What A Girl Wants #3: Belated repost (not a remix this time)

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.

But first, a commercial: Remember my Significant Object? The clock is ticking on its auction. Get your bids in now!

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.

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  • Kip Manley
    July 30, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    A window is a mirror when the light’s right.

  • Sara
    July 30, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Ooh, nicely put, Kip.

  • sara z.
    July 31, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    “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.”

    Totally agree.
    I do feel like this conversation and the ones going on at Mitali Perkins’ blog, too, have given me permission to try my hand at writing non-white characters, but I think one reason they end up as sidekicks or sassy friends is that writers feel like that would be allowed. When I think about making my narrator/protag a different race than me, I get way too scared that I’ll mess it up. So for me it’s not an intentional relegation to sidekickery, rather, more like dipping my toe in the waters?

    • Sara
      August 1, 2009 at 2:51 pm

      Sara — I understand the fear. That’s why I made a point of recommending Writing the Other near the beginning of my response.

      I don’t think reading it will immediately make you feel totally capable of writing characters from radically different backgrounds and ancestries, but it’s got some awfully useful exercises and insights.

      Dylan — I’m glad!

  • Dylan Meconis
    August 1, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I absolutely loved reading about the characters you identified with as a young reader.

  • Chau
    August 9, 2009 at 3:12 am

    Being a part of a minority and yet growing up in America and being “American”, I didn’t quite see the fine racial line in books until I began to write and pay attention to what I read.

    It was always a given to pick up a teen book and have it be about a white girl, whether the book is science fiction, fantasy or the girl was rich or poor. So when I began writing for my own amusement, I came to a halt when developing the main character – was she to be a white, middle-class teen (someone who, if read about, could be easily identified with), or an Asian girl going through similar trials, the only difference being that she was Asian? That got me wondering about the teen books that had minority leads, all of which concentrated on the fact of BEING a minority, whether it was about a middle eastern teenage girl growing up in America and being oppressed by her roots, or a Hispanic girl learning to cope as an immigrant. These subjects are immensely important, especially for the diverse audience of readers in today, but my problem was always the fact that if the lead was a minority, then the book was almost always about the character being a minority and the sufferings of which she has to go through simply because she is Hispanic or Asian – never is the book simply a fantasy adventure whose lead was simply African.

    So my problem became the fact that I was afraid that if I made my own lead somewhat reflective of my natural self, it would be hard for readers (and if ever, publishers) to identify the the character as a part of the story and not as the race of the character being the story.

  • Sara
    August 9, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Chau, your observation that “if the lead was a minority, then the book was almost always about the character being a minority” — is, unfortunately, spot on. And you’re also right that there’s still definitely a need for books that *do* focus on the struggle — but sometimes you just want to write, and read, about someone whose ethnic (or sexual) identity doesn’t dominate their thoughts at all times.

    You might find Neesha Meminger’s essay at Justine Larbalestier’s blog interesting, too: “From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color.”

  • sara z.
    August 10, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Chau – A few examples off the top of my head in which the leads are minorities but the story is not all about being a minority – and you may already know these – Fly On the Wall by E. Lockhart, My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson, and the Magic/Madness trilogy (as I recall)…

  • Garret
    August 10, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    As usual, I always love reading what you are thinking. This — “Identifying with characters doesn’t always make logical sense.” — may be my favorite thought of yours ever. I loved both of those girls in Ballet Shoes.

  • Chau
    August 11, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Sara – thank you for the link to the article. It was very interesting and insightful (and I’m still thinking about it!)

    Sara Z. – I appreciate the suggestions! I have heard of most of the titles, especially the Magic/Madness trilogy, but as life would have it, hadn’t had the “duyen” (luck/faith/destiny) to read them – yet.