2019 Books · Discussions · Discussions about books

Diversity and Representation in YA feat. a rant about ‘Americanism’ – Discussion

Welcome everyone! Today, I want to talk about a very sensitive yet important issue in the world of Young Adult books: diversity and representation. This is very sensitive and has been the subject of many controversies in the YA community. I’ll also be venting my anger about what I’m dubbing, ‘Americanism’. It means people seeing everything through an American POV.

Recently, there has been a progressive movement to diversify the world of literature. To change the narrative that we all grew up reading about (or at least that I did). To represent the diverse group of readers who read books. To change the stories and to include the true nature of this world’s population.

To change racism.

To include other voices, those of Asians, Africans, Europeans (from countries that aren’t predominantly English) and people who aren’t ‘Western’.

To show the reality of this world, not just show what ‘the Westerners’ want us to show.

Let’s take a quick dive into history.

Books, especially classics, in general were written by white men, back in the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th century. Why? Because women weren’t really educated at the time, therefore they didn’t read these stories. Other men read these stories. And even those women who began to slowly change this idea, who broke from formation and wrote books, they sometimes wrote them under male pen names. Why? Because what man in his right mind would read a book written by a woman in the 18th century?

Take Charlotte Bronte and her sisters for instance. They published their poems under the pen names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Why? Because no one would take them seriously if they published as women.

Thankfully, that has changed.

And now, the bookish community’s focus is to integrate minorities, POC, the LGBT community, and to fight all the prejudices by creating literature that accepts this and makes it all okay.

But there’s a problem.

You say: What problem? We’re changing things for the better! We’re creating characters who are Black, characters who are gay, characters who aren’t skinny and pretty, but curvy and beautiful. More women are authors – actually, it’s relatively hard to find male authors in YA. Things are getting better J, what are you yapping about?

This is all great. This is amazing. But there is this still small part of us that is human. There is this small part of us that is still resisting, still fighting this change, even if we want it or not.

We have this issue in YA where a certain group takes offense when an author who isn’t from that group writes a book about that group.

Example:

If a white person, or maybe even a half white-half black person, were to write a book with a black main character, the black community would go through hell and back to attack this author for not writing about what they know and can relate to. For writing about a black person when they aren’t one.

Yet, these very same people, will come back tomorrow to complain that there aren’t enough YA books with black MC’s. Yesterday, they attacked someone who tried to change this, yet today they complain that there isn’t enough.

It is very very wrong. Why? Because we all sit and attack others for writing about something that we, personally, don’t think they should write about it. We don’t think that they should write about Asian characters because they aren’t Asian. We don’t think that they should talk about depression and anxiety because they haven’t suffered from it. We don’t think they’ve suffered true racism, so they can’t write a book that talks about it.

Do we live in their shoes? Have we experienced life like they have? We visit their profile, and see a white person, or a person who isn’t gay, or a person who isn’t physically or mentally suffering from an illness and then see that they wrote a book with a black main character, or a gay character, or a person who suffers from a physical or mental illness and we go through the roof in anger and frustration that this ‘imposter’ has dared to pretend to be us. But, we don’t know the whole story. We haven’t seen what they did, who they spoke to, how they came to write this book.

We haven’t seen their mothers who they had to sit with in the middle of the night while she suffered from suicidal thoughts.

We haven’t seen the brother who was paralyzed from his youth and depended on them through-out their lives.

We haven’t seen them comforting their friends who are black and have been called racial slurs and humiliated because of their race.

We haven’t seen them taking care of their bi-polar wives/husbands and autistic children.

We see a white person, or a not gay person, or a not physically or mentally ill person, who wrote about these issues, and we decide that there must be something wrong with it because of that. That it isn’t going to be authentic, or it will be racist, or anti-gay, or degrading/making fun of physically and mentally ill people. All because the author doesn’t look like it.

Looks can be very deceiving.

And who are we, anyway, to judge?


Another issue that angers me: When Americans think that they are the only ones in the world.

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to offend anyone, I really don’t. I am American, and I am not out to attack or hurt anyone who is American. But I feel like this must be addressed and I hope, that if you’re American, that you understand and agree (or we agree to disagree) with me that this must be spoken about and addressed.

I’m going to share with you guys a story. An author wrote a book set in a fantasy land that was going to deal with slavery. After severe backlash by Twitter influencers, the author pulled the book from publication. Now, 3 months later, she has decided that she will publish this book anyway in November of this year.

I’m pretty sure this story is very familiar. It was one of the hottest controversies on YA twitter and had a lot of opinions from both sides.

This young debut author, is Amélie Wen Zhao.

But what happened? Why did YA Twitter attack her?

They attacked her because certain influential twitter users said she was racist in her book. Her book, which is based on Ms. Zhao’s cultural perspective, is said to have been racist because a character, who is presumed to be black, died to let the white main character live. They were also offended because they didn’t believe that the slavery was portrayed ‘correctly’.

My first issue with this: this character is presumed to be black because she was described as being “bronze” and “tan”. And she also is described as having “aqua marine eyes” and “ocean blue eyes”. It is extremely rare for an African or Black person to have blue eyes, especially when they have no Caucasian ancestry. Have you ever seen or met a black or an African person with blue eyes? Enlighten me, because I’m black, and I haven’t.

Second issue. This isn’t about America’s slavery past. It’s about the author’s cultural perspective on an issue in her home country. Slavery didn’t only exist in America, folks. I know, a shocker!!!! It existed and still exists in other parts of the world. The book is about slavery, not about American slavery, not about America’s history. It’s about slavery in Asia, from the point of view of a person of color.

This also upsets me. The fact that African/Black Americans instantly get defensive and angry, and instantly assume that this is supposed to be about them. It isn’t. Racism exists in other parts of the world. Racism can even be against white people too! It’s not just about you. Books about slavery and racism aren’t just about YOU or your race, it’s about all people who face racism and who are enslaved around the world.

Third of all. This is fiction. I’m probably going to get slammed for this, but I don’t care. It. Is. FICTION. Words that aren’t history, words that are from someone’s imagination and creativity. A story that is even fantasy for that matter. Fiction is according to Wikipedia:

any narrative that is derived from the imagination—in other words, not based strictly on history or fact.

So why are we getting all riled up? Why are we attacking and destroying an author’s dreams and career before it even starts because of fiction? Because of a select few who thought it was racist? A select few who almost deprived the rest of the YA community from deciding for themselves whether or not it is?

This doesn’t mean that the author should be racist. It means that she can choose what she wants to do with certain characters, and portray what she knows however she wants. We shouldn’t make ourselves sick over something that isn’t true. We can’t decide what we want authors to write because everyone has the right to express whatever they want. However, we can be a better person and not drag them through the mud and call them names and be petty. We can give constructive criticism to let the authors know what we think is wrong with their book. We don’t have to announce to the world and humiliate an author because we found a part problematic. I’m going off track here, but I had to point that out.

Back to the main point. Nothing is just about you, America. It’s about other countries, other worlds. They exist and we need to start opening our minds and accepting this. We can’t just have American characters who are black, or LGBT, or people of color. We need British, Romanian, North Korean, Thai, Somali, Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, Argentinean, and every last nationality to be a part of this diverse step forward. We need to stop thinking of everything in our own American POV. We need to open our eyes and see that there is a world out there that is different, that isn’t just us.

I’m so sick and angry and tired of this. A debut author who was probably very excited to release her book for us to read took this book away, because some people were quick to judge and take offense. A book that is supposed to touch on the fact that the author has experienced racism, the fact that she has been branded as an “Other” and a book that is supposed to fight this in it’s own way. A book that’s supposed to fight racism in other parts of the world, not just in America.

The author has asked that no one defend her, and I’m not trying to, even though it may seem like I am. I’m trying to show that this isn’t about Americans only. That racism isn’t only about black people. It’s about the rest of the world, too. Because everyone quickly assumed that this was supposed to be something about racism or anti-blackness, or America’s history with slavery, they attacked it, and destroyed it. But it wasn’t about America. And until a few days ago, we would have never known what this was truly about.

That was much longer than I ever intended for it to be, but I’m so glad that I got to share and vent my frustrations and anger regarding these issues.

Let’s discuss: What do you guys think about representation and diversity in books? Did you hear about the controversy surrounding Ms. Zhao’s novel? What did you think about it? Am I the only one who feels like books and bookish opinions are too “American-centered”? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

24 thoughts on “Diversity and Representation in YA feat. a rant about ‘Americanism’ – Discussion

  1. I just read this post now, and I wanted to say that I agree with every single word! It’s so nice to see that there are other people who share these opinions as well, and I really love how you brought up what happened with Amelie and Blood Heir! Thank you so much for writing this post! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much ❤❤ I’m so happy that you agreed with me. The Blood Heir controversy really made my blood boil and was what spurred me to write this post. I’m glad that you loved it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. All I can do is agree because you’ve said it all so incredibly well. I feel like Americans forget that other cultures are reading our books too, and I think that stems from how few books are brought into our publishing market from other countries. It’s getting better, but we need more. I jump on any books from an author who has a different cultural background from me. 1. Those authors need support. 2. I’ve lived my life. I don’t need to read a bunch of other people do it too.

    I love everything about this post. I hadn’t heard about the controversy surrounding Zhao’s book, but I’m not surprised by it, which is sad in itself. I will definitely be getting her book when it comes out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true!! We know what it’s like being American, we don’t need to read about it all the time. It is getting better, but we do still need more as you said.

      Thank you 🙂 I hope you love her book, and I’m excited to read it too! ❤

      Like

  3. Hi J, I love this post. Especially as someone who doesn’t live in America. *sends hugs*
    My fave point that you raised is the ‘fictional setting’ vs what actually happened comparison that gets about a LOT. I’ve seen so many keyboard warriors (trolls) slamming fictional and FANTASY books saying how they’ve represented slavery, class structure and racism incorrectly, and all I can think is “how do you know what that world the author built is like?” It just blows my mind.
    Anyway, short and sweet from me today!! Enjoy your break, and I hope you get some downtime this month as well. Meegs xxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Meeghan! Thank you *accepts hug and sends one back*

      It makes no sense at all. It’s FANTASY. A new and different world, unlike our world. Some people just don’t think or see past their ideas and views of the world and it’s sad.

      Haha, thank you Meeghan (Can I call you Meegs? I LOVE nicknames and yours is so cute 😍😍😍!!!) I hope so too!! ❤❤❤❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Absolutely utterly completely inspiring! This was a joy to read JJ, well written and true 🙂 I specially agree with Jess above.

    However, there’s still the question that, when a book truly does have problematic content…should it be allowed to publish? I myself have always said that even if a book is as such, if the reader is aware and reads it as more a way of understanding how someone with, for example, racist beliefs might be possibly thinking, and “why do they believe what they do” to think of counterarguments for stopping that belief that’s already there to spread, then something bad has resulted in something good.

    Take Hitler’s Mein Kampf for one; some say that book should not be read. I understand the logic behind it—to stop the flames from spreading. The problem is, though, that racism is already out there, Hitler didn’t teach it or invent it, he was just one of the many who spoke up about their hateful beliefs…and he was the most talented with words and did the most harm with it. So an aware adult who has already shaped their opinions and cannot be easily influenced may read it to learn how a man like that came to be—and use that knowledge to build a society where no second Hitler is raised.

    But in the YA community, because of the sensitive raw state of the readers, a book that specifically promotes these wrong and hurtful ideologies (such as the 7 isms) could do a lot of harm. One example is My Brother’s Name Is Jessica which was just released this year; I have a very amazing transgender friend on Goodreads who was repulsed by the book and said if he sees anyone reading it, even if to shape their own opinion, he would unfriend them—and many other trans readers agreed with him. Now do I believe that book should have been allowed out in the world, in the easily influenced YA community? No.

    I am not talking about books that are judged out of context—as Blood Heir was—or books that are showing the existence of these hateful ideologues to fully present their terrible and horrifying effects and raise awareness—as not all books should be about a revolution against, for example, patriarchy, but some can be there to simply make us see, there to anger us and motivate us with the truth—but there are authors who, in writing about a subject they haven’t personally experienced, do more harm than good. As Jess said, authors are humans and make mistakes, and social media and the public need to learn to chill and be less cutthroat, but it depends on the amount of harm the book can do.

    All in all, this is an important subject that requires more considerate discussion and also a larger audience—hell, the whole of YA Twitter need to read this—but thank you for taking this step and posting this JJ, I’m immeasurably proud of you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Mare!

      That’s a great point. Books with problematic content are being published and sometimes, it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. As you said, it depends on the audience. Adults can read it, and try to use it to learn more about people who have these views so that they can try to change it. However, with the young easily sway-able readers of YA, this can be harmful for them. So I agree with all of your points about that.

      I agree so much with you on all these points, and especially about social media and people in general needing to chill. Mistakes aren’t allowed and are not forgiven these days and it’s sad and discouraging.

      Thank you so much Mary ❤❤

      Like

  5. This was such a good post! I was really upset when I heard about how Zhao had been bullied into pulling her book from publication. I felt like those twitter users who had read the book took away the opportunity for other people to read the book and form their opinions about it. I was ecstatic to hear that Zhao is going to release the book and let people read it for themselves and decide.

    Like

  6. This was a great post, and I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s definitely not appropriate to assume that America is the centre of the world. There are so many other countries/cultures out there that many people in America know little to nothing about.

    (I’m saying this as someone who grew up in America, has lived elsewhere in the world for many years, and is sometimes really frustrated with how myopic my birth country can be when it comes to learning about or listening to other cultures/countries.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad we agree. It’s about time that we opened our eyes and explored other countries and cultures. The only thing most people here learn is about how the Middle East is bad, while the rest of the world is, well, just glossed over.

      I’m glad you liked this discussion ❤❤

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Really interesting discussion! I had heard there’d been some controversy with authors on Twitter, but I wasn’t sure which authors had pulled work because of it other than that I knew they weren’t white which in itself annoyed me. Plenty of white authors over the years have published books with zero thought to cultural sensitivity, so I don’t like to see authors of colour being hounded out of publishing before their career has even begun.

    You have some really good points here. We don’t know what people have been through and, not only that, I hate the whole idea of only writing what we know – if we only wrote what we know then none of us would write historical fiction or fantasy or science fiction, so authors shouldn’t be afraid of writing characters who are different from themselves. I will always promote own voices authors and I will always call an author out if they haven’t done their research, but I do feel as though we’ve got to a point where we’re not giving people a chance before we judge their work.

    Also, nobody’s perfect. There are, of course, times when this is no excuse for what an author has written – e.g. J.K. Rowling completely ignoring the constructive criticism she received from North America’s First Nations communities when she wrote her nonsensical “history of magic in North America” – but authors, and people in general, need space to make mistakes and learn from them rather than being attacked and shunned. Ten years ago I was incredibly ignorant and some of the things I thought because of that ignorance were truly awful (e.g. I used to think feminism was a bad thing thanks to good ol’ internalised misogyny), but ten years later I’ve learned an awful lot and frankly I am so glad Twitter wasn’t so huge when I was 17 because no one can make a mistake now without being torn to shreds online. There are some people out there who are just racist or sexist or homophobic etc. and people who are ignorant who have no interest in changing their views, and people like them who continue to spew their vitriol are the kinds of people I have no interest in listening to, but people who make mistakes deserve the space to learn from them. At the moment it feels like a lot of people are just waiting for any chance they can find to be offended, and to be honest the majority of the people I’ve seen like this are white people who are getting offended on behalf of another group which is super frustrating. I am allowed to have an opinion if something made me uncomfortable or I didn’t think something was researched properly, but I wouldn’t dream of taking up the torch on behalf of the community who are being misrepresented because it’s not my place. I would support someone from that community, but it’s not my job to get offended on their behalf.

    I think it’s really interesting what you said about slavery not only being a part of American history, and it’s a really important point. Of course it’s a huge part of American history (and to be honest I would argue that a lot of that is because colonial American history is so recent and a lot of America’s early history has been lost with its First Nations communities) but slavery is a part of the world’s history. The Roman Empire was built on the backs of slaves, and slavery was a large part of Britain’s history as well for many years and to be honest it’s a part of British history that’s often glossed over because it’s such a well-known part of American history. There’s this strange “well it wasn’t as bad as it was over THERE” kind of feeling here in the UK which is absolutely bizarre and untrue. While I would never want to suggest that the history of slavery in North America should be ignored or forgotten about, like you I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that slavery isn’t only an American issue and people from outside of America and outside the black community should be allowed to explore it and its aftermath through fiction.

    If a person of colour reviews a book and tells me it’s racist then I am less inclined to pick that book up because I trust that person to pick up on something like that when the likelihood is they’ve experienced racism at some point in their life, as horrid as that is. A prime example of this is “The Tiger’s Daughter” which I was really interested in reading because it’s f/f fantasy, but I’ve seen enough reviews from own voices Asian reviewers to know that this Asian-inspired world includes language that is offensive. I do think we need to at least wait until books are published, however, rather than judging authors before they’ve even had the chance to explore the themes they’re choosing to include in their work. (There are some exceptions to this, such as that “My Brother’s Name is Jessica” book which sounds like it’s been written with zero sensitivity from the title alone, and it bothers me that the publisher and author have been so defensive rather than acknowledging why the trans community find it harmful.)

    Anyway, sorry for this essay! You raise some really interesting points here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, an essay indeed! But I’m glad that you’re interested in talking about it!

      It really angered me that sometimes, white authors get away with publishing books that are very insensitive, yet a POC couldn’t even get the book published before she pulled it.

      I agree that we shouldn’t just write what we know, that we should explore. But in today’s society, it’s very hard, and it can be nerve-wracking to write something in which people don’t think you have any authority to write in. The backlash would be immense, and as you said, it seems like these days, people are just waiting to get offended.

      Yup, it’s sad. There’s no room for error nowadays, and people expect everyone to be perfect. When someone slips, they rip the person to shreds and somehow still feel good about themselves. A few months later, they themselves might slip and will get torn as well. It’s a never-ending cycle and it can also seriously hurt a person’s mental health and self-esteem. You’re right. There’s a difference between mistakes, and insensitivity or ignoring constructive criticism that you’ve received.

      I never really thought about the fact that it’s sometimes someone getting offended on someone else’s behalf. That makes no sense as far as I’m concerned. If someone is offended, then they shouldn’t have to go tell someone else to tear the offender to shreds. If they do that, that means that they don’t feel good doing it themselves, yet they are happy to stay in the shadows and let someone else do the dirty work for them. It’s sad and definitely messed up.

      Slavery is really a huge part of American history (It’s a HUGE huge part of history and is right up there with the Constitution and The Revolutionary War. There’s no way you can take a history course without studying slavery and The Civil War) however, it didn’t only happen in America. That’s interesting to hear that slavery in British history is glossed over. But I guess America did kind of dominate because of how recent, and strong it was here. Yes, I wouldn’t want to say that it should be ignored here, but we’ve got to also realize that it existed all over the world, and still exists in some places today. America isn’t the only country in the world, and it’s not the only one with an important past, and maybe we should push it to the back-burner so that we can highlight and talk about other countries too.

      I’d also steer clear of a book if a POC says it is racist. Sometimes, I still want to read it anyway, especially when there are conflicting opinions between different reviewers of color, to form my own opinion. But a book should be allowed to be published for the rest of the world to decide on their own. (I haven’t heard of that, but I’m going to do a little research and see what’s going on 🙂

      It’s okay! It’s a discussion post and I’m glad that you had so much that you wanted to discuss! Maybe you could write your own post on the subject?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. J, thank you so much for talking about this. As an aspiring writer, this subject has been been troubling me lately. I am an American, but I am also Hispanic. My family, several generations ago, came from Mexico, so technically I am of Mexican decent. But do I feel Mexican? No, not really. I don’t speak Spanish, and neither do my parents. My family likes Mexican food, but we also like American food and pizza and sushi and Indian food, and all kinds of dishes. Because of this and other reasons, I don’t feel “Hispanic” enough to write about a family like mine. I just don’t have the stereotypical experiences. Does this mean I shouldn’t write about my culture? I have no idea, but I would be scared to do so.

    I’ve been writing for about 8 years now, but I’ve recently realized that my characters are all “Americanized”. I feel bad about this, because as a POC writer, I should try to write more about diversity… but American white just feels like the default. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of book, of course! But I feel like I could let my people down if I write from a perspective that isn’t genuinely my own.

    And, as someone who has only recently struggled with mental illness, I wish I could find the courage to write about that as well. But unfortunately, I don’t think I know enough to talk about these kinds of things. I’m worried that my experiences will not seem “valid” enough to make it in the publishing industry.

    I agree that we haven’t experienced what the authors have, and we shouldn’t judge too quickly.

    Sorry this comment got so deep, lol. This is such a good post! 💕

    Like

    1. I think that it’s absolutely fine for you to write about what life is like as an American Hispanic who doesn’t speak Spanish, or you know, doesn’t really feel Hispanic. That would be a new and interesting POV to read. You can write about your culture, you can choose to write about something else, or about a white person, it doesn’t matter what you do or what other people think. Someone will probably be angry somewhere. Some Hispanics may feel like you’re an ‘imposter’ who doesn’t truly know what it’s like to be a Hispanic because, according to them, you aren’t really one. If you write about something else, then some other Hispanics may also take offense that, you’re Hispanic, you should write about your culture because we don’t have enough Hispanic MC’s.

      One side will probably always be angry or disappointed, so write whatever you want, and write for you. You could write about a Hispanic MC who is ‘Americanized’ and show people what life is like for you, how you don’t feel like your experiences are “valid” because you aren’t a ‘true’ Hispanic or you write about anything you’d like with any type of character that you like. I’d definitely want to read whatever you choose ❤

      There’s nothing that isn’t valid in this world. Everyone experiences things differently, and your experience with mental illness is just as valid, no matter how mild or how strong it is compared to the ‘norm’. There’s no real normal, as everyone experiences things at varying degrees.

      It’s okay! I love talking and I’m glad that you loved my post! I was so nervous and terrified that someone would hate it or take it the wrong way, so it’s amazing to see that you loved it ❤❤

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you SO much for taking the time to write this! 💕 You brought up a lot of topics that need to be addressed and I couldn’t agree more!
    Plus, I’m American and I didn’t take offense at all. We do need to wake up and realize that not everything is about us! Other countries and their problems matter too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for loving it! I was so nervous and didn’t know how anyone would react and it’s amazing to see such a positive comment! ❤
      I’m so glad you didn’t find that offensive! Yes we do! I’m glad you agree 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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