Monday, October 12, 2015

Let's Talk Diversity Again

So, again, an author, this time an award winning picture books and YA novelist, said something silly about diversity.  So, first, a recap here, because I am going to paraphrase what was said, but, if you follow the link, not by much.  (Also, the book that inspired said silly author's ire was Myles E. Johnston's Large Fears which sounds great. Let's all go get that.)
So, hearing about this book getting praise for, among other things, representing a queer black boy for the young reader set, this author said, well, pfft (okay, I added the pfft) marginalized young people don't need more books, all the books are for everyone.  And when folks pointed out that having mirrors, ie, characters that look like you in some way, is really meaningful to people, especially to children, this author said pfft.  (Okay, I added the pfft.) This author said books don't need to be mirrors, there are news reports for people to find mirrors, books are just there to "teach you about the world". 
And then later, when many, many people let this author know that they disagreed with this point, she said that her next book was about a black boy in love with an adult native American woman. (It is unclear to me if this was to prove that she didn't only write white people or to prove she could come up with a premise that distilled into 140 characters sounded wildly problematic. 
But, so, let's unpack what this author was saying. 
Books are for everyone.  Yes, that's true.  I...don't think anyone was disagreeing with that. I have read books about white people, black people, brown people, Asians, Africans, Americans, Europeans, and people from places and countries that don't exist (yet).  I have read about upper class, lower class, and middle class people.  I have read about slaves and slaveholders.  I have read about heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, cisgender, transgender, and genderfluid characters.  I have read about humans, rabbits, robots, elves, werewolves, and vampires.  I am some of those things.  I am not a lot of those things.  So, if the point was that good stories speak to everyone, sure.  But given the context of the statement, it's hard not to wonder if the subtext was, I shouldn't have to think about reflecting the world when I write, because that's too much pressure.  So, if I choose to leave out segments of the populations in my books, who cares, good books are for everyone. 
Now, it's maybe a tiny bit possible that the thing she meant to say was we shouldn't be like, yay, book about a queer black boy.  We should like books for being good.  (That isn't really at all what she said, but it's possible that maybe she meant that.  Deep down.) And I agree with that.  I agree that we shouldn't treat diverse books like vegetables.  You don't like books because they are diverse.  You like books because they tell a story you want or need to hear.  Now of course, if the story you needed or wanted to hear was about a queer black boy, well, the easiest way for you to find such a thing would be if people were able to point you to such a thing.  And look, the Library of Congress has been tagging books with various labels (gay, suicide, homeless, etc) for some time.  I get emails from book sellers that say since you liked that one book about teen bullying and depression, here's some more.  If you haven't been waiting on a book about a queer black boy, that's fine.  There are people who are.  Snarking on that gets a little like stalking the line for the midnight movie just to tell them the movie is probably stupid. 
And well, this idea that since you have written and are again writing about underrepresented characters, this means what?  Totally ignoring the problems of the premise, is the point that since you have written outside yourself that you couldn't possibly be racist?  Are you saying you have black character friends?  Or, are you saying that since you are writing characters of color, we're done and no one else needs to or is allowed to? 
Look, here's the deal.  It seems super ridiculously obvious, but I have not heard of one single author being told their story about middle class white people can't get published this year because we already had one of those.  If you don't want to write in a manner that reflects the diversity of the world, no one is making you.  And if you do, or are already doing it, then, I'm not sure why you would care if someone else does. 
Do I wish we lived in a world where writing a queer black boy wasn't unusual?  Hell yeah.  Just like I wish we didn't live in a world were people of certain sexualities weren't expected to announce it in some fashion. But that's not where we are yet.  Yes, as writers we should write the stories that speak to us.  But that means all of us. 
There are some wonderful other posts about this: 

Kaye M has an open letter to the author.

And Camryn Garrett offered a post about signs authors may be suffering from white privilege.

Celidhann over at Bibliodaze broke out some numbers about representation.