So let's be honest. We authors are terrified of diversity in children's books.
Are we doing it right? Are we offending anyone by not including/including a character who is 'other' in our stories? Who is allowed to write about other cultures/races/sexual orientations? Who should be offended? Who should just keep their mouths shut?
I have publicly expressed some views on diversity (read Growing up I thought Filipinos were not allowed to be in books), but in the main, I have to confess I have been careful not to step in to the public spats that burn across the world of social media like brushfires that are hard to put out. I keep my counsel not just because I am so busy it feels like I'm drowning, but because the heat is intense.
And yet here I am, described by many as one of the UK's 'diverse authors'.
I do embrace this label (I've even put it into the search engine optimisation of my various websites so that anyone searching for 'diverse authors' will find me). My debut Tall Story was selected for a list of the Fifty Best Culturally Diverse Children's Books by a group of experts under the aegis of the Seven Stories Centre (see here and here). Librarians are always asking me to recommend diverse children's books.
|At the reception for the Fifty Best Culturally Diverse Books at the Guardian Newspaper|
And yet when I sit down to write, diversity is not top of my agenda. I do not design my characters thinking: 'I must have 20 percent English, 20 percent Filipino, oh maybe an American character so that I can be published in America. But I can't feature an African American because I don't know what it's like to be one.'
I just want to tell a good story and my character casting reflects the diversity that I experience on a daily basis.
When "Diversity" began to replace "Multiculturalism" as an object for society to desire in everything from the arts to business, I thought it was a very good thing indeed, widening the definition of peoples and cultures that deserved respect and recognition.
But it soon became clear that Diversity meant many things to many people.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSIONDiversity as Inclusion is always high on my mind because I grew up in the Philippines at a time when there was little publishing going on and books with all-white cast lists were imported from the United States. I identify keenly with that experience of wondering whether the absence of people like you reflects your lack of importance in the wider world.
I am still that little girl who wondered why there were never any Filipinos in the books she read - and so I will always write a Filipino sensibility into my characters. It is, as I often tell audiences, writing not just what I know but who I am. It is not as easy as it sounds because writing who you are means delving into places in your experience you would not otherwise want to revisit. But I sincerely believe that going there makes my stories ring truer, engaging readers from any background.
My friend Sarwat Chadda, who is British of Indian extraction, had the same experience:
I grew up reading myths about Greek heroes, about Vikings, Normans and Saracens, stories of Sinbad and King Arthur, and I’ve loved them all. But where were my heroes? My parents immigrated to England from the Indian Subcontinent and growing up in the 1970’s I had no heroes that I could call mine except Mowgli. The only Indian in children’s literature and he was over a hundred years old. Even Kim, Kipling’s other great child hero, is actually Irish. I wanted heroes like me, but not labelled as ‘ethnic’.Sarwat writes adventure books (the Ash Mistry series) starring boys like him and featuring monsters from Indian mythology. 'I didn’t have to be Scandinavian to enjoy tales of Vikings and I don’t believe you need to be Asian to enjoy tales of Rama and of Ash Mistry,' says Sarwat. 'Heroes are heroes and we love them wherever they come from.'
But if we focus on diversity as inclusion, does it simply mean that authors of whatever race or creed can feel free to write any character of any sensibility, race or culture into their books?
I vote YES. Yes because, although I am writing heroes who are Filipino like me, my real world is not monocultural and I want to write not only about my world but for my world. Also, I would be a very sad author indeed if I could only write characters who came over to London from Cubao, Quezon City in the Philippines.
DIVERSITY AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATIONAh, but someone will say, you're wrong to vote yes. The answer is more complicated than that because you might be contributing to the Problem.
A group of librarians have set up a website called Reading While White (read their mission statement). One blog post attempted to answer the question "Do I have the right to write about ______?"
The answer is easy. Yes, you have the right to write about whatever you want, in the USA, at least. The constitution guarantees free speech (although, and this is key, it does not guarantee consequence-free speech). So, yeah--we White people can write pretty much whatever we want and nobody will send us to jail for it.
But either or both of the following might be true:
1) You might drown out or overshadow (effectively silencing) marginalized people who justly want to tell their own stories.
2) You might get some stuff wrong and evoke criticism from people whom you misrepresent.
And nothing you do can alter either of these truths. Not even asking permission from someone from the culture about which you're writing. Read the whole thing
In fact, I have just run into this very problem. I am currently working on a book set in a particular historical space, told in the voice of a boy from a particular tribe in the Philippines. I have spent the past two years reading entire libraries, original documents and diaries from that era, describing these people. But from the tribe itself, there are no documents that date from that era. Have I done enough to justify the publication of this story? I may be Filipino, but I am not from that tribe, do I have the right to create a hero from that background?
Here's how one African American writer responds to fellow African Americans saying 'Bruh, don't let them tell our stories':
Whenever this comes up—and I’ve heard it more than you think—it’s probably linked to my statements about writers getting it right IF they plan to write outside of their culture. Dude, seriously, that’s not me telling another writer to appropriate someone’s culture, especially mine. That’s the same advice I’d give someone writing about engineering, or cooking with truffles, or Minecraft. What I’m saying is if you’re going to do it, don’t be lazy. That’s a far cry from, “Here, take my life.”
But, I get the concern. I have a platform, and I’m not saying, “Hey, don’t you dare write about [insert applicable Other] people.” I won’t say that. I can’t. Before I ever made a dime from my writing, I spent cumulative years of my life alone in a room making up stories about all kinds of people. I consider it a sacred process and would not have reacted kindly to someone leaning over my shoulder saying, “Don’t type that.” I will never tell another writer what they’re allowed to write. Sorry, not sorry. Read the whole post by teen author Lamar Giles
Well, I am writing the best book that I can. And I am hoping against hope that it does not drown out or overshadow anyone but encourage them to tell their own stories.
DIVERSITY AND RACISMOf all the structural inequalities though, it is race more than culture that is a minefield, especially in the United States.
Early in October I was one of the authors featured in the excellent Filipino American International Book Festival in San Francisco [FYI British peeps: it is still summer there ... how unfair is that?] Speaking to Filipino American novelists, poets and film makers, I was struck by how often challenges in the Fil-Am community, literary or otherwise, were described in the context of racial discrimination.
'People try harder from your neck of the woods,' someone told me, their perception being that racism in the United Kingdom is far less acute than in the United States with Ferguson and other examples of racialised violence, the emergence of words like 'blackface', 'redface', 'yellowface' (to mean appropriation and exploitation of black, native American and Asian culture) - as well as 'microaggression' to mean cultural overstepping that is equivalent to racial violence. Reading While White describes the problem thus:
... Race is society’s biggest structural organizer, and it is essential to recognize it as such. If it were not, we would see neighborhoods and schools comprised of LGBTQIA+ people, or people with disabilities, of all different races, living together. But this is not the case; instead, neighborhoods and schools are starkly racially segregated.In 2014, the announcement that BookCon's top panel was going to be all-white and all-male sparked a Twitter-backlash that led to the creation of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Today, the campaign is planning a festival, hands out awards and grants, mentorships, contests as well as lists of diverse authors and books. Says co-founder Ellen Oh:
"The part where we have to keep going after gatekeepers and reminding people about why it's good to read diversely and why it's good to introduce children to diversity — that part of it, I hope eventually it becomes the norm and we don't have to do that anymore." ReadThe weird thing of course is that from here the other side of the pond, the bookshelves of America look incredibly diverse - I always marvel at the faces of all hues smiling out of the children's departments of bookstores and libraries I visit in America. But this is apparently deceptive. In 2013, of 3,200 children's books published, only 93 featured black people, according to a study.
It must be even worse in the UK. Not just the books but the book industry are even more monocultural (I am reverting to 'culture' rather than 'race' - because, heads up, world, there are marginalised pink-skinned people too).
Children's author Leila Rasheed says growing up in that book monoculture 'affected my own writing and what I was able to imagine'.
I really want the next generation of British BAME children to be able to write themselves into all kinds of stories – and not to internalise the idea that to be the hero/ine of an exciting, thrilling, magical or dramatic story, you have to be white. Unfortunately, I feel that won’t happen unless we make it happen.
The fact is, children’s publishing as an industry is extremely lacking in diversity, and as a result the need to include all children equally in literature is often simply forgotten, or its importance is not understood or felt. And sometimes, sadly, people actively dislike the idea that diversity and equality might be as important in children’s literature as anywhere else. Having said that, Megaphone has had so much enthusiastic support from publishers and writers, that I am sure those people are not the majority. There is definitely a feeling that change is needed. Read the interview
DIVERSITY IN DIVERSITYLiving here (or on Twitter) it's easy to think that Diversity is an issue that exists only in America or the United Kingdom. But hey, there are diversity issues EVERYWHERE in the world.
This became extra apparent to me early this year when I was one of the tutors at a retreat for writers and illustrators on an Indonesian island just a ferry ride from Singapore. We were a melting pot of nations – from the Philippines, Singapore, Macau, Canada, Indonesia, Hong Kong, India, Vietnam, Portugal, the United States, England and Australia.
It is interesting, being thrown into such a diverse group. It made us all wonder.
How come we buy into Western stories but the West has no interest in ours? Can Asia publish literature that the West will enjoy? Can we in Asia read each other's stories? How can I interest you in my story? How can we live so close to one another and yet know nothing about the other? Who are you really? Who am I? How can Asia, fragmented by so many languages and so many cultures, overwhelmingly swamped by American (irony!) culture, create a literature that is accessible to the world?
After the retreat, I gave a keynote speech at the Asian Festival for Children's Content with the following message:
Asia is not fragmented. It is diverse. Think of all the stories that can emerge from that diversity! This is not a problem it’s an opportunity.My new friends from the retreat helped me illustrate my message with the following photos:
Diversity is vexed and complex territory, and right now authors must pick their way carefully through the burning coals. How do we get beyond thinking of Diversity as a problem to seeing it as an opportunity?
Clare Bell and illustrator Dave Grey worked together on The Unstoppable Maggie McGee, a book about children in hospital.
I urge you all to read Clare's inspiring blog post on how spending time with ill and disabled children threw out all her plans for the book.
It is an example of how, however well-intentioned, we all tend to approach a project with preconceived notions that only research and hard work can dispel. I have seen the final product and Clare and Dave have created a beautiful book - I can't wait to get my copy.
Indeed, let me end this piece on Diversity with three things I learned from Clare's article, that are relevant to creating diverse stories:
1. Your character's Otherness doesn't have to be The Story.
2. You can't go wrong if your characters are fully imagined.
3. The best story, the one that will captivate readers, should be built on truth and not on agenda.
Tall Story and Shine. She also blogs on her website. You might be interested in Candy's recent article asking what Middle Grade Literature really is about over on the Our Book Reviews Online blog.
Megaphone is a new writer development scheme for Black, Asian and other ethnic minority writers who are interested in writing for children. It is now open for applications! Please share the link widely if you can. This Arts Council and Publishers' association funded scheme includes masterclasses from fantastic children's authors (including me!), feedback from top editors (Hachette , Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin Random House, PanMacmillan UK.) and promotion to the publishing industry. Applicants need to be
1) from an ethnic minority
2) resident in England
3) never previously have published a book for children/ teenagers (they could have published one for adults, or poetry).