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.
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.