Q. Please tell us a little about how you became an author and what motivated you to write about diverse characters.
A. Becoming an author was the inevitable conclusion of a childhood spent with my nose in books and an adolescence spent in the world of online fandom. Wanting to write about diverse characters came later, and was a slow evolution. I saw bits and pieces of social justice awareness online, and while sometimes, as a teenager, I had a kneejerk negative reaction (which I'm now embarrassed about), it also made me look around at the world and start noticing things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
More and more, I associated with people active or interested in social justice, and more and more, I ended up reading up on topics. I spent years as a mostly silent observer, following link after link after link, immersing myself in complex discussions of diversity and representation and privilege. Wanting to write diverse characters was a logical takeaway from all this, and those characters were present from the very first book I wrote when I was 18.
Q. Was the concept of Otherbound something you always had in your head or did it develop over time?
A. It developed over time in a way that was both rather mechanical (putting various ideas together and seeing if it worked; actively seeking an original topic to write about) and natural (once things clicked, the story came smoothly).
One of the things that intrigues me about writing is how different every book is. Some books start with character, others with plot, others with a nugget of a situation. Some books are fast to draft and a pain to rewrite; others are the other way around. Some I feel negative about as I work on them, then love the book when I’m done. Others are a walk in the park to write, then I realize it was an utter waste of time and I scrap the book entirely.
Otherbound was difficult to plot, a breeze to write, and difficult to re-write. The nuts and bolts of the story remained the same from first to final draft, however.
Q. Otherbound seems to play with roles and identities – as one of the main characters sees the world through the eyes of someone else in some interesting ways. Were these conscious choices you made to speak to some common real life struggles regarding identity?
A. I’ll be honest: no, not at all. I just thought it would be a really cool concept to explore! This idea of someone seeing through someone else’s eyes came up long before the main characters formed, and only after I came up with the idea did I realize all the ramifications. It only made me more excited to explore those ramifications, though, and they form a lot of the heart of the story. Identity is a topic that comes up in most of my work in different ways, and I think it’ll stay that way for a long time to come.
Q. It isn’t often that we see diverse main characters/protagonists, in general, but especially in the fantasy genre. Why do you think this is?
A. I think when it comes to fantasy, people are sometimes less accepting of seeing “real-life issues” trickle into fiction. Who wants to discuss racism when you’re writing about spaceships, after all? Diverse characters are seen as carrying automatic baggage, which, in the eyes of some, makes them unsuited to exciting fantasy adventures. They’re “distracting,” or “unnecessary,” or “politically correct.”
This is nonsense, of course. For one, when you build a world from scratch, you’re the one who decides what kinds of baggage is attached to a character. It’s entirely possible building a world free of sexism, ableism, racism, and homophobia, and go wild with diverse characters without a single issue encroaching on your fun time fantasy adventure.
That approach is fair, but when you’re basing a world on our own—whether it’s an urban fantasy or a near-future world—it’s much trickier to ignore that marginalized groups are, well, marginalized. I love the middle ground approach: write a plot like any other, and let the character’s background naturally inform their personality, history, and perspective. I find this enhances the character and story, instead of detracting from it. It’s realistic and vibrant and allows for deeper, more meaningful exploration of many of the themes that come up in speculative fiction.
A. Because the fact that we don’t have enough says something about our society. These things don't happen by accident--there's an underlying cause, and it's not pretty. Addressing this lack is one component of steering us back on track.
For people from marginalized groups, seeing yourself represented is crucial.It can provide recognition, guidance, community, confidence. Various studies have been done about the effect of not seeing yourself represented in media, and the results are depressing. Self-loathing, self-denial, internalized bias … it can be incredibly difficult for us to overcome these things, and we shouldn’t have to. We should be just as much a part of popular media as we are a part of society.
For people who aren’t from marginalized groups, seeing diverse characters is vitally important, because it shows them just how broad the world is. It’s proven fact that being exposed to—for instance—positive gay characters often makes people more accepting of real-life gay people. Plus, when people see themselves represented but barely anyone else, it’s easy to internalize the idea of “I matter more than others.” The idea of “I’m the norm, and others are different.” This is rarely obvious or conscious, but it’s there. And it shouldn’t be.
Q. What perspectives do you feel are still often underserved in books (or even movies, and TV shows)? Are we heading in the right direction towards improving this issue?
A. This is such a tricky question to answer. All marginalized perspectives are underserved. At the same time, gay white men generally have an easier time in media than, say, bisexual black women. Trans characters are criminally underrepresented, and often badly portrayed when they are written about; disabled characters often fall into destructive tropes; Native characters are written about in a way that often reinforces misconceptions and Othering. It’s important not to play Oppression Olympics, but it’s also important to acknowledge that not all oppression functions in the same way and on the same level.
I do think we’re headed in the right direction. The Internet gives people more platforms to discuss these topics, and from my limited perspective over the past several years, people are listening more and more. The Internet also makes it easier for curious people to read on these topics directly from the very people the issue affects, and I think that’s vitally important. So, yes—even if we’re not there yet when it comes to representation, I think we’re taking steps in the right direction.
Q. Is it that people aren’t writing diverse books, they’re not being stocked, or that people aren't buying them? What do you think is the biggest issue?
A. From a writer’s perspective, it’s impossible to get the full picture—I don’t have numbers on how many books are being written, submitted, and accepted, and which percentage of all those categories features diverse characters. There are absolutely systemic issues to address, though.
- the lack of diverse books being published means the publishing industry doesn’t look like a welcoming place for these books and authors; as a result, authors may be hesitant to write these books, or may write the books but turn to self-publishing instead
- the perception of diverse books not selling well can lead to sales departments not investing a lot of marketing money into the book—and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy
- because people are thus underexposed to diverse books, people from majority groups are under the mistaken belief that these books are not intended for them—and because there are plenty of books featuring (for example) white and straight characters around, readers will continue to purchase those rather than dip into a more diverse book.
Those are just a few examples, but they show how widespread the problem is and how complicated it is to tackle.
Q. What are some practical ways that young people can help advocate for diversity in books and other media?
A. One important factor is word of mouth. If you read a diverse book you loved, talk about it. Online, in real life, to your local bookseller or librarian or teacher. Write a review on Amazon.com or Goodreads or your personal blog (or all of the above!). Write a shelf talker for your bookstore. All these things help!
Also, if diverse books aren’t being stocked in your library or store, ask about them. People are there to help you find the book you want, after all; there’s nothing shameful about asking, “Do you have any young adult books featuring characters who use a wheelchair? Especially girls?” And if the book they suggested isn’t to your liking, there also isn’t anything shameful in saying, “I didn’t like how this was handled because of XYZ. Do you have something that approaches the topic differently?”
Often, librarians or booksellers aren’t aware of these gaps in their collection, or they’re not aware of problematic portrayals. It’s important to make them aware of their patrons’ needs. This may lead to them carrying diverse books in the future, which means more discoverability, which leads to better sales. Good sales, in turn, mean a publisher is more likely to buy an author's next book, or will increase the marketing budget; it also signifies that there's a demand for books with these characters.
An anecdote: in the summer of 2014, I attended a huge librarian’s conference where many major publishers had booths set up. I dropped by many of these booths and asked which books on their list featured disabled characters. Some people were wonderfully helpful and guided me around the booth, pointing at several books and giving me all kinds of information about the characters. Others stood rooted to the ground and could not come up with a single title after several minutes of pondering—and then expressed how embarrassing that was. A simple question made them acutely aware of a huge and glaring lack in their list which they had never noticed before.
Q. Do you have any other projects, current or coming up, that we should check out?
A. I won’t miss any opportunity to talk up Disability in Kidlit, a website I run with authors Kody Keplinger and Kayla Whaley. We discuss disability tropes and review books featuring disabled characters—and all our contributors identify as disabled.
I of course highly suggest that people keep an eye on We Need Diverse Books and all the fabulous initiatives we’re working on!
In terms of personal projects, 2015 is looking to be a quiet year for me, but I’ll be back in spring of 2016 with my second book, a young adult science fiction novel about an autistic girl smack-dab in the middle of the apocalypse. I can’t wait to share this book with the world!
Don't forget to say hi to Corinne (@corinneduyvis ) during our upcoming Twitter chat "Getting Real about Disability in Mass Media," Thursday, Jan 29th, 3 p.m. EST. Follow the tag #pwdinmedia. Click for more information.
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