I’ll just come out with it: Young Adult and Middle Grade authors are total badasses when it comes to rocking social media, especially on twitter. They don’t just join in conversations, they make conversations happen, and know what they’re doing with #those damn hashtags, which I still refer to sometimes as the number or pound sign. All I need is a rotary phone and a typewriter with lots of white-out.
One of the things I’ve been most impressed by is how well they build and foster writing communities, whether it’s online or whatever the opposite of online is. Offline? The first day after my wife, Sona Charaipotra, began her MFA at the New School’s Writing for Children program, she and her classmates started a group blog, Teen Writer’s Bloc, influenced by a previous year’s group blog, the Longstockings (read Ode to the Longstockings) with Jenny Han and lots of now well known writers; the eventual goal was to create a social platform to promote each other’s books.
Just before they graduated, Sona and Dhonielle then co-founded CAKE Literary, a book packaging company focused on diversity, and they’re also part of the Fearless Fifteeners, a community of Middle Grade and Young Adult authors debuting in 2015.
Just last week, I wrote this post about how my 3 year-old daughter understands the silent power of institutional racism, and wants “yellow” hair. I really thought I had a bit more time!
I was very excited to hear about #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement that Ellen Oh, along with some other writers decided was well overdue. I don’t know the specifics of what or how it went down, but the BEA’s all white panels at Book Con definitely helped. So thanks for that. In all fairness, they did attempt to add diversity with the cat. Last year me and Sona went to AWP in Boston, where panel after panel were composed entirely of white people because brown writers can’t talk about things like plot and weaving in history into fiction. But Global Conflict, that we can talk about. The diversity, of course, shouldn’t end with color and should take into account any community that is marginalized, and the fact this hashtag has been trending since yesterday is awesome. These issues are certainly not new and people have been experiencing them and talking about hem for years. In the past few weeks, specifically in kid lit, there have been some much needed outrage, with articles discussing the staggering statistics of just how much we don’t matter. Here’s a great roundup by Book Riot.
The problem arises with the definition of the term, “diversity.” It’s rare, at least in my social circle, to hear someone say they’re against diversity in books. It’s the equivalent of saying you’re pro-racism. It takes a rare breed of shithead to voice this position. But a lot of people are comfortable with diversity as long as it stays in its place: history lessons in stories set during the civil rights era, or in exotic lands, but in high concept stories like mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and princess narratives, there isn’t a place for POC – People of Color. We either don’t matter enough to exist in these worlds of reality or mythical lands, or we’re relegated to marginal roles.
In creative writing workshops during my MFA, workshops I’ve taken in the City, and a year long fellowship at the CUNY Writing Institute, I’ve had instructors and fellow students, sometimes who are brown themselves, tell me my character needs to be more exotic, or the foreign terms need to all be translated into English. In creative writing classes I teach, no matter how diverse my students, their stories are always filled with white protagonists because that’s the world they’ve seen. Even in worlds that don’t exist yet. And it’s incredibly sad.
What I love about this movement is that it’s very inclusive and applicable to many genres, including literary fiction. I hold a special place for short stories; I love anthologies, whether they’re American or Australian; mystery or science fiction. But after I read these anthologies, I’m always struck by the obvious: there are either no writers of color, or it’s the same incredibly famous writers of color that appear in every anthology. There’s no effort being placed into finding anyone else, unlike the white authors who appear page after page. I’ve lost count how many writing panels I’ve been to where writers have all been white and often male (like Book Expo). Since January, I’ve read several anthologies, some of them a few years old, like J.M. Coetzee’s, “New Writing from Southern Africa,” where there is not a single black voice (South friggin Africa!), or Best American Short Stories with Joyce Carol Oates, also predominantly white.
Thankfully, today is not only officially Day One of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign, it is also the launch date of the official Dismantle release, a VONA anthology comprised of past and current students and faculty members, including Junot Diaz. I will be attending a fiction workshop at VONA this summer with him and was already excited about it, and then I read this brilliant intro by him about the MFA vs People of Color and can’t help but think and speak in cliches. I’ll write more about this in another post. Here’s a tiny excerpt:
“Some of you understand completely. And some of you ask: Too white … how? Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc).”
“Dismantle is an anthology of creative work from VONA alumni and its award-winning teachers including: Chris Abani, Nikky Finney, Maaza Mengiste, Minal Hajratwala, Justin Torres, Cristina Garcia, Mat Johnson, Laila Lalami, Mitchell Jackson and many more.” Join the conversation on twitter at 9 EST using the hashtag #Dismantle, @voicesatvona, @threadblanket this evening, May 1. (9:00-10:30PM) EST.
#WeNeedDiverseBooks is a three day event, just like Coachella, except without so many white people, and you don’t have to travel so far! It sounds like lots of fun, with plenty of opportunity to raise some noise:
Check out their Tumblr for a proper breakdown. Here’s what’s happening today:
May 1st. Make signs on paper, cardboard, on whiteboard, with notebook paper, really anything you like, using #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Take a photo and email ONE photo to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Starting May 2, it will be shared on their tumblr. And make sure you’re reblogging, and social media-ing it up! For explosive results, combine this hashtag with #Dismantle.
Here are two of a million reasons We Need Diverse Books: