, for stories in which a character who is a bit like us has an adventure or falls in love or in crisis, but who just happens to be queer or gets around the streets on a mobility scooter—or, since we’re in fantasy and sci-fi worlds, a space shuttle or lightning bolt. But we do also expect some depth, some inner life, some sense of character beyond mere representation.
A few of the writers here manage it beautifully. In Ken Liu’s ‘The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon’, two young women are about to be parted on the night of a community celebration of an ancient legend. The story weaves storytelling and myth into a metaphorical journey from realist Hefei into the heavens, in which our young lovers learn about themselves and their future together, or apart.
In Alena McNamara’s ‘The Day the God Died’, a jogger hears the voice of a trapped god whose process of powerlessness and change reflect the gender transition of the narrator and the sense of them, like most young adults, locating themselves and defining their relationship to the world:
“I’ll go off to college in a couple of years. Then I can be whoever I want.”
The god said, And what if, by then, you do not want to be yourself?
“I’ve never wanted to be myself,” I said.
The god waited, I think for me to realise what I had just said, but I knew exactly what had come out of my mouth so I waited too.
I see, it said at last.
Reading Kaleidoscope as an exercise in diversity also provides, in a nutshell, the challenges for the reader in responding to the concept of own stories and diversity. Do you read without knowledge of the author (impossible in some cases—there are some familiar names here), and the assumptions you might make about them and their lives? For us to read own stories, does the writer have to publicly identify as a person eligible to write the story? And what might that mean for writers who are not comfortable in doing so? Will we just know if a story speaks to us, if it feels absolutely right, if it holds truth for us, that it has worked? Or will we, as we have always done, read ourselves into the text, even in stories where we no longer feel scribbled into the margins or left out completely?
As Malinda Lo argues:
Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t (Lo 2014c).
Publishing diversity, in a way, calls for a reductivist approach. It rightly calls out the lack of visible representation in text (and elsewhere), and argues that the way to redress it is to create more varied representations. Is this a moment of transition, like equal opportunity in employment, during which measures such as revealing the identity of the writer are required to right past wrongs and help reverse imbalance? As a short-term strategy, this runs the risk of simplifying a complex and painful issue.
This anthology’s approach is potentially even riskier, collecting together stories which have little in common beyond an attempt to address a lack of representation. The act of anthologising itself reflects some of the discussions about the idea of diversity, as does the act of contributing to a demonstration of diversity in print. As an anthology of fantasy and science fiction, too, it is deeply engaged with the idea of the Other, and it’s no coincidence that many of the ground breaking works of fiction that interrogate concepts of gender, for example, or race, are those set in totally imagined worlds in which our cultural traditions need not apply—although the opposite also applies.
We can wholeheartedly support publishers and editors who respond to demands for diversity in the best way they know. But the idea of an anthology of diverse stories, like some other interventions in diversity, risks (unintentionally) conflating myriad identities and representations into one. Festivals and conferences feature diversity panels, and it’s common now to hear writers being described as diverse, as if that’s an identity—as if it’s something core to our very being, something hard-won and defiant and proud. It’s not.
Diversity is not fairy dust.
Flood, Alison. 2015. “Meg Rosoff sparks diversity row over books for marginalised children”. The Guardian. Viewed 1st August 2017, <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/13/meg-rosoff-diversity-row-books-marginalised-children-edith-campbell-large-fears >
Kwaymullina, Ambelin. 2016. “Privilege and literature: three myths created by misdiagnosing a lack of Indigenous voices (and other diverse voices) as a ‘diversity problem’”. AlphaReader: My Solo Book Club. Viewed 1st August 2017, 10 March, 2016 < http://alphareader.blogspot.co.nz/2016/03/privilege-and-literature-three-myths.html >
Lo, Malinda. 2013. “LGBT young adult books 2003-2013: A Decade of Slow But Steady Change”, Malinda Lo. Viewed 1st August 2017, https://www.malindalo.com/blog/2013/10/lgbt-young-adult-books-2003-13-a-decade-of-slow-but-steady-change?rq=slow%20but%20steady
Lo, Malinda. 2014. “2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers”. Diversity in YA. Viewed 1st August 2017, < http://www.diversityinya.com/2014/12/2014-lgbt-ya-by-the-numbers/ >
Lo, Malinda. 2014. “Diversity in YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults: Updated for 2014”. Diversity in YA. Viewed 1st August 2017, < http://www.diversityinya.com/2014/02/diversity-in-yalsas-best-fiction-for-young-adults-updated-for-2014/ >
Lo, Malinda. 2014. “Should white people write about people of colour?” Malinda Lo. Viewed 1st August 2017, <https://www.malindalo.com/blog/2014/04/should-white-people-write-about-people-of-color?rq=should%20white%20people%20write%20about>
Monoyiou, Elena and Symeonidou, Simoni. 2015. “The wonderful world of children’s books? Negotiating diversity through children’s literature”. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 20 (6): 588-603.
Oh, Ellen. 2016. “Dear white writers”. Ello’s World. Viewed 1st August 2017, < http://elloellenoh.tumblr.com/post/139448275729/dear-white-writers >
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