A Healthy Dose of Diversity | Up for Discussion

It’s not just good for you, it’s entertaining, too

In May, I’m embarking on a five-city book tour across the United States, accompanied by 23 other authors of middle grade and young adult fiction, including Rita Williams-Garcia, Francisco X. Stork, Holly Black, David Levithan, Nnedi Okorafor, and more. The one thing we have in common? We’ve all written books that feature characters who are of color or are LGBT.

The “Diversity in YA” tour (www.diversityinya.com) was the brainchild of my friend Cindy Pon and me, hatched during the summer of 2010 as we watched the children’s literature blogosphere erupt over discussions of whitewashing book covers.

Cindy and I are both Asian Americans, and we have never been disinterested parties in this debate. Last summer, Cindy’s first novel, Silver Phoenix, was repackaged in a way that disappointed many readers because they thought it downplayed the book’s Asian elements. At the same time, I was seeing early cover concepts from my publisher for my second novel, Huntress, which is an Asian-inspired fantasy. Believe me, it was a stressful time for both of us.

The Internet can be a wonderful thing, but when a controversy ignites, it can eat you alive if you let yourself get sucked in. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain perspective when a subject arises that is deeply personal to you. The discussion about representing diversity on book covers has been a hard one precisely because it is personal for so many people involved: readers who yearn to see their racial backgrounds fairly depicted; librarians whose job is to serve diverse populations; publishers who have to deal with the realities of the market; and authors whose stories can get lost in the debate about what’s on the cover.

Behind the sometimes heated rhetoric, though, is a real—and valuable—goal: getting more books with diverse characters into the hands of young readers.

Last summer, Cindy and I realized that we would both be releasing Asian-inspired YA fantasies within a week of each other. We saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that’s why we decided to band together and launch a national book tour that focuses on diversity.

From the beginning, we shared a vision for “Diversity in YA” that emphasized celebration. Yes, the number of books published about people of color is fewer than those about white people, but there is no reason to not celebrate the books that already exist. There are so many writers telling stories about unique communities and cultures, from Jacqueline Woodson, who has been writing wonderful books about African-American and queer teens for years, to newcomer Dia Reeves, who is turning YA paranormal on its head with her quirky, bloody escapades featuring multiracial teens in Texas.

We wanted “Diversity in YA” to be fun. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable coming to one of our events, no matter their ethnic or racial background. We wanted to leave the heated debate about diversity behind—at least for a little while—and get together in the real world to talk about books we love that include people like us. I know that I don’t want my novels to be read because people feel that they should read diverse books. As soon as “should” enters the dialogue, people begin to lose interest. I want my books to be read because they are thrilling, or thought-provoking, or simply because they’re fun.

Emphasizing the fun may seem to ignore the very real roadblocks that can prevent diverse stories from being published. Racism and homophobia certainly exist, and they have been institutionalized in our society in ways that can feel impossible to overcome. But by focusing on the positive, I’m not trying to avoid the tough issues of race, representation, and responsibility. I’m trying to create change through positive action.

Everyone’s perspective on diversity is rooted in their situation in life. So let me tell you about where I’m situated. I am a first-generation immigrant to the United States; I moved here when I was three and a half years old with my parents, who fled Communist China in 1978. But I am also biracial; my paternal grandmother was white (English, specifically). I grew up middle-class, but knowing that we came to this country with nothing but two red suitcases. I was one of only three Asian Americans in my overwhelmingly white high school class in Lafayette, CO. I worked hard to get into Wellesley College, and then into Harvard and Stanford, where I earned master’s degrees in East Asian Studies and Cultural Anthropology.

Through that education I have become privileged—privileged to have read a lot about alterity and gender and inequality and oppression, and to have had my assumptions questioned rigorously. The Internet’s got nothing on academia when it comes to criticism, and I’ve developed my beliefs through careful thought.

I also spent years working as an entertainment reporter covering the representation of lesbians and bisexual women in the media. That experience taught me a lot about the way the entertainment industry works, and I know firsthand that it is a struggle even to get Hollywood executives to acknowledge that they could cast nonwhite people in a role, or that it’s possible to have an LGBT main character on a prime-time TV show.

In my personal life, I’ve learned to value the fact that as an Asian-American lesbian living in Northern California, I do not have to deal with discrimination the way that many others around the world do. I may not be able to get legally married to my partner in my state right now, but I have advantages that others don’t.

This is the background I bring to the struggle for diversity in YA fiction. It has led me to conclude that I can make a difference in several ways. First, I can push the boundaries of what is mainstream with my writing. Even though I worry—like many other authors—that I might be limiting my audience by writing about queer people of color, I’m not going to let that stop me. I believe that a good story is a good story, and I challenge myself with every book I write to tell a good story, first and foremost.

I also believe it’s important to recognize when publishers take risks by publishing books that don’t fit the mainstream mold. I have been amazed by the support my publisher, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, has put behind my books, even though they are not exactly typical YA fare. But Little, Brown isn’t the only publisher that has invested in diversity. The authors on the Diversity Tour are published by every major commercial publisher in the United States, and I’m truly heartened by that fact.

I admit that sometimes I can get discouraged by the dialogue about diversity in books, because it can develop a kind of tunnel vision. The core issue—race and representation—has at times been subsumed by a demand for “accuracy” in book covers; demanding that books with nonwhite main characters have covers that depict those nonwhite main characters with their exact shade of skin. Covers that don’t have been excoriated for perpetuating racism.

While I also want to see more book covers that don’t shy away from depicting people of color as people of color, I think these demands have taken on an uncomfortably essentialist tone. Fixating on skin color and other stereotypical ethnic characteristics in determining “accuracy” harkens back to a time when physical anthropologists divided humanity into five immutable races. But in the 21st century—when the multiracial population is growing by leaps and bounds—we need to think about race and its representation with a broader and, I hope, more generous point of view.

And regardless of how good or bad a book cover is, it has very little to do with the story being told. When I blogged about this earlier this year, urging people not to judge a book by its cover and pointing out that sometimes a book sells better when its diverse content is hidden, I know that some people thought I was being too easy on publishers. They can seem like corporate monoliths with profit as their only goal, and it’s tempting to cast them as villains.

But corporations are made up of individuals, and no decision is made in a vacuum. There are many people involved in the publishing chain, from an imprint’s publisher all the way down to the librarians and booksellers who put books into the hands of readers. Everybody has a responsibility to step up as best they can to support a world in which diversity is valued, and I do believe that everyone has the chance to make a difference.

I believe that change happens when people gain an emotional awareness of the way other people live. Books are a wonderful, intimate way to foster that awareness. They can show you a different way of seeing the world.

I don’t think there’s any use in drawing a hard line in the sand and throwing accusations of racism across it. I think that all of us interested in this issue are fighting the same battle, and it’s time for us to act like the allies we are.

That’s why “Diversity in YA” is about coming together in celebration. While we continue to push for more books that represent all of us, we can also take time to celebrate what we have accomplished already. We hope that readers across the country will join us this May to talk about the books we love that just happen to include people like us.

Malinda Lo is the author of two books for young adults. Visit her website at www.malindalo.com.

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