I’ve written about diversity in children’s literature here and here. I’ve also talked about it a ton on social media. There are times when I feel I’ve expressed everything there is to express and then, there are times like this morning, when an incredible discussion on identity politics, sexuality, and gender breaks out on Twitter and I need to express my thoughts in a longer form. Here.
I’ve said this time and time again, but growing up there weren’t many books that reflected not only who I was (a queer, black girl) but that served as representations of who I wanted to become. My parents always made sure I had plenty of books that reflected black issues, but being the sci-fi/fantasy nerd I was, I, too, wanted to go to wizarding school and Narnia. And sure I imagined myself in those books, but it’s one thing to imagine yourself and another to really see yourself and your culture reflected in the text. I found some of that reflection in the books of Octavia Butler. The way she navigated issues of race, history, sexuality, gender, and identity made me feel complete & in touch with some part of myself I hadn’t yet met. It wasn’t until college, when I read ASH by Malinda Lo that I found a character who played with those themes and was my age.
I’ve always been one to reject the idea that you “need” someone like you to pave the way in order for you to realize you can. That’s ridiculous. If black people needed that, if queer people needed that, if women needed that where would we be today? However, it only helps. The research is there. Having real representation of queerness, disability, race helps. I read THE SUMMER I WASN’T ME by Jessica Verdi when I was coming out and going through a rough time. It made me realize it might not be easy in term of family acceptance, but I had to be (& was happiest being) my truest self. If only I’d had that book when I was entering high school. Think of how many girls look up to Katniss Everdeen. Imagine if she had been queer. Now imagine if she had been black and queer. And imagine if that book series was still given the same level of marketing, got a movie deal, etc. Think of the impact a mega-bestselling series like that could’ve had.
We’re getting to the point in publishing where it’s no so hard to imagine books with queer main characters that get awards and are bestsellers… I’m thinking a couple right now. However, when it comes to two girls liking each other (vs. two boys) and when you add that to one or both of those girls being of color… name me how many YA bestsellers there are? My guess? None. And it matters. Awards speak. If an author writers the qwoc book of your dreams but it doesn’t get a strong marketing push then it likely won’t be distributed as many places. This means it won’t get reviewed by the right publications (think Kirkus and School Library Journal) and because of its limited marketing and distribution, you might never hear of it. It won’t sell well. It’s then likely the author’s next book might not be picked up (or will have a similar situation) and then it’s all downhill from there. If you’re tempted to say the issue is just readers needing to look harder, it’s not. Bloggers and readers look everywhere for these books. We know about each f/f YA title as soon as Publishers Weekly announces the book deal. If we can only find a handful, most teen girls will never find them. These books aren’t getting the support they need from publishers (& other industry professionals) in order to reach the people who will champion them. This is the death of intersectional YA.
Where are my queer, women writers who are writing books for queer teen girls? Where are my queer, women of color who are writing books for queer teens of color? Where are more of these voices in discussions like the ongoing one(s) on Twitter?
As someone writes these stories, I’m constantly wondering about representation when it comes to intersectionality. The way I’ve been seeing it play it out, is you either have books about gays written by straight people. You have books by gay white people about gay white people OR you have books about POC written by POC. (Yes, I’m overgeneralizing. I know intersectional books exist…I’m pretty sure I’ve read most, if not all, of them.) This is huge problem. Not only does this limit YA as a category, but it tells teens celebrating & coming to terms with their intersectionality: “Sorry, we don’t care. Pick one.” We need more intersectional, diverse books. For me that means more books about queer, girls of color.
Being a black, bisexual woman is so different from being gay, black, or a woman. Saying that doesn’t mean I think black people, women, or gay people have it easy. No. It means, I have to deal with all issues at the same time. I’m always read as a black woman. I can hide my “gayness,” but that also means not talking (fully) about certain issues or even my girlfriend. Take interracial dating, for example. There are so many great YA books that tackle the emotions and potential resistance that comes with interracial dating. Why are there so few that address what it feels like to love across racial lines while being a queer girl? (Thank you, Robin Talley for the book that has those characters & feelings and is set in the South.)
Even in places where queerness is welcomed, there are usually still racial or bisexual issues that come up. And before you go saying that “all women” spaces are different, I went to a women’s college. Trust me, I know. I can’t tell you how many times my girlfriend and I have been in such spaces and not felt safe enough to say we’re dating. It’s up to me to address or ignore those issues. That’s usually a decision I have a millisecond to make.
For me, reading is entertainment, education, and escape. Why can’t I… better yet, why can’t all queer girls of color root for heroines who represents their identities? This is something that’s always missing from discussions about representation of queerness in YA.
If we don’t bring ALL issues to the forefront, we’re not really about change.
To get caught up on the beginnings the aforementioned (phenomenal!) Twitter discussion, check out this Storify by Dahlia Adler.
I have a section on my “Writer Resources” page about Writing Diverse Characters
Nita Tyndall blogged about Being a Queer Girl in YA. It’s powerfully accurate, go read it now.
Also follow the aforementioned people, among others, on Twitter: Dahlia Adler, Nita Tyndall, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Audrey Coulthrust, John Hansen, Leah Raeder, Robin Talley, Anna-Marie McLemore, and Corinne Duyvis to name a few
*I use queer and gay interchangeably here b/c that’s just me and my identity not to be un-inclusive.
**A super special shoutout to Malinda Lo and Audrey Coulthrust for giving me the courage, through their published / soon-to-be published books, to keep on writing my f/f & f/f/m YA Fantasy books.
Questions & Comments are always welcome below or on Twitter. Thanks for reading! -P