Tag Archives: authors of color

SHADOWSHAPER and the Power of Art

By Daniel José Older

digest-older-shadowshaperHere’s a phrase you’ll hear often in conversations about gentrification: “First, the artists moved in.” It’s a tiny, complicated sentence amidst a gigantic, complicated topic (which I wrote more about here). But embedded in it, you’ll find one of the central acts of erasure at the heart of gentrification itself. When people say this, they really mean the white artists came first, but the white goes unmentioned because, like whiteness itself, it’s presumed, normalized: the fallback category. (See also: writers only pointing out a character’s race when they’re not white.) The problem with saying  “First, the artists moved in,” is that it’s not true. There have always been artists in the America’s low-income neighborhoods, and hopefully there always will be. But they haven’t always been white and their art hasn’t always been the kind that galleries and art critics deem worthy of a pedestal.

The pages of Shadowshaper, my first YA novel, are filled with musicians and rappers, poets, painters, storytellers, journalists — all folks who get erased when we talk about a glorified first wave of white artists entering the hood like they’re some kind of daring explorers in the wilderness.

Sierra Santiago is just trying to pain a mural on the wall of one of those brand new, wildly out of place looking buildings on a block otherwise full of brownstones. A tear drips down the face of a fading mural adjacent to the one she’s painting, a memorial to a friend of her family’s. Then chaos erupts when a guy that was supposed to be dead shows up at the first party of the summer while Sierra’s trying to recruit her friend Robbie to help her unravel the mystery of the crying painting and her grandfather’s connection to a mysterious group called the shadowshapers.

Shadowshaper is about artists and the power of art. Amidst rapidly changing neighborhoods, police violence, and literary erasure, the painting a face on a wall, the act of remembrance, is truly a form of resistance. In the struggle to reclaim her own heritage, Sierra must find her voice. This is the first great adventure of every artist, but it’s an adventure that society glorifies or demonizes differently along coded race and gender lines. We find our voices as individuals and collectively, and once we find them, we must learn how to lift them — over the din and tangle of oppression and the industry and the market and bad advice about what will sell and what won’t sell — and say something difficult and true. In writing Sierra’s journey to finding her voice, I ended up finding my own.


Photo credit: Kevin Kane

Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015). His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna and the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications. You can find Daniel’s thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter and youtube.

Shadowshaper is available for purchase here

5 Things I Learned While Writing INK AND ASHES

By Valynne E. Maetani

maetani-inkandashes-ag15When my sister turned eighteen, I decided to write Ink and Ashes for her. Because I never got to see myself in books other than those with settings involving war, an internment camp, or high fantasy, I wanted her to have a contemporary title with a Japanese American protagonist. I was tired of reading about people like me who were hated just because of the way they look and thought the greatest gift I could give her was a book I never got to read.

Following red herrings and guessing how a story might end has always been a thrill, so I knew this was the type of book I wanted to write. I also wanted a Japanese element which added mystery, and that naturally led me to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

The only problem was that I had never written a book before. Fortunately, writing a book was really fun and easy.

Until it wasn’t.

So here are some of the most important things I learned:

1. Writing is hard. In order to grow, I had to leave my ego at the door. I had to be willing to let my manuscript be ripped to shreds. I had to hear why parts of my story didn’t work. I had to learn where my weaknesses were, so I could discover my strengths.

2. Writing is hard. There were times I hated my book. I hated my characters. I wanted them all to die. But I also loved my book. I loved it enough that I couldn’t give up writing. I was passionate about my story even when I thought my manuscript would never be published. In fact, I was pretty certain my story would never see the light of day. No one had written a book like mine, and so I believed there wasn’t a market for my story. But having an underlying passion for what I was writing carried me through the times that were difficult.

3. Writing is hard. I think some of the hardest scenes to write for Ink and Ashes were the ones where I left a part of myself on the page. Allowing myself to be vulnerable was difficult, but it also meant I was writing a story no one else could write.

4. Writing is hard. But having friends who are writers has made the journey easier. Only writers truly understand why we do what we do—why we torture ourselves and yet love the craft. Writers understand exactly what it means to get an agent, to sell a book, to be on deadline, to write another book. They have been a support system that I couldn’t have done without.

5. Writing is hard. But it is also fun. It is worth the blood, the sweat, and the tears. It has brought joys and opportunities I could have never imagined; introduced me to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise; and filled voids that I wasn’t even aware of.

Writing is hard. But it wouldn’t be meaningful otherwise, and I can’t imagine life without it.


valynnemaetaniValynne E. Maetani grew up in Utah and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In a former life, she was a project manager and developed educational software for children with learning disabilities. Currently, she is a part-time stage mom, part-time soccer mom, and full-time writer. Her debut novel, Ink and Ashes, is the winner of the New Visions Award 2013 and a spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

Ink and Ashes is now available.

The Ballet Blanc

By Dhonielle Clayton

charaipotra-clayton-tinyprettyHow far is too far? At one of Manhattan’s most elite ballet schools, wafer-thin ballerinas pull their hair into sleek buns and lace their pointe shoes high, waiting for their chance to shine. But beneath the pretty, polished surface, these girls are hiding some terrible secrets and telling some twisted lies.

Privileged Bette is tiny and beautiful–like a ballerina in a music box. But living forever in the shadow of her ballet-star sister and under the weight of family expectations brings out a dangerous edge in her. 

Perfectionist June can turn a flawless fouette and diligently keeps her weight below 100 pounds. But she’s never landed a lead role. Tired of always being the understudy, this year she’ll settle for nothing but the best–even if she must resort to some less-than-perfect means to get there. 

And new girl Gigi isn’t your traditional ballerina. A free-spirited California girl, she’s not used to the fierce competition. Still, that doesn’t stop her from outperforming every dancer in the school. But even she is hiding a ticking time bomb, and the very act of dancing just might expose her secrets to everyone.

Being a prima isn’t all satin and lace; sometimes you have to play dirty. With the competition growing fiercer with every performance, and harmless pranks growing ever darker, it’s only a matter of time before one small spark ignites … and even the best get burned.


“Brown bodies look different on stage and Asian faces can sometimes be distracting in classical ballet productions.”

While I was an academic teacher at a pre-professional ballet academy, I asked the other teachers in our shared office about why there weren’t any black and Latin@ dancers at the academy, and about how the Asian dancers fit in during the holiday and spring performances. After being at the school for a few months, I was secretly dismayed by the lack of varied diversity at the school, and by the social dynamics. Dance is such a vital part of many communities, so I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t reflected in the student body. I had a few Jewish girls, an Argentinian girl, a Hawaiian boy, as well as a group of girls and boys from Korea, a Taiwanese girl, and one boy and one girl from Japan.

The ballet historian at the time gave me a quick lesson on how diversity in ballet worked. Or, in actuality, how it didn’t work. She started with the quote above, and boiled it down to the Russian aesthetic: a desired body type, a long silhouette, a certain muscle-fat ratio, proper technique, flexibility, the look of one’s face and more. She used stereotypes about lean Asian bodies to explain their entry point into the art form, and how Asian ballerinas couldn’t be denied due to their small frames and discipline-oriented cultural backgrounds. She also referenced the phrase ballet blanc several times.

A quick search of the term ballet blanc will give you definitions such as ballets danced in the romantic styling of the 19th century, referring to ballerinas wearing all white, and considered to be the pure classical form of ballet.

The great classical ballets — the ones we all sort of know a little bit about because they’ve seeped into popular consciousness — are those that magnify white fairies, white sylphs, white swans, white wilis, and white shades. The term develops a deeper meaning and moves from a discussion of costumes and stage aesthetics to actual bodies. From Giselle to Swan Lake to La Sylphide, the image of a ballerina is marked with whiteness and exclusivity.

However, I wasn’t satisfied with her answer. So I asked a few of my students. One mentioned a talented black girl who had attended the school and left after a few “stressful” incidents and issues with ballet teachers. I didn’t get any more details, but it piqued my curiosity enough to think about how race plays out in the pre-professional ballet world.

I also thought about what it might be like for an Asian dancer, whose body and technique and stereotypically perceived compliance might please the ballet gods, but how those dancers still had uphill battles when it came to being cast as leads in traditionally ballet blanc productions. After all, for all their desired qualities, they still don’t fit that old school ballet russe aesthetic.

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The seeds for the characters in Tiny Pretty Things started to bud. I thought about what it might’ve been like to be that lonely black girl or the overlooked Asian girl at a cut throat ballet conservatory. I danced for several years in the suburbs of MD, and Sona danced in New Jersey, so we’d experienced the feeling of being the only “other” sort of girls in a ballet class. Brown arms, brown legs, brown faces on stage and photographed, never quite fitting in.

Thankfully, just as Tiny Pretty Things is hitting shelves, we’re starting to see change, with rising stars like Misty Copeland, Hee Seo and Michaela DePrince changing the face of modern ballet. As in publishing, diversity is still the exception, rather than the rule — and there’s a long road ahead. But as more and more dancers of color step into those toe shoes, they give the next generation of petit rats hope that they, too, can follow in those hallowed footsteps.

Want to read more about diversity in the ballet world?

Check out these links:


Dhonielle Clayton

Dhonielle Clayton spent most of her childhood under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. She hails from the Washington, D.C. suburbs on the Maryland side. She earned an MA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University and an MFA in Writing for Children at the New School. She taught secondary school for several years. Now, she is a librarian at Harlem Village Academies and co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative kitchen whipping up decadent — and decidedly diverse — literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers. Her YA fantasy series THE BELLES is coming soon from Disney/Hyperion. Twitter: @brownbookworm

aa-charaipotraSona Charaipotra is a journalist published by the New York Times, People, ABC News, Cosmopolitan and other major national media. A collector of presumably useless degrees, she double-majored in journalism and American Studies at Rutgers before getting her masters in screenwriting from New York University (where her thesis project was developed for the screen by MTV Films) and her MFA from the New School. When she’s not hanging out with her writer husband and two chatter-boxy kids, she can be found poking plot holes in teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars. Call it research: a strong believer that three-act structure can work in fiction, Sona puts her outline-obsession to good use as the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. Tiny Pretty Things hits shelves May 26. Twitter: @sona_c

Tiny Pretty Things is available for purchase here.

Cover reveal: SERPENTINE by Cindy Pon

We are soooo excited to help reveal, in conjunction with Month9Books, the cover for DiYA co-founder Cindy Pon’s next YA fantasy, Serpentine, which will be published Sept. 8, 2015!

Be sure to enter the giveaway found at the end of the post!

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SERPENTINE is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.

Lush with details from Chinese folklore, SERPENTINE tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.

“Vivid worldbuilding, incendiary romance, heart-pounding action, and characters that will win you over–I highly recommend Serpentine.” ~ Cinda Williams Chima, best-selling author of the Seven Realms and Heir Chronicles fantasy novels

Serpentine is unique and surprising, with a beautifully-drawn fantasy world that sucked me right in! I love Skybright’s transformative power, and how she learns to take charge of it.” ~Kristin Cashore, NYT Bestseller of the Graceling Realm Series

Serpentine’s world oozes with lush details and rich lore, and the characters crackle with life. This is one story that you’ll want to lose yourself in.” ~ Marie Lu, New York Times bestselling author of Legend and The Young Elites

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

cindypon2015Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Serpentine, the first title in her next Xia duology, will be published by Month9Books in September 2015. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website at www.cindypon.com.

Connect with the author: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr | Goodreads

WIN A DIGITAL ARC OF SERPENTINE!

Month9Books is giving away 1 digital copy of Serpentine. The giveaway is open internationally, and a winner will be drawn May 29, 2015. Enter the giveaway below or at Rafflecopter.

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10 New & Debut Asian American YA Authors

In honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, here are 10 new and debut Asian American YA authors for you to check out. Support them today so they can publish more books tomorrow!

Sona CharaipotraTiny Pretty Things co-written with Dhonielle Clayton (HarperTeen, May 2015)
Get to know her: Goodreads Voice: Interview with Sona Charaipotra

Kelly Loy GilbertConviction (Disney-Hyperion, May 2015)
Get to know her: DiversifYA: Kelly Loy Gilbert

I. W. GregorioNone of the Above (Balzer + Bray, April 2015)
Get to know her: One Asian Book is Quite Enough (Diversity in YA)

Fonda LeeZeroboxer (Flux, April 2015)
Get to know her: Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Fonda Lee, Author of Zeroboxer (amithaknight.com)

Stacey LeeUnder a Painted Sky (Putnam, March 2015)
Get to know her: DiversifYA: Stacey Lee

Valynne MaetaniInk and Ashes (Tu Books, June 2015)
Get to know her: Valynne E. Maetani’s website

Caroline Tung RichmondThe Only Thing to Fear (Scholastic)
Get to know her: Me, My Daughter, and the Babysitter’s Club (Diversity in YA)

Aisha SaeedWritten in the Stars (Nancy Paulsen Books, March 2015)
Get to know her: On Asian-Americans and why we are #NotYourAsianSidekick (aishasaeed.com)

Sabaa TahirAn Ember in the Ashes (Razorbill, April 2015)
Get to know her: DiversifYA: Sabaa Tahir

Amy ZhangFalling into Place (Greenwillow, September 2014)
Get to know her: An Indies Introduce New Voices Q&A With Amy Zhang (Bookselling This Week)

You’ve Got Mail, Young Writer

By Lamar Giles

newbird
The one secret she cares about keeping—her identity—is about to be exposed. Unless Lauren “Panda” Daniels—an anonymous photoblogger who specializes in busting classmates and teachers in compromising positions—plays along with her blackmailer’s little game of Dare or … Dare. But when the game turns deadly, Panda doesn’t know what to do. And she may need to step out of the shadows to save herself … and everyone else on the Admirer’s hit list.

Three weeks ago I got an email from a 15-year-old girl in Ohio. I’ve been waiting on her email for 20 years. That math is weird, but not a typo. More on that in a bit…

I remember when email became a thing (yes, I’m THAT old).

In 1995, America Online was the most popular way to access the Internet, and you paid by the hour (unless, of course, you had those FREE TRIAL disks that came in the mail…10 hours at no cost to you). When someone contacted you through your AOL Account, a perfectly chipper synthesized voice announced, “You Have Mail.” If you’re not ancient, like me, this probably sounds like nonsense. Hang on, this rabbit hole gets wider and brighter. I promise.

With increased web presences, a bunch of writers opened up a new corridor of accessibility by adding a simple “contact” link. Not the super famous writers mind you. You weren’t going to send Stephen King a .jpg of you and your cat in your Pet Sematary Halloween costumes. Though, many of the mid-listers, including some of my very favorite writers, were suddenly a click away. I wasn’t shy about sending a note to a writer I liked, particularly after reading their latest. I complimented them, asked questions, and told them about my aspirations because I knew, even then, what I wanted to do. Most were extremely cool, and gracious, and encouraging.
However, none were like me.

I didn’t know of any black males who liked horror and fantasy stories, let alone wrote them. When I asked for recommendations at my local library, I got pointed towards Alex Haley and Malcolm X…great men and writers, but not quite what I was looking for. As much as the Internet and email opened up the world of pro-writers to me, I felt as lonely and isolated as ever. Perhaps moreso. In all the World Wide Web, I felt like an anomaly. Until, I wrote to a man named Brandon Massey.

Brandon was me. An older, wiser, published version of me. A black male who liked and wrote fantastic horror stories. I enjoyed his first novel, Thunderland, a great deal and I told him so, via email.

I expected the sort of responses I’d been getting. Polite, encouraging, but essentially an upgrade on the form Thank You letters from the pre-email days. Not so this time. Brandon answered all of my questions in detail, asked about the sort of things I wrote, and what I was working on currently. For the first time in all of my letter writing campaigns, I sensed I wouldn’t be overstepping my bounds by writing him again. And again. And again.

I’d moved on from America Online by that point, but I was more excited than ever to know that I had mail. I won’t bore you with extensive details of what happened next, because it’s a retread of my publishing history, from my first major short story sale to the Dark Dreams anthology to Endangered, on shelves now. I just want to stress the importance of connecting with Brandon.

I saw what I COULD be.

It only took a total overhaul of the way the world communicated to make it possible. Imagine that.

What Diversity in YA, and We Need Diverse Books, and The Brown Bookshelf, and everyone else raising diversity awareness in the industry does isn’t just about showing the books. It’s showing the possibilities. All of these groups are the AOL of modern publishing. A new way of doing things, with no hourly charges. Yay!

For those aspiring kids who, for far too long, were unable to find the books and writers that represent them, there are resources. They can tweet the writers, and follow all those awesome Instagram photos from conferences. The modes of connecting are changing daily (I’m still trying to figure out SnapChat). By comparison, simple emails seem way obsolete. That’s okay. Change is good (despite what the haters say).

While email might be doing a slow fade, I’m so happy it hasn’t gone away completely. Remember that 15-year-old girl I told you about? Right.

She read Endangered, and likely clicked the contact link on my website. She loved the book, specifically the character Panda, who reminded her of herself, and wasn’t a stereotypical sidekick to a more important dominant character, and she hopes to be a writer someday.

That. Last. Part.

I was in a time loop. Back to ’95, writing to writers, waiting for responses. But, wait, I was on the other side now. In the present, connected to the past, or something…didn’t I just see this in INTERSTELLAR?

It’s amazing to be doing what I’m doing, and to be in the position to respond to her email. I gave her her first editorial note. Cut “hopes to” and “someday”. Just be a writer.

I shared a bit of my personal story, passed on some advice that Brandon Massey once gave me, and invited her to ask more questions as needed. Then, I gave her my expectation…that she do the same for the young writer who contacts her through whatever means are available (Mind-Mail?) in 20 years.

Maybe, by then, the massive gap in publishing representation will be as outdated as screaming modems, those AOL trial disks, and all that other stuff that seems so ridiculous now.

Though I wouldn’t mind more notes like the one I told you about. It’s still quite nice to know when you’ve got mail.


Lamar Giles

Lamar Giles writes novels and short stories for teens and adults. He is the author of the 2015 Edgar® Award Nominee FAKE ID, a second YA thriller ENDANGERED, a third, currently untitled YA novel from HarperCollins, as well as the forthcoming YA novel OVERTURNED from Scholastic Press. Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. He resides in Virginia with his wife. Check him out online at www.lamargiles.com or follow @LRGiles on Twitter.

ENDANGERED is available for purchase here.

One Asian Book is Quite Enough

By I. W. Gregorio

A groundbreaking story about a teenage girl who discovers she was born intersex … and what happens when her secret is revealed to the entire school. Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

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When I was at the NYC Teen Author Festival panel on representation a couple of weeks ago, there were a flurry of Tweets that quoted me:

“There’s always diversity within diversity.” @IWGregorio @diversebooks #NYCTAF (Important for all of us writers to remember.)

“There is diversity within diversity…no one book is going to tell every story.” –@IWGregorio at #NYCTAF

“There’s a huge gap in terms of intersectionality in young adult books. We need more diversity within diversity.” @IWGregorio #NYCTAF

In fact, it was A.S. King who first put this earworm of a phrase within my head during the first few days of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, back when we were still “just” a hashtag. As anyone who’s ready any of her books knows, Amy is absolutely brilliant. And here’s some more evidence:

@IWGregorio @TerraMcVoy …I have yet to meet a human being who fits into the box allowed to them by their race, religion, or sexuality.

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Her words mean so much to me because of my experience with my first novel. As so many newbie writers do, I took the old adage to “write what you know” to heart, and unsurprisingly wrote about a second-generation Asian-American girl in Central New York. Like a lot of first novels, that book didn’t sell (though it did land me an amazing agent).

The fact that it didn’t sell didn’t in itself bother me; indeed, looking back, I’m very happy that book never saw the light of day as it clearly wasn’t my best work. What disheartened me was the type of feedback that my agent got from editors. Much of it was all over the map, with one exception: Three different editors from three different publishers said that it was too similar to another book with an Asian-American protagonist on their list.

In all honesty, I think that these editors were probably looking for kind ways to say that the book wasn’t up to snuff. Publishing as an industry was going through a very, very tough time. Of course houses didn’t want to take on a book that was too similar to something they already head – it was difficult enough to market the titles they already head. But still.

What comments like this tell me is: “We’ve filled our quota.”

It tells me that publishers think: “One Asian American book is quite enough, thank you.” And what did I do for my next book, with an intersex main character? I subconsciously whitewashed it. I had internalized the rejection of my ethnicity so deeply that I didn’t even think of making my main character a person of color, let alone Asian.

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Thank goodness that things are changing. At around the time my first manuscript was dying a slow death, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the Danger of a Single Story went viral (It’s been viewed by more than 8 million people – pic to the left courtesy of amightygirl.com). We Need Diverse Books has give me hope that for my next book, I can revisit the land of thinly-veiled autobiography. Because you know what? No one’s yet told my story, even though you would think that someone had – after all, I spent my formative years in Central New York and went to the same high school that Newbery Honor-winning author Grace Lin went to. I love Grace’s books so much (I’m reading Dumpling Days to my daughter right now). I see a lot of myself in her characters.

imageAnd at the same time, I don’t see myself at all.

Here’s why: Although I’m ethnically Chinese, my father was born in South Africa and grew up in Malaysia. He and my mother (who was from Taiwan) divorced when I was two. I was raised by a grandfather who had lived most of his life in South Africa, and a grandmother who lived the first half of her life in Mauritius, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Madagascar. Neither of them spoke more than a few words of Mandarin. Because we didn’t travel much, I didn’t have dim sum for the first time until high school. My grandmother cooked South Asian curries for dinner (and my grandfather had a serious addiction to Vienna sausages in those tiny little cans).

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My grandfather meeting the Sultan of Malaysia

Anyone who met me when I was thirteen years old would think that I was such a cliché: An Asian American girl who plays the violin, is a straight-A student & whose (grand)parent is a doctor. Look closer, though, and I’m hardly the “typical” Asian (whatever that means). My school pic shows why: I was one of only two Chinese students in my school. Even today, I speak less Mandarin than some of my Caucasian friends who have lived overseas. I didn’t got to my first traditional Chinese wedding until medical school. And, to my husband’s chagrin, I know how to do a basic Asian stir fry but that’s pretty much it.

The thing is, the more people realize the diversity within diversity, the more stereotypes crumble. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat hooked me from its first scene, when the close-up of someone getting dressed listening to hip hop pans out to a Asian middle-grader.

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In the end, we’re all just people, none of us defined by race, religion or sexuality. So let’s tell our stories in all our multitudes–and let’s read them so we can see each other in all our complexity


I. W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. After getting her MD, she did her residency at Stanford, where she met the intersex patient who inspired her debut novel, None of the Above (Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins, April 7, 2015). She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books™ and serves as its VP of Development. A recovering ice hockey player, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Find her online at www.iwgregorio.com, and on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram at @iwgregorio.

None of the Above is available for purchase here.

Writing Diversity in Dialogue

By Y. S. Lee

lee-rivalsinthecityOne of the delights of the written word is the power — in fact, the necessity — of creating your own mental pictures and soundtrack. Only you know just what the heroine looks like when she’s angry; only you know the precise music of her nemesis laughing. Setting plays a huge role, too: contemporary America vs. medieval France vs. a planet far, far away. As readers, we are our own casting directors, cinematographers, and composers. I’m here today to argue that we should be our own dialogue coaches, too.

As a genre, historical fiction — which I love, and which I write — is prone to spelling out accents. Often, it’s not enough to mention in passing that a character is a stableboy or a visiting German aristocrat; the characters’ words are spelled out so that we can see, on the page, just how outlandish their pronunciation is. And that’s not all. The real problem is that historical fiction is especially prone to spelling out lower-class accents.

See the bias here? Everybody has an accent; that much is obvious. But in novels where lower-class accents are spelled out, the upper-class accents are rendered in standard English spelling. The not-so-subtle subtext is that upper-class accents are “normal,” while lower-class accents deviate from an invisible, correct norm. Add to this the fact that working-class accents are most frequently used to provide comic relief or create pathos, and what we have is proud and unexamined social snobbery written openly on the page. We should be embarrassed. We should repudiate this. We should complain, bitterly, so that writers and editors re-think assumptions about class, accent, and the ways we report speech.

When I wrote the Agency novels, which are set in Victorian London, I solved the problem by representing dialect (irregular grammar) but not accent. I might write a character who says, “I don’t know who done it.” I might even write, “Dunno” instead of “Don’t know,” on the grounds that everybody, across the social spectrum, uses contractions in speech. But I assume that my readers can imagine what “I don’t know who done it” might sound like, spoken aloud. I won’t write, “I daown’t knaow ‘oo dunnit!” It’s patronizing, it’s ugly, and it’s an invitation to readers to feel superior to that character.

But whether they were mudlarks or monarchs, all these characters of mine were native speakers of English. When writing my new novel, Rivals in the City, I found that I had a fresh problem: how to write dialogue for a character who speaks imperfect English. A character, in fact, who spoke only Chinese until a couple of years prior to the action of the novel, and who speaks with a distinct Chinese accent.

I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spelling out his pronunciation. Still, I felt stuck as to how to convey his accent. Stereotypes of Asian accents in English are usually patronizing and ugly. While French accents are heard as charming, and British accents register as classy, Asian accents are fodder for the unfunniest kinds of jokes. How many times have you heard a French or British person congratulated on speaking “without an accent”? Yeah. Asian accents are the stableboys of the accent hierarchy.

In the end, after a lot of deliberation, I wrote this Chinese character’s dialogue as I would that of any other. His vocabulary is more limited, because he’s relatively new to the language. Figures of speech perplex him. But for me, the clearest and most respectful way of signaling his difference was in giving him words, hearing him speak, and having him articulate his confusion and discomfort with London life in the year 1860. I think that was enough.

I’m curious, though: have you tried or run across other respectful, effective strategies for signaling difference through accent? I’d love to hear them. With any luck — because we’re going to keep reading and writing about diverse casts of characters, right? — this problem will be with us for a long time yet.


ysleeY. S. Lee is the author of the award-winning Agency novels (Candlewick Press), a quartet of mysteries featuring a mixed-race girl detective in Victorian London. She is obsessed with the gritty side of history and often blogs about it at www.yslee.com.

Rivals in the City is 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.

Sincerely,
Claudia


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. 

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.


isabelquinterosmall

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.