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.
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!