YA Guy originally planned this post for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but then I decided to celebrate the holiday with my family instead of blogging. So….
The movement for diversity in YA literature is going strong, with readers, authors, and publishers searching for stories that feature characters representing various racial and ethnic groups, sexual identities, physical and mental abilities, and more. That’s great, and YA Guy hopes the movement continues to grow.
Lots of questions remain contested, however. Can writers from one racial/ethnic/other group write about (or from the perspective of) characters from another group? Should books that play into stereotypes (about Muslims, for example) be published—and when they are, should they be protested? What about when reviewers, as in the recent scandal involving VOYA magazine, reinforce stereotypes about non-dominant groups? Must all YA books strive for diversity?
I was thinking about this when I read a Kirkus review of S. L. Duncan’s latest book in the Gabriel Adam series, a YA fantasy trilogy about teens who discover they’re reincarnated angels, just in time to save the world from demonic forces. The reviewer, clearly missing the fact that one of the teen archangels is Iranian and another African, sniped that the cast consists solely of characters who are “apparently white.” I found a similar misconception in a Kirkus review of my most recent novel, Scavenger of Souls; writing of the biracial character Mercy, the reviewer opined that Mercy is “notable for her dark skin in an otherwise predominantly white cast.” Clearly, this reviewer missed the fact that Mercy’s mother is African, and her brother and sister biracial; that the character Wali is described as bronze-skinned and curly-haired; that the character Soon has an Asian name; that the character Nekane has a Hispanic name; and so on. I was striving for a multiracial, multiethnic cast in this novel, my reasoning being that, after the wars that decimated much of the human population, the few who survived would likely represent a spectrum of races, ethnicities, and nationalities. I had hoped that readers would pick up on this, but this reviewer, at least, did not.
The issue here, clearly, goes beyond careless reviewing (which, to be fair, is a function of how many YA books industry reviewers have to keep up with). Readers schooled in dominant traditions and aesthetics often assume that all characters are white, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc. unless these characters are overtly “marked” otherwise. But if a character's "difference" isn't essential to the story, should such characters be so marked? If the writer doesn’t call attention to the skin color of white characters, should the writer invariably do so in the case of nonwhite characters? I wrestled with this question in the case of Scavenger of Souls, and eventually I decided that in Mercy’s case, I needed to “flag” her racial ancestry so that readers wouldn’t miss the fact that she and my protagonist, the blond-haired and blue-eyed Querry Genn, form an interracial team. In other instances, though, I left it to readers to draw their own conclusions. In my forthcoming novel Freefall, a science fiction story with a multinational cast including a central relationship between a white teen from the industrial West and an Asian teen from the developing world, I’m reasonably confident that no one will mistake the characters’ racial or cultural backgrounds. But readers were confounded—and in some cases outraged—to discover that Rue from The Hunger Games is black, so you never know.
I personally believe that writers have a responsibility to present the world in its actual diversity. But I also believe there’s an equal responsibility on the side of readers, who have to be willing to read against preconceptions and discover the diversity in the author’s invented world. Working together, authors and readers can help move us toward an acceptance of difference. I get the feeling we’re going to need this more and more in the coming years.