One humid August afternoon many years ago, a 12-year-old girl huddled in the corner of a staircase, weeping. She was waiting for her parents to come home and comfort her, although she didn’t know if they could do it. A voracious reader, the girl had just found a copy of a book on transracial adoption — that is, a book about children of color adopted into white families — on the top shelf of her parents’ bookcase. Excited to finally find a book that spoke directly to her experience, the girl settled onto the family couch and dug into the worn paperback, devouring narrative after narrative on adult adoptees. After awhile, she began to notice her body heating up, as she read stories of black adults who had been raised in white environments. These grown adoptees stated that they would never fit in with white culture because they were not white, nor black culture, because they could not perform blackness. This is what will happen to me, the girl thought, and an alarm sounded in her brain. This is what has happened to me already. There is nothing I can do.
Of course, that girl was me, crouched, alone, and desperate for hope and some sort of recognition, on that step in my house as a teenager. Although it took me years to do it, I wrote See No Color for her. This coming-of-age young adult novel is for that scared 12-year-old mixed black girl, and all the other transracial adoptees out there, growing up alone withoutcommunity, feeling like they will never really fit in anywhere and be “normal.” More universally, it is for anyone who has ever been outside the mainstream, and anyone who yearns to find a tribe where they can be truly accepted. It is for all those who have looked for themselves in the books and stories around them, and instead have only found a blank space, or something that scared them.
In telling the story of Alexandra Kirtridge, a mixed black girl adopted into a loving if somewhat misguided family, I wanted to offer that girl I was something else to pick up off that bookshelf. I wanted her to know that there are also stories of healing through the complexity of negotiating a multifaceted identity, not just stories of breaking under the weight of it. I wanted that girl to see herself years from then, as part of both black and white communities as well as others, standing right in the middle of that messiness and feeling all of it: the belonging, the not belonging, the shame, the joy, the endless questioning.
Now an adult with my own family, to me, this is the beauty of what Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua has termed the borderlands/la frontera: It is a place where one’s shifting identity and multicultural fluencies and deficiencies are assets — simply because one does not demand that the world make them feel safe or legible. There is a freedom to being misread, or not read at all. There is also a freedom in not being at the center all the time. I hope this is one message that See No Color conveys.
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color, a young adult novel. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America Magazine, The Crisis, Gawker, and other venues. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, she lives with her husband and children in Minneapolis.
Code-switching refers to the practice of switching back and forth between two or more languages, or between two dialects of the same language. When I was a child, we spoke both English and Danish in our house because my mother is Danish and my father Danish-American. Out shopping my mother would often switch into Danish if she wanted to say something she didn’t want the people around us to understand.
Code-switching also refers to switching between “identities,” in both cultural and interpersonal situations.
My family has lived in the state of Hawaii for thirteen years. Originally settled by Polynesian seafarers (and later illegally annexed by the USA), Hawaii became an increasingly mixed community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because English was the second language of many of the immigrants but also the only one they all had in common, a creole English called “pidgin” developed that incorporated elements of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. (Here’s a 4 minute excerpt from a documentary on pidgin by my friend Marlene Booth and her co-director Kanalu Young: Hawaii Pidgin The Voice of Hawaii.)
While it is absolutely common today to hear people switching from Standard English to pidgin and back again, the use (or non-use) of pidgin also became a marker of status and assimilation as well as a means of discrimination. Decades ago, schools in Hawaii were segregated in part according to speech. My friend Gin recalls how her older sisters schooled her in Standard English when she was five so she could “test into” the “academic” elementary school instead of the school where the pidgin speakers were sent. This is a form of code switching as well.
In Court of Fives, code-switching is a constant part of the heroine’s life. I wanted to explore what it would be like for a girl who not only code switches between languages but also between cultural expectations and sub-cultures.
Jessamy’s parents come from different ethnicities, Saroese and Efean (also called Patrons and Commoners in the book). She knows both languages, is fluent in both, and can switch easily between the two in contrast to most of the population, who only speak either Saroese or Efean depending on their ethnicity.
But because Efea is a conquered country, and because the Saroese are the conquerers, she also must negotiate a far trickier form of code-switching: That between the class divide created by the privileged and powerful Patrons and the conquered and looked-down-upon Commoners.
Raised by a Patron father, Jessamy and her three sisters are expected to behave like Patron girls in their speech and their conduct in both private and public. The eldest and youngest sister look enough like their father that they can “pass” as Patron girls, but the situation for Jessamy and her twin Bettany is particularly complex because they are obviously mixed. To look at them is to see they have one Saroese and one Efean parent, a pairing not approved of and fairly uncommon in this society because it is literally illegal for a Patron to marry a Commoner. At the same time, even when Jes speaks Efean to Commoners, they can tell by her looks and speech and behavior clues that she “acts like a Patron,” and they see these ways of acting as pretentious and delusional (because what is the point of acting like a Patron when no Patron will actually accept you as one).
So, yes, I can and do describe Court of Fives as “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy society inspired by ancient Egypt.” It is definitely a fantasy novel about sisterhood and family loyalty in the wake of treachery, a conquered country ruled within a rigid social hierarchy, a popular game called the Fives that’s more than it seems, and one girl’s challenge to run the Fives even though it is forbidden to her.
But embedded in that story is a girl caught between, who code switches as a constant and regular part of her life, and doesn’t quite have a place in either of her parent cultures. Jessamy has to find her own path, and it’s not going to be an easy road.
Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. She is the author of over twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, including her YA debut Court of Fives, as well as Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, Jaran, and her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. A new epic fantasy, Black Wolves, arrives in November. She lives in Hawaii. She lives in Hawaii with her spouse, paddles with outrigger canoe club Ka Māmalahoe, and nurses along an aging schnauzer. Her website is at www.kateelliott.com.
Many discussions on diversity in books center on so-called issue stories vs. non-issue ones. Issue books, like you’d expect, focus on a particular social issue: a gay protagonist, for example, comes to terms with his sexuality or struggles with the aftereffects of coming out; an interracial romance where the major roadblock is the interracial-ness of the romance; a poor, inner-city black girl struggles to escape the awful social history that sees her born into a troubled family in a crime-ridden neighborhood.
Issue books are important. I’ll say that again for emphasis. Issue books, especially the ones written for marginalized young adults struggling to come of age in a world that too often tells them they are deviant in some way, are crucial. It is important for a young gay boy to be able to locate himself in a book, to see that there are others like him, to know in his bones that he is normal, his feelings are valid, his sexuality is good and true. If a book can do that for him then it’s worth its weight in gold. Similarly, it’s important for that little black girl to know that life can be better, that you can find your own place in the world on your own terms.
But there’s another kind of book too: the non-issue book. This is the book where the gay protagonist isn’t struggling at all. He’s already come out. The people that matter have accepted him, everyone else be damned. Maybe he has a boyfriend, or a long time crush. Maybe he’s also about to discover that he’s a wizard, and that’s what the book is about: an adventure story about love, friendship and believing in yourself. This imagined book, this non-issue book, is not firstly about being gay. It’s about magic.
When I started writing Everything, Everything, the protagonist was always going to be of mixed race — not because there was a particular racial issue I wanted to address, but because that is simply who she is. We live in a world where diversity is a fact of life. Diversity is the natural state of things. There are about 20,000 species of butterflies on our planet. 23,000 different kinds of trees. The idea of a single homogeneous anything, let alone “race,” is a construct of culture that goes against everything in nature, and our books should reflect that. We breathe oxygen. The sun rises and also sets. We are diverse.
Issue books are important. And non-issue books are just as important. I don’t spend the majority of my days thinking about race and where the color of my skin locates me in the world. I spend my days as most people do: I work, I laugh, I worry, I dream, I strive to be happy. I believe in love. And magic. I hope that my mixed race daughter will be able to spend less time than I do thinking about race. I hope she will read stories about people that are just like her and stories about people who are not. I hope that she’ll read scary stories, issue stories, funny stories, romantic stories and fantastical stories with dragons and beasts that need slaying.
And I hope that the heroine of some of these stories will look just like her.
Nicola Yoon grew up in Jamaica (the island) and Brooklyn (part of Long Island). She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and daughter, both of whom she loves beyond all reason.
Everything, Everything is available for purchase here.
Here’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.
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.
By now, we all know that diversity in books is a big deal. We’ve seen the statistics about how the skewed demographics of protagonists in YA novels doesn’t come close to reflecting the reality of our society. We’re aware that readers are very much in need of books that present minority perspectives in both historical and current day stories.
But how does the concept of diversity come into play when you write, oh, say, action sci-fi about futuristic zero-gravity prizefighting?!
My novel Zeroboxer released last week, and amid the reviews describing it as “gripping,” “smart,” and “action-packed,” nowhere is it being hailed as advancing the cause of diversity or shining a light on underserved segments of the population. It’s just not that kind of book, nor was that my intent as the author. However, writers like me, who write commercial genre fiction, play as much a role as anyone in making sure diversity is part of the literary landscape. We all make choices in our writing that send messages to readers.
Remember the 1996 alien invasion movie Independence Day? It might as well have been sub-titled America Saves The World because in the film, the population of Earth presumably sits around waiting for the Americans to figure out how to defeat the aliens before belatedly joining in to support Bill Pullman’s heroism. Contrast that with the 2013 film Pacific Rim, which depicts a diverse cast of characters waging an international effort to combat the Kaiju monsters. Both films are big-budget commercial spectacles—but the choices the scriptwriters made regarding characters, story, and setting result in very different depictions of the future—one far more inclusive and diverse than the other.
When I was a child, I devoured fantasy and science fiction that was, to put it gently, lacking diversity in all respects. They were written in different times, but it’s still a downer to look back on works that I greatly enjoyed and realize now, as an adult, how misogynistic and euro-centric they are. When I was creating the futuristic world of Zeroboxer, I thought about what kind of future I wanted to portray. More accurately—what kind of future would be plausible. Because any plausible future that extrapolates from our society today would be a diverse one.
In Zeroboxer, humans have colonized the inner solar system, and Mars is emerging as the fast-growing, more economically and scientifically advanced planet. In many ways, the relationship between Earth and Mars has parallels to our current global state—the economic rise of Asian countries in the last several decades, and the resultant anxiety that has provoked in the West.
That’s reinforced by assumptions that I make in my world building; the early colonists of Mars would be ones motivated to leave Earth because of environmental chaos and limited economic opportunities. They would come predominantly from parts of Asia and South America disproportionately affected by climate change and overpopulation; only a minority would hail from first-world nations like America that are already at the top of the pecking order on Earth.
So in the future, Mars has cities like New Nanjing, and a space station named after the Hindu sun god. The main character in Zeroboxer, Carr Luka, has a girlfriend that is half-Martian of Asian descent, and back on Earth, mixed race lineage is so prevalent that it’s a marketing boon that Carr is an ethnic mash-up and thus representative of typical Terrans. The future is diverse—but it’s not without problems. New racial tensions emerge between Martians, who’ve embraced genetic enhancement, and Terrans, who’ve outlawed it. None of these aspects of the story ever takes center stage in my high-action sports sci-fi novel—but they’re there, subtly but deliberately painting diversity into the background.
Even so, sometimes you slip up. In one of my early drafts, I had Carr fighting a major match on Thanksgiving Day. One of my beta readers astutely pointed out, “Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Isn’t this an international city space station? Why would Thanksgiving be a big deal?” Good point, and nice catch. It saved my book from an Independence Day style gaffe.
Diversity isn’t just a cause to be advanced by authors who write “issues novels” about characters living in the Civil Rights era, or immigrant stories, or coming out as gay in small town stories. All those stories are incredibly important and will always be the ones that get spotlighted for exemplifying minority perspectives. However, just because you’re writing sci-fi thrillers, romance, or funny middle grade books about dinosaurs, doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the conversation. If anything, unsung depiction of diversity in commercial genre fiction is the subtler and truer measure of progress.
Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. She is the author of the high-action YA science fiction novel Zeroboxer (Flux/Llewellyn, April 2015). Fonda is a corporate strategist who has advised and worked for several Fortune 500 companies, a black belt martial artist in karate and kung fu, an action movie buff, and a fan of tasty breakfasts. Born and raised in Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon.
One of my crushes in high school was on a cute Asian boy. Of course, like most of my crushes (and yes there were many), it was unrequited. We were good friends but he thought I was a little too wild with my drinking and partying ways. In my heart I knew I wasn’t as wild as he imagined. I wanted him to look harder and see the real me I thought I was, but alas, we were not meant to be and so I continued my wild ways for a while longer and moved on to other crushes.
I had him in mind when I wrote my character, Flynn, in The Truth About Us. But in my story, he gets to see a little bit more of the wild girl and discover that sometimes things and people aren’t as they seem. Of course, my Flynn is fictional, and much more brooding and angry than my old crush. I created a boy who has a lot to be angry about. Flynn’s stepfather gambled away his mom’s money and then took off and left her with credit card debt. Flynn’s pitching in to help her get back on her feet and also helping raise his little brother. There’s not a lot of money and he needs to swallow his pride and ask for help sometimes. Life is not easy for my Flynn.
Jess, who on the surface has everything, enters his life. She’s white and pretty. She’s rich and she’s spoiled. However, underneath the pretty smile, she’s troubled and trying to cope with a dark secret about her mom, something no one in her family wants to talk about. In fact, no one in her family wants to talk period, and it’s eating away at Jess. She responds with self-destructive behavior. (Something I can relate to because as alluded to above, I was kind of good at that behavior when I was a teen.)
Flynn doesn’t see Jess for who she really is, or who she really wants to become. Jess begins the journey to change, but she needs to find that person herself. And Flynn has some issues of his own to deal with. On a primal level, they kind of get each other. Maybe they even need each other. But can they make it work?
I like dark secrets. I think most people have at least one. Something they would never want most people to know about them. I like having dark secrets in books. I think dark secrets make characters interesting and show the reader that things and people aren’t always black and white. There’s a lot of grey in life and in people. Good people have done bad things. And I wonder, do bad things cancel out the good?
If a person is in their essence, decent and morally right, can we forgive bad things they’ve done? Shameful things? How bad is bad and how do bad things define who we are? Can we forgive others and also ourselves if we truly move past those black moments? Can people change and do they deserve second chances?
To me that’s the core story in The Truth About Us. People who begin to discover the truth about themselves and others, and then have to decide if they can forgive and move past it.
A Rita Award Finalist and Crystal Kite Award Finalist, Janet Gurtler’s young adult books have been chosen for the JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION and as BEST BOOKS FOR TEENS from the Canadian Children’s Book Center. Janet lives in Okotoks Alberta, Canada with her husband, son, and a chubby black Chihuahua named Bruce who refuses to eat dog food.
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.
When 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.
Hmm…we (Cindy and Malinda) discussed this and we aren’t sure whether there are more multiracial characters in YA than people of color from a single racial/ethnic background. Cindy did mention that it felt like among multiracial characters, it was predominantly white + another race. Malinda wrote one short story, “Good Girl” in the anthology Diverse Energies, that includes a character who is Asian and black, but it’s only a short story.
Good question! Anybody else have thoughts about it?
Mexican White Boy by Matt De La Pena Dreams of Significant Girlsby Cristina Garcia If I Tell by Janet Gurtler Liarby Justine Larbalestier
Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong by Joan Steinau Lester Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki