By Laura Nsafou
When Nathalie McGriff at seven years old complained about her skin color and type of hair, her mother decided to do something about it. With Nathalie’s help, her mom not only created a super hero that looked just like Nathalie, she showed her daughter that a comic book could come out of her frustrations. The result was a visible representation of “little girls like her” in graphic form. That comic proved its merit by winning over $16,000 in a local contest and now Nathalie is proud of the way she looks.
Many children are aware of their absence in the books they read, especially when they start to identify and to compare themselves with others. What makes Nathalie’s path special is not so much that she may not have seen herself represented and therefore did not feel value in her physical identity, but that she became the exception. Through her (and her mother’s) willingness to represent herself, she showed others the importance of representing her as well.
However, Nathalie’s story isn’t the norm. Most children do not have the option to express themselves and to fix their absence from media by producing their own books. Each person has their own story but it doesn’t mean we all have access to tell it. In the case of children, they are depending on an industry much bigger than they are. Authors are responsible for what they’ll see in bookstores and their school libraries.
As an author, you are creating and producing possibilities for children with your words. As inspiring as this sounds, being aware that this responsibility is not enough. What you perceive as needed in children’s literature and in young adult literature could be different from what those readers want, and it can be hard to know where to start. Here are three tips for providing representation for those who cannot provide it for themselves.
1. Ask, don’t guess.
Joyce Carol Oates’ book Black Girl, White Girl pointed out the differences between being a black girl and white girl in 1950’s America. The book was avant-garde at the time, providing needed examination during the Civil Rights movement just as much as it still needs to be examined today in young adult literature. For all its progressiveness, to an African American girl, the description of characters reads more like a fantasy of what being black during this period could be in the author’s mind—who is not a black woman—than what it was in reality, including comparing the black character’s afro hair to “barbed wire”. Nathalie probably would compare her hair to anything but barbed wire, but an author might know this if they would only ask those who they are portraying.
The intentions of authors won’t prevent them from using stereotypes no matter how sincere their thoughts because they are part of our environment. In order to change narratives with diverse stories, writers must talk to people who are absent from the narratives we know. Ask youth what they would like to see and how they want to be part of literature. Don’t guess what they need by assuming that what you think is enough; as demonstrated throughout history, our younger generation will surprise us!
2. Step out from the genre’s frame, make it evolve.
When it comes to certain genres, some argue that you can’t include representation due to historical accuracy and tradition. However, this same accuracy is often based on what we see in mainstream media. Who would have thought that a Jane Austen-style plot could focus on a black woman as the main character and be accurate? Before the 2013 movie Belle, directed by Amma Asante, very few. Belle’s story in Victorian Britain is a historical fact but it was never brought to light before this film.
When it comes to popular genres such as fantasy and science fiction, people will argue that we must respect a righteous and literary tradition and will denounce “forced” diversity. This statement would mean that imagination isn’t synonymous to freedom, but must respect selective rules. If this were the case, literary genres wouldn’t evolve with all the influences of time, and literature would be static with the same characters, plots, and endings.
The reason why readers love genre fiction so much is because there are standards, codes, and rules, but those are merely guidelines and parameters. No matter what, literature is a reflection of society. A fantasy plot without magic wouldn’t be fantasy, but you’ll enrich it with elements that don’t normally appear. You must constantly ask yourself what hasn’t already been done.
For example, it’s common to find references to Celtic, Greek, or Egyptian mythology in mainstream literature, but there are many foreign mythologies and legends which remain barely touched. Nigerian and Beninese mythologies also have several gods and their stories are also ripe to be explored.
As writers we must be curious about what hasn’t been done before and focus on the elements that will encompass our evolving society and culture.
3. Observe and learn.
Most agencies receive hundreds of manuscripts a month to sort through. What distinguishes the good from the riveting are the common mistakes agents find, like over complicated plots or too predictable ones. On the website Reference for writers, Alex explains how originality lives in the in-between, and to reach this balance, it takes effort. Contributing to diverse narratives requires effort and creativity because you have to look for ideas where most don’t go, or are afraid to explore. Representation is all about including perspectives that have not been shown and vocalizing voices that have not been heard.
How can you put these unseen perspectives on the page? Observation is the key. You are surrounded by impressions every day just waiting to be observed. It’s not enough to write about what is imposed to you, you have to put things in perspective to make your observation neutral and global.
Neutral observation includes studying your position in your environment. How are you connected to the subject you want to write about? What are your prejudices? How might those thoughts affect the way you portray a character? Your own experience with others will give an identity to you work and depth to your story, but you must ensure that those experiences are balanced with research. As Barbara Baig explains in her article The Power of Observation: How to Observe and Improve Your Writing,
External collecting is just as valuable as internal collecting in giving you ideas for things to write about as well as material you might use someday, so I urge you to make it a regular part of your practice. You can collect at random, whenever something strikes you; and you can—and should—make external collecting a deliberate practice.
In order to provide diverse books, you, as a writer, should reflect on your position first, then look at what might be missing in the society you’re creating.
Above all else, at Quill Shift Literary Agency we’re looking to receive stories that showcase not what writers personally perceive as needed, but stories that show the writer understands how what they create can respond to others’ desires in a larger context.
What desire does your story fulfill?