Read This: Gene Luen Yang’s rousing comics speech at the 2014 National Book Festival gala
From the Washington Post, article here.
GENE LUEN YANG, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building:
Good evening. Thank you, Library of Congress and National Book Festival, for inviting me to share the stage with such esteemed authors, and to speak with all of you. I am deeply grateful for this honor.
I’m a comic-book guy, so tonight I’d like to talk about another comic book guy. Dwayne McDuffie was one of my favorite writers. When I was growing up, he was one of the few African-Americans working in American comics. Dwayne worked primarily within the superhero genre. He got his start at Marvel Comics but eventually worked for almost every comic book publisher out there. He even branched out into television and wrote for popular cartoon series like “Justice League” and “Ben 10.”
Dwayne McDuffie is no longer with us, unfortunately. He passed away in 2011, at the age of 49. But within comics, his influence is still deeply felt.
I was lucky enough to have met him once. About a year before his death, we were on a panel together at Comic-Con. I had the opportunity to shake his hand and tell him how much his work meant to me.
In a column Dwayne wrote in 1999, he talked about his love of the Black Panther, a Marvel Comics character. The Black Panther’s secret alias is T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He has super senses, super strength, and super agility. He’s an Avenger, though he hasn’t yet made it into the movies.
The Black Panther wasn’t created by African American cartoonists. He was created in July of 1966 by two Jewish Americans, Stan Lee (who was born Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (who was born Jacob Kurtzberg).
By modern standards, the Black Panther is not a flawless example of a black superhero. In their first draft of the character, Lee and Kirby called him “the Coal Tiger” and gave him a goofy yellow and black costume. Even in his final form, his superhero alias includes the word “Black.” This is true of many early African and African American superheroes, as if what makes them remarkable is neither their superpowers nor their heroism, but their ethnicity. Most problematic, though, was that Marvel made their most prominent black superhero the star of a series called Jungle Action.
All of these flaws were lost on Dwayne McDuffie when he first encountered the Black Panther in 1973, at the age of 11. What struck him was the character’s commanding sense of dignity. The Black Panther wasn’t anyone’s sidekick. He wasn’t an angry thug. He wasn’t a victim. He was his own hero, his own man. As Dwayne describes it, “In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.”
Dwayne’s love of the Black Panther eventually blossomed into a love of comics in general. Dwayne was a smart guy with a lot of options in life. He’d earned a master’s degree in physics. But he chose to write comics as his career. I would argue that without the Black Panther, this flawed black character created by a writer and an artist who were not black, there would be no Dwayne McDuffie the comic book writer.
Dwayne wasn’t just a writer — he was also a businessman. In the early ’90s, he teamed with a group of writers and artists to found Milestone Media, the most prominent minority-owned comic book company that has ever existed. The Milestone universe have since been folded into DC Comics, so these days characters like Static Shock and Icon – characters Dwayne co-created – fight crime alongside Superman and Batman.
In the early ’90s, I was finishing up my adolescence. I visited my local comic-book store on a weekly basis, and one week I found a book on the stands called Xombi, published by Milestone Media. Xombi is a scientist who became a superhero after he was injected with nanotechnology. He allied himself with a secret order of superpowered nuns. One sister was known as Nun of the Above, another Nun the Less. Together, they protected the world from all kinds of supernatural threats.
Xombi was inventive and fun, but he stood out to me because he was an Asian American male carrying in his own monthly title. And even more notable – he didn’t know Kung Fu. Xombi wasn’t created by Asian Americans – his writer was white and his artist black – but he did make Asian Americans a little less invisible.
We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree.
But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.
This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.
After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.
I told you the story of Dwayne McDuffie to encourage all of us to be generous with ourselves and with one another. The Black Panther, despite his flaws, was able to inspire a young African American reader to become a writer.
We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human.
Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.
Also, it’s okay if stereotypes emerge in the first drafts of your colleagues. Correct them – definitely correct them – but do so in a spirit of generosity. Remember how soul-wrenching the act of writing is, how much courage it took for that writer to put words down on a page.
And let’s say you do your best. You put in all the effort you can. But then when your book comes out, the Internet gets angry. You slowly realize that, for once, the Internet might be right. You made a cultural misstep. If this happens, take comfort in the fact that even flawed characters can inspire. Apologize if necessary, resolve do better, and move on.
Let your fear drive you to do your homework. But no matter what, don’t ever let your fear stop you.
Her book is part of the Reading Together Book Project, which recruits local authors and illustrators to create culturally relevant books for children.
"Recruiting authors and illustrators to create culturally relevant books to keep children reading is the idea behind the Reading Together Book Project spearheaded by the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and supported by Minnesota taxpayers through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Thanks to that program, author Vang paired up with book illustrator Aimee Hagerty Johnson to produce “Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon,’’ a chapter book geared for third grade and older children. So did May Lee Yang, who wrote “The Imaginary Day,’’ which was illustrated by Anne Sawyer-Aitch.
“If people see themselves reflected in a book or movies or music, they’re more engaged,’’ says Vang in explaining why she wrote her story about a little Hmong-American girl who — not unlike its author – struggles to preserve her heritage yet yearns to rise above traditional gender roles in the Hmong culture."
It’s not news that the publishing world isn’t very diverse. But over on the other side of the industry, how do owners of neighborhood bookstores try to sell books for or about people of color?
Great interview with Elizabeth Bluemle, owner of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Vermont, and some comments from Ellen Oh and Jacqueline Woodson from #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Q:I don't understand why people don't want to write POC, women, queer, or disabled people into their stories. I can't imagine sitting down and going, "Okay. I am writing a story and I know that white, straight, heterosexual, able-bodied men are incredibly underrepresented, so let's write 20 of those." I mean, yeah, in some cases it requires research, but I just don't get why most writers seem to care so little about representation.
I can explain this with two simple rules, and I want to make it clear that even though I understand it, I neither approve of nor like it:
- "Write what you know."
- "Garbage in, Garbage out."
"Write what you know" is exactly what it says on the tin. Obviously, you can’t write what you don’t know, at least not accurately. For example, I could probably write a pretty detailed guide on how to perform open heart surgery, but since I don’t know how to do that, it would probably be wildly inaccurate and anyone following it would certainly die.
"Garbage in, Garbage out" basically means that faulty input will invariably create faulty output. For example, if somebody tried to cite my Open Heart Surgery guide in a paper, they’d probably fail the paper, because my guide is a piece of shit. Basically, they put garbage into their paper, and so the resulting paper was garbage.
That being said, when an author is bigoted, consciously or not, they’re likely to not associate too much with or care too much about people of color, disabled folks, gay folks, bi folks, trans folks, women, any combination thereupon, or anyone who doesn’t come from whatever factory cranks out the low-quality Indiana Jones clones that populate the casts of their writing.
So if you’re a racist, your perception of the world is probably overwhelmingly white, or at least overemphasizes the importance of white experiences over others. If you’re misogynist, same goes for men. If you’re homophobic, same goes for heterosexual people. And then imagine this paragraph goes on until I’ve covered every type of bigotry, because it’s 1 AM, I can feel myself getting sleepy, and I’d ironically like to watch the new Doctor Who before I go to bed.
So if your perceptions of the world are overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual, et cetera, then your perceptions of the world are the garbage that goes in, and your writing is the garbage that comes out, also overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual, et cetera.
That being said, if you’re just writing what you know, and all the people you’re writing are white, heterosexual cis men with no disabilities whatsoever, then you might want to ask yourself why that is. Like, do you only know people like that? Is your life like the episode of the Fairly OddParents where Timmy wishes everyone is exactly the same? Why don’t you know any women? Are you a monk of some kind?
Happy early book birthday to the heap of books coming out this week!
Bone, Fog, Ash & Star: The Last Days of Tian Di Book 3 by Catherine Egan
Now a formidable Sorceress, Eliza Tok at sixteen is a world away from the unknowing child she once was. But unlike the previous Shang Sorceresses, Eliza will always act out of love, for those she loves, above all else. Above even the greater good of the worlds Tian Di and Tian Xia? The Mancers, and her enemy the Xia Sorceress, think so. And Eliza, when she unhesitatingly uses her tremendous abilities to save her best friend Charlie from a terrible attack, is inclined to agree. As Eliza, Charlie, Nell and the ever-loyal Mancer teacher Foss embark on a quest to protect Charlie’s life from an unrelenting enemy, Eliza is brought to the very edge of what she can withstand, both as a Sorceress and as a human girl. Forced to trust her enemies, face up to devastating truths and gather the greatest and most ancient power her world has ever known, she must confront and question her most profoundly held beliefs. Is Eliza powerful enough to shape her destiny, or will she let it shape her?
Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes
Anatomy of a Misfit is Mean Girls meets The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Anika’s hilariously deadpan delivery will appeal to readers for its honesty and depth. The so-sad-it’s-funny high school setting will pull readers in, but when the story’s dark foreboding gradually takes over, the devastating penultimate tragedy hits like a punch to the gut. Readers will ride the highs and lows alongside funny, flawed Anika—from laughter to tears, and everything in between.
Secret Sky by Atia Abawi
Fatima is a Hazara girl, raised to be obedient and dutiful. Samiullah is a Pashtun boy raised to defend the traditions of his tribe. They were not meant to fall in love. But they do. And the story that follows shows both the beauty and the violence in current-day Afghanistan as Fatima and Samiullah fight their families, their cultures and the Taliban to stay together. Based on the people Atia Abawi met and the events she covered during her nearly five years in Afghanistan, this stunning novel is a must-read for anyone who has lived during America’s War in Afghanistan. [Cover image and summary via Indiebound]
The Memory Keepers by Natasha Ngan
Seven is a thief with a difference – he steals downloadable memories from banks and memoriums to sell onto London’s black market, trading secrets and hidden pasts for a chance at a future of his own. He makes sure he keeps some special stuff back to ‘surf’ himself though – it’s the only real form of entertainment he can afford. But one night, as Seven is breaking into a private memorium in a wealthy part of London, he is caught in the act by one of its residents; Alba, the teenage daughter of London’s most famous criminal prosecutor. Instead of giving him away, Alba promises to keep Seven’s secret – as long as he allows her to go memory-surfing herself. In doing so, they discover a hidden memory about Seven’s past, revealing a shocking secret about Seven’s childhood, the government and a mysterious experiment known as The Memory Keepers…
A white person could write a great character of color, and a man can write a great female character — but ability doesn’t equal intent and execution.
My father once looked me straight in the eye and said this: “If you ever bring home a black man, I will kill you, kill him, and then kill myself.” He wouldn’t have had the stomach to go through with … Continued
How reading increased one reader’s empathy at a crucial time.
Title: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now
Summary: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.
Review: Brown Girl Dreaming gives us a glimpse into the childhood of Jacqueline Woodson and shows us her writing journey. She begins with family stories of her birth. The mix of stories is part of the magic of this book. She acknowledges that people’s memories and stories aren’t necessarily fact, but they are still their stories. There’s a complexity to the many stories that we are told and that we tell ourselves. There’s what happened, what we remember, what we wish happened, and what we reframe with or without our knowledge. Woodson’s first poem ends with a focus on story:
I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers through my veins.
Story is a ribbon running through the book as she tells the stories from family members and of how she herself breathes stories. In her author’s note she explains that this book is “my past, my people, my memories, my story.” Most readers will be tumbled into their own memories along the way.
Somewhere in my brain
each laugh, tear and lullaby
I really appreciated her poem “grown folks’ stories” because it tells of something that I did as a child. When the grown folks were talking, she and her siblings would sit quietly on the stairs to listen knowing that they could hear all of the good gossip. She seemed to drink up the stories, then retell them to her siblings adding her own twists.
Later, when her brother is on stage singing and they realize that he has real talent, she thinks that maybe there is something inside all of us, “A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered.” Throughout the book, Woodson lets us see the young girl searching to find her special something. We can see her grow as a person and as writer from that very first letter J she puts on the page for her name to that moment when she finds her voice.
Along with her journey as a writer, she also shares stories that reflect the culture around her as she experiences life in the north and the south. She framed her birth with the people and events of those times including Martin Luther King Jr. planning his march on Washington, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin and Ruby Bridges. She also includes more personal stories like their shopping trips in downtown Greenville. Segregation is over there, but that doesn’t mean things are equal. In some stores or restaurants they may be followed around because they might steal or be treated poorly because of their color. However, the fabric store is an exception because the white woman there knows her grandmother.
At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.
Recommendation: Buy it now especially if you love verse novels, memoirs, or history. If you read and enjoyed How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (reviewed earlier this year), you will definitely want to get this one soon. This is a book that has sometimes been labeled young adult, but more often middle grade. I think that’s because the writing is accessible for younger readers. The ideas and content are truly ageless and will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
– Cover image and summary via Goodreads
Q:Do you know the exact percentage of books that are written with diversity?
Various sets of statistics are available. PW has done numbers as well as EW and I’d recommend Diversity in YA’s blog for consistently updated stats from Malinda Lo on diversity in YA: http://www.diversityinya.com/2014/02/diversity-in-yalsas-best-fiction-for-young-adults-updated-for-2014/
We also note the statistics on our FAQs page. (Mind you, much of these numbers are focused on books published in the United States.)
Thanks for linking to my stats, WNDB! FYI, the link above is only to my analysis of the Best Fiction for Young Adults, a specific list curated by YALSA. I’ve also counted PW and NYT bestsellers, and you can see all the stats here: http://www.diversityinya.com/tag/statistics/