LonCon3 #25: Diversity Within Young Adult Science Fiction

Panellists: Kate Elliott, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Mahvesh Murad, John Hornor Jacobs, Marieke Nijkamp (vice president of We Need Diverse Books)

From Earthsea to Noughts and Crosses, The Summer Prince to Akata Witch, children and teens need to see books with characters that represent the diverse world they live in, whether they are dystopian romance or fantasy adventure. Organisations like We Need Diverse Books are helping to promote diversity in children’s literature, but what actions can we take – as readers, writers, publishers, and book-buyers – to help them in their goals? And who are the great authors of the past few years we should be catching up on?

85% of books published in America have white main characters. This is why Diversity in YA (tumblr) and We Need Diverse Books (tumblr) are necessary.

Yes, writers are lazy. They stick to what they’re familiar with. But those authors that fit into the default standard of being straight and white like John Horner Jacobs, who described himself as the token white male of the panel, are hesitant to stray outside of their comfort zones for fear of misrepresenting a particular group of people which could lead to accusations of racism or queerbaiting, etc. which has been a problem in the recent past. Although it appears that it’s more acceptable for that standard writer to write about diverse characters and cultures than it is for those writers that represent those diverse groups.

Jay Smooth’s excellent How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist on YouTube perfectly explains the issue with labelling someone a racist instead of telling them what they said or did sounded racist because by doing the latter you’re opening up a conversation in which they could see their error instead of throwing out accusations in which the person is forced to defend themselves or walk away. The same strategy can be applied to homophobia and other prejudices.

However, those authors that don’t fit the default are also feeling the pressure to conform to that default.

Kate Eliott is from a Danish family. Her parents were immigrants with a foreign language who gave her a foreign sounding name. Kate Eliott isn’t her real name, it’s an anglophone name therefore it would open more doors than using her real one. But she does strive to write diverse characters. (Her latest YA has been described as Little Women meets Game of Thrones.)

Robin Hobb is also not a real name. It’s gender neutral to conform to the straight white male default in publishing. People assume she’s a man and given that fantasy is perceived as a male-dominated genre it’s likely she sells more books because of that.

Authors from colonized nations, such as India and Pakistan, who experienced the Famous Five and the Secret Seven would sometimes only write white characters because that’s all they read as children, says Mahvesh from Pakistan.

There’s also the danger of perpetuating stereotypes. Mary Anne was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Chicago. Due to the colour of her skin many presume she’s a doctor. Rochita was born in the Philippines and now lives in the Netherlands. It wouldn’t surprise me if most assume she’s a nurse or working in some other caring profession. The same goes for homosexuality. Overused stereotypes of the butch lesbian and the camp gay man with his fag hags don’t represent the true diversity of those groups.

This is the point at which I heard the Whoopi Goldberg story for the second time during LonCon. She was watching the black female character Uhura on Star Trek.

“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,” Goldberg says. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

This is the reason Martin Luther King Jr. convinced the actress who played Uhura to remain on the show when she wanted to quit.

Cover art is a controversial element of publishing diverse books. Authors have little to no say most of the time, but readers aren’t shy of calling bullshit when they spot whitewashing.

Controversy surrounded the first cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar which later saw the publisher retract those copies and printing covers with a visibly black model.

Liar book covers

Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City was whitewashed for the Russians with a blonde white woman with dreadlocks instead of the black woman model who appeared on the American covers.

Lauren Beukes Zoo City American Russian covers

Beth Revis’s Across the Universe had a white female main character with a love interest who was the result of several generations of the mixing of the world’s ethnicities so he definitely wasn’t white. And Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules has a Japanese main character who carries a katana, but does the cover model look Japanese?

Beth Revis Across the Universe Julie Kagawa The Immortal Rules

Kelley Armstrong’s Darkness Rising trilogy centred around a Native American main character though the covers don’t reflect her ethnicity or culture.

Darkness Rising trilogy by Kelley Armstrong

Diverse casts are creeping into TV more and more these days like with Scandal and Sleepy Hollow, we just need to see some progress in publishing. Some say that in order to achieve this goal more diverse people need to be hired into gatekeeping positions such as commissioning editors, who’ll then be on the lookout for books to publish that represent themselves.

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