Saturday, November 12, 2011

Teen eunuchs, lesbian Cinderellas, and more: Diversity in YA Tour - San Diego

(Back row, L to R: Joanna, Karen Healey, Malinda Lo, Greg van Eekhout. Front row, L to R: Danielle Clayton - SDCL, Cinda Williams Chima, Jennifer Lawson - SDCL, Holly Black, Cindy Pon, me)

In late spring of this year, the Diversity in YA tour (the brainchild of young adult authors, Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo) kicked off in New York, and wended its way west. The last event was held October 27 in the San Diego area, boasting an impressive line-up of authors: Cinda Williams Chima, Cindy Pon, Greg van Eekhout, Holly Black, Malinda Lo, and Karen Healey (who flew in all the way from Australia!!). We simply couldn't miss it! , Each tour had different authors speaking about diversity in various genres/areas of YA literature; the SD event focused on diversity in fantasy and sci-fi. Danielle Clayton, teen librarian for San Diego County Library, Poway Branch moderated the panel.

Incorporating diversity in YA literature

When she envisioned doing the Diversity in YA tour, Cindy Pon noted that it was really key to include people who were writing about cultures other than their own. Pon also said that while it was important to write from the heart, and from personal experience, there was an even greater responsibility to know the culture and accurately represent it.

In writing Ash, Malinda Lo initially didn't think a lesbian re-telling of Cinderella would sell. So she tried having the main character fall in love with a Prince Charming type, but then a friend told Lo that the chemistry between the two main female characters seemed far more intriguing. While her companion novel to Ash, Huntress has its basis in Chinese history and cultural traditions, characters in the book definitely aren't exoticized; thanks to her academic background in East Asian Studies, readers can revel in Lo's authentic descriptions referencing Taoism, Chinese medicine, and Japanese archery.

Holly Black's diverse cast of characters reflect a world that "makes the books feel true." I completely related to an anecdote about her husband (who has Filipino heritage) watching television shows simply because they contained Asian characters--I've been doing that all my life. When I was growing up, there were no Aziz Ansaris, Mindy Kalings, or Kal Penns on TV-their inclusion in the mainstream has definitely heralded a new era in media. Still, TV and movies have a ways to go beyond exoticizing and/or Othering ethnic minorities, but authors are taking special care with depicting diversity in a manner that is compassionate, realistic, and full of depth.

The fantasy/sci-fi genre expands the world of possibility, noted Greg van Eekhout. In the fantasy/sci-fi genre, social hegemonies that exist in the real world can be upended--simply put, those rules just don't apply here. Black made an interesting point about magic being construed as a metaphor for ethnicity--in crafting magical worlds, writers need to consider what kind(s) of powers they're giving their characters. Magical abilities can be interpreted as cultural and/or ethnic markers.

So, what authors do you like?

Awesome ensued when everyone started sharing some of their favorite books/authors featuring diverse casts and storylines. Here's some of them:

Greg van Eekhout: Annals of the Western Shore (series by Ursula K. Le Guin)

Karen Healey: This is Shyness by Leanne Hall, Kaitangata Twitch by Margaret Mahy, Mercy (Mercy, Book 1) by Rebecca Lim, How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

Holly Black: Trip into Somewhere and Unleashed by Kristopher Reisz, Scored by Lauren
McLaughlin, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Cinda Chima: Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, Ellen Kushner, Cassandra Clare, Kristin Cashore, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Cindy Pon: Francisco X. Stork, Dia Reeves, Sarah Rees Brennan

Malinda Lo: The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

What are some of the challenges in writing diverse YA sci-fi/fantasy literature?

Writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy YA literature is challenging because writers try very hard to stay true to the cultures they're portraying. However, writers run the risk of boring readers with overly extensive descriptions. It's a challenge to make worlds different, but not too much so as to alienate the reader, observed Lo.

High fantasy writing is liberating because, of course, the writer is unlikely to hear any criticism from the "stakeholders," mused Chima. Since it's so risky to write outside of one's own cultural experience, van Eekhout stressed that writers should seek out different perspectives. To avoid "screwing it up," Healey conducted lots of research and consulted with Maori experts while writing Guardian of the Dead.

At some point, writers need to let go of their fears of writing diverse YA material, because "you'll get it right in someone's eyes," noted Pon.

Bonus question: If you could have any magical ability, it would be...

Greg van Eekhout: Telekinesis (ultimate superpower)

Karen Healey: Microtelekinesis (moving molecules, atoms...causing damage that can't be detected with the naked eye)

Cinda Chima: Persuasion - the power to draw anyone to your side. (Aside: Sounds an awful lot like vampire compulsion to me...I know, I watch a lot of Vampire Diaries)

Holly Black: Stop aging, but not necessarily conquer death. (Immortality with an escape clause)

Cindy Pon: Mind-reading/possession (Ai Ling's abilities in the Kingdom of Xia books)

Malinda Lo: Charisma

Several young audience members had compelling questions, but my favorite Q&A question (pretty much of all time) was this one from a 13-year old boy addressed to Cindy: "Um, what's a eunuch?" There were some uncomfortable laughs and people shifting in their seats, but I'm happy to say that Cindy answered the question honestly and completely--we all got an education. I later heard that the boy ended up purchasing one of her books. All in all, the San Diego panel was an amazing finale to a fabulous tour that brought together writers and readers, and created much needed dialogue about the importance of diversity in YA literature.


cindy said...

loved this recap, lali!
and am SO happy you were able
to attend!!

Allison said...

Such a great post! I was sad to miss this event, but thanks to your detailed recap, I feel like I was there. :)