I’ve seen a lot of media posts about great non-fiction books (mostly from POC authors) regarding racism; you can even just take a look at the recent New York Times bestsellers list:
This is unquestionably important, and I myself have been trying to learn to be a better ally. However, I typically focus on fiction here, so I’d like to highlight some ways I’m diversifying my reading list with novels featuring black authors and/or main characters, which use fiction to address racial topics either directly or in more indirect ways.
The Water Dancer
I was introduced to Coates through his nonfiction (essays for The Atlantic and memoirs), and his beautiful writing quickly made him a must-read author for me. I was so excited to pick up his first fiction novel, The Water Dancer, a historical fantasy story about a young Virginian slave who seeks to use his curious power to free himself and others. I have only just started it, but the beginning is very interesting, starting in medias res and then giving some more of Hiram’s backstory. I think Coates’ lyrical prose works well with the magical realism content.
Though it is in a historical context, this book addresses racial issues pretty directly. Hiram is in an interesting position in that his mother is enslaved but his father is the white plantation owner; he himself becomes a house slave and so has some insight into both worlds and therefore possibly feels the injustice of his position between them even more keenly. I am interested to see where this one goes.
I was introduced to Jason Reynolds when his middle grade novel Ghost made the Great American Read’s top 100 list of best-loved books. I’ve since heard him speak on TV several times and have really been impressed by him. Ghost is a really charming book that should be standard curriculum for middle schools.
It follows Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost, a naturally talented runner whose main goals in life are to be a basketball player and avoid trouble. Well, Ghost doesn’t really manage either of those, but he does manage to join a competitive track team, which starts to bring some changes to his life. I loved reading Ghost’s perspective; the strength of his personality really pulled me in and kept me rooting for him. I’m looking forward to reading the stories of the other diverse members of the track team in this series, as well as Reynolds’ other books, including a young reader remix of Stamped in collaboration with Ibram X. Kendi.
I seldom turn down a Pride and Prejudice retelling, considering that Austen’s original is one of my favorite books of all time. I was pleasantly surprised with this one, which works well both as modern slice-of-life story in NYC and as a P&P remix. Pride follows Zuri Benitez, a Bushwick native who has a lot on her mind: her neighborhood is changing, her sisters are a little crazy, and she really, really wants to get into Howard. She does not have time for the cute rich boy that just moved in across the street.
I loved how I could really feel Zuri’s Haitian-Dominican culture coming through the pages. This story echoes P&P by focusing on class differences between the main characters. It kind of highlights the concept that there isn’t really just one black experience; different black people can experience their race and culture differently. And although P&P was the hook that got me interested in the story, I actually think it was stronger when it moved away from the P&P plot points.
Are you guys making any efforts to consciously diversify your reading lists? I’ve only mentioned black authors here, but I’m generally trying to read more POC authors and characters across all genres. It’s helping to broaden my horizons and I’m finding some really great stories, too.
I cannot say enough about the amazing worldbuilding in this series. The world features many diverse fantasy cultures with roots in real-world cultures, which you may recognize by names, foods, clothing, and phrases. (Even if you don’t recognize them, the cultures are rich.) The main character Hitomi is mixed race; based on context clues her parents would be Arabic and Japanese, though she begins the story living on a warm island populated by darker-skinned people. There are also several races of beings similar to things like fairies and vampires.
The series begins with Sunbolt, a novella that is the kind of book you can read in one gulp. The pacing is great, the characters are memorable, and the events are exciting. It does read like it’s only the first part of a story, so you will want to be ready to go straight on to Memories of Ash, the full novel that follows. This installment is even stronger, continuing to develop an interesting system of magic and new regions of the world. Old friends reappeared in just the right spots, while introducing great new characters that I can’t wait to see more of. Some details of the escape plan were a bit meandering, but overall I was on the edge of my seat following Hitomi through one adventure after another.
I really have very few criticisms of these books; they are better than many traditionally published YA fantasies I have read, and I will definitely go back to revisit them again. (This is basically more what I was hoping We Hunt the Flame would be.) The only tedious parts are that most of the plot revolves around people that keep getting captured and planning how to escape.
These books also avoid most YA tropes. There is no instalove. There are no love triangles. In fact, here is no romance of any kind! It focuses exclusively on the deep relationships Hitomi has developed with those around her, basically her surrogate family members.
This doesn’t mean I’m not shipping characters. Because I’m totally shipping some characters. But it’s still great to read quality YA without romance!
I guess I do have one criticism of the series: it’s not complete! The author has said it was meant to be four books in total, but there seems to be no news on when the last two might be out. I need book three! Pleeeeease.
In the meantime, I’m going to check out Khanani’s other novel, Thorn, which is a Goose Girl retelling (have I mentioned I love fairy tale retellings?). Thorn was originally self-published in 2012, but was picked up by HarperTeen and re-released by them this March. This kind of thing rarely happens to indie authors, so I think that really speaks to the quality of her writing. I have the digital version on hold at the library, but the wait list is 16 weeks long! I guess that also speaks to the quality of the writing.
Last week, Slate published an essay by an 11-year-old reader that illustrates perfectly why I believe in the need for books with diverse characters. “This is Me” by Audrey Hall was a winner in the New York Public Library’s Summer Reading 2019 Essay Contest. In her essay, Audrey describes how the book Blended by Sharon Draper expanded her universe.
You can read the full essay here, which is well-written and even includes quotes from the book to support her thesis.
Audrey checked Blended out of the library and it quickly became a favorite. The book features a multiracial protagonist with divorced parents, which also describes Audrey. She describes how she related directly to the character’s experiences in the book, moving between households and debating how to describe herself. It was a revelation for her to know that there might be other kids who shared her own experiences. “This book made me feel like I belong,” she wrote.
I personally could not have written a better essay to describe why representation is important, especially in children’s and YA literature. Every child should have the same feeling that Audrey had when reading.
Of course, we will not relate to every character we read about, which also expands our minds. And of course, we can relate to characters who don’t look like us at all. For example, my pen name Mei-Mei was taken from a Chinese character in a Japanese anime. But I won’t pretend that I don’t automatically feel a sense of kinship with every redhead character that I meet. Being able to see ourselves so directly in characters is such a valuable thing that I want every child to be able to experience it as I have.
For this reason, I have been a fan of the We Need Diverse Books movement, which started as a Twitter hashtag and has become a phenomenon. I think we have seen a huge growth of diverse books in YA fantasy (my wheelhouse) over the past ten years, and I hope this trend will continue. I am personally making an effort to read more books featuring diverse characters and, just as importantly, by diverse authors to support the publishing industry following this trend.
Audrey’s prize for the essay was a trip to a NY Yankees game. I hope she has a great time! I also hope she grows up to be a writer of many more characters like herself.
The Internet has come as close to agreement as it probably ever will over one point: it’s 2015 and we’re ready for more diversity in our fiction. No more will we accept straight white males as the default character lens through which to view our movies, comics, video games, and novels.
What no one can agree on now is how to accomplish this.
Don’t let my click-bait title fool you; I don’t have any answers. How to best reflect our culture’s many facets is an issue that itself is multifaceted.
For example, as comic books are being turned into movies, studios must walk a line between staying “true” to the source material and giving modern audiences the diversity they want. The only superheroes that have achieved any kind of permanence in mainstream popular culture include a couple of white guys (Batman, Captain America, etc.) and one white woman (Wonder Woman). So comic books, and the movies based on them, have started adding diversity to their line-ups in two basic ways.
Straight-up changing an established character’s racial/gender/sexual identity is sometimes called “bending,” as in, here are pictures of gender-bent Disney princesses. For comic book properties, race bending is most common. Both Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) and Nick Fury were originally drawn as white men, but their most recent movie incarnations are both black. The new DC Justice League movies have cast an Israeli woman as Wonder Woman and a man of native Hawaiian descent as Aquaman, both of whom generally appear very “Northern European” white in most of their iterations.
Why can’t we do this for all the famous superheroes? Sometimes, certain (some would say all) aspects of a superhero’s identity are essential to his or her character. Changing Wonder Woman to a man, for example, would negate the entire idea of her coming from the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons where men are not allowed. But portraying her as more Mediterranean in complexion makes sense with that traditional, Greek myth-related backstory. As another example, Captain America’s Aryan features made an interesting statement at the time he was created, considering that he was fighting Nazis in WWII.
But is this statement still culturally relevant? American society has changed in many ways since WWII. When Batman was created in 1939, it would have been quite rare for an “old money” family like the Waynes to be anything but white. But nowadays, the idea of upper-class minorities is not so crazy, and I don’t think an African- or Asian-American Batman would be either. For Bruce Wayne, I feel his social/economic class is the defining characteristic, more than his race.
Another issue is whether these kind of changes would be too confusing for a large audience. People who read superhero comic books generally get pretty good at not getting too hung up on continuity. So Nick Fury was white in the last series, and now he’s black. Ok. It’s the same way that Rogue can sometimes fly, and Jubilee is now a vampire. But for the general public, it might be confusing as to why Bobby “Iceman” Drake was into Rogue and Kitty for 4 movies but now likes boys.
In any case, the corporations who stand to make lots of money from superhero movies are going to be extremely hesitant to make even “superficial” changes to cultural icons, no matter how good it makes the story. Instead we could try…
Making new diverse characters
So, if we can’t mess with cultural icons, whether because we like their stories as-is or because they’re super profitable, then we’ll just have to make some new superhero characters that are not straight white males.
Comic books have been doing this for decades. Some of these characters are now being brought into the cinematic universes, such as Falcon, who was the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics when he was created in 1969. We’ve also seen Warpath, Blink, Bishop, and Sunspot, with varying ethnic backgrounds, appear in X-men: Days of Future Past, and Skye/Daisy, who is arguably the main character of Agents of SHIELD, is a mixed-race woman. Cyborg, another African-American, will be included in the Justice League movies, despite never having been considered a founding member of the League prior to the New 52.
Carol Danvers (formerly Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel) will be getting her own movie in a few years, the first of the MCU to feature a solo female superhero. Though she’s been around under various aliases since the late 70s, Carol has really been leading the way for female superheros recently with a new (fully-clothed) look and very popular comic series as Captain Marvel. We can see why Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, looks up to her.
But the truth is, no matter how many Captain Marvel movies they make, I don’t really believe that Captain Marvel will ever be as popular or well-known as Superman. I guess time will tell.
Door Number 3: A little bit of both
The strategy that DC and Marvel have both been using quite successfully lately combines these first two ideas: having a new character take up the mantle of a famous superhero. (It doesn’t seem too crazy considering the frequency with which comic book heroes get killed off.) Marvel’s new Avengers line-up includes Sam Wilson (Falcon) as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and Miles Morales as Spider-man. Kamala and Miles specifically have been a huge hit, being brand new characters featured in well-received solo series titles who are now being incorporated into Marvel’s headliner team.
Although Ms. Marvel is not a particularly well-known superhero persona in the general public, Kamala has received huge amounts of press for being a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who deals with typical teenage problems (like strict parents) as well as dealing with criminals and saving citizens of Jersey City. Her solo series has been selling very well. Having just read the first collected volume of Ms. Marvel, I liked the way Kamala’s religion was represented: it is an essential part of her life (she would be a slightly different person if she hadn’t been raised Muslim), but at the same time it is only one part of her character, and neither the plot nor her superpowers revolve around it.
Miles has even more visibility, as Spider-man is one of Marvel’s signature heroes and was ranked 3rd behind Batman and Superman on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heros of All Time. In fact, many fans have suggested that Miles be the Spider-man of the MCU (because, do we really need a 3rd teenage Peter Parker rendition?), but the actors rumored to be in contention for the role look decidedly like young Peter Parker, so the powers-that-be at least feel that the general public is not ready for Miles as Spider-man.
In the DC universe, the Green Lantern Corps is a perfect opportunity to introduce various characters and still call them “Green Lantern,” including an African-American (John Stewart), a gay man (Alan Scott), and several women. I was very happy with the choice to use John Stewart as the Green Lantern of the DCAU Justice League cartoon (despite the fact that Kyle Rayner had already been introduced to the DCAU in Superman:TAS). Why they made the (terrible) Green Lantern feature film about Hal Jordan instead, I’ll never know, but I still hold out hope for John Stewart to be the Green Lantern of the new Justice League movies.
In conclusion, it’s clear that the only “right” way to increase diversity in comic book fiction is in a way that tells an interesting story with compelling characters. Character traits shouldn’t be simply boxes checked on a list; they should be used to tell a story that reflects the experiences of audience members. As both creators and consumers of fiction, we must think carefully about character diversity both on an individual level and as a whole. The answers are not simple, but we continue to work towards a goal of inclusiveness.
Here are a few more thoughtful discussions on this and related topics; feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments below:
Naturally I have an opinion, as well…many opinions, many hopes and fears for the next step in my favorite fandom. I couldn’t help but comment yesterday…only one new female main role has been cast (with another supporting role potentially on the way). Annalee Newitz of io9 has offered her opinion on this here.
We all know that scifi and fantasy tend to over-represent white men as characters. The Hobbit had to *make up a new character* to get some estrogen on-screen, for heaven’s sake. So as I pondered this issue today, I asked myself: What am I doing to address this problem?
I thought about my own writing and the statements I make with my own (unpublished) words. After all, I am a woman and I typically write female main characters. I have 4 fantasy novels floating around in my head at the moment:
Male and female duo of main characters, with another female narrator; Native American influences–not bad so far
Male and female duo of main characters, but set in an alternate Roman Empire, so pretty Caucasian
Female main character, race unspecified, but the setting is medieval Europe-style war, so not much room for other female characters–definitely needs some work in the diversity area
And here’s the kicker: X-men-style cast of young magic-users, consisting of 3 males, 1 female, plus the main character (also male) and their teacher (also male). And while I hadn’t thought about race, they must all be the same, and one has red hair and another has white hair. Sooooo they probably are not black, Asian etc.
Oh my. In my own stories, from my own feminist brain, I have a cast a group of white superhumans with a 5:1 m:f ratio. And to think, just last night I was laughing at how the new Justice League has added Cyborg just to get some real-world diversity.
This is a problem. We writers of the next generation of nerds need to lead by example, and I am not pulling my weight.
I ran through my cast to see which characters had potential for some changes. I had made 3 purposefully male to begin with. The other two? But but but…that would change the group dynamic! Teenage hormones are so messy and complicated to write.
I can’t believe I’m still fighting myself on this. I’m proving myself a hypocrite and a lazy writer to boot.
In the end, I’ve at least decided to genderswap the white-haired character, Starbuck-style. So this character is now a girl…she can keep the short, white hairstyle. She can keep the rough-and-tumble with her brothers. Maybe she’ll have a romantic interest, and maybe she won’t. This character had literally no reason to be male, except as a default.
And I refuse to let my default be exclusionary. The more people that can also find themselves in the things I love, the better.
This is clearly going to be an on-going process in my writing. But I know that in the end, my stories will be the better for it.