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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Diversity on the Shelf

Would you like to add a challenge to your reading life? There are a few reading challenges going on this year that highlight diverse lit. I have joined two that will help add more diversity to my year.

My Little Pocketbooks
Diversity on the Shelf is being hosted by Alysia at My Little Pocketbooks. She has provided an excellent list of resources for finding diverse lit and will be having link-ups throughout the year. She has a giveaway going on right now too. I have already started working on this challenge by reading Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres, Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou and Inheritance by Malinda Lo in addition to some children’s lit. I have started a Goodreads shelf and here you can also see any books shelved with the tag Diversity on the Shelf 2014 by other challenge participants.
latin@s

Another fun challenge is being hosted by Latin@s in Kid Lit. They are encouraging people to read children’s and young adult literature by or about Latin@s. They also provide resource lists and suggestions. There will be link-ups here also.

 

When I started making my plan for what I would be reading this year, one of the lists I checked was the Best Multicultural Books of 2013 to see what I may have missed last year. The list was created by the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature.

 

Whether you join a formal reading challenge or not, I hope that this year you will be reading and supporting diverse young adult literature in any way that you are able. I wish you a fantastic year of reading!
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Are We Food?

One night as I was reading a novel, a character description, one that I’ve seen in countless stories, struck me as odd. The character in question was described as having olive skin. I know the type of picture that is coming to your mind when I use the words “olive skin”. However, on that particular night, whether I had just had a martini or seen a picture of olives or something, but suddenly the words “olive skin” to describe characters of color just didn’t feel right.

Let’s look at Exhibit A: A picture of people with “olive skin”
oliveskin
Exhibit B: A picture of olives.
olives-herbs-ck-1065517-l
Exhibit C: Do these olives fit?
olives-wallpaper
Do you see what I see? The images don’t exactly match. Now, I do know there are a variety of olives out there and maybe Exhibit C olives could work, but the question still remains, why and how did writers ever come up with using olive as a skin tone? As someone who falls into the olive skin tone category, I’m a bit insulted because my skin looks nothing like an olive. I don’t have greenish undertones to my skin, I have yellow. And really, human beings only have yellow or red undertones to their skin, but that is an entirely different essay on an entirely different type of blog.

 
While I’m focusing on the use of olive skin tones as my point, there is a larger question at work here. Why are characters of color often described using food metaphors? Think about it. We have chocolate, caramel, brown sugar, honey skin. Granted, I have seen white characters as creamy and milk, but there is a large reliance on authors to use food as a descriptor for characters of color. It’s not just non-POC writers who use food, but writers of color as well. We’ve internalized the use of food to describe each other in our communities so often, that it makes sense that we use the same descriptions in our writing. We’ve internalized these descriptions for so long, that we don’t recognize them as potentially harmful. Maybe it’s time for this to change.

 

 
There has been a call by a number of POC writers, specifically in the Science Fiction/Fantasy community, to end using food descriptions as metaphors. Many authors have written blog posts about how to write character of colors and get away from the stereotypical food descriptions. For me, at first I was unsure of how I felt on the topic, but when I was revising my novel I decided to not use food to describe any of my characters. It was a challenge for me, to change my way of thinking, but I am proud that I was able to write good character descriptions without having to use stereotypical metaphors. So, for any writers that read our blog, I challenge you. Try to write your characters without describing them as food (same for using almond eyes to note someone is Asian). Describe your characters differently. Maybe use a different metaphor; I read one that compared a character’s skin color to a brass doorknob. Or, as my mentor suggested, write skin tone in contrast to something different, like their clothing. It’s really up to you. The point is to extend your thinking and find unique and different ways to describe your characters.

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What I Mean When I Talk Diversity

In the spring I’m going to be teaching a class, currently titled “Writing the Other” and will focus on why we need diversity in literature, while giving practical tips and tools at the same time. As I was discussing the class with my reading group, one friend asked, “well, doesn’t calling it ‘the other’ further alienate, set up further differences?” Our group, which is diverse in its own right, went crazy explaining why the class is needed. I think we might have been a bit overzealous and I felt like we might have made her feel bad. Instead, she reflected on the conversation and wrote this touching blog post (Default white?) where she basically unpacked her privilege and thought about what she could do better. She explored the concept of the “default white”, which she admits, she had never given much thought too. In recognizing her own misconceptions, she realized the importance of having these discussions about diversity and that all of us, white, black, yellow, green and purple, have a responsibility to making our literature reflect our world.

diversity1
A few months ago I wrote about that I’m tired of the “it’s diversity surprise” but I think I have to amend my statement because as I was beta reading a friend’s novel, I had the “it’s diversity, surprise” and I was actually glad to have it. And when I sent her an email thanking her for the surprise, it made me realize that by sending the “Thank Yous” and the “Nice Diverse world” notes to authors who are not of color, we encourage more authors (and by extension publishers) to open the doors for more diverse stories. In my friend’s novel, the diversity isn’t forced, isn’t a “very special topic”, it just is. As diversity is in real life – it just is. The “it’s diversity surprise” is just a reaction to seeing diversity just as it is and not some overreaching lesson. Those stories still do have a place as well, but we also need to have more stories where diversity just is. It’s in the background where characters interact at the coffee shop, in the classroom, at the movies. It’s in the variety of friends, and not the token Person of Color, especially in a story that is set in a big city. Its in the way teachers, community leaders are presented in a story as diversity exists there as well. Diversity is everywhere and our literature needs to embrace it.

Those examples of seeing diversity in every day lives is what we mean when we talk diversity. We need publishers to understand that the world we live in is not filled with just one type of person, one type of story. The world is colorful with skin tones of every different shade, with numerous cultures that are just as valid as any other. We all have the responsibility to make diversity in literature a very real thing. No one group should be responsible for shouldering the work. We all have a stake in this world; we need to help each other when we make mistakes and lift each other up in praise when we achieve greatness.

So, what do I mean when I talk diversity? I mean that we are all in this fight together. With my friend who wrote the blog post, with my other friend who included diversity in her novel, with my fellow writers here at Rich in Color – everyone. We are a diverse group and if we want to see change, we need to make it happen.

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Why We Need Diverse Literature and How to Find It

Why do we need diverse literature?
First, we need to know and understand ourselves. People need literature that helps them see others like them – to know they are not alone. We need literature that reflects many ways of being and ways of living in our world so we all have a chance to see someone like us. Second, to interact respectfully with others in society, it’s helpful to realize that there are people in the world who have another perspective. We can explore our differences and similarities through literature. There is a quote on the Lee & Low website attributed to both Rudine Sims Bishop & Ginny Moore Kruse “A single book can be a mirror for some people and a window for others.” Those mirrors and windows help us understand and connect with people in the world around us, but we need more than just one story. We need a multitude of stories.

In the following TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the “Danger of the Single Story.” Adichie explains that many individuals only know one story about a people and that may lead to stereotyping. When we know only one story about a culture, the risk is that we assign that story to all the people we believe are part of that group. Adichie provides an amazing and at times amusing presentation that speaks to the need for more stories about each other. This video is from 2009, but even if you have viewed it previously, it’s worth a second or even third look. Photographer Matika Wilbur also touches on this idea in her TED Talk. She’s concerned about the single picture that many people may have in their minds about Native Americans due to media exposure. Her current project is photographing individuals from 562 federally recognized Tribal Nations with a goal to “unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose her vitality” (quoted from her blog). She is not only creating portraits, but is collecting their many and varied stories to share. This video is also well worth the few minutes it takes to watch.


Wondering where to find a multitude of stories?
It’s no secret that there is a serious lack of diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Literature. There have been a large number of blog posts and articles recently to that effect. But there are some diverse books being published. They are not in the numbers I would like to see, but they do exist. They can be hard to find, so we have some resources on our blog to help make it easier. In the tabs at the top of this page, we provide a release calendar that displays titles scheduled to be published in the coming months. In addition, we have a resource page with links to many excellent websites/blogs that review and share diverse literature along with links to publishers focusing on diverse materials. We created a Goodreads profile with a growing list of titles and there are also blogs in our blog roll on the right-hand side of the page that focus on diversity.

But how can we know which stories are accurate representations?
Matika Wilbur noted in her TED Talk that some Native American images and stories from the media have been damaging to Native people. As a school librarian, I want to provide many diverse stories for my students, but not all stories are helpful. Just look at some of the early Newbery Award winners. There were a few books with cultural diversity, but several fed into stereotypes (one I highlight below). As an educator, I have to evaluate the resources I am providing to our staff and students. I am clearly not an expert on every culture in the world, but here are a few questions* that help guide me in my selection process for school and also as a reader:

  • Who is the author and what experience or knowledge do they have as they write from this cultural perspective? (This helps me understand the lens the reader will be looking through)
  • If they are not a native of that culture, is it published by a publisher from that culture and/or has it been favorably reviewed by someone from that culture?
  • Are the characters distinct, fully developed and free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • If there are illustrations, are they free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • Is it a well developed and engaging story?

It can be helpful to know the lens of the author. In the case of Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children (1926 Newbery winner), the stories were filled with broken English, verbal caricatures and misinformation. I read Shen last year and was horrified. As I investigated his knowledge base of Chinese culture, I found a post from a blogger named Amanda. She pointed to the April 1, 1994 issue of School Library Journal. In it Margaret Chang wrote, “Chrisman had never been to China, did not read Chinese, and claimed to be aided by two Chinese speakers, but gave no sources for the stories in his book” (p 42). According to the book’s description Shen is comprised of “Sixteen stories reflecting the spirit of Chinese life and thought.” Chrisman appears to have taken what he knew about Chinese culture, consulted a Chinese shopkeeper or two in California about some of the details and proceeded to create original stories. He may have even been doing this in some way to “honor” Chinese culture, but this is not a book I will be purchasing or sharing with my students.

I tend to specifically seek out books that are written from an insider’s perspective like No Crystal StairYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Since You Asked, but there are also people born outside a culture who have provided authentic representation. Debby Dahl Edwardson is not Inupiaq (Eskimo) by birth, but she’s been a part of that culture for many years. She has written powerful stories with fully developed, realistic characters in her YA historical novels, My Name is Not Easy and Blessing’s Bead. My Name is Not Easy is a look into the effect of the residential schools on Native students and their families. She did not rely on stereotypes, but created complex and unique characters. On her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Rees shared Beverly Slapin’s very favorable reviewI would recommend Edwardson’s books without hesitation and there are many other talented authors that learn about a culture and successfully represent it in their novels.

We may not have balanced representation in publishing yet, but there are some fabulous pieces of literature that can be our mirrors and windows. Let’s seek them out and share them.

Chang, M. A. (1994). Chinoiserie in American picture books: Excursions to Cathay. School Library Journal40(4), 42.

*Some of my questions were developed with influence from Full Circle’s Criteria for Authentic Native American Books & Oyate’s comprehensive evaluation criteria

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FWFF alas

Foreign Words for Foreign Flavor (FWFF): when writers toss in words from languages not their own just to make it clear that everything is happening in a foreign culture where things are ~exotic~ and different

Example: The shadows made his face resemble a gui. He looked just like a demon! Terrified, I dropped my xiezi on the ground and screamed as my shoes hit the ground.
Bu pa!” the figure said, stepping into the light. It was only Wang Dazhong, son of the Long emperor and the heir to the Dragon Dynasty. “Don’t be afraid! I will turn out to be handsome and soft-hearted in three to five chapters!”

Yes, sometimes authors mix in different languages and it totally works.* It’s fantastic, beautiful even. Makes me cry tears so joyful and pure that scientists use them in chemical experiments. Many books don’t commit FWFF.

But sometimes — the author means well. The author has done research, lots of it. The author has even toured the country in question. (I’m a little bitter about this part because flying off to have fun in other countries costs $$$. Hmph.) The author might even have stayed in the country for years and years. Still. I’ve got problems with FWFF:

1) Hey, this isn’t even about ethnicity/nationality/cultural background. This is a matter of writing quality. It’s just plain bad writing to throw in words from other languages when they don’t serve any purpose other than, well, foreign flavor. If the words are only there to provide exotic atmosphere, then that is a failure on the part of the writer. Good writing should be able to explain cultural differences to the reader without hitting the reader over the head with it. Don’t fall into the FWFF trap — especially if you’re not from the culture in question and the foreign language isn’t one you’re intimately acquainted with, which brings us to:

2) Okay, so it is kind of about cultural perspective. FWFF assumes that the reader is always an outsider, just like the author. For example, someone who doesn’t know Japanese would need translations for the greetings and clan names and weapon types in all those Japan-inspired fantasy books (written by people who aren’t Japanese!) that have been cropping up lately. There’s always the super awkward translation of every foreign phrase stuffed into the text at intervals (necessary because there’s no way the reader could possibly speak that language, right? /sarcasm).

FWFF and all its related buddies make it clear that the target audience is not from or even remotely knowledgeable about the language/culture in question. It turns the insiders into the true outsiders. When an author uses a different culture as an easy substitute for a fantasy setting, or to add spice to the tale, the result is shoddy writing and an alienating story. When an author uses a culture not their own as a shortcut for an exotic setting, the author says: This book isn’t for you. It’s for people who think foreign means exotic and mystical and weird.

Well, let me tell you a thing. “Foreign” and “Other” — these things are a matter of perspective. What’s foreign to you isn’t foreign to someone else. That’s something to keep in mind when writing, okay? Okay.**

*The Summer Prince uses sprinklings of words from other languages — like “mushibot” — and it’s awesome! Swoon.
**Note: FWFF has many little friends crawling around literature land. You know — stereotypical characters, names that are straight out of a foreign language dictionary, mystical customs, strangely alluring dance moves, etc.

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