This is my last post on the Girls of Color in Dystopia guest blog series. I’ve read nearly 40 books just for this series and was disappointed (but, sadly, not surprised) to realize just how many of them have few to absolutely no girls of color in them.
Of those 40 books—chosen off the YA shelves at the library and at my daughter’s recommendation—14 had girls of color as prominent characters, four had with girls of color as sidelined or very minor characters, and 22 had no (identifiable) girls of color in them at all. That means, at best, girls of color were a part of 40 percent of young adult sci-fi books chosen by someone who was actively trying to seek out racially diverse books.
This is not to say that there aren’t some amazing, recently published books featuing racially diverse characters. I want to draw readers’ attentions to two short story anthologies: Diverse Energies (in which Ellen Oh’s gutpunching “The Last Day” appears) and After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia. All of the stories in Diverse Energies feature protagonists of color in dystopic settings. Some stories are heartwrenchingly beautiful, like Malinda Lo’s “Good Girl,” which explores ideas of racial “purity,” first loves, and queer identity. Dear Malinda Lo: Please write more stories like “Good Girl.”
While not all the stories in After feature protagonists of color—and some don’t look at race or gender at all—the mix of stories is worth checking out, especially (but not only) for Nalo Hopkinson’s fantastic “The Easthound” and Genevieve Valentine’s “The Segment.”
During this series, several readers who identified themselves as white fiction writers have asked my advice for writing people of color into their novels and in ways that aren’t reinforcing tired old tropes and stereotypes. My advice, as a prolific reader (but not a writer) of fiction is to take your cues from great novels by writers of color. How do they describe their characters? The late, great Octavia Butler jumps to mind immediately, although I would caution adult readers to consider the very adult issues raised in each of her thought-provoking books before offering them to the younger readers in their lives. Butler doesn’t pull punches. Nnedi Okorafor and Nahoko Uehashi are also amazing YA fantasy writers, as well as Joseph Bruchac, Hiromi Goto and Jewell Parker Rhodes. This smattering of authors I’ve read recently is by no means a complete list. But it’s a good start!
Just because you’re a white writer, doesn’t mean that you can’t write people of color. Pearl S. Buck did so in the 1930s and 1940s. Fifty years later, Katherine Paterson wrote Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom with an entirely Chinese cast of characters. And for contemporary examples, check out Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, Dan Wells’s Partials, and Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series (which features men and boys of color but, sadly, no female characters of color until Book Two). Karen Sandler whose Tankborn and Awakening have been reviewed in an earlier blogpost, recently wrote about challenging sci-fi authors to write more diverse characters into their worlds.
I’m glad that writers are asking about how to include more characters of color in their books because hopefully that means that we’ll be seeing more diverse protagonists of gracing YA bookshelves in the future. What would it mean for young (and older) readers if the dystopic books had more girls of color as main characters? How would these books challenge the whitewashing so prevalent in both publishing and mainstream media? How would having protagonists of color challenge readers’ perceptions of race, culture, and ethnicity even if the book’s world is, at first glance, drastically different than the one we currently live in?
As I said in my first post: No matter how terrible and oppressive these futuristic fiction worlds are, readers of color, both young and old, should still be able to see themselves as part of that future rather than totally wiped off the planet. So, too, should white readers.
Readers, let authors and publishers know that you do want to read books with protagonists of color, that having a person of color on the cover or as the main character isn’t going to turn you away from the book. Push for the books you want to read. I look forward to reading how writers–young, old, present and future–take up the challenge of creating worlds in which people of all races, ethnicities and cultures survive.
Read the rest of this blog series about race and gender in dystopian YA and—don’t worry!—writer Victoria Law will continue blogging for Bitch, focusing next on US politics. Stay tuned!