Imagine living life without mirrors, windows, or doors. That’s the daily lived experience of women and people of color. Literature serves as the mirror reflecting our present selves, the window showcasing to-be-discovered worlds, and the door leading to new opportunities. As the statistics above iterate, books about or written by people of color (POC) far under index what one should expect. While POC account for ~40% of the US population, only ~25% of books published in the US showcase POC stories.1 Of those books that do reference POC experiences, less than half are written by POC authors. Females, though apparent in YA fiction, can at best aspire to “also ran” status while stories told from a male POV receive the vast majority of accolades.
When we do find diversity in media—be it literature or film—the stories often replay the same tropes and stereotypical tales with which society has become all too comfortable. These facts confine much of POC and female-centric YA fiction to historical or strictly contemporary narratives. On the one hand, stereotypes appear to mirror the mean—the perception of a defined collective’s shared experience. However, regardless of whatever familiar truth may lie in the archetype, to deny the ability to tell a different story is to deny the character—and all that she might represent—the fundamental right to metamorphose, to define who and what she will be. Lack of representation padlocks that dungeon of a static state. Achievement begins with expectation, but how can we expect what we don’t envision possible?
Growing up, I moved around a ton—England, Nigeria, and more than a half-dozen cities across the US before making my way to Japan sometime later. In that sea of perpetual change, only a few things remained constant. No matter the town or school, I always found myself surrounded by other artists. At the lunch table we’d share the latest chapter of whatever we’d been writing and our sketches too. One day, when I was around thirteen or so, a friend and fellow creative circle member softly drew my attention to a painful truth I’d never consciously noticed. Pushing back her long brunette locks, she asked “How come all the characters you write about and draw are white?” Indeed, the characters I dreamt and contoured into being did all look much more like her and essentially nothing like me.
“All of your characters are white,” I replied, still mulling over the sudden cavernous pit in which I found myself.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “I’m white; that makes sense.”
While I won’t debate my friend’s teenage logic that authors should only write about people who look like themselves (a point of view with which we now both thoroughly disagree), I will confess that from that day forward I made a conscious choice to tell new stories about a broader range of people. That range includes people who look like me—brown skin, brown eyes, always there but more often than not left standing at the periphery waiting for someone to invite her to dance. Even if she does manage to make her way to the center, she often finds herself constrained by others’ narratives, having to ever justify her right to be something else. For example, as books advance from middle grade to YA fiction, female protagonists become more common. Much like film, nevertheless, their “speaking roles”—i.e., the ability to define a new narrative—remain limited. Indeed, “it’s frustratingly rare to find a novel about women that’s not about love,” which is ironic considering that “marriage is no longer considered a key part of adulthood” and “high-schoolers aren't as into dating -- or sex” as they once were.
The characters whose stories I tell do not wait for the invitation; they seize action.
The characters whose stories I tell do not wait for the invitation; they seize action. Like all of us they face obstacles that would funnel them down a hemmed path not necessarily of their own choosing; like all of us they confront that primal choice—define or be defined. Resisting route categorization, the characters I spin into being fight to make their own choices, transcend and define who they will be and what they will do. To choose is to transcend, and to transcend is to master the art of living.
Without diversity, however, there is no choice. The power of fiction lies in its ability to show us prospective truth, to highlight details that we might not readily see in our daily lives. In so doing, we are compelled to not only see more clearly what lies before us in the world as it is, but also fashion new worlds that manifest novel dreams.
If you are a fellow aspiring YA author, here's a list of some agents who champion diverse stories:
If you found this article insightful, thought-provoking, or helpful please leave a comment and share. Thanks for reading!
1. United States Population 2018: Non-Hispanic White Population = ~197M; Total Population = ~319M