CLICHÉ: Using food to describe a character’s skin color or race
Have you noticed how writers sometimes describe the physical appearances of non-white characters? A default strategy is to use food-related metaphors and similes. Does your Chinese character have almond-shaped eyes? Does your Nigerian love interest have skin like dark chocolate or espresso? If so, you may have fallen into the dreaded “Foreigner as Food” trope.
“If you really believe that representation doesn’t matter, then why the fuck are you threatened by it? If not seeing yourself depicted in stories has no negative psychological impact - if the breakdown of who we see on screen has no bearing on wider social issues - then what would it matter if nine stories out of ten were suddenly all about queer brown women? No big, right? It wouldn’t change anything important; just a few superficial details. Because YOU can identify with ANYONE.
So I guess the problem is that you just don’t want to. Because deep down, you think it’ll make stories worse. And why is that? Oh, yeah: because it means they wouldn’t all be about YOU.”
If you haven’t yet heard of #nErDCamps, they are EdCamps with a literature focus. They came into being through Colby Sharp and other members of the Nerdybookclub. As you may have guessed, the members of the Nerdybookclub are quite enthusiastic about reading. At this amazing “un” conference, the participants decide the session topics and each session is run collaboratively by the attendees.
I was able to attend this fantastic event earlier this month. In the morning we met to decide what sessions would be happening. I was super excited to see Cindy Minnich and Sarah Andersen offer up the topic “Finding Diverse Lit for Diverse YA Readers.” Cindy started out the session highlighting the work of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and encouraging everyone to participate and spread the word about the campaign and about diverse books through blogging and social media. Cindy and Sarah have a website called YA Lit 101. “Cindy and Sarah created this course so teachers can read and discuss YA, try new genres, and find ways to incorporate it in their curriculum.” (quote from their site) They explained that after participating in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, they were going to have a diversity focus this year for YA Lit 101. Yesterday, they officially announced their plan. I am looking forward to seeing what they have in store for the coming year.
In addition, the people who attended the session (and there were many – yay!) spent a lot of time asking for specific types of titles and sharing great titles they have found. A list of titles and resources was compiled here. I was encouraged that there were so many teachers and librarians that wanted to learn and share about diverse lit. I look forward to seeing the conversation continue throughout the education and library communities. More than that though, I am eager to see actions taken as a result of these types of discussions.
*nErDCampMI ogo designed by author/illustrator Laurie Keller
This story takes place in the afterlife, and the idea that the only people residing there would be Anglo-American, or any kind of American, is pretty laughable. The world is a BIG place—and the afterlife would be the same, minus the country divisions. Everyone would be there together, right? The dark city where most of Sanctum takes place is where everyone in the world who committed suicide has gone (with some exceptions, I think, but that’s a different interview!). I felt very strongly that having Lela coincidentally meet up with people who were American would just be false and icky.
I do think that things have gotten better. Of course, as has been widely reported, if you look at the numbers of main characters of color in children’s books, the stats have stayed stagnant. But I do think that the quality of books featuring characters of color has improved (fewer stereotypical depictions, more variety), and also, if you look at the total number of diverse characters in books, I believe the numbers would be vastly improved. When I was a kid, I could probably count the number of Asian characters in the books I read on one hand. Now I see them everywhere.
When the subject of race comes up in his MFA writing workshop, author Matthew Salesses says, it usually feels traumatic — a burden personal to writers of color.
Jump in, or Die
By Amber Lough
Why is this white, straight, CIS-gendered girl writing for Diversity in YA? Well, besides the obvious being that I bribed Cindy Pon with copious amounts of azuki-bean dumplings, it’s probably because I wrote The Fire Wish, a distinctly Middle East-focused Fantasy.
I’d say it all goes back to when I was the first foreigner in my school in Japan, English-speaking and wide-eyed with awe and fear. I chose to go to the school because I was obsessed with Indiana Jones, and he always took the route that taught him a new language. He wanted to understand—and be a part of—each place he visited. Now, he stuck out like a sore thumb most of the time, but he did learn to respect the people he visited without romanticizing them.
(My sister and me, on the right, in the geekiest Indiana Jones moment of my life.)
That’s what I try to do, always.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Going to Japanese 4th grade sucked. At least, it did the first 6 months. I didn’t know the language, I was either a celebrity or a pariah, and I went from feeling pretty smart to feeling really, really stupid.
Also they made us wear these gym uniforms that exposed both my thighs and my self-consciousness. Need I say more?
Fast-forward a few years, and I was part of the school. I could speak with the kids about most things, I was passing my tests (sort of), and on good days I could pretend I was just one of the Japanese kids. I say pretend because they never let me forget who I was. They never stopped pointing it out. But we were 12. Things were mostly good.
Right then, we moved to Bahrain. I was thrust into an American-style middle school in the middle of 7th grade, in the Middle East, about one month after Aladdin came out. (Yeah that’s a lot of Middles.)
I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you! Kids were dating. And all they talked about were bands. And they passed notes in class. Also, I wasn’t able to take Arabic, which smashed my Indiana Jones dream into little bits. It took me a week to realize I had to act just like them or be excluded in all things. (Exclusion in middle school = death, just so you know.)
And that’s pretty much the root of why I wrote The Fire Wish: sometimes, we show up in a strange place, and we have to jump in with both feet or die. (With a strong under-tone of “beneath the trappings of society, skin, and superstition, we all have the same fears and feelings.”)
In The Fire Wish, my two main characters trade places and must pretend to be the other one. It’s not an easy thing to do when you’ve been given no choice in the matter and failing will bring you much pain or death.
I feel very comfortable in the Middle East, and recently I’ve heard so many people naively talk about Arabs as though they are a “thing,” lumping them into one huge collective society, like they’re some sort of regional Borg. I wanted to show people that, despite what the news or their neighbor says, the Middle East is not merely a bunch of religious zealots, harems, and camels. First off, the topography is as diverse in Iraq (just to pick one country) as much of Europe. There are deserts, rivers, marshes, mountains, and fields. Second, the people are not all Muslim (and fyi, not all Muslims are Arab). Third, the people are people.
I also wrote The Fire Wish because I believe in magic and fun and am not afraid to say so.
Amber Lough lives with her husband, their two kids, and their cat, Popcorn in Syracuse, NY. She spent much of her childhood in Japan and Bahrain. Later, she returned to the Middle East as an Air Force intelligence officer to spend eight months in Baghdad, where the ancient sands still echo the voices lost to wind and time. For a pronunciation guide, a cast of characters, and more, please visit www.amberlough.com. Follow Amber on Twitter at @amberlough.
it’s funny, people will generally allow you to have an opinion on goods and services that you consume
like I’ve never seen anyone respond to, say, a negative review of a sofa with “if you don’t like it then go build one yourself”
and yet if you express the desire for more/better representation in media someone always shows up to tell you to write something yourself