It’s not just a book…
There’s been a lot of discussion centered on diversity in publishing and although this conversation is nothing new, it’s absolutely necessary. As writers we know words have power. That being said, it irks me a little when a novel is called out for problematic content and the response is “it’s just a book.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Books have the ability to transport us to places we’ve never been, they can empower—help develop empathy and build readers up or alternatively, they can tear down.
In 2014 the Young Adult New York Times list was dominated by white male authors. As a writer embarking on a journey to become a traditionally published author, this was a discouraging fact but I soldiered on and kept writing. Around July 2014, the We Need Diverse Books movement launched and I witnessed significant changes in the industry. Where there once was lack of diversity and representation, books penned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) authors sat comfortably in the top 10.
Diverse books are so important, especially in middle grade and YA. They empower and allow readers to see themselves. A lot of teens learn about the world and themselves through the media they consume. So for example, when groups of people are excluded it sends a message that these people don’t exist. Alternatively, they aren’t as important as those that are included.
Thirteen year old me had to read young adult library books about blonde haired, blue eyed twins from California with perfect size six figures. Absolutely nothing like me. I didn’t see myself in the books I read so I believed if young Black girls weren’t worthy enough to be main characters in books, maybe I wasn’t worthy enough. I didn’t have silky blonde hair or that size six figure so something must be wrong with me.
This is what we mean when we say harmful or problematic. It’s harmful to further the narrative that our lives don’t matter. People are quick to shout “ALL lives matter!” as a rebuttal to racial inequity. But if that’s true, why don’t our stories matter? Why do you feel you’re qualified to tell someone’s story through a gaze (that’s overwhelmingly white?)
Although editors are acquiring more diverse stories, I also feel it’s important for the authors writing these stories to BE diverse. No amount of research can replace someone’s lived experience. I know things about my ethnicity that an Asian or Latinx person wouldn’t possibly know and vice versa. Just because you love, respect, or admire someone’s culture and struggles doesn’t mean you should tell their stories.
Now, this is not me “censoring” anyone about what to write but just be prepared to be held accountable if you write harmful / stereotypical people of color tropes, or exclude them altogether. Fiction or non-fiction, readers will call you in and they have every right to, especially if they are from marginalized communities.
I hail from generational poverty and abuse—my childhood, teens, and twenties are shrouded in struggles. Therefore I write what I know: complicated family dynamics, intersections of race and “class.” Although Black people are not a monolith, I am less likely to get it wrong because my stories reflect life that I have actually lived.
I hope the recent events (you know what they are) will encourage a shift in the publishing industry. There are so many talented BIPOC authors that have the ability to be successful if they only had the support of the “machine.” What does that look like? Sales, marketing, and publicists on one accord, significant and major advances, TV/radio/print appearances, celebrity/influencer endorsements, etc.
Only time will tell if change will come but I remain hopeful. Also as a writer, I volunteer as tribute ;)