The Kweli Color of Literature Conference offered a full day of invigorating discussion and community building on Saturday, April 4, at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. The conference offered four themed tracks—Publishing, Community, and Culture; Novels; Illustrated Books and Nonfiction; and an Intensive Track for writers to focus closely on craft. Events in each track took place concurrently in different areas of the Graduate Center. PW was on-hand to cover several of the panel discussions, which addressed broad-ranging and pertinent issues relating to writing, publishing, and promoting stories with appeal to readers of all backgrounds.
Author Angela Johnson kicked off the day’s events with a candid and moving keynote address. She spoke about how her school visits have led to a few mishaps (like getting locked in a third-floor bathroom), but have ultimately led her to feel more connected to her readers—and they have also brought her closer to her memories of her own childhood. One painful memory—“one of my earliest traumas”—reemerged for Johnson while on a school visit. It was 1967 and Johnson was beginning first grade at her Midwest elementary school when, surrounded by her kindergarten classmates from the previous year, she was approached by the first grade teacher who demanded to know, “What are you doing here?” Though Johnson recalled being told by her father once that “there are some people who wouldn’t accept you,” she hadn’t understood that this was because of the color of her skin. Standing there in the hallway with “tears on my patent leather shoes,” Johnson recalls being “saved” by her former teacher—the same teacher who had introduced her to the book The Snowy Day. She concluded by noting the importance of understanding children and “our responsibility toward them,” she said.
From Diversity to Inclusion
Six authors took the stage for a panel discussion called “From Diversity to Inclusion to Empowerment to Justice: Moving the Conversation Forward Without Holding Back.” The speakers were authors Fred Aceves, Nic Stone, Samira Ahmed, Sheba Karim (via video), Emma Otheguy, and Traci Sorell. Joanna Cárdenas, editor at Penguin’s new Kokila imprint, moderated the lively and cogent discussion. The authors addressed both the opportunities and challenges involved in bringing underrepresented stories into the world. Through her books, Otheguy hopes to “reflect the current realities and history” of Latinx people who “have very deep roots in this country.” Ahmed spoke about wanting to bring forward more truthful representations of Asian characters, saying that “the history of Asians in America is American history.”
The authors also spoke about their frustration with the way in which, despite some progress, non-white stories are still treated differently than white stories. Ahmed addressed a frequent source of outrage among authors, when it’s suggested by a publisher that they already have a project similar to their own and so they pass on the book. To Ahmed, she takes this to mean: “we have another Indian [writer or character]. How many white kids going on road trip books do we have?” she said, adding that “our shelves should reflect our world.”
Stone struggles with the notion that her books ought to “appeal to the majority” in terms of the kinds of characters and stories being represented. She vies for authors to be “more comfortable with just telling our stories the way we want to.” And this approach is working, she says: “the evidence is that so many kids are buying our books.”
The authors also spoke about recent books they have read that have led them to experience what Cardenas referred to as “itchiness,” or a kind of discomfort that can, counterintuitively, move the conversation about diversity and inclusion forward. Aceves counts Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass as a novel that resulted in some discomfort for him. The story made him sharply aware of a sometimes uncomfortable reality, that “the first ones to hold us back are sometimes those within our communities,” he said. Stone commented that, in her writing, “I love making people uncomfortable. I’ve spent my entire life being uncomfortable.” She added that “things don’t change when we’re comfortable.” When she was recently reading debut author Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Dial, Aug.)—a book she praised highly—she came up against some discomfort herself. As the book features many Iranian names and references, “I wanted the book to be easier to read.” But after thinking about her response, she realized: “why should it be easy?”
Sheba spoke about challenging readers’ assumptions and expectations through her characters who, for example, might be wearing a hijab while rolling a joint: “If you can make people within a community and outside that community feel uncomfortable, you’re doing something right,” she said.
A New Chapter
Writers gathered to speak on a panel devoted to creating chapter books and early middle grade readers. The speakers were Zetta Elliott, Debbi Michiko Florence, Veera Hiranandani, and Kelly Starling Lyons; Weslie Turner served as moderator. Starling Lyons defined chapter books as being “bridge books between easy readers and novels that give confidence” to readers who may not be quite ready to move onto novel reading. Hiranandani suggested that chapter books have other unique characteristics beyond serving as a developmental bridge. She suggested that they refrain from exploring darker elements—a quality that, interestingly, she believes is often present in picture books. “Kids [reading chapter books] haven’t seen their worlds break open,” she said. To her, chapter books offer a reprieve before readers enter into the world of middle school and the added complexities of many middle grade books.
The authors shared the “origin stories” of their characters and discussed the ways that they have expanded the category of chapter books through their work. Florence described how Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen (the first of a series) came about when she conceived of “a little girl who wants to do a man’s job.” Specifically, she wants to pound mochi, which girls are not usually allowed to do. “Jasmine would not shut up. She really wanted me to tell her story,” she said. Lyons, meanwhile, began writing the Jada Jones series when her daughter, “an introverted girl who loves science,” found that there weren’t any books with characters like her. The spark for Hiranandani’s Phoebe G. Green books came from her upbringing in a Jewish and Indian household, where the marriage of two cultures influenced, among many other things, the food that she ate. “I used food to bridge cultures,” she said. She also wanted to push back against the notion that kids only want to eat certain kinds of foods: “I’m frustrated with how we tell kids what they’re supposed to like,” she said.
Elliott (Bird) discussed how her books do often integrate dark content, including discussions of colonialism, but often in the context of fantasy and in a way that allows readers to feel safe. “Magic is about power. If you are talking about magic, you are talking about power,” she said. Elliott, who, in addition to publishing traditionally, self-publishes her work, feels that imbedding these darker elements into adventure and fantasy “gives kids a bridge to talk about identity.” Lyons, who traces some of her inspiration as a writer to first seeing the black child on the cover of the book Something Beautiful (by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and Chris K. Soentpiet), shared her hopes for how her books are received. “I want to empower children, give back, and show them a side of themselves they might not see.”
Novelists gathered for a panel called “Keeping It Real: Weaving the Past and Present into Your Fiction.” The panelists were Tonya Bolden, Joseph Bruchac, Veera Hiranandani, and Rita Williams-Garcia. Author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich moderated the discussion. When writing work that integrates historical content, Rhuday-Perkovich queried the group, “where does your story start?” For Williams-Garcia, regardless of where or when the story takes place, it begins with “an image, a sound, the ‘spark’ that makes me disconnect from the world and want to jump in.” She added that embarking on a new project involves being able to “trick my brain into seeing something new.” That “something new,” she hopes, carries over to the reader—for example, in One Crazy Summer, she asks readers to “shed the old ways of viewing the Black Panthers.”
When writing about partition in her new novel The Night Diary, Hiranandani was faced with the task of taking “an aerial view of a huge piece of history and zoning in one character in order to ask questions from an innocent place.” Her character Nisha’s story starts “before everything changes.”
Bruchac, who provided a brief musical interlude on his flute, discussed how, being from indigenous Abenaki descent, “I see history in a different way… past and present doesn’t exist in Abenaki,” he said. He believes in the power of history to teach, but feels that people aren’t always listening: “there is not enough history, especially now,” he said.
The panelists discussed balancing fictional aspects with nonfictional details and working with editors who may not always grasp culturally specific content. When writing Crossing Ebeneezer Creek, Bolden set out to “capture the humanity of enslaved people… if the spirit was beat out of them, we wouldn’t be here,” she said. In her work, Bolden often integrates footnotes that indicate to her editor what elements of the story are factual. For Williams-Garcia, she believes that an editor can best serve a story by recognizing that, while they might not understand a reference, they still recognize its importance. And while editors sometimes miss the mark with their critiques, great editors can help make great books. When it comes to accepting good critical advice, “the best thing a writer can be is nimble,” said Bolden.
Additional topics of focus included making historical fiction relevant, writing “fallible figures” from history, and keeping historical accounts authentic, even if some details may be uncomfortable. “You don’t shy away from these things—you bring them in,” Williams-Garcia said. She added, “If we are Americans, we come out of an ugly, brutal history. To clean it up entirely is to give a gift that isn’t really a gift,” she said.
Honoring the truth of history while writing characters who grapple with those truths is key to making history come alive for readers, the panelists agreed. For Bruchac, the success of a historical story comes down to “the storytelling voice. If you’re passionate, you’ll bring readers in. Just tell a true story,” he said.
Four authors and an editor next spoke on a panel titled “Magic and Ritual: Celebrating Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” The speakers were Rhoda Belleza, Sayantani DasGupta, Serene Hakim, and Rebecca Roanhorse. Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, moderated. The authors discussed what drew them to first write sci-fi and fantasy. For DasGupta, she grew up reading books like A Wrinkle in Time and as a Star Trek and Star Wars fan: “I loved sci-fi, but sci-fi didn’t love me back,” she said. She first began writing sci-fi “for the 12-year-old me,” who couldn’t find any characters that resembled her. Belleza was drawn to sci-fi for similar reasons. Because characters of color were so uncommon in the books she read, “space or a parallel dimension seemed like the most likely place to see diversity.”
Roanhorse (Trail of Lightning, June) counts Dune as being one of the few works in which she saw a representation of an indigenous culture. “It was easier to see myself in a completely artificial world,” she said. For Hakim, an agent at Ayesha Panda Literary, she seeks out stories from marginalized and underrepresented voices. Her desire to find and share those stories came about, in part, from her upbringing as a child of Lebanese immigrants. In her past experience, many of the Middle Eastern stories she looked for as a child, “were rooted in war.”
The authors spoke about their fatigue and exasperation in seeing a dearth of books that reflected authentic non-white lives. DasGupta commented on how, early in her writing career, she struggled with her own “internalization of gatekeepers’ ideas,” which told her an Indian American woman’s story should “be sad, involve cultural confusion, and conflicts with parents…. That’s not my story,” she said. Instead, she chose to write a fantasy story about an Indian American girl who learns that she is a princess—and gets to define what that means on her own terms. DasGupta draws from her New Jersey upbringing, the Bengali folk tales she loves, and her time spent in India during her summer vacations. Roanhorse often draws from her Navajo background and what she describes as “a different world view” when creating her speculative fiction realms. She also spoke about the power of creating stories with Native American characters in distant future worlds. Despite having their very existence threatened throughout history, her stories make it clear that Native Americans not only are here now, but will continue to be powerfully present in the future.
Telling Stories World Wide
A panel discussion on global storytelling welcomed speakers Kheryn Callender, Tami Charles, Sayantani DasGupta, and Aram Kim. The panel was moderated by Namrata Tripathi, publisher of Penguin’s new Kokila imprint. The panelists spoke about the audiences they write for, crafting flawed characters, and how their own stories arise. For her book, No Kimchi for Me!, Kim wanted to write a “fun, modern” story that wasn’t expressly “a Korean book about immigration.” Her story features a child who thinks that kimchi is stinky. She contemplated whether featuring the word kimchi in the title would be unappealing to readers unfamiliar with the dish, but she is glad that she did. She also admitted to having some trepidation about featuring a human character on the cover, fearing that it might narrow her audience: “My bait [for readers] was making the character a cat,” she said. At the end of the story, while her cat character resists kimchi, her older brothers suggest to her that she may think differently as she gets older. It’s a subtle suggestion to readers to also broaden their minds about foods they think they won’t like.
Callender sets her book Hurricane Child (Scholastic Press) in the Virgin Islands, where she was born. While there is joy in the novel, it was important to Callender to hint at another side of a place that “people think of as paradise… I wanted to show isolation and depression,” she said. Tami Charles’s book Like Vanessa (Charlesbridge) is set in 1983 Newark and centers around a 13-year-old who, inspired by Vanessa Williams—the first black Miss America—decides to enter a beauty pageant. Charles began writing the novel for U.S. readers, but started to see the book as having much broader appeal as it deals with an issue that impacts readers worldwide—that of colorism.
The speakers concluded by reflecting on a raw truth of writing characters of color. Because there are fewer representations of non-white characters, those characters often carry additional weight. In other words, if an author writes a flawed or even unsavory character, will they risk having that character unfairly held as a token of their ethnic background? “It’s a question that white people never have to ask,” said Callender.
A Grand Finale
All Kweli attendees regrouped for a powerful final presentation by speakers that included Vashti Harrison, Kazu Kibuishi, Beth Phelan, and Kate Sullivan. Namrata Tripathi moderated. The speakers addressed the critical importance of community building among authors and industry professionals of color. Sullivan, senior editor of YA and middle grade at Delacorte, noted that she is now seeing more manuscripts from non-white authors about non-white characters. “We are swimming in manuscripts from different cultures and representing different abilities, but it took years to get here,” she said. She believes that the next big push for representation needs to be in the arena of book sales.
For Tripathi, fostering community is a central focus of Penguin’s Kokila imprint, which seeks to publish work from marginalized voices. In her words, the imprint aims to bring together “authors through a common mission, where they will be supported vigorously and pushed in the way only family can push you.” Tripathi added that, in her own personal and professional life, she had “underestimated how essential it is to find your people.”
Questions and insights from audience members included an impassioned plea from a library studies student for more people of color to enter library science professions: “We need to amplify the voices of the people here,” she said. Another audience member expressed a need for more resources that enable discoverability of books for all readers: “You can publish all of the diverse books you want, but it does no good if they aren’t getting into kids’ hands.” An individual also made a call for more Native American authors and illustrators to work on broad-ranging projects.
In closing, Laura Pegram, executive director and Kweli founder, spoke about how the idea for the Kweli organization “started as a dream” at a difficult time in her life—when she was first in a wheelchair as a result of mixed connective tissue disease. She expressed her amazement and pride at how Kweli has developed into a thriving literary movement. Speaking about her gratitude for the partnerships she has had along the way, she noted the power of “community, magic, and sisterhood,” and “the blessings that happen when you don’t give up. Thanks for riding this dream with us,” she said.