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.