Diversity, or the lack thereof, in the book publishing industry has been a hot topic since the grassroots organization called We Need Diverse Books emerged last spring. Last week, with more than 12,000 writers gathered in Minneapolis for AWP 2015, how writers can and should incorporate multicultural themes and characters into their work was the subject of a number of educational sessions that took place throughout the convention center between April 9-11.
While PW was unable to attend all of the panel discussions about diversity, we did visit several of them and can attest to the fact that they filled rooms to capacity and that audiences were highly engaged. One of the most provocative panel discussions at AWP was the session sponsored by WNDB itself on Friday morning, “Representing Responsibly: We Need Diverse Books – Authors on the Challenges of Writing Diversity for Kids and Teens.” Panelists included authors Bryce Leung, Kristy Shen, Sona Charaipotra, Renee Ahdieh, and Sarah Benwell, who are also active members of the newly incorporated 501-c-3 nonprofit organization.
Leung kicked off the discussion before an audience of about 250 writers by providing an update on WNDB’s activities, including a children’s book festival that is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. in August 2016. “That’s just the stuff I can talk about publicly,” he concluded, before opening the discussion to the issue of including diverse characters and themes in books for children.
While Charaipotra declared that “it’s up to us to put [multicultural] children in our books,” Leung insisted that “writing about diversity is more fun. It makes characters more interesting.” Referring to a backlash to the growing momentum of the calls for the publishing industry to publish more multicultural books, Leung pointed out that diversity in literature is the wave of the future. “Writing about diversity is as much of a fad as writing about human characters is a fad.”
“It’s not a fad,” Shen added. “I can’t stop being Asian.” The need for children to see themselves in books has always been there, Charaipotra said. “Finally, it’s being embraced.” There’s been a change in the “cultural Zeitgeist,” Ahdieh said, pointing out that Rue, a character in The Hunger Games, was black in the film adaptation, when many who’d read the novel first assumed she was white. “I hope it becomes natural not to assume that people are white,” she said.
Even if a book does not feature a multicultural character as its protagonist, “casual representation” with diverse secondary characters is essential, Charaipotra noted. “Seeing yourself on the page is really important.”
Of course, Leung pointed out, there are challenges to writing about diverse characters – especially if one is writing about characters that are not representative of one’s own background. Emphasizing that it’s important to avoid stereotyping in character development, Leung noted, “Diversity needs to enhance the character.” Benwell suggested the need to be aware of “where you are at” in one’s own world view when developing characters and plots with multicultural themes. Ahdieh said that writers should ask themselves when writing about diverse characters, “Is this appropriate? Is this what this character would say or do? Is the language authentic?”
Ahdieh also noted that it’s important to make multicultural characters as multi-faceted as possible. Referring to Charaipotra, Ahdieh said, “She’s not just Indian. She’s a Jersey girl; she’s a mom.” Charaipotra added, “Do that with every character, no matter who they are and what they are doing.”
Ahdieh, who wrote a YA novel, The Wrath and the Dawn, her take on the Persian classic 1001 Nights, pointed out that many writers, including herself, write about communities they do not belong to: she explained that the writer should perform “due diligence” and immerse themselves as much as they can in that community, by speaking to as many members as possible from that community. A dialogue with members of other communities, she said, “will open your eyes.” And, Charaipotra added, “It’s a huge responsibility. It’s fiction, but we’re looking to see ourselves in it.”
It’s more than a responsibility, Leung noted. “Taking a culture into your hands, you are taking a history of oppression. You are appropriating.” The writer, he emphasized, can end up perpetuating stereotypes, even “harming that culture.”
Think like a physician, Leung said. “First, do no harm.” Shen added that, with all the pointed advice being thrown at the mostly white audience in the room, it’s easy for them to worry about writing multicultural characters into one’s work. “Do not fear,” she said. “Just do your due diligence. It will help you grow as a writer.”
But in the end, as Ahdieh noted, what is most important is that “you have a good story.” Publishing is a business, she pointed out: writers should focus on writing the best book they can, “a book that’s true, that’s you.” After all, she said, WNDB wants multicultural books to sell, not just be written, “so people take notice.” Ahdieh also urged the audience to ask for diverse books by author and/or by title at their local bookstores. “That will effect change.”
WNDB isn’t just about promoting multicultural books to writers and to readers, Charaipotra added. The organization has begun focusing upon establishing publishing industry mentorships and internships. “We need to work on infiltrating – not dismantling – the publishing houses,” she said. “These are the people making the decisions.”