The Fault in Our Fiction
The Problems with Representation in YA Literature
My name is Ameema, and I love reading. Biographies, Poems, non-fiction stories, crime thrillers, short stories, inspirational tales, comic books, fantasy adventures, children’s books, memoirs — anything. Books have always been important to me — I learnt how to read at an early age, and haven’t stopped since.
At 23-years old, my favourite genre is (still) Young-adult (YA) fiction. I still avidly read and re-read Young-adult books — new ones, and the old ones I fell in love with at a young age. I still devour them, read every word, trying to immerse myself in new worlds, imagine myself in these stories — and that’s where the problem lies.
It’s hard to imagine yourself in a world that’s not written for you. In a world where everyone looks the same, and it is not like you.
I have discussed this with friends, many of whom have found the same thing.
The more books [we] read, the more [we] wonder:
Where are OUR stories?
It seems like there is one formula that most YA fiction writers follow…
(white heterosexual male) + (white heterosexual female)
= funny coming-of-age love story
- ethnic best friend/- fleeting- love interest/comedic relief: Hassan, from An Abundance of Katherines; Radar, from Paper Towns; Cho Chang, from Harry Potter (I love you J.K. Rowling, but REALLY?!?)
- love triangle — usually the female is torn between two guys: Bella, Edward and Jacob from Twilight; Katniss, Peetta and Gale from The Hunger Games;
- Dystopian society/Apocalyptic scenario — but somehow, predominantly white people seem to have survived?: The Hunger Games where the only people of Colour were from Rue’s District 1; In The 100, even though this is all that ~presumably~ remains of humanity, the majority of the characters are White.
- Weird-ass white people names: Margo Roth Spiegelman? Alaska Young? Katniss Everdeen? Tris Prior?
Growing up brown in a white-dominated culture has led to years of internalized racism, as well as what will probably be a lifetime of unlearning harmful attitudes and ideas about beauty and race. Over the last couple of years, I have started learning a lot more about the world around me, and about the different aspects to my identity. The more I have learnt about intersectionality (check out this link for a quick and easy definition), the more I have thought about representation and how important it is.
** Although the issue of diversity in other mediums, like tv and film, is very important as well, I am going to focus on books for the majority of this post. **
Working at a bookstore for the past few months has been a dream come true. Being surrounded by books (and bookworms) all the time is a blast, and thanks to the discount, as well as an employee book-borrowing program, I am racing towards my Goodreads goal of reading 100 books this year. However, it has also opened my eyes regarding the lack of diverse books in our inventory.
At work, a few months ago, I had a woman come in who was looking for books for a biracial niece on appreciating the colour of her skin, and appreciating her (natural) hair. We talked for a long time about the importance of these kinds of books, and the importance of building positive self-esteem in girls, especially girls of colour, at a young age.
We talked about how when we were younger, there wasn’t anything like this for us, and about how, even now, the mainstream media almost never projects messages like this to little girls (& boys) of colour. How, despite the growing multiculturalism and diversity in our society, the mainstream media still projects a specific image of beauty to the world.
After the woman left, I couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation. All the books I’d grown up reading, all the movies and TV shows I’d grown up watching — the main characters always ALWAYS looked the same. And it was NEVER like me. I had grown up thinking who I was, what I looked like was NOT okay. I had grown up wishing that I looked like someone else. How gross is it that that a kid wishes — literally wishes (on birthday cakes) — that they looked different? that they were different?
How horrible is it that this probably happens all the time? That children are told from the youngest of ages that who they are is not okay — when they are a person of colour, a person with a disability, a non-binary person, a queer person.
Not even half an hour after that customer left, I saw a little Chinese girl literally gasp with excitement because the main character in a picture book was Chinese. She was so excited to see a book about someone who looked like HER!
Isn’t it powerful how such a small thing can make such a big difference?
Just today, I had a couple of preschool teachers come in, looking for fiction books about kids with “special-needs”. They were looking for books about kids with both visible and invisible disabilities, and as I searched and searched for books meeting their criteria, I became more and more frustrate by the severe lack of options… Although we ended up finding 3 or 4 titles that worked for them, I think all of us left the interaction a little frustrated by the limited variety.
Representation is SO important. Imagine if every little kid — if every person — could turn on the tv and see someone like them. Positively represented, not a caricature or a harmful stereotype, but an actual 3-dimensional character — a protagonist in their story, in their world — imagine the power that image would have?
Just because a main character is diverse — whether it is because of their race, their ability, their sexuality, or their gender identity — does not mean that the book has to make some sort of huge political statement.
Yeah, I wanna read The Breadwinner, about how a young girl in war-torn Afghanistan disguises herself as a boy in order to support her family… But, I also want to read about the muslim girl, in high school in Chicago, who has a crush on the cute new guy in her class. Or about the boy in a wheelchair who starts an underground poker club in the basement of the local community centre — and finds love in the process.
I wanna read more books where the protagonist is questioning their sexuality, or coming to terms with their chronic illness, or trying to balance their schoolwork and social life with their Indian Classical Dance Classes. For every 10 books about Christmas, how many are there about Eid? Kwanzaa? Diwali? Hannukkah? Chinese New Year?
I want to read books that incorporate diverse characters in their diverse lives.
I don’t want to just read about the Chinese-American girl whose parents don’t speak a word of English, and run a Chinese restaurant; I want to read about the Chinese-American girl whose mom is on the PTA, and whose dad is the best used car salesman in town — where the kids get Christmas presents, but during the Chinese New Year, they get Red Envelopes.
I want to read stories with queer protagonists that aren’t just ‘coming out’ stories. I want stories where established queer teens are exploring other relationship topics like prom, sex, and love triangles.
I want to read a dystopian book about a character with Cystic Fibrosis. I want to see them navigate their post-apocalyptic society while struggling with their illness. I want them to betray their friend for access to medication. I want them to overthrow oppressive regimes while contemplating their mortality.
I’m tired of caricatures of diversity.
I want characters as diverse as the people who read them!
The lack of diversity in YA fiction — in literature, in general, is hardly a new topic. Articles like this one, and this one have touched on a lot of the same issues I am discussing now. Campaigns like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign have started to grow and develop momentum. 11-year old Marley Dias, tired of reading books about “white boys and dogs” started a book drive, hoping to collect 1000 books with black female lead characters.
I, myself, am working on a couple of projects, in order to — hopefully — increase the accessibility (and popularity) of diverse books. I have started actively searching out diverse books, with diverse characters, and diverse authors, and am planning on reading, reviewing, and recommending as many as possible. I have started the daunting task of cataloguing the diverse books we carry in stock, and am hoping to (eventually) create some sort of a diversity database that can be used to find OUR stories.
This isn’t some sort of affirmative action bullshit about quotas, where diverse characters are ‘taking the roles’ from the more traditional white cis-hetero characters. This is about every child, regardless of their gender, ability, race, sexuality, and size being able to see themselves in the books they read. This is about us — as society — insisting that authors include more diverse characters in their books, because [their] stories are important too.
I only hope that the next generation of children will grow up in a time where they are just as likely to pick up a book about a queer character, as they are a heterosexual character. A time where the protagonists from best-sellers are as racially diverse as the youth who read them. A time where mental illness, disability, and chronic illness are normalized in fiction.
Books are a way to escape from your life into another one. They’re a way to lose yourself in adventures that may never be possible in real life. They are a way to make your wildest dreams come true… But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to see yourself reflected in these characters.
I hope that one day soon, kids and teenagers will be growing up in a world where the most popular current YA book is a love story featuring two trans characters. Or the coming-of-age story of a protagonist with a disability.
I hope that these kids grow up in a world where they feel like anything is possible — that they can do or be ANYTHING they want to be, because that’s what the world is telling them.
I hope they grow up in a world where they can always count on THEIR stories to be represented in the books they read.
I don’t want a world where little girls will read The Hobbit and think that maybe Middle Earth isn’t the place for them (because there are NO active female roles in the book). I don’t want a world where the unattainable, hot popular love interest is always white. I don’t want a kid to read a Harry Potter book and think that maybe Hogwarts didn’t accept witches and wizards in wheelchairs.
Books are supposed to open doors, not close them.