Reflections on Diversity inspired by the IN-SCBWI Conference
Last weekend I spent an awesome time with Kidlit writers from around the state of Indiana. There was top notch talent brought in from the state and New York and overall, I have really come to look forward to this conference.
The irony of the conference is that the theme was diversity. Why ironic? Let's just say that, from the outside looking in, the room seriously lacked in diversity. And it got me thinking about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign. Now, this is not the first time my mind has turned to this subject. Here's my tumblr post from eleven months ago.
One of the messages I took away from the conferences, from the editors and agents, is that diversity is not just about race. It's about socio-economics and religion and sexual orientation and education and... etc. So why is it, when we talk about diversity, we automatically jump to race? Because it is about race. (Okay, maybe sexual orientation is less about race than the others, but I would argue that there is still a racial bias when it comes to who you love.)
Now, obviously I'm a white woman. From the picture above, you can probably figure that out. So I can't pretend to know what it's like to be a man or a person of any other race. Except, what you don't know is that while applying for graduate school it came out that my great-grandmother on my biological father's side was full-blooded Oneida Indian? That makes me 1/16 American Indian. And yet, when I pitched an idea about a girl finding out that she was part Indian while applying for college and a journey of discovery that she went on to learn about her culture, I was advised not to write the book.
Even though it would have been a fictionalized story of MY experience. I am literally the best person to write this book. It's my story. I KNOW this story. I was willing to spend months researching and getting to know a group of people that I am descended from. To live with them and learn about their customs and their struggles. To find out where I come from.
This was another message that I got from the conference this weekend. Because I am a white girl from Indiana, trying to write about a character of another race is an uphill battle. So what can I do. I support the need for more diverse books, especially in kidlit. I think it's probably one of the most important movements we have in the industry and we need to make sure it doesn't fizzle out.
Why do I support it so much? I mean, I'm kinda in the majority when it comes to published authors in YA... female, white, middle class. (We're not going to talk about age because a lady never reveals her secrets.) But having characters that I could relate to is a HUGE reason why I became an author in the first place. (Granted, it was the Choose Your Own Adventure Books that pushed me over the edge, but that is another blog post for another time.) So if we want more diverse writers, we need to connect readers to writing by giving them diverse characters that defy stereotype. We need to give them literary role models both fictional and real. We need to give them opportunities to learn from other authors about writing.
And then the question comes up as how? Yes, I can probably write in some great characters of diversity into my books, and in fantasy, you can get away with it maybe a little easier than contemporary, but one of the questions that I ask myself when I'm starting a new project is: "Are you the right person to tell this story?" Which is a gut check moment for why am I writing this story. A last pause before I head into the next project. Sometimes the answer is no.
So then what? I don't know about you, but one of the things I want to make sure I do is to support authors who are writing GOOD stories about diverse characters, regardless of their race or other protected (and unprotected... I am in Indiana, afterall) class status. I can make it a priority to try to get into schools that serve an under-represented population. I've even thought about offering discounts to libraries and other schools who bring me in for author visits if they will arrange for me to visit an inner-city or rural school. Sure, I may not make a huge difference, but whenever I wonder how much of an impact I can make in the charge for more diverse books, I keep thinking back to the Starfish Story.
In case you haven't heard of this amazing story, here's your moment of zen...