Friday afternoon at the YALSA YA Lit Symposium, I attended Where Are the Heroes of Color in Fantasy and Sci Fi?, which boasted quite the list of presenters and participating authors/editor. Led by Sarah Murphy, Kerry Roeder, Angela Ungaro, of The Watchers Podcast, the session started by acknowledging the fact that indeed, there are already quite a few heroes of color in SFF that we can pull out from history, thanks to authors like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin. But we all know that there aren’t enough, and that’s a shame, especially when movements like We Need Diverse Books prove that we want them. To that end, participating authors Amalie Howard, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, and Cynthia Leitich Smith, plus editors Joe Monti and Stacy Whitman (who joined via video), discussed their experiences in the diverse (or not-so-diverse) world of publishing and genre fiction, especially in YA.
While there is much to say about diversity in YA literature that would take much longer than a simple post to get to, let’s agree that science fiction and fantasy seem especially to suffer from excessive whiteness (and excessive abledness, hetero-ness, etc, but that was not the theme of this session), probably due to the fact that publishers seem to think that characters of color only belong in realistic stories about very specific racialized experiences that are sanctioned by the status quo, like a story about a black person during the Civil Rights movement or a story about a Latino who is crossing the border into the United States. The question of the day seemed to be why there seems to be such resistance to genres that imagine entirely new worlds going on to imagine that people of color might be in them?
The presenters and participants all shared their frustration for the current state of publishing and their passion for changing it. Monti, who will be running his own new imprint, Saga Press, at Simon & Schuster, did not hold back from calling out other publishers’ refusal to change. He noted fighting with someone over a new cover of A Wizard of Earthsea, which failed to make Ged, the main character, black, even though the author has done nothing but insist that Ged is black. Monti noted that “we can’t get to a deeper truth if we ignore half the world…I don’t understand how a school system can be majority minority and publishers think Latinos are niche.” He said he strongly believes diversity will sell, because good stories are good stories, plain and simple.
Howard, whose latest book, Alpha Goddess, draws on Indian mythology, said that in her early days of submitting her manuscripts to publishers, the question often seemed to be “Why don’t you write about your background?” “Because I like fantasy” was her answer. This question, not asked of white writers, bothered her, since it’s not the job of a writer of color to focus solely on hard-hitting realism about racism. All genres need to diversify, and everyone is responsible or it. Howard’s own work clearly draws on diverse sources of inspiration and is informed by her own identity as a woman of color, even before Alpha Goddess was published.
McCall’s second book, Summer of the Mariposas, was inspired by a student who called for a hero’s journey story for girls when the class was reading The Odyssey. McCall said she realized that she could not only write that story, but she didn’t need to borrow from Greek mythology – Mexican and Chicano history have enough mythology to make a new story.
When aspiring writers in the audience asked the question of how future novels can contribute to the cause for diversity in SFF, Smith had a lot to say. She encouraged people to keep the conversation going so that it would not lose momentum. She also had a wise word of caution to writers seeking to add diversity to their books. First, she reminded the audience that anyone who says they don’t have a diverse population in their community is just plain wrong. “Even if you can’t see diversity, it’s there,” she said. She also reminded writers that this was a mission they had to take on because it was the right and true depiction of the world, as Monti had noted. “If you do it because you think YOU are saving the world, that’s not right,” she said. I think she meant that writing diverse stories must happen because you see what the world looks like and is made of and you write that truth into your stories; if you write diversity but don’t believe in it, your readers will see, and your story will fail. Diversity must be good for the story and the reader, not make you look like a good person.
Whitman’s video piggybacked on that as well, as she said firmly that “publishers should be reaching out to writers of color and letting them know they are welcome.” And that’s not happening enough, the panelists seemed to agree.
I left the session feeling better about the future of diversity in publishing, when usually such themed panels tend to be discouraging and full of platitudes, not action. The panelists are proof that diversity sells, proof that librarians buy it, and proof that editors know that the official party line on diversity being niche is total BS. With these people helping to pave the way, I look forward to what’s coming next.