On Gender, Leslie Feinberg, and Liberation

Nora Olsen’s latest novel, Maxine Wore Black, is a retelling of Rebecca with a transgender lesbian main character.

By Nora Olsen

oldsen-maxineI was all fired up to write my guest blog post about gender diversity. Then on Monday (November 17) I learned that Leslie Feinberg has died. Leslie Feinberg wrote the legendary novel Stone Butch Blues as well as nonfiction about transgender topics, and was also an activist. Feinberg was only 65 years old and was taken from this world too soon. It’s a hard thing when our heroes die. Stone Butch Blues means a lot to me. I first read it in 2007 and it opened my eyes in a lot of ways. In the last two years I have given away literally hundreds of books as I try to create more space in my life and on my bookshelves, but Stone Butch Blues is one that I can never let go of. Feinberg’s death has made me feel very reflective. That’s a good thing, but not in a way that helps with a blog post. I don’t think there’s anything I can say about gender diversity that would be more helpful than, “Go read or re-read Stone Butch Blues.” But that word count is too low. So I will tell you about my favorite eatery, Village Yogurt in New York City. And it will all come back to Leslie Feinberg in the end.

I have been eating at Village Yogurt since it opened when I was six. The elderly owners, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, used to give me a cookie because I was so cute. Alas I am no longer that cute and I no longer get a cookie. Recently the place had a big makeover, and when I saw the new storefront my heart skipped a beat because I thought Village Yogurt had closed. But no. They still have the same headshots of not very famous people on the wall and the same 1970s foods on the menu. But now the place looks more contemporary and there are some new items on the menu. Mr. and Mrs. Kim retired or possibly moved into the kitchen, which is no longer visible to customers. Now surly, gum-snapping young people take the orders and mix up the shakes.

The one shake which has always been on the menu is called Special Shake. It is frozen yogurt, milk, honey, and wheat germ, which were all perceived as health foods in the 1970s. But now there are also non-dairy shakes which contain fruits, which are perceived as health foods today. My favorite has strawberry, banana, orange juice, protein, ginseng, and flax seed. It is called the He Man/Wonder Woman. In a way, I like this name because I loved both of those TV shows as a kid. I can’t tell you how many times I lifted a pencil over my head and shouted, “By the Power of Grayskull! I have the power!” and then pointed it at my cat Amber, hoping she would turn into a mighty battle cat. And even more times I wore my Wonder Woman underroos and spun around and around, just like Diana Prince does when she turns into Wonder Woman. But mostly I don’t like the name because you’re supposed to order “He Man” if you’re a man and “Wonder Woman” if you’re a woman.

Yes, really. That is what all the people do. Umm, it’s a drink. It doesn’t have a gender. And it has the same ingredients no matter who orders it. At every encounter with the He-Man/Wonder Woman I am confronted again with the knowledge that I live in a strange, mixed-up science fiction universe. Just as the characters in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series think radical cosmetic surgery is totes normal, just as the characters in Alex London’s Proxy series think it’s normal for poor people to take punishment for the rich, just as the people in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince think human sacrifice is completely regular, we have ideas about gender that are absolutely bananas. We have built incredibly complex rules that most people don’t even think about. And it’s all based on … nothing. Even if there really were only two genders, there’d be no need for all these taboos and barriers. But there aren’t.

Most of my books have been about gender in some way. In my first YA novel, The End: Five Queer Kids Save the World, one of my main characters was genderqueer, except that I had never heard the word genderqueer when I wrote the book. My second novel Swans & Klons was set in a world where there are no men. The protagonist of my most recent novel, Maxine Wore Black, is a young woman who is transgender and a lesbian. Most YA novels with transgender protagonists are focused on the character’s coming-out process and transition. You cannot say that theme has been done to death because there are only a handful of these books, unfortunately. But I decided to go down a different road, focusing instead on a troubled love interest, an untimely death, and a house haunted by tragedy. This is because Maxine Wore Black is a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca, so gothic thriller was the way to go. I wanted the fact that my main character, Jayla, is transgender to be an important part of who she is but not really a plot point.

When I write a story, I’m basically writing it for myself. Sure, there are a lot of other things to take into consideration like, who would want to publish this story? Has this story been told before? How might a young person feel when they read this story? Are the characters real or based on stereotypes or lazy thinking? But basically, the first person I’m trying to please is myself. I’ve written numerous times that I write so that QUILTBAG (LGBTQ) youth can see themselves reflected in the pages of a book and know that their experience counts. And that is true. But really? If I’m honest? It’s the part of me that is a queer teen that I am writing to.

I think this is probably true for many other writers too. So, you other writers, I have a tip for you. Write about gender. If you are writing a story set on another planet or in another world, you don’t have to make it so there are only two genders. That’s not even true right here at home on Planet Earth, so why would it be true on Xabulox–6? In addition, transgender people don’t have to be erased from fiction. They exist all over the place in real life and they can exist all over the place in the pages of your book if that’s what you want. Why am I telling you this? Is it to help your readers, the teens of today and the teens of tomorrow? No. This is about what your writing does for YOU.

Writing about gender is amazing because it makes you question everything you thought you knew about it. It changes you. And that’s a good thing! If you write a book about pirates and you are not already a pirate, it won’t make you a pirate. If you are writing about a Ghanaian math genius and you are not already a Ghanaian math genius, it won’t make you one. But if you are writing about defying the deeply ingrained gender rules and gender roles in our society, I bet money that would turn you into a gender warrior even if you are not already one. That might sound scary, but actually it is a really positive and fun development.

Leslie Feinberg said, “Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught.” When you begin to create that poem, you don’t know what you will discover about yourself. You may discover that the gender you’ve been assigned fits you like a glove, or that it does not. That knowledge will help you be the truest self you can be, which is as fulfilling as it gets. Somewhere along the way you discover that a person’s sex assigned at birth based on their anatomy does not necessarily dictate their gender. That knowledge liberates other people, and it liberates you too. If you begin to see that there are people all around you who do not fall into the gender binary and do not identify as male or female, that greater understanding of the world around you will help you make authentic connections in this life.

Leslie Feinberg also said, “More exists among human beings than can be answered by the simplistic question I’m hit with every day of my life: ‘Are you a man or a woman?’” If you can see people you encounter in social situations as person without feverishly needing to immediately classify them as man or woman, that knowledge will allow the door of your cage to swing open.

Nora Olsen was born and raised in New York City. Nora’s YA novels are Frenemy of the People, Swans & Klons, The End: Five Queer Kids Save The World, and Maxine Wore Black. Nora lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her girlfriend and their cat. You can learn more at http://noraolsen.com.

Maxine Wore Black is now available.

Ask & Answer: Books about queer girls on road trips

Over on tumblrdontrushthenoises asked:

Is there any good queer girls book with a road trip them that you know???

I really loved Tripping to Somewhere by Kristopher Reisz (Goodreads). It’s urban fantasy about two girls following something known as the witches’ carnival — it’s fantastic and weird and wonderful (and not your typical “road trip”). It’s also kind of hard to find these days; you may have to seek it out at your library or through interlibrary loan, or buy a used copy. But it’s really good.

That’s all I know of, though. Anybody else have queer girl road trip recommendations?


Several suggestions have cropped up in the notes, so here they are:

  • Kiss the Morning Star by Elissa Janine Hoole
  • Finding H.F. by Julia Watts
  • A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner
  • Crashing America by Katia Noyes
  • The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

Gay Without the Gay Angst: 10 Books About Lesbian/Bi/Queer Girls

By Malinda Lo

Following up on my post last month, “Gay Without the Gay Angst: 12 Books About Gay/Bi/Queer Boys”, here is a list of 10 books about lesbian/bisexual/queer girls without a lot of coming-out angst.

If you’re looking for a complete lack of coming-out angst, it’s better to stick to the fantasy and science fiction; the realistic titles listed below do address coming out, though with much less angst than in some older titles. Also note that these titles are not all happily-ever-after romances; characters do face challenges and relationships may be full of conflict, but the conflicts and challenges are not primarily due to homophobia.

Admittedly, I found it more difficult to find books about queer girls that don’t contain a lot of coming-out angst. This may be because fewer books about queer girls are published in general. All I know is: We need more of them.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

  • Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block — now available; also has a companion novel, The Island of Excess Love
  • Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis — now available
  • Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand — now available
  • Huntress by Malinda Lo — now available; Lo’s other books (Ash, Adaptation and Inheritance) also feature queer girls without the gay angst
  • Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld — now available

Realistic Fiction

  • Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan — now available
  • No One Needs to Know by Amanda Grace (Flux) — now available
  • Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour — now available
  • Lies My Girlfriend Told Me by Julie Anne Peters — now available; Peters has written many YA books about lesbian/bisexual girls with varying amounts of gay angst
  • Far From You by Tess Sharpe — now available

A Letter to a Young Writer

Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, author of the recently released Pig Park, has some advice for young writers.

By Claudia Guadalupe Martinez

martinez-pigparkAs a kid, I had more dreams than could fit in my head—the biggest was to be an author. My school didn’t have money for new books, let alone an author to ask for advice, and Skype hadn’t been invented yet. But here is some of what I wish someone had shared, some of what I’ve learned about writing so far:

Dear Young Author,

1. Read everything you can get your hands on. Reading teaches us what we like and don’t like, what works and doesn’t work. A great piece of writing can be mirror, window, door, roadmap or all. Reading shaped me even when it was hard to find more than a handful of protagonists that looked or sounded like me. I found other ways of identifying. Reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I imagined I was poor Huck. Likewise, I imagined myself the immigrant subject of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. That was the beauty of reading books at that age. That said, it was the writing of Sandra Cisneros that encouraged me to pursue publication, that showed me that people read stories about Chicano kids too. As readers and writers we have the power to change books as the world around us changes too.

2. Look for stories everywhere. My first book, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume, started from a short story I wrote for a class. I used it as a skeleton and attached words like chunks of flesh until my book took shape. Conversations with my family helped a great deal because the story was based on real events they took part in. Chela, my protagonist, struggles through the sixth grade. Her life doesn’t exactly happen like mine did. Nevertheless, writing allowed me to remember many things about that time in my own life. Some were painful. Some were great, like the rumble of my father’s laughter. With Pig Park, my characters started out as strangers that I slowly got to know. The idea came to me while reading an old article about the plump delicious bread at my favorite bakery. I grabbed ideas from all around me.

3. Work out problems through writing. During middle school, I hated everyone and everything. My dad had just passed away, and I lashed out. But, experimenting with poetry finally allowed me to express myself in a way that didn’t get me in trouble. It wasn’t just a matter of venting or professing emotion. Writing became a problem-solving tool. The thing about written words is that they have a permanence that requires careful consideration. They allow us to get down the facts and sort out events so we don’t get carried away in the moment. Simply put, writing slowed down the thinking process, helping me to see more clearly before I opened my mouth.

4. Don’t worry too much about what others think. It’s understandable that you should feel some apprehension about sharing your work. However, don’t let that dictate what you write. One day, I poured my soul onto a piece of paper and turned it into my ninth grade English teacher. She took me aside after class and asked if I’d copied it. I ground my teeth and blinked back tears that she thought so little of me. “She must’ve thought the poem was that good,” my sister said. This is a humble brag, of course. But if you’re serious about writing, you have to learn to take the criticism. When I have a new piece, I share it in a safe place like my writing group. Once your work is published, you don’t have this luxury. Editors, publishers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, and all sorts of other people have something to say — good and bad. Of course, these are individual opinions. You can grow from them, or decide they offer you nothing and move on. A friend used to say, “I don’t believe there is such a thing as an ugly girl, just girls who aren’t of my taste.” Writing is exactly the same. Writing that one person hates, can find another person to love it.

5. Don’t just talk about writing, write. If you have a story in you, sit down and go at it. Write and don’t stop until you’ve told it. Writing is hard work in many ways. Baring our souls isn’t always easy, but I suppose it’s the nature of the creative process. Developing your ideas will require effort and commitment. When I found out my first book would be published, my editor called me on the phone and said, “You know it won’t be glamorous. You still have a lot of work do.” And, that’s the truth.


claudiamartinezClaudia Guadalupe Martinez is the author of The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (Cinco Puntos, 2008) and Pig Park (Cinco Puntos, 2014). She grew up in sunny El Paso, Texas where she learned that letters form words from reading the subtitles of old westerns with my father.  At age six, she already knew she wanted to create stories. She now lives and writes in Chicago. For more updates follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.

Pig Park is now available. 

We Don’t Need Another Straight, White, Able-bodied Hero

When Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith initially sent their postapocalyptic YA western, Stranger, out on submission, agents asked them to de-gay the book. They refused but persevered, and Stranger has just been published by Viking Juvenile. This is the story of that book’s inspiration.

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith


Rachel Manija Brown: A number of years ago, I was working at the Jim Henson Company (The Muppets; Labyrinth), optioning books to be made into movies and TV shows. But what I really wanted was to create my own stories.

I’ve always loved the images and story elements of Westerns — the stranger who comes to town and shakes things up, the desperate chase through the desert, the man with no name, the tough sheriff, the saloon where everyone in town comes to gossip. But I wanted one where the characters were more like me, and more like the people who live in the west now.

The real California of the Gold Rush was much more diverse than it’s usually portrayed: Jews were there, and free black people, and Chinese people; Indians from various tribes, and people from Mexico, Chile, and Peru. Not to mention a whole lot of incredibly tough women. It was by no means a multicultural paradise. But it also wasn’t a place where everyone was white and women existed only as saloon girls, loyal wives, and prizes to be won by the male hero.

Then I imagined a future west: a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where technology had reverted back to Gold Rush levels, but which was still as diverse as the real city I lived in. An image came to my mind, of a teenage boy desperately fleeing through the desert, without food or water but carrying something precious in his battered pack. A bounty hunter was relentlessly tracking him, and the desert was full of mutated bloodsucking plants. Could he reach the refuge of a small frontier town before he succumbed to thirst, or deadly wildlife, or a bullet?

I could see that boy in my mind’s eye. He didn’t look like the typical tall, light-skinned, blue-eyed hero of a western. He looked like the young men I saw every day in Los Angeles, the young men who had really lived in the California of the Old West. His skin was brown and his hair was black; he wasn’t tall or burly, but he was stronger than he looked. I wondered what it was that he had in his pack, that he was so desperate to protect…

Years later, I met Sherwood to collaborate on a TV show, and I told her about that idea. By then the young man had a name: Ross Juarez.

Sherwood Smith: I loved it! We talked back and forth, scribbling down our favorite ideas: mysterious ruins and super powers, and taking familiar tropes and turning them inside out. The brainy mechanic sidekick, who’s always a guy, would be a girl who has trouble getting outside of her own head. And she wouldn’t be a sidekick, but the heroine. The tough sheriff would be a woman — a super-strong woman, with half her face beautiful and half a skull! The town was guarded not only by adult men, but by all the townspeople — including teenagers. Some with powers, some not! And if a love triangle developed, we’d take it in a completely new direction.

In listing all our favorite tropes (super-powers! Bad-ass teens! Weird flora and fauna! Interesting food from many cultures!), we discovered that we were also on the same wavelength concerning diversity.

Rachel: I’d volunteered with the Virginia Avenue Project for years. It’s a program to mentor low-income kids and teenagers through the arts. I used to take the kids to a bookstore and let them buy anything they wanted to read. One day an African American girl mentioned that every time she picked up a book with a cover that showed a girl like her, she’d find that it was about gangs, drugs, or teen pregnancy.

“I don’t relate to that!” she said. She wanted to read about black girls who were like her: who read books, who had many interests and a loving family, and who had absolutely nothing to do with gangs or drugs. And she wanted them to have the sorts of adventures that you can only have between the pages of a book.

Sherwood: When I was in high school, I had a friend of color who admitted that much as she loved fairy tales, she wished that just once the heroine wouldn’t be pale, with golden hair, and eyes like sapphires. What would be so wrong about a heroine with brown skin, eyes, and hair?

Because both of us have people in our lives — friends, brothers, sisters, aunts, great-uncles, and so forth — who happen to be gay or disabled, we wanted not only to reflect the patterns of ordinary life in our story, but to write one in which people who seldom get to see characters like themselves as heroes get to do just that. And, of course, in many ways we ourselves don’t fit into the standard heroic mold.

It seemed natural to map our future Los Angeles over the actual demographics of LA. White people are already a minority; 50% of the city is Hispanic/Latino. Today many people face prejudice based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. After an apocalypse, we thought that many old prejudices would die out, once the power structure that sustained them was gone.  But humans being humans, new ones have replaced them, specifically a bias against the mutated “Changed” folk.

We began the story as a screenplay, but the worldbuilding and the story became so involved that we turned it into a book.  Because we wanted the story to be about a community, we wrote it as an ensemble piece. The points of view rotate between five main characters. Selling this book, however, was difficult —

and for unexpected reasons: “Authors Say Agents Try to ‘Straighten’ Gay Characters in YA” (Genreville at Publishers Weekly)

There are two important takeaways. First, it wasn’t just one agent who wanted us to make one of our protagonists straight. That agent was just more upfront about it — and made it very clear that it wasn’t because they were personally anti-gay, but because they believed that no one would buy a book with a gay hero.

The second important takeaway is that when we discussed this in private with some other writers, we got an outpouring of letters from other writers who’d had similar experiences, with agents or editors or simply family members who earnestly warned them that received wisdom stated you can’t sell a book with a gay hero, or a Hispanic hero, or a disabled hero.

Our article prompted fantasy writer Malinda Lo to analyze all YA novels published in the US. She found that fewer than 1% of all YA novels have any LGBTQ characters at all, even minor supporting characters. A slightly larger number have heroes (as opposed to sidekicks and supporting characters) who are anything other than white, straight, and able-bodied.

We are not the only writers would like to see more types of heroes, in more types of stories. If you’re interested in reading more YA fantasy and science fiction with diverse heroes of various sorts, try books by Malorie Blackman, Joseph Bruchac, Sarwat Chadda, Sarah Diemer, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Cynthia Leitich Smith, David Levithan, Malinda Lo, Marie Lu, Patrick Ness, Ellen Oh, Nnedi Okorafor, Tamora Pierce, Cindy Pon, Rick Riordan, Sherri Smith, or Laurence Yep.  And they’re not the only ones writing diverse characters. There are more extensive book lists here.

Our belief is that if these books exist and readers can find them, they will buy them. And that will send a signal to publishers that anyone can be a hero.


Rachel Manija Brown is the author of all sorts of stories in all sorts of genres. She has also written comic books, short stories, poetry, television scripts, plays, video games, and a memoir. She writes the “Werewolf Marines” urban fantasy series for adults under the name of Lia Silver, and lesbian romance (also for adults) under the name of Rebecca Tregaron. In her other identity, she is a trauma/PTSD therapist.

Sherwood Smith (http://ift.tt/1kXCqRM) is a retired teacher, and the author of many fantasy novels for teenagers and adults, including Crown Duel and the Mythopoeic Award Finalist The Spy Princess. She lives in Southern California.

You can purchase a copy of Stranger here.

Finding Yourself in Fiction

The hero of A. R. Kahler’s new YA fantasy novel, Martyr, is gay, but that’s beside the point.

By Alex R. Kahler

kahler-martyrI still remember the first time I read a book with a gay character.

I was thirteen, reading “The Last Rune” series, and near the end of a book it’s pointed out that one of the side characters—a male knight—is in love with the male protagonist. The woman who says this asks the protagonist, point blank, could you love him like that? and the protagonist responds, I think so.

I was struck by that entire situation. I looked up and around and made sure that no one else was watching (which was silly because I was alone in my room) because obviously, if my parents walked in, they’d know what I’d just read. They’d assume something not even I had had time to consider.

We’ve all had that moment, when we stumble upon a character or situation that intrigues us—not because it’s strange, but because it resonates in a way we aren’t used to. We relate. Even if we don’t quite grasp why.

A few years ago, when I was writing Martyr, there weren’t many books with LGBTQ protagonists. There were even fewer such stories where sexuality wasn’t the main topic. In most of the fiction I’d read, LGBTQ characters were relegated to tropes or stereotypes. We were the martyrs—sexually confused/deviant, struggling with our identity, sick (physically or mentally), or militant. And there was a good chance we’d be killed off by the end of the book.

I was tired of it.

I’d struggled with my sexuality as a teenager. I grew up in small-town Iowa, which probably sums everything up. I rarely had positive gay role models I could relate to, in fiction or real life. I’d been bullied and harassed, considered suicide and praying really hard to be straight. Which is why I don’t condemn writing characters who struggle with that—I’ve been there. Most of us have. I just wanted to show what happened after. I wanted to prove our story could be more.

Author A.R. Kahler

Author A.R. Kahler

It took years, but I finally came to peace with who I was. More importantly, I realized I was more than a label. I was gay, sure, but I was also an artist and a world traveler and a wicked good vegetarian chef. I had stories that didn’t circle around who I chose to sleep with, and I wanted to write a book that exposed that truth: every single one of us is composed of hundreds of stories, and they deserve to be heard. No one is simply a cliché, no one is struggling with only one thing. We are diverse and complex, and we have more to say than what greater society thinks we do.

Which is why I wrote Martyr. I wanted to treat a gay protagonist in the same way I’d treat a straight protagonist—in other words, make sexuality a non-issue. Martyr centers around Tenn, a teenage remnant from the apocalypse cursed with the duty to keep mankind in the fight. He faces off against hordes of monsters and terrible magic. He has a boyfriend that means the world to him. Love is important. Orientation is not.

It’s my hope—and I think it’s the hope of every author—that readers will open Martyr‘s pages and feel that same sort of resonance. I want LGBTQ youth to see that they are so much more than a label. Due to some fantastic social media campaigns and reader outcry, there’s been a burst of new fiction for teens and adults that are filling this need. Mainstream society is realizing that “minority” characters can no longer be distilled to tropes and stereotypes. And that’s exciting.

You are the hero, and you can fight off any monster you wish.

Alex R. Kahler was born in rural Iowa, but he didn’t stay there long. He’s lived and studied across the globe, and even managed to spend some time working for various circus groups. He’s the author of the Immortal Circus trilogy and Martyr, the first book in a new YA fantasy series. He currently lives in Seattle. Emphasis on ‘currently,’ as the horizon is always beckoning…. You can follow his adventures at www.arkahler.com or @ARKahler.
Martyr is now available.

Making My Self Visible

That one time I read a book and it changed my life and the author spoke Spanglish and made me want to do the same thing.

By Isabel Quintero 

quintero-gabiI’ve always had body issues. When I was in fourth grade, it was pointed out to me that I was getting as bad as a pregnant woman. When I wanted to dance ballet folklorico, I felt too fat to be able to keep up with the rest of the girls and instead stayed home and dreamt of colorful dresses, bright red lipstick, and beautiful braids. Throughout high school, I was scared to speak with boys, especially once I realized there was a possibility that they would like me, because I really (and I mean really) thought that it was all some big joke they were playing on me and in the end I would end up getting hurt.

And so, whenever a boy got too close my defenses would go up; I’d tease him, make fun of him, or even run and hide in the bathroom red faced and on the verge of tears (yes, that actually happened). That scene in Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, where Gabi almost gets kissed by Eric, well something like it really happened, except I didn’t have the ovaries Gabi did and never kissed the boy. It wasn’t until I got to college that I began to feel like I owned my body. Like it really belonged to me. Like it didn’t matter that I was fat or that I was a white ass Mexican. Heck, I even accepted that I had small boobs and stopped wearing a bra — that’s how liberated I felt, that first quarter at Cal State San Bernardino.

I really don’t know what changed. It may have been that I began writing more. Or that I made friends that were the same level of different that I felt. Or that I was taking women’s studies classes, and Chican@ studies classes, and that I began seeing myself as belonging somewhere. I think that was it — seeing myself in the readings that constructed the world I wanted to be a part of: literature and academia.

I mean, think about it: before I entered college, all I read (all that built that academic world that I loved so much) were stories written by dead white guys and a few women. I was completely absent. There were no overweight white-skinned Latinas in my textbooks. Heck, there were no skinny dark-skinned Latinas or Latinos to be found in any of my textbooks. But during my first year of college all that changed.

I was in a Chicano lit class and we were assigned Michele Serros’s Chicana Falsa. (If you have never read this book, you need to take a break from reading this blog post, open a new window and order it. Then, please finish reading.) As an English person (that is the technical term for someone who teaches English) and as a writer and lover of words, we often construct a timeline of our life in terms of books read. Chicana Falsa: And Other Stories of Death, Identity, and Oxnard marks the moment on my timeline when I discovered that I had a voice, and that that voice was bilingual and it was just as valid as any other voice. It was truly an awakening. Bilingual people wrote stories, poems, and books that were taught in colleges? And even used SPANGLISH?! WTF? And then I read Sandra Cisneros, Cherie Moraga, Pat Mora, and eventually Gloria Anzaldua, and it was like, Holy shit, why wasn’t I taught these texts in high school? And the frightening answer to that question is exactly why I write.

I write because I can, and throughout my early education by simply omitting the writing of people like me, I was taught that Mexicans/Chican@s/Latin@s or people of color in general didn’t write anything worthy of teaching or discussing. We were absent because we weren’t taught that we have a voice. And this is what happens when there is a lack of diversity in literature for young people — they are denied the right to see themselves as significant members of the world in which they reside in.

Was it on purpose, the omission of people of color in literature for young people? Maybe. How else are people oppressed and kept in line if not by making them invisible even to themselves? When I became aware of this I knew I wanted to help change that narrative. I wanted to do for others what Michele Serros had done for me — make my self visible to myself.

I know, now, after talking with so many others and working in education for the last 15 years of my life, that I am not the only person who grew up feeling that she was too fat and her body wasn’t her own, or was made to feel different, and that she didn’t belong because of her culture, or the only one who grew up around addiction. I wrote this book because if we don’t see ourselves — fat, thin, white/dark skinned, bilingual, bicultural, LGBTQ, disabled — in the words we read, in the worlds that are created in those pages, how do we know we exist and matter? How do we know we have a voice, if the only literature we are taught that is important is written by dead white men and women who only speak English? Or by living white men and women who only speak English? How do we become visible and real to ourselves?

Ultimately, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is a story of a young girl trying to figure out who the Hell she is and is going to become, and how writing, her body, culture, and identity (whatever that is) fit into that world; you know, like every other American girl.


Isabel Quintero is a writer and adjunct faculty instructor who resides in Southern California’s Inland Empire with her husband. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who made that journey for a better life many, many years ago. She got her love of words from her mother and her love of chorizo asado from her father. She has one brother with whom she likes to exchange cute and funny animal pictures. In addition to writing fiction, Isabel also writes poetry, and is on the board for a non-profit literary arts organization, PoetrIE. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces from Cinco Puntos Press, is her first novel. She is very excited about that.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is now available.

10 Recent Diverse Contemporary Reads

Here’s a list of 10 diverse contemporary YA books released in the last six months. Now is a great time to check them out!

Walking the Walk

Tricia Sullivan, author of Shadowboxer, on the complexities and challenges of writing about a culture that is not her own.

By Tricia Sullivan

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a harrowing novel set before and during the Biafran war in 1960s Nigeria. It has a character called Richard, an Englishman who goes to Nigeria to learn about its art and ends up involved in the struggle and suffering of the Igbo people. Richard is a nice guy, but he can’t make himself into an African no matter how he tries. He tries to understand the postcolonial horror that Nigeria is going through. At any time he could get on a plane and go, but he stays. He loves an Igbo woman, learns the language, and tries earnestly to be an advocate for the Igbo people. And in all sympathy and earnestness, he begins to write about the war, draft after misguided draft. Richard’s book is a white man’s version of an Igbo story, but Richard can’t see how his Igbo friends feel about this. They have a range of opinions from mildly amused tolerance to real anger. At one point Richard’s lover burns the book.

In the end, broken by the horror he has witnessed, Richard comes to understand that the war is not his story to tell. The person who ends up writing a book about Biafra is a young man who has lived through the war first as a houseboy, then a schoolteacher, and finally a conscript.

The implication here is clear: marginalized people need opportunities to tell their own stories. Mainstream writers need to stop crowding the airwaves. We need to make room for the voices from within the cultures themselves. Because invariably we appropriate, even when we don’t mean to.

In the last few years I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been trying to work out how to write about the small world we live in where cultures frequently collide and where understanding of strangers can be hard to come by. I have done a lot of soul-searching.


sullivan-shadowboxerMy novel Shadowboxer features a Dominican-American teenager who goes to Thailand to train in Muay Thai fighting. I was able to research this and get feedback from a Latina-American reader, two Thai readers (who didn’t agree with one another on all points) and from people from the West who, like Jade, had trained in Thailand. The novel also includes Mya, a young Burmese refugee, as one of the protagonists. I could not find a Burmese reader. It has been asked of me — and I have asked of myself — what right have I got to take the point of view of a Burmese refugee child and tell a story that I have made up? I, whose understanding of reality comes from growing up in the US suburbs watching Bowling For Dollars on TV?

It’s a problem. I see this. Yet I wrote the character Mya. I used some of Thailand’s mythos knowing these things are problematic. I don’t feel one tiny bit easy or certain about the approach I’ve taken. I can’t justify the decision by ideology. For those who hold themselves to the highest standards of correctness, my decision to publish is an obvious fail.

But. If as a group we demand perfection, then we are into the business of choosing “correct” books and “incorrect” books. That’s a bit of a slippery slope. Who gets to decide? How do we divide the world? Whose opinion is privileged? Who represents a culture? Who gives permission? Messy things are messy. They can’t be made simple and easy just because we wish they could.

Writing is how I try to understand the world. Trying to imagine myself in someone else’s mind is what I do. I turn on my imagination, I go down into that murky subconscious place where somehow we all have some common human ground, and I try to bring up whatever I can find. Sometimes I come up with treasure and sometimes I come up with crap, and the judgement as to which is which is largely down to readers who bring their own thinking to the enterprise. So depending on who you are you may love my work, you may want to kill it with fire, you may go “meh” — and all responses are valid. But for me as a writer, the bottom line is this: if I can’t engage in that process of trying to empathize, then I can’t write. It’s simple.

Writers don’t always choose their stories. Sometimes a story chooses a writer. If a story leads me into terra incognita, I do the best I can and I rely on the judgment of other professionals and trusted readers to let me know if I’ve gone off-course. If they tell me there are problems with what I’ve written, I listen and I do whatever I can to ameliorate the problems. Ultimately, though, my work is my own and I’ve got to make the final decisions about what I sign my name to. This process doesn’t feel safe or easy to me, and I have come to recognize that one of the risks I take is the risk of having to be the bad guy, the offender, the jerk, the one who harms. Some people enjoy being the bad guy; I don’t. I mean, I really, really don’t. But if that ends up being my part, I accept it.

When it comes to diversity issues, it’s much easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk. The latter is difficult and uncertain, and there is no ultimate authority to tell you whether you are doing it well or badly. For myself I walk the walk by putting my best efforts on the page, including the imperfections. I walk the walk of someone who opens herself and lets the world have at what she’s written. There isn’t any other walk I need to be walking.

Some people believe that the problem of cultural appropriation is best handled by white writers stepping back and getting out of the way. This comes from the idea that marginalized writers — specifically writers from outside the white Anglo world — would get more notice if their efforts weren’t being drowned out by the culturally amplified voices of people like me. I’m wary of this rationale. I agree that writers from outside the West are badly marginalized, but I think the way to fix that is to actively seek out and nurture and promote and read and talk about those marginalized writers. Bringing more of the world into literature will reinvigorate the reading landscape, and it will increase understanding between cultures.

Toward this, I recommend checking out this list of writers or picking up a copy of an anthology like AfroSF or Long Hidden or We See A Different Frontier.

There’s also this: sometimes even a flawed book can offer a way in. For many readers, Shadowboxer may be the first they’ve heard of Muay Thai or Thailand. It may be the first they’ve heard of Burma. My book may be an opening into finding out more. I think it’s preferable to offer readers a culturally imperfect book like Shadowboxer than no books involving Burma or Thailand at all — and right now, Anglophone culture is still very short of writers from those cultures. I would love to be able to point people to novelists from Burma and Thailand whose work they should read. At the moment I can’t do that, but I hope it won’t be too much longer before I can.

triciasullivanTricia Sullivan is an Arthur C. Clarke Award winning author of science fiction novels for adults. Shadowboxer is her first YA. She lives in Shropshire, UK with her partner, MMA trainer Steve Morris, and their three children. She has a six foot Muay Thai bag in her shed. On a bad day she can hit it pretty hard.

Shadowboxer is now available.


Beyond the Headlines

In Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, a racially charged shooting throws a community into an uproar.

By Kekla Magoon

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. When I think these names, a flurry of images comes to mind. I think about violence, racism, innocence, prejudice. I think about guns and communities and appearances and judgment. I feel a deep sense of sorrow and a deeper sense of despair.

In the spring of 2012, I found myself engrossed in the media cycles reporting on the controversial shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The coverage lasted months, it seemed, and while this type of painful, tragic incident was not new to our country, the level of attention paid to this particular case seemed to be. It was simultaneously riveting, and difficult to witness, night after night on television, and all day long on social media.

Watching all this coverage, I had one prevailing question that returned to me over and over: where are the youth voices in the conversation? How are young people responding and reflecting upon these incidents? Why do we turn primarily to talk show hosts, political analysts, and African American studies scholars to contextualize them? Why not bring forward other young people like Trayvon and talk about the experience of walking down the street day after day, feeling afraid of what could happen?

I was interested in looking behind the headlines, at how members of a community respond when such a tragedy occurs in their midst. When I sat down to write How It Went Down, I did so in the spirit of wondering what happens off-camera. How does it feel when the boy whose face appears on CNN every night used to sit across from you in chem lab? What if he was your best friend, your brother, or the boy who bullied you? How It Went Down compiles the voices of eighteen different individuals in the fictional community of Underhill, after a controversial shooting occurs there.

When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, communities around the country rose up in peaceful protest, calling for “Justice for Trayvon.” When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, we saw a different kind of response: angry and frustrated young people rioting in the streets, demanding that attention finally be paid to an issue that has troubled their lives for far too long. I’ve heard it said that rioting—or violence in general—is the last recourse of the desperate, the unheard. Young people have plenty to say about racism in America, and we need to start listening closer.

I recently visited a high school classroom to talk about How It Went Down. Their teacher asked me to address the issue of social media, and how it seems at times like teens today are not engaged in the real world, but only active online and in their own insular world. Why aren’t our youth more engaged in real-world organizing? Yes, we have an undercurrent of youth activism in this country—we always have—but why don’t we see that reflected in the national media? One student in the class commented specifically on the role of social media in teens’ lives. She said, “A lot of times it feels like no one is listening. But when you update your status or post a picture you know people will see it. You know you will be heard.”

It is my hope that the fictional teens in How It Went Down can help inspire us to start listening more closely to the voices of real teens. Everyone has a perspective on Trayvon, and Ferguson. What’s yours?

Kekla Magoon is the author of five young adult novels: How It Went Down, Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River, for which she has received an ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and three NAACP Image Award nominations. She also writes non-fiction on historical topics. Kekla teaches writing, conducts school and library visits nationwide, and serves on the Writers Council for the National Writing Project. She holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her online at www.keklamagoon.com.

You can purchase a copy of How It Went Down here.