A Year of Thinking About Diversity

When Cindy Pon and I first talked about launching Diversity in YA, I was motivated by a desire to bring attention to books about non-white and/or non-straight characters in a positive way. I did not want to box these books in as problem novels, as many of them have been positioned over the years (recognizing that the term “problem novel” itself is problematic). I also didn’t want Diversity in YA to have a sense of liberal guilt, or an attitude of “you should read these because they’re broadening to the mind.”

I wanted to make “diversity” on this site mean something that was just plain awesome. I wanted to position these books as stories you’d want to dive into because they were about a great character, or had a fascinating premise, or were written beautifully. I wanted the books to be celebrated on their own merits. A year later, my concept of diversity in middle grade and young adult books has been challenged and reshaped in many ways.

Cindy and I knew that this yearlong project could be a daunting one, so we did our best to manage both the tour and the website in ways that would enable us to fulfill our obligations elsewhere as well as here. I volunteered to manage the website because I have experience in that (before I was a YA writer, I was the managing editor of AfterEllen). But because Diversity in YA was a volunteer gig that I fitted in around my other deadlines, I could never do as much with this website as I wished I could.

The concept of diversity is complex, messy, and charged. It means different things to different people. Every week on this site, I attempted to wrangle it into a blog post, whether it was a guest post that I invited another author to write, or in the lists of new books I posted every month. Some things became clear quickly.

My goal of celebrating books solely on their own merits clashes pretty directly with the goal of celebrating them for their diversity. This is fairly obvious, right? Creating a site that focuses on “diversity” in middle grade and young adult books means that the books that we feature are called out because they check the boxes of what Cindy and I identified as “diverse” for the terms of our site (featuring a main character or major secondary character of color, or who is LGBT; or written by a person of color or LGBT author).

We were forced to define what we meant by “diversity” so that we’d have some parameters to work with when choosing books to feature on the site. This was a practical matter that was, nonetheless, weighted with lots of meaning. We chose to focus on race and sexual orientation/gender identity because those were the areas we felt most knowledgable about. Many readers and visitors to the site have noted that these parameters don’t include disabilities, but they also don’t include countless other characteristics that could be included under the umbrella of “diverse.”

I found this to be somewhat amusing when, later in the year, I was asked to participate in a “diversity” in YA panel that involved a bunch of authors of books about white characters. The “diversity” in this case meant “variety” — as in, there is a variety of young adult fiction being published these days.

So, diversity. A slippery and imperfect word, but one that we must work with nonetheless.

I think that slippery, imperfect feeling has followed many writers who have written about non-white and/or non-straight characters — especially if the writer herself is not a person of color or LGBT. This theme came up over and over again in the guest posts that I invited. Many white writers wrote about overcoming their fear of getting it wrong when writing books about characters whose lives are different than their own.

I really appreciate writers who write outside their racial experience or sexual orientation. For one thing, there are many more white writers being published these days than writers of color, and if white writers can contribute to increasing the representation of people of color in the book market, I’m all for it. Second, I believe part of a writer’s job is to write about people who are different from her. I think it’s important that we do that. That we seek to tell stories that challenge us as writers on many levels — whether in characters or in plot or in style. Otherwise, we don’t grow as writers; we become mired in stories we’ve retold so many times they wear a groove in the stairs of our imaginations. I think that in order to truly fly, writers must do things that can cause us to crash and burn.

But I understand why writers are hesitant to write about characters who don’t share their race or sexual orientation. Cultural appropriation is real, and many of the guest posts about white/straight writers doing their research and attempting to get to the heart of their characters are, I think, sincere efforts to avoid cultural appropriation. I applaud that awareness, because I’ve read books that have been insanely popular, but have turned me off completely because they felt so much like cultural appropriation. (That’s not to say that what I felt was cultural appropriation definitively was. Just like “diversity,” I think “cultural appropriation” can be in the eye of the beholder.)

I also really appreciate writers who write from a place of personal experience. There’s something very satisfying to me about reading a wonderful book featuring diverse characters that is written by an author who shares her characters’ background. They are representing in a way that, frankly, a white or straight author cannot. I want more books like that. I certainly don’t believe that an author should be required to represent their own background in their books, but when they do, I really value it. There aren’t enough of those (our) voices out in the world. There just aren’t.

So, writing from personal experience is important. Writing about people who are different from you is important. These two beliefs sound like they’re contradictory, but they’re not; they’re complementary. Diversity is complex. It’s slippery. I think there’s room for more than one way to negotiate it — something that is both wonderfully flexible and frustratingly difficult.

The slipperiness of it troubled me particularly when I put together lists of new books each month. I formed those lists by reading publishers’ catalogs and attempting to figure out — from covers, jacket copy, and sometimes from reviews — whether a book was “diverse.”

This was sometimes like taking a Rorschach test. Jacket copy is not always clear, and coded phrases that may or may not indicate queerness or race are sometimes the only hint you get that a book includes diverse characters. Sometimes it frustrated me to no end that jacket copy didn’t just come out and say whether the main character was black or Latino or Asian American. It felt as if publishers were being coy, or as if they were attempting to mask the protagonist’s racial identity so that it wouldn’t turn off readers who avoid books about people of color (which, yes, I believe sometimes happens).

But I also realized that sometimes, a character’s racial identity really doesn’t matter to the story, and it makes sense for that identity to be omitted in the jacket copy. At the same time, it’s those books especially where I want to know the character’s racial identity. Personally, those are the kinds of books I want to read: stories in which people of color are the main characters, but the story is not about their race.

This brings me back, full circle, to my original goal for Diversity in YA: To celebrate great books that also happen to be about characters of color or LGBT characters. To steer the conversation away from one that edges toward the negative connotations of quotas, to one that edges toward the positive connotations of inclusiveness. Away from the narrowness of “authenticity,” toward the infinite possibilities of personal experience.

Whether or not I succeeded in that endeavor, I can say that after a year of working on Diversity in YA, my own awareness of diversity has shifted immensely. I think about books differently. I think about writing differently. I actively notice whether a book is about a person of color or not. I’ve seen where my own fears and assumptions have limited me, both in my writing and in my everyday engagement with race and sexual orientation/gender identity.

Coming into this project, the beliefs I had about diversity were largely shaped by my experiences as an immigrant American who is marked as Asian, and who goes through the world as an out lesbian. I grew up deeply enmeshed in the mythology of the American dream, and to some extent, I still believe in it. I know there are many problems with it. But as a dream, the idea that you can create your own success story is a powerful and inspiring one.

I think that some of that dream is in the work I’ve done this year at Diversity in YA. The dream that you can create your own reality. The dream that you can make a difference, that your voice counts. The world is often very cynical, and I’m sure many people would dismiss my beliefs as naive. But this is what I think: the world changes one person at a time. I don’t believe that one year of Diversity in YA has created a publishing industry or reading public that will rush out to buy novels about people of color or queer folks. But I believe that a few more people might give them a second look now. I believe that Diversity in YA has contributed positively to the broader conversation that has been active for years at fine blogs like the Brown Bookshelf and American Indians in Children’s Literature and Reading in Color and more. I’m very proud of that.

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/121911malindalo.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Malinda Lo‘s first novel, Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the Lambda Literary Award. Her second novel, Huntress, a companion novel to Ash, was published in April 2011 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Her two-book young adult science fiction series, beginning with Adaptation, will be published in fall 2012. Visit her website at www.malindalo.com.[/author_info] [/author]

5 thoughts on “A Year of Thinking About Diversity

  1. As a kidlit enthusiast and someone who’s parenting a child of another race, I’m so grateful for all you’ve done to further the cause of diversity, in all its forms. Thank you for your insight, contributions and especially for those new book lists (which always cause my TBR list to grow exponentially!).

  2. I don’t know that I’ve ever actually commented on this blog, but I’ve regularly read it, and today’s post inspired me to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed it. Especially this post, summarizing all the tricky aspects of diversity, how it’s defined, how writer’s should approach it. Very thought provoking. As always. Thanks.

  3. I am another one who has never commented on this blog before (despite having followed it from the beginning) and I really want to let you both know how valuable a resource it has become for me.

    I am the Teen Librarian for a large public library system in a very diverse and multicultural city. Our teen community encompasses every single definition of diversity you can list and it is definitely a challenge finding books that will appeal to each and every teen. This blog has helped keep me up-to-date on interesting and important books, and has also given me lots of material to discuss during school visits and library tours.

    This blog has become my go-to resource when I have to put together booktalks and booklists because I always know that I’ll find something that will resonate with my teens :)

  4. thanks so much for being the
    rad webmistress of DiYA m lo!
    and so nice to hear comments from
    first time posters who have followed
    along all year.

    it’s been such a fantastic learning
    experience, a challenge, but also
    tremendous fun!

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