Last month I traveled across the country with Cindy Pon for our Diversity Tour, which made stops in San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Boston, and New York. In each city we had panel discussions (along with several other local authors) at bookstores or libraries about diversity. I've been thinking back over the tour because I wanted to note down some of the things I learned from these discussions. It's not that often that I get to talk about these things in person, repeatedly. In fact, it hardly ever happens, so this was a pretty neat opportunity. Here are a few things I gleaned from the tour: 1. Talking about race or sexual orientation in a mixed group can be very nerve-wracking, and I think that our audiences along the way did a fantastic job of being respectful and honest in their questions. Believe me, things could have gone a different way, and they didn't! Kudos to everybody who came out to support us on the tour — and thank you for coming.
For me, the most comfortable panels were the two where I had the most in common with the other panelists: the San Francisco panel, which was composed of four Asian American writers (and all Chinese American, to boot), and the New York LGBT Center panel, which was composed of four queer writers.
I don't think this is surprising, but it also gave me a renewed appreciation for spaces in which we can connect with people who come from similar backgrounds — or, at least, who are seen by others as being similar. The sense of solidarity was a nice boost for me, since in the YA world I tend to stick out a lot as the sole queer Asian writer.
2. The one question we got at pretty much every location was about covers. What do you think of them, are publishers evil for whitewashing, do people really not buy books with people of color on them, etc. I've already said a lot about book covers here.
The one thing I will add is this: If you truly want to see more books with people of color on them, then go and buy the books that already exist that are about people of color. Forget about what's on the cover now; covers change all the time. But put your money where your mouth is, because that's what publishers will listen to. That's the way capitalism works.
3. The other issue that came up repeatedly was the question of who has the ability to write books with diverse characters. Do you have to be a person of color to write about people of color? Do you have to be gay to write about gay people? I think that every single author on all our panels would agree that the answer is a big fat NO. If we could only write about what we've experienced directly, we wouldn't be able to tell very many stories.
I admit I became a little frustrated with these questions, because the answer seemed to be so obvious to me. It wasn't until I went to School Library Journal's Day of Dialog, where I was on a panel about diversity, that I realized what the underlying issue was. Liz Burns, the librarian who moderated the panel, asked us to consider the question of authenticity: Who has an authentic voice when writing about people of color?
As soon as she mentioned "authentic," I realized that all these questions are actually about anxiety. I actually wrote about authenticity in graduate school, so I had a lot to say about it (nerd alert!). My paper about authenticity is here if you want to read it.
In terms of authenticity and writing diverse YA fiction, I'll say this for now: When people talk about "authenticity" in this case (e.g., by questioning whether someone can write about people who aren't like them), they're actually talking about anxiety and authority. I think it's much more productive (and accurate) to discuss anxiety and authority rather than authenticity, because authenticity is situational and can never truly be defined.
If I have time later, I'll blog more about authenticity, because I'm fascinated by the subject in a super geeky way.
4. Unrelated to diversity, but related to touring: this was my first book tour. It was crazy! It's a weird kind of space to inhabit when you wake up, go to the airport, talk to lots of strangers, sleep in a strange bed, wake up and go to the airport, etc., over and over. And yet, it's kind of an amazing space. To throw in some old-school anthro terms, it feels like a liminal space: a space between states of being. Before the tour, Cindy and I had talked about diversity a lot online, but it had never felt entirely real — at least not to me. After the tour, it was real.
We had taken our dreams for this tour and this issue that is dear to our hearts, and delivered it straight to people sitting ten feet away from us. It's a wonderful thing, in this increasingly internet-based world, to turn those nebulous thoughts into three-dimensional experiences.