If there’s one constant when it comes to the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s nomadic annual conference of writers, publishers, booksellers, and others affiliated with the literary publishing world, it’s this: AWP inevitably takes on each year the personality of its host city. This year’s AWP, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center from March 31–April 2, was a vibrant mélange of multicultural voices.
The calls for more diversity in the book publishing industry that have grown louder in recent years reached a crescendo at AWP 2016, which had, it seems, more panels than ever addressing issues of diversity in both adult books and children’s books and inclusivity in terms of whose work is being published and promoted.
Panels that emphasized children’s and YA literature at AWP 2016 ranged from “Making Monsters: Exploring Otherness in YA/MG Literature” to “Girls on Fire: Beyond the ‘Strong’ Female Character in Books for Young Readers.” We Need Diverse Books sponsored a panel on “Shifting the Narrative Lens” in writing children’s and YA books that featured Audrey Coulthurst (Of Fire and Stars, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Nov.), Alicia Williams (Genesis Begins Again, S&S/Atheneum, spring 2017), Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper, Scholastic/Levine, 2015), and Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion, Little, Brown, 2017). The session, moderated by Mike Jung (Unidentified Suburban Object, Scholastic/Levine, 2016), one of WNDB’s founders, was billed as a discussion of how writers could make their work more inclusive by “using classic world-building and storytelling techniques,” and it was all that, but it was also also a call to action. Publishing is an industry in which, Jung noted, a YA novel written by an African-American writer and inspired by the Black Lives Movement could provoke lively bidding among 13 publishing houses, but at the same time, “black authors are still published at a level that is disproportionately, staggeringly low.”
In order to improve upon these statistics, Jung said, it’s necessary to begin at the very entrance into the publishing-industry pipeline through which a book must proceed: one must begin with the writing process itself. “We’re here to discuss craft,” Jung told the audience. “We need to redefine our understanding of craft, because craft is about more than just pure mechanics... Craft is inextricably linked to socio-political belief, self-understanding, cultural understanding, and the historical scaffolding upon which our society has been built.” The craft of writing, Jung noted, “is not just to practice creativity,” but is also a method “to examine, retrofit, and dismantle the mechanisms of power.”
The panelists addressed the issue of the complexities of writing “uncomfortable things” about themselves and about the privilege that exists within their communities. Williams noted that she’d never really thought about privilege within the African-American community until she thought about the notion of “whiter skin versus darker skin,” and “straight hair versus curlier hair,” and addressed it in her fiction.
The discussion then segued into one of “oppression Olympics,” or as Jung defined it, groups arguing that the injustices they must contend with are “more important than [others],” or that “specific communities should speak for all communities.” Is it possible, Jung asked, “to write about that in-fighting without engaging in it?” This prompted Coulthurst to respond, “For someone to say ‘it’s not my fight because I’m not gay or because I’m not black’... I don’t want to be that asshole.” And Williams pointed out that “we all have our pain,” that “what happens to anyone in the world affects us all.” One of the greatest tragedies of the lack of diversity, whether it’s in books or in movies, Older pointed out, is that “it sets different people against each other,” when “we’re just trying to get our faces in there.”
Perhaps the most moving moments in the 90-minute session involved the discussion about the risks faced by teenagers who become involved in social justice issues, and/or speak out, demanding more diversity in the books that are published for their market. Children and youth who are “different” from the mainstream, Coulthurst said, explaining why her fiction always includes LGBTQ characters, are “conditioned to accept being victimized because they are black or gay or something.”
It’s young people on the margins, Older said, for whom he writes and “takes risks” by writing YA “urban fantasy” novels that feature characters who are people of color. And, he added, “I’m writing for the kids who are people of color who are getting the shit kicked out of them or worse.”
Taking risks for those young readers on the margins who might see themselves in the story is also Colbert’s mantra, the author said, noting that her next novel is about a “black girl who is questioning her sexuality and is Jewish.”
“I’m terrified,” she admitted. “It’s easier to write about straight black girls.”
Perhaps, inevitably, the conversation turned to the larger issue of diversity in the publishing industry itself. Older noted that he felt that there are a lot of “white fantasies” in the “white supremacy” of publishing that he feels he must subvert, such as describing in the opening scene in his novel, Half-Resurrection Blues, the presence of people of color in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood on New Year’s Eve, celebrating on the margins while the “hip, young white kids” who are more stereotypical denizens of that Brooklyn neighborhood partied in the streets. When submitting it to publishers, he said, he’d changed “white kids” to “rich kids,” and then changed it back to “white kids” after its acquisition. “What about those stories that people aren’t submitting?” he asked. “Because they think that white people can’t handle it?”
Williams pointed out that in the quest to ratchet up the number of books being published about and by people of color and from diverse backgrounds, it’s not enough for writers to hone their craft to be more inclusive and for publishers to consider diversity when acquiring and publishing books: readers also “have to vote with your money” and “start getting comfortable with reading books that are way outside of your comfort zone,” She said. After all, Jung concluded, “industry-wide talk” alone does not cause “industry-wide change.” Books are “as deeply influenced by societal forces as we ourselves are.”