The Diversity Dilemma

By Amalie Howard

AmalieHoward
Author Amalie Howard

I’m what society calls a Person of Color. I literally just learned that term. I’m a POC. Kind of sounds like a Prisoner of War or a Point of Contact. Maybe that’s what it feels like—as if I’m being tagged, placed in a box and categorized for future reference.

I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, twin islands in the Caribbean, where people of color are the majority. However, I had a healthy awareness of the color of my skin because the culture of my country was so polarized between browns and blacks especially post-colonization. Color was extremely divisive—in politics, in the economy, in schools, in geography. I suspect that this of course was a remnant of our tumultuous history, i.e., black slaves and Indian indentured laborers brought to work the plantations during the early days of colonization. Notwithstanding those divides, my best friend in my first year of high school (Trinidad follows the British educational system so high school starts at eleven years old) was a girl of African descent, and we remain good friends today. I attribute that to my parents, who taught us that color was never a basis by which to judge someone else—it was about who they were on the inside. The fact that we travelled often as a family also gave me a great foundation for appreciating other colors and cultures early on.

However, this “color appreciation” got sorely tested in college when I attended Colby College in Maine at seventeen. Not only was I a student of color in a predominantly white school, I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I found myself hiding like one. I had no idea who I was—I felt like a stranger in my own skin, the very same skin I had known for seventeen years. In a country with a cultural history very unlike Trinidad, color polarization was based on black and white, not black and brown. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I wasn’t white. I wasn’t black. I was something else— the box on those social information forms called other.

Identity crises suck. And I was stuck in a pretty bad one. I changed my name from my middle name back to my first name, which was more Indian. I dressed like a lumberjack. And I ate like one, too. I’m not sure what I was trying to do—maybe become invisible and more visible at the same time. I wanted to fit in, but I didn’t want to be seen.

I’m of East Indian descent on my father’s side and Middle Eastern/East Indian/French descent on my mother’s. How’s that for a diverse ethnic mix? I grew up in a multicultural, multi-religious, multilingual home. Most would consider that as an incredibly cool background, but the truth was, it made it even harder to figure out who I was. I was confused, and for a long time, I tried to fit in, pretending to be someone I was not. It took a while, but eventually, I had to figure out who I was before I could stand on my own to accept and value my differences. I had to understand what being brown meant. And to tell you the truth, I’m still learning what that means.

As a Person/Author of Color, there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a book about a person of color or about different cultures. Hence the title of this post—the diversity dilemma. When I wrote my first book, a fantasy story about a witch, my agent got a lot of feedback from editors saying, “why doesn’t she write a book about her background and her culture? It’s so interesting.” The thing is I wasn’t ready to write that kind of book. Yes, I do incorporate a lot of my background in my stories, but I’m not going to write a book about Indo-Caribbean culture because that’s what is expected of me. I grew up reading fantasy and sci-fi because that’s what I loved. My favorite book as a child was Grimm’s Fairy Tales—I loved how dark they were and the feeling of being drawn into some fantastic universe. I devoured C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Greek mythology, and pretty much anything I could get my hands on. And most of the protagonists in these books were white or their skin color wasn’t defined. That made no difference to me—it didn’t impact my reading experience (or make me think about skin color) one bit. It was all about the story.

That said, as an older reader, I can be quite conscious of color when it’s in a novel, especially if it is used in an authentic and judicious fashion. I don’t appreciate if it’s in there for gratuitous commercial reasons or a marketing ploy to hit a diversity target—the, “hey, let’s pop in the gay, black best friend because it will diversify our market.” The people you’re trying to reach see right through that—it’s gimmicky. For me, it has to be real and applicable to the story that is being told. It has to be meaningful.

howard-alphagoddessWhen I wrote Alpha Goddess, I knew it was going to be a different kind of story that heavily leveraged my Indian background. I wanted to bring something fresh to the table—something that hadn’t been written about, but would appeal to YA readers. As a child in a Hindu household, I was lucky to grow up with a different kind of mythology, one steeped in East Indian culture. Inspired by another tale of star-crossed love—the epic tale of Rama and Sita—I decided to focus on that mythology as the foundation for my story. Known as the Ramayana, it is a timeless Indian love story in which prince Rama and his wife Sita were tricked from the throne and sent into exile, where Sita was stolen away by a ten-headed demon, Ravana, who tried to convince her to marry him. However, her love Rama came to save her, battling the demon to the death with the help of the monkey-king, Hanuman. My retelling begins with a fictional account of how Rama and Sita find each other in another future lifetime—this time within the world of Alpha Goddess in a contemporary setting. I wanted to remain true to several key elements of the Hindu mythology, but I also wanted to use my creative license to really make this story my own.

With Alpha Goddess, it isn’t just the skin color of the protagonists that makes it different or diverse, or even that a Person of Color wrote it—it’s also because it brings a whole new cultural mythology to the YA table. At the end of the day, my hope is that Alpha Goddess will make readers curious to learn more about actual Hindu mythology. If that means that they do an online search for the story of Rama and Sita, or seek out more information on Indian gods and goddesses, then I have accomplished my goal. Part of reading is knowledge—introducing readers to new ideas and new cultures. We live in a world that is becoming smaller by the day … why not learn more about the people surrounding you?

I think diversity in YA is becoming more and more widespread, especially given the popularity of the genre. Authors are looking for ways to give YA fiction more depth and breadth. YA, like its constantly evolving audience, seems to be more amenable to exploring and embracing distinctive characters or storylines, and authors are responding to that. I think we as human beings are inherently complex, and we are an incredibly diverse species. Why shouldn’t we embrace all facets of ourselves and incorporate that into YA, or any fiction, for that matter? A huge part of reading is education. We live to learn, to expand our minds, and to appreciate our differences. Books are only one medium to bring us closer together. And as an AOC (Author of Color), I intend to do everything possible to make that happen.

Alpha Goddess is now available. Find out more about Amalie Howard at her website or follow her on Twitter @amaliehoward.