Monday, January 23, 2012

Diversity in YA...?

Lo and behold, the semester has started again, and I'm running hard from the things I should be studying, and looking for the things I want to know.  One of the problems with Linguistics is that in its obsession with modeling reality, it can forget that what it needs to do first is look at reality, and strip away all of the lies, and find the bones that lie underneath.  If we're talking about the whole world, language is one of these bones, language as it is used.

Sometimes, we come across something beautiful, built from language as it is used, and showing us the world in the way it is rarely seen.  One of the classes I'm taking is on Judith Butler, critical theory and all that jazz, but theory is inextricably bound up with politics, and our first reading Queer and Then? really reminded me of the reason that critical theory isn't literary theory, because its subject isn't literature, it's reality.

In the article, Michael Warner quotes a passage by Zoe Leonard.

I want a dyke for president.  I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn't have a choice about getting leukemia. I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn't the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to aids, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying. I want a president with no airconditioning, a president who has stood on line at the clinic, at the dmv, at the welfare office and has been unemployed and layed off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a Black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth and an attitude, someone who has eaten that nasty hospital food, someone who crossdresses and has done drugs and been in therapy. I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn't possible. I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.
Of course this is a powerful piece about minorities and the disenfranchised, but it got me thinking about diversity in YA, and why 'diversity' is pretty much a meaningless word to so many people.  If I were going to say what I think is our real goal with putting diversity into YA, I'd say that this is what we want.

I want a dyke in my YA novel, I want a person with aids in it too, I want the heroes for my children to be people who have known pain and suffering, people who have lost everything, and yet are looking for a way to do good in the world.  I want to not have to watch only middle class white kids fall in love and live happily ever after.  I want my fiction to be aware that the first world ends when we turn our backs.  I want to be allowed to imagine a future that is better than the past, not worse, and I want to believe that it can be real.  I want to give kids hope, but hope only shows up in the darkness.

And the truth is, it's not enough.  Hope isn't enough, showing people that there is a different way isn't enough.  But showing people the way the world works, in all its ugliness, may inspire a change in attitude that will influence those tiny every day actions that can poison the world or save it.  And maybe it can go viral, each positive act building a wave and creating a change much more vast than any one person can do alone.

Diversity in YA is about reality.  And reality is a punch in the gut.


  1. I agree that YA books should be real where they can be, and teach our youth about being strong and overcoming. When life gives you a punch in the gut, don't just stand there doubled over!

    But, a lot of reading is preference. I read for escape - which is why I read YA and adult fantasy. I get tired of seeing the ugliness of life and I just want to escape into a good magical adventure - primarily with a quirky female MC.

    I like to see characters in books who share circumstances or issues that are close to my heart, yes, and I want to see them overcome them and somehow end up on top.

  2. Actually, I was thinking about this in regards to fantasy as well. As you can probably see by the panicky mess I devolved into while writing this post, actually facing up to the real world makes me feel helpless and weak. I think fantasy is where we can see these dreams as if they were reality, and should. When I'm writing fantasy, I still worry about what the actions of my characters are telling the reader about how to interact with the world. What is a truly positive goal? What does it mean to come out on top?

    Actually, I'm especially anxious about my WIP, where I have a girl who chooses the fairyworld over her own world, because they need her more. But this world needs so much. Her family doesn't, and that's what she's really responding to. But how can you be a hero and abandon your own world?