writing and representation (also gratuitous abuse of parentheses) (sorry)

When I first started working on my book many many many many years ago (all of those “manys” are totally justified, what are you talking about) I had two very important things in mind.

  1. There were going to be Jewish protagonists in my book, because where the hell were all the Jewish protagonists in books? (Holocaust books don’t count. My fourteen-year-old self was sick to death of “what about this book? It’s about the Holocaust, but the main character is Jewish!” If you are a librarian or teacher and a Jewish kid asks you for a book with a Jewish protagonist, this is the wrong response.)
  2. There were going to be queer protagonists in my book. See #1. (“Are you sure you don’t want to just listen to Rent again? Or you could read Angels in America!”)

I love character-driven books. If I’m reading something, I couldn’t care less about how action-driven the plot is if the characters are boring. (Husband and I clash on this a lot–he loves action books, and couldn’t care less about characters.) The flip side of this, however, is that Husband is a straight white dude, and as such is in…pretty much most media. Everywhere. Meanwhile, me the disabled queer lady was less represented. And quite grumpy about it.

So I’m writing this book, and it’s my baby, and it’s gone through many a revision. As I started realizing that I wanted the book to appeal to a high school/YA audience, I aged the characters down. My main point of view character went from white to biracial, because I couldn’t justify saying I wanted to write a diverse book and then slapping a white dude in the main role. The plot got way better when people started doing things rather than sitting around drinking coffee and thinking about doing things (oh my god, there were so many scenes of people sitting around drinking coffee. NO ONE DRINKS THAT MUCH COFFEE).

What didn’t change, and still won’t, as I continue to work on it, was the diversity of my characters. There are POC, there are queer kids, there are people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses, neuroatypical people, people with “nontraditional families” (ask me how much I hate that term; it is lots), people with different body shapes, etc, etc. I’m often told my book looks like an Affirmative Action poster.

I think that’s awesome.

The thing that frustrated me as a kid was that if your book was about a character who was anything other than straight, white, able-bodied and vaguely Christian, your book had to be about that alternative identity. Got a queer character? Your book’s about coming out! Got a sick character? Your book is about illness! Until pretty recently, we didn’t get books about queer or POC or neuroatypical kids who got to use magic and save the world, and that sucked.

So now I’ve got this lovely book that I’m working on. Let’s call it 87% edited, which might be generous, but hey, you’ve gotta love yourself sometimes. Here’s this nice book, aimed at a YA audience, and it is FULL of things that…don’t really sell books.

Things that are currently selling books in the YA genre, according to my cursory scans of bookshelves:

  1. Dystopian future.
  2. Love triangles (one girl, two guys; this is very important).
  3. Female characters who don’t think they’re beautiful but everyone else does. Also she should be “awkward.” She’s probably “not like other girls.”
  4. Anything written by John Green.

So, I’ve got none of the above. No dystopia, because I like things set here. No love triangles, because dear lord there are few things that will make me throw a book against a wall faster than a love triangles. My lady characters are awesome, even if they’re not beautiful–because they don’t need to be beautiful, thanks–and would probably not be pleased with being told they’re “not like other girls” because what the hell are you implying about “other girls”?

Also I’m not John Green.

Anyway. The point of the above is that I’ve got this great book with these great diverse characters, representation for everyone, hooray! and the likelihood of any publisher picking it up is…slim. (Husband suggests that I should just sell out and write the next Twilight. I have suggested that Husband never make this suggestion again.)

But you have to wonder: Why is it that publishers don’t want a book about diverse characters? Why is it that books with allegories to racism are okay as long as they feature white people, but books that feature real racism felt by teenagers are confusing? Why does a book with queer characters have to be “LGBT Fiction”? Who benefits from YA books remaining overwhelmingly white and straight? Why is the response to me happily telling people about all of the great side-stories in my story not “that’s awesome!” but instead, “are you sure you want to push so many agendas at once?”

People use fiction as a means to escape real life, but the stories that touch us the most are the stories we connect to on a personal level. To connect to a story emotionally, we need to see something of ourselves in the characters. Stories touch us deeply when we can look at a character and see our own lives, our own thoughts, our own feelings. Publishers and critics say, “we need to see something of ourselves in a character, to touch their humanity.” But why is it that the default humanity is straight and white and most often male? Why is it fair for girls and kids of color and queer kids and disabled kids to be expected to connect with the straight/white/male default, but to ask for the reverse is pushing an agenda?

(I mean, obviously the answer is racism/sexism/heterosexism/ableism/etc, but you know what I mean.)

The long term dream–I think every writer’s long-term dream–is to get this book published. To put it on shelves, in libraries, in the hands of the kids who want to see themselves as the damn hero for once. But then I have to ask myself: what happens if there’s no publisher that wants it? And I’m not talking about if a publisher is like “wow this plot is awful please never write again”, but if it’s “we’d take this if x character were straight, or white, or maybe if a few characters had a different gender presentation.” What then? Do I share it online? Make copies for my friends and family? Self-publish?

Here is what I know: everyone deserves to be the hero of a story. And the book I’m writing, the stories I’m telling, represent the story I needed as a teenager, and never got to read.

That’s enough to make me keep writing.

I love you, book.

(I’m sorry I know that pic is so creepy but it gets the point across.)


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