(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.
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)
McLaughlin, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
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.
Greg van Eekhout: Telekinesis (ultimate superpower)