Now we REALLY need diversity in literature

Under the Obama Administration, the discussion about diversity in pop culture — particularly children’s literature — exploded, in part because of the backlash to having a Black president who audaciously thought that prioritising equal rights was important. The fight to improve representation across the spectrum of diversity, including gender, race, religion, disability status, queerness, class, and more is an ongoing one. Sometimes it feels like we’re making progress. Other times, like we’re taking steps back. So goes the war.

But this war is about to get a lot more personal. The Trump Administration has positioned itself as an opponent of pluralism and a diverse society. It longs to eradicate the differences that make us humans, to push people from marginalised groups out of society both literally and figuratively. That means that it’s more important than ever to focus on promoting diversity in literature, to build a fictional world that serves as an aggressive, in-your-face counterpart to the values the administration wishes to promote.

I want marginalised children growing up in this era to see literature that defiantly points to another way. Kids who grew up under Obama learned that it was possible to have a Black president, that civil rights mattered, that society could set a goal of progress and make steps towards it. Those growing up under Trump will learn the opposite unless they are exposed to a reality, and a media, that says otherwise. We need diverse editors for the little trans girls growing up in a world where their gender is criminalised. We need diverse authors for the immigrant children hearing that they don’t belong in America and wondering if their parents are about to be deported. We need diverse characters for the disabled kids who want to flip open the pages of a book and encounter someone like them.

We need, in short, not just lip service diversity but a whole, integrated diversity — something I touched upon in my piece about the diversity triangle back in the era when this was a shiny country filled with hope that maybe we could collectively decide to do the right thing by each other. In that piece, I argued that it wasn’t enough to have diverse characters — the checklist approach to diversity is growing more and more common and that disturbs me, because it is imperative that we treat diversity as something more serious than a tickbox on a form. We also need, I assert, to have diverse characterisations, which means that people must be about much more than their identities, and that we must see many different ways of relating to identities. When all we see is tragic queer stories, that’s not diversity, even if, by the numbers, we have more queer characters than we did before. If Latinx characters are only ever poor immigrants, that’s not a reflection of the Latinx experience.

We also need diverse creators — it is not enough to have diverse characters who are rounded, complicated people if they are written by people from the dominant class. When nondisabled people write disabled characters, that’s a problem. When all writers are white, that’s a problem. When there are scarcely any queer people winning awards, that is a problem. Those creators must be backed by diverse editorial and marketing staffs, by diverse agents; a Black Jewish woman can’t get far if she can only find white agents and editors, if the people in marketing and publicity who are tasked with assessing and publicising her book don’t share her experience. The entire industry itself must be diverse to support the creation of diverse work, and if it is not, publishing houses, agencies, and others who participate in the publishing industry need to ask themselves why they are failing on what should be a basic metric.

Diverse people in publishing, from authors shyly querying their first titles to senior editors at the big five, are facing a war on their very lives and identities, orchestrated by a government that does not have their best interests at heart. This is not unprecedented, nor is it ahistorical, but it is the latest iteration of rage and hatred aimed at those who seem different than the dominant class. For them, being out and assertive about their identities will be dangerous, and even well-intentioned employers cannot protect them. As they lose federal protections and supports, things like the status of their independence, their marriages, their housing, their very lives will be at stake. We need a diverse industry because it is an intrinsic good, but also to protect the values, the skills, the experience, the voices of those whom society is working very hard to silence. Without them, should they fall away, the industry faces a long and painful rebuild at some point in a distant future, one that will include many of the same conversations we’re having now, tempered by years of bitterness.

And we also need this for the readers. Not just for children, though that’s where the focus of my work and reading lie. But for everyone. The Muslimah who gets harassed on the subway on her way to work needs diverse books every bit as much as the Black child who lost a sibling to police violence, as the trans mother trying to parent her child, as the queer poly triad fighting housing discrimination, as the immigrant sitting in courthouse waiting rooms. We need diverse media for everyone — and not just for diverse people, but for those in the dominant class. They should not be able to use media to escape us, to be able to hide from reality within the safe confines of the covers of a book. We should be everywhere, omnipresent, unremarkable, integral, because that is how we should be in society, as well.

Image: Rainbow of Books, John Nakamura Remy, Flickr