Splashes, No.2

A few years ago, my friend took me to Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C., In addition to serving as a restaurant/bar, Busboys and Poets has a section dedicated to books. All of their book selections are “an extension of our mission to promote cultural, political and historical awareness in our diverse communities.” Basically, they have an awesome book selection.

While Busboys and Poets only features a small YA section, it got me wondering what an entire store dedicated to diverse YA books might look like. Heck, forget an entire store, let’s just start with a shelf of diverse reads. In fact, I’m sure there are stores, libraries, home collections, that already do this sort of thing. Right? Please tell me I’m right… I mean, people are already organizing their libraries by color.

rainbowdeerWhen I recently visited my local Barnes & Noble, inspired by K.Imani’s experiment, “Mad Words Turn to Positive Action,” I was pleasantly surprised with how many of the books on display were diverse ones that we’ve championed here. Of course, it could just be an alphabetical thing. I mean, Kagawa was next to Kang, while Lam, Lu, Mafi were close to each other in proximity. Maybe it was pure chance that these books were so prominently displayed.

My thinking was, why leave it up to chance? What if an entire bookshelf was simply dedicated to showcasing diverse reads? What would that look like? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll find out at Barnes & Noble any time soon. Which brings me to my next point: Does the general YA buying public care, or notice, diverse books? I’m gonna go ahead and say “no” for the sake of argument. How can we push it in their face then? Someone unaware of the struggle for more diverse books is just going to simply browse the shelves, looking for whatever catches their eye. Wouldn’t it be amazing then to have a shelf full of books featuring all diverse main characters — or titles by diverse authors?

I mean, it’s one thing to look around and see a smattering of non-white faces on covers but it’s another to be presented with row upon row of them. It’s a visual statement that can’t help but pique someone’s interest. It might make them stop and be like, “Wait, what section am I in?” And when they look up and see the big “DIVERSE READS” label, hopefully they’ll ask somebody. Or the answer will be so obviously right in front of them. Maybe they’ll go “meh” and walk on by, or maybe they’ll pooh-pooh the need for such a shelf, maybe they’ll complain! That would actually be the best, since then the bookseller could give them a mini-lecture about the importance of diversity, etc. Ha, just kidding. Not really.

Anyway, would the people in charge of putting books in places where books are put get behind something like this? I don’t know, but if publishers, librarians, book people, and readers all clamor for more diversity in their books, this seems like a small step that could be easily taken. Heck, it could be done in an hour. I’ll come help, I’m an excellent re-arranger.

Now, what I’m suggesting isn’t that diverse title should only be shelved here. But if book store promotions concurrent with Black History Month or Asian Pacific American Heritage Month come around annually, why not make a shelf of diverse reads a permanent thing? Does this tread dangerously close to “diversity” as label? Probably. But, at least for now, better some diversity than none. And isn’t “diversity” already a label marketing people are putting on things?

While it causes a little spark of joy to see a diverse book on the shelves, right now it’s a little like playing hide and seek. Wouldn’t it be cool to be overwhelmed by the selections instead? That’s how I felt walking into Busboy and Poets for the first time. “It’s all diverse books here, I can just grab one and go. Dones!”

Since we’re already headed into dream land, why not consider a shelf that incorporates affirmative action on our bookshelves. Yes, I’m talking quotas! I know, such a controversial word but hear me out. According to the 2010 census, the U.S. population is roughly 35.8% racial or ethnic minority. That breaks down to roughly 16.3% Hispanics or Latino, 12.2% Black or African American, 5.4% Asian or Pacific Islander American, and 1.9% two or more races. That leaves 64.2% white people. So taking those numbers, let’s slap together a one hundred title bookshelf that looks exactly like those percentages. What’s the point? I dunno, to see what it looks like? How would it compare to the current state of our bookshelves?

A Couple of Things

1. There’s a store in Massachusetts that specializes in multicultural books. In fact, it’s called Multi-Cultural Book World. Someone go and tell me how it is. It’s located, appropriately, on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Boston.

2. Why is there a “multicultural stories” tag in Amazon for children’s books but not for teen books? Can we get a tag Mr. Bezos? Also, what happened to the Multicultural Children’s Book Festival? Did it stop after the fifteenth one in 2010?

3. “We’ve also come very close to hiring several other non-white writers and have made a concerted effort to encourage submissions from a more diverse pool.” This is progress right? I mean, so very close!

4. Children’s Literature Association Conference presents Diverging Diversities: Plurality in Children’s & Young Adult Literature Then and Now. The first sentence kills me. “In 1965, Nancy Larrick wrote an article for the Saturday Review entitled ‘The All-White World of Children’s Books.’” This has been a thing since 1965? Geezes.

5. I’ve been reading Liz Lin’s blog series, “Coming to Terms with My Race.” She’s chronicling her experience through the five stages of Minority Identity Development (Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1993). Those are: conformity, dissonance, immersion, introspection, synergetic articulation and awareness. Also, there’s a link in her post about the stages of white racial identity development that I found veeeery interesting.

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Splashes, No.1

So I didn’t post much on Rich in Color last year — just once actually. Part of it was for lack of reading because I didn’t read as many books as I should have. Most of the reason though was because I felt frozen about what to say. A lot of my thoughts about diversity in literature were unformed, constantly changing, and oftentimes conflicting. “Nobody should write what they don’t know! Write whatever you want! Representation! Otherness! Authenticity! Research is enough, research is never enough! All experiences should be first hand!” I basically wasn’t sure what my stance on diversity was aside from “just support/read it.”

But since I’ve been mostly a non-contributing contributor here, I thought I’d better step up and start a monthly column about trying to read, write, learn, and come to terms with my (hopefully increasingly sophisticated) thoughts about diversity.

bird00I don’t know about everyone else, but when I used to read books, I barely bothered to glance at who wrote it. I just dug into a book and started reading. If I enjoyed the experience enough, I’d glance back at the cover, note the author, and then head off to the library to find their next book. That was pretty much the only time the mysterious author came into the picture…after I had read the book.

Pre-Internet, it was difficult to find out information about an author anyway. All I had to go on was the short biographical blurb and maybe an author photo. Now it’s totally different. You can find out a lot about any author. All authors are told by marketing to hurry up and build a website, slap up a bio page, and go get on some blog tours and interviews. The time one could spend on reading interviews, watching videos, and consuming guest posts from an author can literally almost outweigh the time spent on interacting with the actual book. Sidenote: This isn’t a bad thing, I love how much information is readily available.

My problem however, is that nowadays I tend to focus on the author too much, especially when it comes to diverse books. Oftentimes, before I’ve even gone halfway into something, I’ve already Googled for author background. Basically I’m looking for, and gauging, authenticity. Is this book written by someone who looks/sounds/seems like they know what they’re talking about? Yes? Okay then, let’s move on. If not, I’m reading the book with a heavily biased eye. This is terribly judge-y of me but it’s the truth, and I’m sure other people do this too.

I know, it’s very un-New Criticism of me. “New Criticism emphasizes explication, or close reading of the work itself. It rejects old historicism’s attention to biographical and sociological matters.” The thing is, I can’t ignore the context of the book. Not like when I was young. I used to read colorblind, I read just to read, and in some ways it could be said that I read dumb. Now, who the author is, their intent, the publishing environment that pushed this book into my hands, all of it weighs in my mind for better or for worse. Pandora’s box right?

As the new year turns, I’ve been trying to evaluate what I like about certain book reviews, and what kind of reviews I would like to do. Lit crit, get at me! People study this stuff, but I never did. Except for auditing that one measly class where I learned the term “New Criticism.” Sure hope I used it right. Anyway, all that naturally leads into getting into the kind of stuff that people studying this stuff get into. Books like Critical Approaches to Young Adult Literature (2009) by Kathy H. Latrobe and Judy Drury. I couldn’t believe this existed and I just had to order this sucker to dig into asap. I’ll keep you updated on what I find out. Meanwhile, I’m going to drop some links to people, articles, and some other such things. Beware, it’s a link forest ahead, sorry in advance.

Aside from just being a wonderful place in general, s.e. smith’s blog also features the best YA book reviews I’ve ever read. They are personal, nuanced, and positive. Shying away from a simple “like/dislike” review, smith totally digs into what makes a book worth reading. And when it comes to YA books with diversity, ou really nails the wider issues that a book touches on. Check out smith’s reviews of Maurene Goo’s Since You Asked and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Summer Prince as examples. And here is s.e. smith’s guest post from Disability in Kidlit, “Don’t Worry, It’s Fine When It Happens to Crazy People!”

The reviews on LA Review of Books are always supremely well written, but this one on Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine especially caught my eye. Jessica Granger’s “Dysfunctional Fabulist Families.” This line among many others: “For all Toronto’s reputation on the world stage as a happily multicultural metropolis, and for all the Canadian government’s lip service to the value of diversity, Sister Mine speaks truth, real truth, about the quotidian prejudice with which black Torontonians live.”

YALSA’s Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, a peer-reviewed online research journal, has some killer stuff on their site including Regina Sierra Carter’s “YA Literature: The Inside and Cover Story (2013)” and Sarah Hannah Gómez’s, “This, That, Both, Neither: The Badging Of Biracial Identity In Young Adult Realism (2013)”

Speaking of Sarah Hannah Gómez, I love her blog because she comes strong with the opinions and her takes are often so right on. For example, her experience at a CBC Diversity event, her review about certain aspects of Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando’s Roomies, and her calling out of incorrect usages of “multicultural” (and “diversity”).

And although I haven’t read Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park yet, I am a bit fearful after reading Wendy Xu’s, aka Angry Girl Comics, take on it. I want to believe that Park is an amazing contemporary (male) Asian-American character in YA. I want to believe that all the fans of Eleanor & Park were 100% spot on. And because Rowell took the time to write this post: “Why is Park Korean?” But I have to admit that I’m apprehensive now. That’s what I mean about knowing too much about an author. All this baggage going in…

A Couple of Things

1. I think I found a case of cover colorwashing. The knife cuts both ways! This book features a white kid trying to become a samurai, yet the cover prominently features an Asian character. I can’t decide if this is hilarious, sad, or an example of progress. (Note: Other versions of the book feature the white protagonist. Such as the Indonesian cover.)

2. “The Same Loves: White people win again at the Grammys” aka Macklemore is the worst. A recent POC organization awarded their young adult prizes to authors that weren’t POC. I don’t know the criteria obviously but I assumed being a POC would be one of them. I’m just imagining the award presentation as the non-POC award winner gazes out into an audience of all POC members. “Thank you for giving me an award to represent you! You’re the best!” Cue applause.

3. Where are the Girls? A short film starring Jemima Kirke of Girls fame about how women artists were erased from history and under/misrepresented in museums. And if you want to really go down the rabbit hole about issues of gender, class, and race representation, read up on all things Girls related. Start here, “Lena Dunham Talks About Girls Being Super White (2012).”

4. I’m way interested in the individuals who populate the diverse YA blogosphere. There’s a lot of blogs, some old, some new, and all constantly shining the light on diversity in YA! If you’re one of these fine people, tell me so I can follow you, share you, and heck, interview you!

5. Oh, why “splashes?” I mean, it’s mostly my lame attempt to thematically match Rich in Color. Plus it reminds me of Splash, the greatest mermaid movie of all time. At least until September Girls gets adapted.

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Guest Post: E.C. Myers

We’re excited to welcome E.C. Myers, recent winner of the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy for his YA debut, Fair Coin. In addition, E.C. deserves additional medals for being a thoughtful and super fun author, and we’re delighted he had the time to stop by and guest post. Read on!


myers_coinsOver the course of writing and selling my first two books — we’re talking over the course of many years, because that’s how publishing rolls — diversity in YA became more important to me as a reader and as an author. When I first drafted Fair Coin, I envisioned the protagonist, Ephraim Scott, as half Puerto Rican and his love interest, Jena Kim, as half Korean; but aside from a few oblique character descriptions, readers might not have realized it. Ephraim’s friend Nathan is Jewish, and Mary and Shelley are Latina, but again, these began as insignificant details — details that were perhaps only there for me, the writer.

Eventually, I decided that just wasn’t good enough.

As I became more aware of how few multicultural YA books there are, I realized that the diversity in my own stories was almost invisible. There’s a simple reason for that: Growing up as a half-Korean boy, I didn’t define myself by my mixed heritage, and so I figured it need not be a big deal for Ephraim or Jena either. (And I certainly didn’t want to include stereotypical characteristics just to bring the point home: “Look! You can tell she’s Korean because eats kimchi!”) But even though I considered myself simply “American,” whatever that means, from the outside, many people saw me as Asian — and that might not be a bad thing in fiction, when there aren’t many Asians at all.

It took me a while to realize I could give my characters richer backgrounds and make them more visibly from other cultures without making the books about their heritage. I could be nuanced without rendering their heritage invisible, by conveying their different upbringing in their perspectives and how they approach situations and each other, not just what they eat, how they talk, or what they wear. The characterizations were deeper for it, and I hoped there would be readers out there who would see some of their own unique experiences reflected in them — and see Latino and Asian characters who identified as such, as part and parcel of their personalities.

I did tweak Fair Coin before publication to emphasize the characters’ backgrounds more, but diversity isn’t something you can just shoehorn into a book. I had more freedom in writing Quantum Coin and tying it in more organically to the plot. Ephraim’s Puerto Rican father reappears in his life, giving him a glimpse of how different things would be if he’d been raised by him instead of his mother. And we also see Jena’s immigrant relatives and some of the unfortunate impact of racism on her and her Korean family.

I’m more committed to including more people of color in my fiction from here on, but I’m still learning that the degrees must be dictated by the nature of the story, rather than the other way around. The science fiction YA manuscript I’m working on now is very multicultural, because it makes sense for that world, but that also means that diversity is also a given for those characters. (If only!) Mainly, I’m determined to look for opportunities to include more characters from different backgrounds and with each story, question whether the protagonist can be of another race, gender, or sexuality before simply defaulting to white male. And that’s the least we can ask of any writer: To consider more varied perspectives in your fiction and challenge yourself to do better than what you’ve done before.


ecmyersE(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. His debut young novel Fair Coin won the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and its sequel, Quantum Coin, just released recently. He blogs at ecmyers.net and is on Twitter @ecmyers.

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Degrees of Difficulty: Writing the Other

It’s not easy writing about other, well, people. Cultural appropriation, offending someone’s sexual orientation, overlooking someone’s lack of privilege, it’s just land mines everywhere isn’t it? Even when you think you’re being sensitive, something comes along that tells you you’re wrong. Heck, it was just a few short years ago that I learned “Caucasian” was a dirty word. Sorry white people, I may have inadvertently insulted you. The good news is, from every mistake comes a learning moment.

When I read books about POCs, the first thing I do is check out the author. Are they a minority? Are they from the same ethnicity as the main character? Is there something in their bio that points to why they chose their protagonist to be non-white? Sometimes I think this might be a bad habit, as I tend to then read the book with a different perception heading in, colored by my pre-conceptions. Perhaps in an ideal world, I should read the book first, and then check out the author. But right now, I go into a book wanting to know who wrote it, and why they chose to include this person or that background.

What I’m basically looking for is this: what kind of authenticity is the author bringing to this book? If it’s a black author writing a black character, that makes me pay attention. If it’s someone non-Japanese writing a book set in modern day Japan, I perk up.

As most writers know, representing the other is not easy. This doesn’t even apply to just others. The authenticity question applies to every experience you might put down on paper. I had a friend in college who wrote an essay about kissing — creative writing requirements can be hilarious can’t they? — but it was clear from his words that he had never kissed a girl before. Needless to say, he lost the reader. Screwing up writing the other can do the same for your work.

gym01What I’d like to present here then, is a degrees of difficulty for authors writing the other. As arranged by gymnastic moves. Because, I mean, who isn’t/wasn’t into gymnatics? Dominique Moceanu forever! Gymnastics scoring is based on two things: degree of difficulty and execution. What I want to look at is how difficult it is to gain some authenticity, and strive to write a book that you can vehemently defend against critics’ claims that you “got it all wrong.”

I’m keeping my comments confined to racial diversity for the purposes of this post. But I believe the same scale could be used for all things other. The degree of difficulty score is just for the attempt, it has nothing to do with the execution. Hopefully, everyone can nail the landing. Because we are all superstars.

Note: Degree of difficulty score is rated for how hard it would be to get writing the other “right.”

Somersault
You’re not including any racial diversity in your book. Everyone is from the same background, there are no non-white people in 1800’s Europe, blah blah blah. That’s fine, it’s your book, do what you want.
Degree of Difficulty: 0.0

Cartwheel
You’ve decided to throw in a side character who is a minority. It’s super trendy so you think to yourself, “How can I jam in some diversity in here?” You decide to change a few physical characteristics, try your hand at capturing an accent, and sling on a last name that sounds different. Voila, diversity is fun!
Degree of Difficulty: 1.3

Splits
You are writing about your own ethnicity. If it’s not obvious you’re of that ethnicity — through author photos, last name checks, etc. — you may have to point that out during interviews. Or in your bio. The good news is you won’t have to answer any questions like, “What do you know about being Asian?” Your answer can always be, “I am Asian!” This “I am ____” card can be played at any time, but also understand that you’re now open to critiques about how you’re representing your people.

Sidenote: This last point can actually make your degree of difficulty skyrocket, depending on how interested you are in remaining in good standing with your community. This topic should actually be explored in another post. Writing the other while being that other, while keeping an eye on those others. Whew, what a mouthful. We’ll shelve it for next time…
Degree of Difficulty: 2.7

Handstand
“I was born there, raised there, etc.” Any close variation of this works out well. If you’re a native, even though you’re not of that ethnicity, your authenticity rating is going to be pretty high. Just make sure to include that tidbit in your bio, yeah?
Degree of Difficulty: 3.2

Round Off
Someone you know is of the Other. They are your (best) friend, your wife, your boyfriend, your mentor, your mailman. Whoever it is, you have drawn inspiration from them and have decided to immortalize them in ink. Bravo! A beautiful idea. However, beware the pitfall of singular models. That’s all I have to say here. Beware. Singular. Models. Nobody looks kindly on the “my black friend said…” defense.
Degree of Difficulty: 5.8

gabby-douglas-olympics-thumb-640xauto-6353Walkover
A few years ago, you took a vacation to somewhere that you are writing about now. You brought along a shiny new Moleskin, took copious notes, engaged in witty banter with the people who served your meals (perhaps testing out your recently acquired Rosetta Stone skills), and even sat in the square people watching for an entire afternoon. You have visited the Other side and now feel confident you can write with authority.

You could even kick this up a notch. “I lived there for x-number of months.” That is a powerful statement. Very powerful. But even having lived somewhere for a few months doesn’t mean you know every/anything. I lived in England for six months but was nestled away in the countryside for most of it. I wouldn’t feel comfortable representing any location outside of Seven Oaks, much less write broadly about the British.

Your weekend jaunt to India should hopefully leave you feeling the same. Visiting places is all blind men and elephants, as far as I’m concerned. What about an immersion program, or having taught English in another country you ask? Same, same, same!
Degree of Difficulty: 6.4

Front Handspring
You have immersed yourself in research. Lots of research. Dense history books, subtitled but never dubbed movies, pertinent YouTube videos, gushy travel magazine articles, drool worthy food blogs. You stalk Instagram accounts, am super pro at using Google Earth, stake out front row seats at all the local cultural celebrations. You know more about the history of Cinco De Mayo than your Mexican friends do.

All of this is very fine, and your efforts should be applauded. However, being an expert — and probably a bit of a know it all — on something does not necessarily mean you won’t be challenged about writing the Other. Your Asian Studies minor, the one you took four upper division classes in to graduate on time, is shiny but what do you really know?
Degree of Difficulty: 7.1

Backflip
You’re aiming to make a nuanced portrayal that will make reviewers exclaim, “How did this white guy write a transgendered black female so well?!” People hold their breath as you could possibly land on your head.
Degree of Difficulty: 8.7

Piked Arabian Double Front
You’ve done it, you’ve written a book that not only includes diversity but withstands critical analysis, is fetted with lots of awards, and not only makes you proud, but people will use it as a textbook for “How to write the Other.”
Degree of Difficulty: 9.9

As you can see, writing the other is not easy. Allow me to link to someone far more eloquent than I: s.e. smith’s blog post “Writing the Other.” It’s got less gymnastics comparisons but far more solid information and thoughts to chew on. Also, I’ve never done gymnastics in my life so this entire post could be suspect. You decide!

gym02

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