It’s about listening and humility.
At the AWP conference this past Saturday, I made it a point to attend as many discussions about diversity as I could. The conference is aimed at writers not librarians–I only dream of calling myself a writer–but I found the perspective quite valuable. I attended panels that featured writers of color discussing their work and their experiences in the publishing world, and the conversations kept coming back to listening and humility.
Can you write outside of your own experiences, including those of race, culture, and gender? Sure. But be aware of the complexity there. Be aware of the history and the stereotypes that exist. Do your research, but–perhaps most importantly–beware of research. Facts are good, but they only take you so far. Facts read from books or gleaned from acquaintances don’t tell the whole story of a race or culture. Facts don’t get at the intricacies of humor and language. In her panel Navigating the Waters of Authentic Voice in YA Native Fiction Debbie Reese, who writes the fantastic blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, cautioned that even primary sources about American Indians can be problematic. She urged non-Native writers to focus on being allies rather than being voices for Native people.
In the Race in YA Lit panel, writers from various cultural backgrounds shared their experiences with micro-aggressions, self silencing, and burn-out at always having to educate people about privilege and race issues. There was some frustration in the conversation, but there was also optimism. A lot of optimism actually. Just the fact that we were having that conversation about race at a major conference means something. The fact that #weneeddiversebooks wasn’t just a hashtag fad means something.
“Allies are important,” moderator Swati Avasthi (author of Chasing Shadows) said as she noted that the audience was mostly white. But there were cautions in this session too. Avasthi said, “If you’re trying to do your research, do it with humility. Don’t go in and speak first.” Varian Johnson (author of The Great Greene Heist) offered this consideration: “Are you writing to exploit or enrich? Are you writing to expand the conversation or because you heard diversity is trendy?”
I spend a lot of time on this blog asking people to listen to me or explaining what people aren’t getting about my experience. My day at AWP was a really valuable chance to stop talking and listen. I don’t remember who said it, but this sentiment got a lot of nods: We are all on this journey. No one has all the answers. Let’s do what we can to keep this conversation going rather than shutting it down.
In the spirit of enriching the conversation, I offer these links:
- Sometimes You’re a Caterpillar – This is a short animated video that tackles the idea of privilege in a way that is cute and appropriate for a variety of ages.
- Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews – Melinda Lo’s essay about the way diverse books are talked about was referenced in the Race in YA Lit panel as an important piece of the discussion
- The Danger of a Single Story – I’ve blogged about this TED Talk before, but since it came up in the Race in YA lit panel, I thought I’d link to it again. Excellent talk.
- Autism on the Page – This series on Disability in Kidlit is focused on autistic characters in children’s and YA fiction from the perspective of people with autism.