May 09, 2011

Diversity in YA Kicks Off Tour at SFPL

...and I was there to witness it! If you don't know Diversity in YA, I highly suggest a visit to their website. It's an endeavor that celebrates and spreads the word about diversity in books for young people, founded by authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon.

The first tour stop, this past Saturday, included both of the aforementioned ladies of YA, as well as graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang (interviewed by us here some years ago) and author J.A. Yang (Exclusively Chloe). For a few more photos and a short recap of the wonderful sponsors, check out the DIYA website. (Sadly, since I was sitting on the very end of the front row, I am not pictured in the photo of the gratifyingly large audience, but I assure you I was there.)

Here are a few favorite highlights from the panel:
  • After each author introduced their work and read a short passage, the moderator asked the panelists when they first started to think about writing YA with Asian-American characters. This prompted some fascinating replies. Cindy Pon said that for years she didn't think about writing a character like herself because she'd never read any books with characters like herself. John (J.A.) Yang said that when he was young he sought out books as unlike his own experience as possible.

    Malinda Lo said that when she was growing up in Colorado, she was only one of a few Asians at her school. One day a teacher gave her Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior to read, but she couldn't relate to it at all. Nevertheless, it prompted a major realization about the way people viewed her. It wasn't until college that Malinda learned more about what it was like to be Asian American, and Huntress is her first book with deliberate Asian influences.

    Gene Yang said that as a young person, he didn't remember reading any books with Asian protagonists, and it wasn't until college that he started to use Asian-American characters in his comics. Gene went on to describe Superman as a great metaphor for being Asian American, as a character who negotiates two identities (and the extended metaphor was hilarious—down to Superman having two names, one Anglo name and one traditional name, complete with hyphen).

  • There was a fascinating discussion of the idea of authenticity, and feeling authoritative enough to write something about a character very different from oneself. After all, there are many, many facets to the Asian American experience. Malinda said that she felt she could "fudge" things more in fantasy novels. With more seriousness, she went on to point out that "authenticity is situational"--as writers, all we can do is think through our choices the best we can.

  • On coverfail: there was some discussion of the newly recast covers of Cindy Pon's books, which have a decidedly less Asian feel, and about what types of covers sell more books. Cindy was not sure whether the new covers were in fact helping sell more books. The conversation turned a bit more tongue-in-cheek after that, with Malinda pointing out that "abs sell really well" on covers. Gene Yang suggested that perhaps the best-selling cover of all would feature werewolf abs. John concluded that discussion on a more thoughtful note, bringing up the role of bloggers in the cover discussion, and wondering whether this might eventually lead to more minorities featured on book covers.

All in all, it was a wonderful panel, and I wish I could have stayed for the book signing and refreshments afterward. Still, it was great to meet the panelists (I made sure to show up a little early!) and I'm hopeful that they get as fabulous a turnout at their other tour stops.

I wanted to throw one last question out to any writers reading this post—the same question asked of the panelists: If you write stories with protagonists of color, when did you first think about doing that, and why?

For me, identity has always been an important theme in my writing, including the different factors that constitute identity, such as ethnicity. So it wasn't long after I decided to pursue writing that characters of color started to pop up, sometimes as minor characters and other times in starring roles. But the writing I did when I was younger—when it was still a hobby—had a noticeable lack of diversity, and I assume that's because I was trying to emulate the books I loved to read...many of which did not feature characters of color. (Not that that reflects badly on the books I loved—it's simply a fact.) What about you?


Charlotte said...

It sounds like a great evening--thanks for the report! I'm hoping to make it up to the Boston stop on Thursday, D.V. I'll be a squeeing fan girl mess....

tanita✿davis said...

Gene. Luen. Yang. Is. So. Cute.
Yes, that's my intellectual contribution to this whole conversation.

>>If you write stories with protagonists of color, when did you first think about doing that, and why?<<

Well, I think that I, like so many young writers of color, tended to write the mainstream, that is, my characters were the people I found in the books I read... that is, CAUCASIAN. Until I was in grad school trying to wrestle with writing personal stories, and I realized that I could write personal stories which didn't have to be particularly "ethnic," but just about ...ME? Then I was like, "Well, okay, then," and the diversity roared into life. Too much diversity, sometimes my agent thinks; it still alarms him that I want to people my novels with EVERYBODY, and he thinks since I only represent one (and a quarter) ethnicities, I should give it a rest, but I don't think I will. :D

Sarah Stevenson said...

"Too much diversity" is hilarious to me, especially for someone who lives in New York. :)