Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Terrific Panel: "The Importance of All Children Seeing Themselves in Literature"

In mid-August, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on diversity in children's literature with four wonderful authors: Lisa Yee, Sonia Manzano, Sharon Robinson, and Varian Johnson. There was one embarrassing slip-up from me that I'll let you all discover for yourselves, and otherwise, a lot of wise things said about reading and writing books in general -- not just books with diverse characters, or by diverse authors. Highly recommended!


  1. The thing people keep overlooking when talking about diversity and writing are the problems that arise when writing about a culture that is not your own. While Lisa Yee may get praise for writing about stereotypical issues for Asian youth, if Jo Rowling had been the author of Standford Wong instead, she would have been horribly criticized for having written a stereotypical character.

    Say for example, Rowling had chosen Ron's heritage to be of African decent and had added a bit more slang in his dialect than Harry's--How would that have been picked up by young readers and today's society? Though it's clear the world has a demand for non-ghostly-pale-and-British wizards, it's equally likely the critiques and the black community alike would have been infuriated by a black Ron, especially as he comes from a poor home.

    This seems to be the epicenter of the problem--we as writers hold the key to either reinforcing these stereotypes or bringing their change--but how can one accurately represent another culture, race, religion, sex, etc. that is not one's own without falling into that hole of writing a cultural stock character or appearing in any way falsely prejudicial?

    JINGLE CUE: "Narrative Breakdown!" ;-)

    1. "...[A] writer should create living people; people, not characters. A CHARACTER is a caricature." - Hemingway (his emphasis)

      Race is not a personality trait. The culture one is raised in - with its history, narratives, values, practices, etc. - will, of course, influence how a person defines oneself - who he or she is. But that's not race; it takes two for that.

      When one is alone, in a vacuum, they are not their race. Do you see yourself as your race when you are daydreaming or doing laundry? I don't think most people do. They don't see their race because a person is not their race. They are his-/herself and all they know of that self. Only when s/he is 'out in the world,' with others who knows with their senses, including sight, which sees a skin pigment not of you, the individual, but of a social history (when flesh is not flesh) that is race. And the one marked 'raced' responds to that and acts on this identity marker prescribed to them by strangers, loved ones, and all. Race is a duet between two social beings.

      But you writers, you have the gift of X-ray vision. You see the layers upon hidden layers of your creations. You perform both sides. You know both sides. You know your creation as they are seen and as they are not seen by others and by their own selves. Writers see people. Write those people as they truly are - people - and you will never have to worry about character or inaccurate representation of such again.

      P.S. White people are raced too. Just because, in our social history, white people have been oppressors, liberators, and/or empowered does not mean they are not 'the other.' Whites are raced; if not, why else would there be white privilege and white guilt?

  2. Why must race be mentioned or assumed? If race of characters is not central to a story line, what is there to stop different people from viewing the same character as white or black? Is it because of the necessity of character descriptions - the likelihood of blackness fades with the blueness of the character's eyes.

    I believe they ARE characters - they can be and do whatever you wish - sometimes, there is authenticity in being blatantly inauthentic.