At my first national writing conference, a well-established author critiqued my work-in-progress. He recommended that I set aside my contemporary story about an American-Indian girl and instead try a historical narrative with high action and “tomahawks.”
As a writer, I have received (and set aside) revision requests asking that I transform picture books into social studies lessons and characters into props.
I’ve lost count of the writing colleagues who’ve expressed frustration after hearing that an authentically depicted cultural story about a fictional middle-class Mexican-American or Lebanese-American mathlete simply won’t sell.
When it comes to diverse reads with a main character of color, it seems the curriculum-oriented titles that are deemed to be important and cater to a universal comfort zone, sensibility and stylistic predisposition, are the titles that succeed in the market place.
(With that in mind, I’m guilty of saying, to more than one struggling African-American American author, “You could always write about slavery or Civil Rights.” They all looked at me the same way I probably looked at the guy who told me to retreat in time and reach for a tomahawk.)
Landmark topics in culture, ethnicity, and race are vital and ought to be revisited by authors who have close ties to the subjects. For example, Rita Williams Garcia’s award-winning One Crazy Summer (HarperCollins, 2010) illuminates the Civil Rights era with a cast of irresistible characters that makes the Civil Rights angle seem fresh. But those aren’t the only stories amongst African-American authors worth writing, sharing, or teaching. (In the same vein, in the American-Indian body of literature, a comedy set in a modern urban American Indian community belongs just as much as a novel about the Trail of Tears.)
Yes, publishing is a business. Because of the reality—or at least the perception of it—that only certain kinds of books will be championed, writers set aside stories, editors reject submissions, marketing dollars are elsewhere allocated, and, ultimately, young readers are presented a largely monochromatic sliver of the literature—that should rightfully be varied and diverse—and are missing out on diverse heroes and stories that could propel them to a lifetime of avid reading.
Meanwhile, too many authors and writing aspirants—especially those from underrepresented communities—give up. I almost gave up. My first three books—Jingle Dancer (2000), Indian Shoes (2002), and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001, all HarperCollins)—were, in part, inspired by my mixed-blood Native heritage. My 11 books that followed were not. Some of that was because I couldn’t force myself to package unnecessary historical and cultural exposition into palpable, bite-size nuggets or write to assuage someone else’s ancestral guilt. Also, I longed to write “unmarketable stories”—like a story about a Muscogee girl solving mysteries in outer space. What’s more, I have varied interests and creative range outside of social issue writing, so I enthusiastically published a tall tale (Holler Loudly; Dutton, 2010) and a holiday book (Santa Knows; Dutton, 2006) and adventure-fantasies (“Tantalize” series; Candlewick, 2007) and nonfiction essays and graphic novels (Eternal: Zachary’s Story; Candlewick, 2013).
I didn’t abandon my commitment to diversity. I wrote across gender and race and religion and orientation and species—not only secondary characters but protagonists, too. I didn’t abandon American-Indian literature either. I stayed active in the conversation and mentored American-Indian writers and promoted work by colleagues like Tim Tingle, Eric Gansworth, and Debby Dahl Edwardson. I wrote YA short stories with American-Indians and included Osage characters in my “Feral” trilogy (Candlewick).
We all need to stretch, to risk, and have faith. Let’s summon our courage—to create, share, publish, promote and champion a wider range of diverse titles. Let’s rethink our comfort zones, trust in ourselves, and in each other. Let’s change our world.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the acclaimed and best-selling author of the first book in the “Feral Nights” series, as well as the four books in the “Tantalize” quartet: Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Diabolical. She also wrote the graphic novels Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, both illustrated by Ming Doyle. Cynthia lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.