My answer to the third What A Girl Wants question was so long that I don’t have anything to add, but since I’ve been reposting them over here, I thought I’d continue. And maybe a few of y’all who didn’t get a chance to read it when it first went up a few weeks back will be moved to read through everyone’s responses and comments.
Okay, the question Colleen asked: “…anyone can argue that there is a glaring lack of books for teens with minority characters. It is ridiculous how many books are published each season with characters who look the same, sound the same and come from the same economic circumstance. Something needs to change. The questions put to the group this time addressed this issue in several ways. Do you think that writers and publishers address this identity issue strongly enough and in a balanced matter in current teen fiction? Can authors write characters of different race/ethnicity or sexual preference from their own and beyond that, what special responsibility, if any, do authors of teen fiction have to represent as broad a swath of individuals as possible?”
We have a long way to go before we can say we’re doing an adequate, let alone a good job representing the incredibly varied backgrounds and lives of today’s teens. Institutional racism and homophobia remain significant influences on what, and who, gets published. But yes, I do think authors can write across boundaries, and I’d like to strongly recommend a book by Nisi Shawl (co-winner of the most recent James Tiptree Award) and Cynthia Ward on exactly this topic: Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. I recently read (for the first time, but not the last) Louise Fitzhugh‘s Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change, and I think that’s a fine example of a writer creating believable characters from backgrounds different from her own.
All that said, I get a little itchy at the word “responsibility.” It makes me think of well-intentioned, earnest straight white liberal writers shoehorning one-dimensional Ethnic Sidekicks and Sassy Gay Best Friends into their books and feeling like they have thereby helped to Achieve Diversity. Please note that I’m not accusing anyone in particular here, just identifying a trend. And it’s not restricted to books — see also TV, movies, comics, games. Even though I think it’s both possible and desirable to write about characters outside one’s own background and experience, I think it’s more important for authors from a wider variety of backgrounds to get published and supported than for authors from dominant cultural groups to write about minority characters. So am I putting the onus on publishers? To some extent, yes — but also on readers, to be curious about, and buy books about, characters who don’t look or act exactly like them. Elizabeth Bluemle recently blogged about The New Literal Mind, a disturbing trend she’s noticed at her bookstore: “the tendency (of grandparents and parents) to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child’s world.” Readers (and the parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians of readers) need to understand that there’s more than one way to identify with a character.
Garret Freymann-Weyr and I have talked about the identification issue in email. She writes: “If we only ask straight, white girls or Hispanic gay girls to read about people just like themselves, we don’t just betray them, we betray writing. When I read Hamlet, I wanted to be Hamlet, not Ophelia. He had all the good lines. We should ask of the young what we ask of ourselves — to seek out what is beautiful, truthful and haunting.”
When I started thinking about my response to this question (and I have thought a lot about my response to this question), I started listing all the traits I could think of that have made me identify with characters. Some types I’ve identified with: smart kids, nerds, fat kids, queers, bohemians, tomboys, sophisticates, theater people, musicians, writers. They could be different from me in any number of particulars, as long as there was one vector of identification. When I was in love for the first time, I identified with every fictional lover. And I remember reading a book about slavery in third grade, shortly after I’d dislocated my knee. When I learned that if you were a slave and you got injured, you’d still have to keep working, my knee throbbed. I can’t recall the book’s title, but I identified so strongly with that detail that to this day, I can make myself flinch just by thinking about it.
Race and culture aren’t on the list of traits that have connected me to characters, but that’s because I’m a middle-class white girl and I have the privilege of being able to read about characters with backgrounds similar to mine any time I damn well please. As Mary Borsellino said in a recent interview with Henry Jenkins: “As a queer person, or a woman, or someone of a marginalized socio-economic background, or a non-Caucasian person, it’s often necessary to perform a negotiated reading on a text before there’s any way to identify with any character within it. Rather than being able to identify an obvious and overt avatar within the text, a viewer in such a position has to use cues and clues to find an equivalent through metaphor a lot of the time.”
Some specific characters and individuals I identified with as a kid and young adult:
L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, because she was a writer, and sensitive; Pauline and Petrova Fossil from Noel Streatfield’s Dancing Shoes. Pauline because she was an actress, Petrova because she wasn’t. (Identifying with characters doesn’t always make logical sense.); Marcy Lewis from Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, because she was smart and fat; Dorothy Parker, because she was bitter and funny and wrote: “Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea, And love is a thing that can never go wrong, And I am Marie of Roumania.”‘ Bilbo Baggins, because he liked his cozy home and didn’t initially want an adventure, but rose to it; Maggie Chascarillo from Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, because of her self-loathing, because she fell in love with Hopey Glass, because she was punk; Audre Lorde, as she wrote about herself in Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name, because she was smart and queer and let friends crash at her place even though they made long-distance calls on her phone that they couldn’t pay for.
To sum up: in fiction, I think we need both mirrors where we can see ourselves and windows through which we can see others.