Sunday Salon – The Importance of Diversity in Fiction

The Sunday Salon.com

In April, YA author Sarah Ockler had a great post about the difficulty with finding YA books that don’t feature “white authors, white characters, white faces, white girls.” As she notes, YA authors of color are writing books, but booksellers aren’t stocking or promoting them. She asks:

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.”

Ockler isn’t the only YA author who has spoken up about diversity. Francisco X. Stork, another favorite author of mine, made some interesting comments in his interview over at The Book Smugglers:

My hope is that in reading my stories, the reader will notice and then forget that my characters are Hispanic. Even though, my young heroes will always be specifically Hispanic, I would like them to represent what is essential in all young people regardless of race and ethnicity. I would like the reader, whatever his or her background, to look into the soul of my characters and see his or her reflection.”

Reflection can be a two-edged sword. It would be great for white readers to realize they can identify with characters of color. What about the effects when readers of color encounter so many white characters? (See, for example, the post “The Elephant in the Room” by Elizabeth Bluemle, here, and numerous posts on this subject by the talented and indefatigable Zetta Elliott, such as the one here.)

By Artist Laura Freeman

Ockler includes a “primer” for white authors on addressing diversity, which begins with:

Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean…Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.”

Her whole article is worth reading, and worth contemplating.

Meanwhile, the 5th National Black Book Festival is next weekend in Houston, Texas. The Harlem Book Fair is coming up in July.

I know last year, at BEA (taking place again this year this coming week), I really, really missed diversity. How has the situation gotten to the point that there are separate book festivals? How are whites to find out about all the great writing in the black community if the major book festivals aren’t more integrated?

Note: “Diversity” does not just mean “of color” of course – kudos to those YA authors who have incorporated differently abled characters into their fiction, including (to name some but thankfully not all): Laura and Tom McNeal (The Decoding of Lana Morris), Francisco X. Stork (The Last Summer of the Death Warriors and Marcelo in the Real World) and John Green (The Fault In Our Stars).

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22 Responses

  1. I think it is wonderful that they have a book festival in honor of their color and heritage, but also there should be a celebration of ALL literature at the general ones. I just have to shake my head sometimes. When I walk out my door every morning, I walk into a melting pot. At Target, I am the minority. That is just the way life is where I live, and I’m OK with it. But why isn’t it reflected in the books I read? Not long ago I read one that took place in the South that had NOT ONE person of color in it. Not one (unless you count a couple slaves in the historical section of the book).

  2. The Ockler article really is great. I guess part of the problem is that people still think of stories that aren’t about white (and straight, able-bodied, male) characters as “special interest” and not really relevant to their lives if they don’t belong to one of those groups. Of course the ways in which these characters are different are important, but so is the fact that they’re human. And this last bit is often forgotten.

    • It’s offensive to me that so many white people claim they can’t “relate” to the culture of color, but yet will eagerly read books in which the protagonists are bears or dogs or tigers….

      • Too true! I wonder if anyone is keeping score on the number of vampires/werewolves seen on TV versus the number of black actors.

        • LOL – who can count that high, or that low? (Actually though, I think tv is a little better on that score than printed matter!) And would any of us actually care what color Joe Manganiello or Shemar Moore were? LOL

      • The essay “I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” has stuck with me over the years. It’s a complex and thoughtful piece by an Indian woman who wanted to write a fantasy novel set in India but ran into puzzling roadblocks (no taverns in India, the wrongness of knights named Sir Mohammed): http://deepad.dreamwidth.org/29371.html

        On the positive side, I loved Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. Both books have tons of real characters who are diverse in many ways, and none of it feels like an after-school special. It’s a real world inhabited by real people, interacting believably.

        Also, I enjoyed Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, where most of the characters are brown-skinned islanders (some of whom are raven shapeshifters, because if you can relate to brown people you can definitely relate to bird people). It’s her best work.

        As I think about books that include real characters of color, I’m coming up with a lot more YA titles than adult titles…

        • Very interesting essay (“I Didn’t Dream of Dragons”) – thanks for including the link!

          I agree about Bacigalupi’s books – he is quite wonderful that way, but it’s also interesting in The Drowned Cities how attuned everyone is to Chinese-appearing features (one thinks of the situation in the Holocaust in which blonde hair and blue eyes could buy you survival, but the reverse could doom you, even if you weren’t of Jewish heritage). On the other hand, and not to detract from Bacigalupi’s skill in the slightest, but I think in a post-apocalyptic world, it is easier to portray a mix of races and ethnicities because of the finite number of survivors and the more pressing need to divide them into “haves” versus “have nots.”

          • One subtle bit that added so much depth in The Drowned Cities: at one point Mahlia saw a soldierboy who was much more Chinese-appearing than she was, but he was acceptable because he was too old to be a cast-off. The Americans didn’t have any problem with homegrown Chinese bloodlines; they just hated the peacekeepers. That’s the sort of complexity that fiction needs more of.

    • While we’re on the subject, are y’all aware that most Asian people hate Amy Tan’s books? I certainly do.

  3. I enjoy international authors and multicultural books. So much to learn, especially those that are historical novels.

  4. Excellent post… and very timely, too. Thanks!

  5. I had a conversation with Eva about this recently. I think that so many people only like to read books by POC that are of “the other,” not of “the normal.” That’s why so many bookstores stock ridiculous numbers of books about Indians trying to escape arranged marriages, or Hispanics dealing with immigration issues or Asians who don’t like math and all sorts of stuff like that. It bothers me a lot. Not just because whites then don’t have access to diversity, but because people of color do not have access to their own culture and history, and grow up thinking that being white is the norm and that they are off in some way.

    That said, I don’t completely disagree with the idea of book fairs and events focused solely on people of a different race or background. If it’s so hard to get published and so hard to then get your book stocked somewhere, then I understand why you would focus on the industry professionals and consumers that are most likely to want to read your stuff by targeting them in this manner. And because, well, if BEA doesn’t have diversity represented there, then maybe these conferences are created as a revolt and message in and of themselves. People of all races go to BEA – why is it so hard for people of all races to then go to National Black Book Festival? It’s frustrating because even though it’s open to everyone, probably not many people that are not Black will go.

    • Aarti,

      Last year BEA looked very white to me, to the point of seeming weird. And because of that, your comment about the need for other book fairs is valid. And I love your point about diversity books being overwhelmingly of “the other” although I wonder about the reason for it – is it because whites will only read those kinds, or is it more like the reason many writers turn to, e.g., vampires (not turn INTO but turn to – LOL) – because they know they can get picked up by a publisher that way?

  6. These are very good points. I read the article you linked to, and I completely agree with #2 that WHEN minority race characters are in books they don’t need to teach a lesson. I appreciate it when a variety of characters are included as normal people without having like a moral lesson that is supposed to be learned from them.

  7. I remember the diversity points that came up after BEA last year and am saddened when I see comments negative comments about diversity when it does show up (recent Hunger Games drama immediately comes to mind). I also read an interesting stat the other day that white babies are now in the minority. When will we stop seeing in such black and white.

    Had no idea about the book fest in Houston! Wishing it was easier to make that 5 hour drive.

  8. The Hunger Games drama also came to mind for me. Diversity isn’t really something I’ve thought about much in books – I guess because I care a lot more about characters’ personalities, rather than their appearances.

  9. I had no idea that there were separate book festivals. I think diversity and acceptance gets better on the whole with each generation (in sometimes too small increments). It would be nice for books which are promoted to reflect that on a larger scale though. The image you showed is a powerful one.

  10. I’ve often wondered at the amount of coffee descriptions for skin colour. It does help to give you a good idea of what the character looks like, and I suppose it’s meant to make describing less stereotypical sounding, but yes, done too much. I’ve not encountered one of these white person cover-black person in story books yet but it would annoy me, especially as you’d wonder if the publishers had actually read the book.

  11. As always, you serve as a the “conscience” of the book blogging community. Thanks for this reminder.

  12. It doesn’t surprise me that there are separate book festivals just like it doesn’t surprise me that there are separate bookstores (bookstores that offer only black or Hispanic authors) or separate sections in libraries. It can be really hard for an author of color to get published or decent publicity so I do see why there are separate book things to highlight these authors. I am getting tired of it though. If I go to the library and want to check out a book by Tayari Jones or Toni Morrison, I have to go to the black section. Morrison isn’t in the classics or the general section. Yet if I want to check out a book by Sandra Cisneros or Junot Diaz, there isn’t a Hispanic/Latino section. I just go to general fiction.

    I think it’s so important for there to be diversity in fiction just like it’s important for there to be diversity in blogging too. Thanks for another great post.

  13. This is a fantastic post…Thank you! And thank you for the links to those articles.
    I’m hoping to attend the Harlem Book Fair. I think it’s good Harlem is hosting a book fair but I also think it speaks volumes that Harlem is hosting a book fair when there’s a Brooklyn Book Fair in the Fall (I think it’s Fall)

  14. Having a separate festival is a great celebration, but there really should be a presence at BEA. Hopefully there is and you can tell us all about it when you get home!

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