January 16, 2007

Peering Into the Winner's Circle

This just in: the newest Edge of the Forest is up and out, and features a great piece on cover art... since finding out that the cover art for the Little House series is in transit, and after finding how cover art really impacts my assumptions about YA fiction, I found this especially interesting. Also great is the round-up of historical fiction, and the realization that for once, I've read most of the books everyone is talking about! (Yay, Cybils!) Head on over and enjoy!

After serving on the Cybils YA team, I have thought more and more about the process whereby we come up with "winners" in children's books, and whether the process is really inclusive and reflective of all of the best books out there.

To be quite blunt, I've never thought that the major ALA awards did the majority of books justice. One of the reasons for this is that in grad school, many of the books we studied were award winners, and there was a marked lack of ... diversity in these books. Even books about characters of certain ethnicities were generally written by Caucasian authors. In the end, it was an overall combination of my contempt for my professor's YA lit choices (sorry, KR), and generalized contempt for the awards themselves. Serving on the Cybils team gave me a great new compassion for award committees... I still believe that some really deserving books are being overlooked, but I got a glimpse of some of what committee panels are up against. (And for a bit more strife, check out the UK's Commission for Racial Equality's pending suit against an ethnic book award - [thanks to Read Roger]).

During the lovely Blogger Brunch last weekend, one of the things we discussed, amid the detritus of half-empty plates and far too many cups of tea, was the issue of ethnicity in Children's literature. Tockla's PhD work is regarding the editorial process that has affected books written by non-white authors in the UK since the 1970s, and how the process of publishing, which in children's lit is mostly white and female (until the upper echelons, and then it's largely white and male), has changed a work from one thing into another more 'acceptable' thing. A.F. and I have been working with depicting characters struggling with various Typical Young Adult situations who happen to be ethnic minorities, and we've both had some seriously odd experiences with editors and other in-charge types asking for various manipulations of characters to better reflect their ideals of what a character of a particular ethnicity would do. We both found it revealing to talk with Tockla about the various experiences her interviews with authors have given her, and the phenomenon that sometimes authors are asked to peel away things their characters were and did, in order to make them 'acceptable' to mainstream publishing. We discussed the question as to how literature then changes to become shined up for a mythical 'everykid' who does not, in fact, exist.

These thoughts led to us wincing laughter over the funny story of an agent seeking out every African American editor they knew in order to more successfully pitch a novel ... despite the fact that the character was biracial and the storyline wasn't particularly ethnic. And, when it was strongly suggested that the author remove the bi-racial character's other race, and just make the character "plain old black, like you," it was, well, shocking.

I wished then, as I often do, that I could have expressed why the whole thing is so troubling to me -- funny on one level, but on myriad others, upsetting. (I, sadly, will forever be one of those people who can only think of a comeback exactly twenty-five minutes later, which is why I write... and try not to talk!) As the weekend went on, I tucked our brunch conversation away in my mind, then just happened over to Mitali's Fire Escape, and was relieved to find her usual articulate discussion on ethnicity and literature. Her thoughts touch on mine, and though she was talking mostly about ethnicity based children's book awards, she put it beautifully:

"Winning the Super Asian Writer Children's Book Award could reinforce your vocation as an "ethnic" writer, which in turn might relegate you and your book to a (short) list of obligatory "multicultural" reads in a book-buyer's blackberry. Your stories will then be forced on kids by adults like some sort of necessary vitamin pill for the soul. Yum."

(Vitamin Pills for the Beleagured Soul. I believe Mitali could give the Chicken Soup people a run for their money!!)

You know, I can imagine NOBODY who wants to be put in a corner and generalized as a writer of a particular ethnicity that is only of interest to those who are OF or interested in that particular ethnicity, or those who have that ethnicity thrust upon them by well meaning teachers one few days a year (one in January and perhaps a few days a month in February, along with a class video of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and couple of Phyllis Wheatley poems or a few by Langston Hughes). Part of diversity must be defined by integration -- both integration of peoples and their cultures, and the books about them. In the great Someday, our best world would be one where I could go and grab a novel about a Pakistani girl and just read it and appreciate the commonalities of our lives without particularly feeling like I was reading a South Asian Novel, but as we continue to grapple with the Now, that isn't maybe as realistic. While I personally don't want to be relegated to the portion of the bookstore for African American books (nor shunted off to African American editors), at the same time, I understand that some people's minds are segregated like that, and maybe that's what will create success for minority writers and their books. Maybe that's just the way it has to be, in the here and now.

Seems a pity...


Erin said...

You said, "You know, I can imagine NOBODY who wants to be put in a corner and generalized as a writer of a particular ethnicity that is only of interest to those who are OF or interested in that particular ethnicity."

I think the same thing can go to authors of particular religions. For instance, I'm a Christian, but I would be horrified to find my work labeled as "Christian fiction."

DaviMack said...

The real pity is that you're forced to make a choice as an author: either you get to have RACE in your book, or you're writing about ... some vanilla "kid" for whom ethnicity isn't an issue. You don't get the chance to simply write about a character who happens to have a non-white ethnicity. Can't do it: it's either the all-caps version or the poor kid gets to be white.

a. fortis said...

It sadly seems to be true; but I think it's completely screwy. (Notwithstanding the fact that I am a total coconut), as an individual of mixed ethnicity, I find it highly objectionable that I would have to either be "ethnic" or "not ethnic." It's that whole one-drop rule business insidiously rearing its ugly head again. (And, yes, I managed to work that into my novel-in-progress! :)) I'm sorry, but if we truly live in a melting pot or salad bowl or whatever the trendy metaphor is these days, there has to be room for gray areas.

Of course, I'm sure this has more to do with marketing than anything else. Marketing of the "exotic other" versus marketing the "everykid." One day I hope people will realize that that Everykid is much more than simply a race or a collection of ethnicities.

Sorry. My rant is done.

TadMack said...

Erin, I daresay that there are some times even PEOPLE don't want to be labeled as a particular religion, particularly when OTHER people claim that religion loudly and insistently... but I daresay that is also another blog posting altogether.

And yes -- the 'everykid' that doesn't exist should, perhaps, but only as a full collection of all who we are as people, not as a particular ethnicity... but I may be being horribly idealistic.

TadMack said...

...and thinking about it further (which I am prone to do on a good rant), I AM pushed into making a decision one way or another because we do have a "dominant culture." If I don't differentiate or specify, the character is imagined to be the same as the reader. That is NOT bad -- I recall that Toni Morrison once wrote a novel without identifying the racial ethnicities of the characters at all -- but for YA lit, which is ultimately driven by a huge marketing machine, that may not work unless one is a really well established author.

Or maybe it will... it just seems to me that very few chances are being taken on authors anymore. Everyone wants to be in-trend, nobody particularly wants to be the one SETTING the trend.


DaviMack said...

The fundamental problem with not expressing ethnicity unless it's an issue? That would be that the "everykid" is perceived to be from the dominant culture - even by minorities. Thus, when you're writing about the everykid you're actually writing about a white kid, at least in the West. I don't know how this plays in other languages, but in English? You're writing a white kid unless you state otherwise, and ethnic minorities will perceive it that way as well.