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Writers' Fortnight 2020: A lack of colour in publishing

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Writers' Fortnight 2020: A lack of colour in publishing

“I never saw a book with characters like me in them.” - Hanna Alkaf. Publishing is facing a colossal issue, and it’s up to the authors and readers/consumers to solve it for the next generation.

Publishing is a blank page and one that has a distinct lack of colour. For so many people, the books they read when they’re young are the ones that shape their views on themselves, their future work, and their self-confidence, as well as how they view their race/culture. So when looking at middle grade and young adult (YA) books, what we want to see is diversity, an accurate mirror of ourselves. However, this is not the case for most of the industry. 

Every year, the School Library Journal publishes a summary of the representation in children’s books (see infographic above). The amount of First Nation, Latinx, Asian Pacific, and African American characters in the children’s books published in 2018 do not even add up to the amount of non-human characters, and strays far from the number of white characters (50% white characters, a combined total of 23% American Indian, Latinx, Asia Pacific, African). These numbers prove something that is shockingly clear, the world of children’s publishing and literature have an overwhelming lack of diversity. 

The struggle to be published

One of the main issues with diversity in publishing is the struggle authors writing ‘diverse’ or ‘issue’ books face. During an interview, 34-year-old Malaysian YA/middle grade author, Hanna Alkaf, “Weight of Our Sky”, stated something that reflected a broader issue, faced by authors of all backgrounds. She had been told on numerous occasions that her writing was “too Asian” or that the publishing houses she contacted already had “an issue book”. The fact that books can be classified as ‘issue’ books for speaking about diverse characters or focusing on less talked about problems is appalling. This has been a problem faced by diverse authors for many years.

Image above by Azalia Suhaimi

In an article published by the Huffington Post, PP Wong, the author of the article, recounted a comment an Asian friend of hers had received from a publisher: “We are currently publishing the books of ‘Famous Asian’ writer so we believe there may be some overlap if we take this book on.” This experience was in line with that of Ms Alkaf. This branches to the larger issue of bringing that representation into publishing. Because these authors realise they will not be able to publish books with ‘diverse’ or ‘different’ characters, they default to writing those about white characters, or even animals. This is not helped by the fact that often, authors have been told to change parts of their books to fit archetypes, or to use buzzwords, words which are “fashionable” at a particular time, as will be elaborated on. 

Importance of Representation

As stated previously, for young readers, seeing a mirror of themselves in books is key to the development of their identity and beliefs. The lack of diversity in children’s books can lead to them feeling as if their image or identity is wrong. In regards to her experiences with reading, Ms Alkaf stated "I never saw a book with characters like me in them".

Along with her are other renowned authors, speaking of their experiences when they were young and how they were shaped by the mirrors in their books. In a Ted talk in 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (see image), recipient of the Macarthur Genius Grant, stated “ All my characters were white and blue-eyed,” referring to how the books she’d grown up reading led her to believe that all books had to have these characters. This starts a cycle of authors learning to write only a certain archetype, and that becoming the norm, that becoming the ‘inspiration’ for the next generation of budding writers. While representation is key in young children’s books, it is also relevant in adult literature, as books shape us, as discouragement one can feel, whether 5 years old or 50 years old, in not seeing themselves is demoralising. 

According to a paper published under The World Journal of Educational Research, “, along with the omission of diverse characters altogether, send subliminal messages to children about what is acceptable and what is “the norm”.” We are shaping the self-esteem, the views and beliefs of the newest generations.

Image on the right: Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Image by Carlos Figueroa.

By depicting unrealistic characters (those who never get pimples, don’t do work but get perfect grades), or simply not depicting diverse ones, we teach them that there is a world where looking a certain way is looking ‘right’. 

Bleached Pages

Whitewashing is an ever prominent issue in publishing, one which has set back the diversity of the industry for years. These issues have been pushed into the background, or they were, till “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, published in January 2020. “American Dirt”, a book about a migrant mother and son duo facing the odds, was meant to be iconic, with a seven-figure book deal and great deals of excitement leading up to its release. However, it faced immense backlash, for the reason of it appropriating Latin culture. In American Dirt, as stated in a New York Times opinion article, “ multiple cultural inaccuracies and Spanish dialogue of Google Translate quality sprinkled throughout,” which took an issue prevalent in today's political landscape and displayed it inaccurately. 

Another book in the Children's Literature market that faced backlash was one called “AB to Jay Z” by Danny Chiha, Jessica Chiha, and Lola Willow. It appropriated aspects of African American culture. It currently faces a lawsuit from Jay Z for the misuse of his name and work. The authors of “AB to Jay Z,” have been seen in blackface (theatrical make-up used to represent a caricature of a black person), yet their book is still being published and spread to children throughout Australia. The fact that a book which depicts cultures inappropriately, and is written by authors who have been in blackface has been published, while authentic authors are not, shows the core issue, that the importance of authenticity is one that can be faked through the use of buzzwords or slang. For future generations, we need to ensure that they’re being exposed to truthful material, which supports diversity and authentic authors. 

Elaborating, there is a pattern of authors writing about diverse cultures using certain words, buzzwords, or themes to label their work authentic. This could include using “Abuela” in work about Latinx cultures, or certain slang in a book about African-American culture. This misrepresents these cultures. How can consumers be certain that the experiences in the books are true to the experiences faced by the people who have lived those experiences? While fiction can be fictitious to an extent, if publishing houses are promoting authenticity, that’s what should come with the purchase of the book. Can white authors writing books about other cultures without being a part of them be considered false marketing and misinformation? There is a broad ethical issue, whether or not they should be allowed to publish. 

When these authors write books, they not only take away the opportunities of authors writing truthfully and honestly but they in a way, take away their narrative power and demean the value of their work/experiences. To children who are themselves a part of those cultures, this misrepresentation can be demeaning, and foster insecurity.

Where is the Coverage

With an issue that seems to have so much impact, and with so many authors speaking against it, one would believe that the whitewashing, difficulties in being published, and overall discrimination of the industry are well known. However, the issue of a lack of diversity in publishing is starkly absent from the news. When over 1 million books are being published a year, it can be hard to keep track of the names, much less the genre, diversity and race of the main character.

While diverse authors writing true stories of their homes have become more prominent, we can still see a shocking gap in the publishing stage. With organizations run by authors such as WeNeedDiverseBooks or news articles trying to shine the light on this issue, the progress has continued. Supporting authors writing authentic and true stories, those like Hanna Alkaf, allows us to create a new culture of book reading for the newer generations, one which shows diversity and acceptance. We as consumers as well as people trying to positively impact the generations to come must evaluate our part in this issue, and how we can find little ways to solve the problem. Publishing houses like Penguin Random House have introduced diversity initiatives and worked with organizations over the years, but it’s a two-way street to change. Publishing is a blank page, but not one without the possibility of having colour. 

Recommended Authors Writing Diverse Middle-Grade/Children's Fiction

These authors are ones which have written about their experiences, the experiences of the people around them, or have created narratives to show the beauty in diversity for middle grade reading levels. 

Hanna Alkaf (Weight of Our Sky)

Grace Lin (Dumpling Days, Where The Mountain Meets The Moon)

Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe, The Inexplicable Logic Of My Life)

Adam Silvera (They Both Die At The End, More Happy Than Not)

Alex Gino (George)

Matt de la Peña (Last Stop On Market Street, Carmela Full Of Wishes)

Yangsook Choi (The Name Jar, The sun girl and the moon boy)

Yuyi Morales (Dreamers)

Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, Hush)

Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)

 

Citations:

Infographic Citation: Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-....

Carlos Figueroa / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Congreso_Futuro_2020_-_Chimamand...

https://hannaalkaf.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/hanna-12.jpg?w=692&h=460, Photo by Azalia Suhaimi

20 May 2020
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