20 Mar Diversity & Song of the Current
My goal when participating in the diversity in publishing conversation is to become a better ally. So this post is about why Song of the Current has a POC main character, what I’ve learned since I wrote it, and why I probably would not write the same book today. No insights in this post will likely be new to marginalized people pushing for better representation and #ownvoices books, but I’m sure at some point I’m going to be asked about writing diversely and, well… here is my answer.
[Some of this will be vague and awkward because I’m trying to avoid spoilers for the book.] While I was drafting Song of the Current, I knew early on that a prominent merchant family was going to be a big part of the plot. Since I’m heavily referencing the Age of Sail, the obvious touchstone in our world is the East India Company. There’s a lot of historical baggage there with regard to exploitation and colonialism, so I made the choice to have this merchant family company (founded by a famous explorer who discovered the equivalent of the Northwest Passage and made his fortune) be people of color. (They’re black, but I’ve been sticking to POC because this is a second world fantasy and I’m not sure “of our world” terms are 100% applicable.) I wanted to dispel some of the ugliness surrounding shipping companies like that in our world’s history. There isn’t slavery or colonialism in the book, but I feel like this stuff is worth thinking about– like if you make a company in a second world fantasy that imports, for example, tea, obviously readers’ minds are going to be drawn to the history of the tea trade in our world. You’re going to have to think about the assumptions you bring to the table and the assumptions readers will bring to the table and make a decision about whether you’re going to roll with our power structures in your fantasy world or flip them. Anyway. The end result of this decision is there are a bunch of women of color in this book in main roles.
Many parts of Caro’s character do greatly speak to my lived experience, such as her deep love of sailing and her feeling torn between different futures. I believe there are elements of this book that are unique to me– the sailing, the riverlands, aspects of Caro’s voice– that another author could not duplicate. It’s a pretty “me” book. I don’t think I’m stealing another author’s chance to write Song of the Current, because no one who’s not me would have written this exact particular book.
Publishing is weird, man. A couple of years ago I was 15K words into a manuscript about gold rush magic when Walk on Earth a Stranger was announced. There’ll be a pirate bubble or a western bubble or a space bubble, and none of us copied. We all somehow wrote them independently at the same time. S0 I can’t say with certainty that a publisher isn’t going to say, “Oh well, there’s already a YA fantasy pirate book with a biracial MC, sorry,” to a biracial woman writer. I can’t say with certainty that I haven’t taken someone’s spot in YA fantasy, or stomped in their space, or accepted an advance or praise that might have gone to them.
If you look at the demographics of who gets book deals, it’s still very lopsided in favor of white authors. In 2016, 175 out of 265 books about African American characters were written by white authors. While I hope numbers will shift in 2017-20 as more #ownvoices books are acquired and eventually published, the numbers say that what happened was in 2013-14 a lot of white writers decided to diversify their work and publishers bought those books. Meanwhile the numbers of books published by #ownvoices writers, on the other hand, either got a little bump or remained stagnant.
As I go forward in my career, I am not comfortable taking up this particular space among those book deals. When I was writing and querying, I wasn’t really thinking about money. But as a debut author under contract who’s trying to build a career, I think about it a lot. So for me, the cash flow argument is extremely persuasive. Where is the money in publishing going? Which authors are getting it? It’s not just about my book and whether or not it’s good rep– it’s about respecting the other writers who have become my colleagues. By earnestly trying to write diversely as white writers, who are we being an ally to? Because it’s not our colleagues. If I want to help, I need to own the fact that writing this book, even if it’s okay representation and free of microaggressions and stereotypes, was not helping.
It feels weird to be debuting with a book I wrote in 2013, partly because the conversation in YA has shifted so much since then. My own thoughts about where I fit as a writer have also shifted. When We Need Diverse Books happened, this book was already written and agented. The #ownvoices hashtag was coined by Corrine Duyvis in 2015. By 2015 my book had already sold. But I’ve been reading and listening and I’ve learned a lot since then. So I’m in the strange position now of having a book about to come out that I probably would not have written today. I didn’t write the book to “jump on the diversity trend.” I include diverse casts because I live in New Orleans, a majority black city, and my world around me doesn’t look like just white kids. I believe any children’s author who’s still writing all white casts is kind of being a dick to kids, because that’s not their world they live in either. But I also think I’ve been a dick in ways I didn’t fully realize when I wrote the book, and I’m sorry for that.
Recently I absorbed how my own initial reaction to the cover of Before She Ignites (“Well, more cover diversity is still good whoever it’s from, right?”) differed from that of the black writers I follow (“This hurts because a moment was stolen from us by a white author”), and it really underlined this for me. It gave more shape to what I’ve been pondering leading up to the release of my book– is writing POC main characters as a white author itself a form of white supremacy? Is saying, “They’re calling for more diverse books, so I’ll write diversely!” not in itself white savior-ism, even if you didn’t write a white savior narrative? Regardless of my good intentions as a writer, I think the answer is yes. While it’s uncomfortable for me to think about, I have to acknowledge I probably benefited, because of the timing of my book’s submission, from the push for more diverse books. The longer I sit with that, the more I’m not okay with it. In the end, my success is not what that push was supposed to be about. It’s about making sure a more diverse group of creators are getting paid.
I hope this post answers the question of, “If you don’t think white authors should be writing from the point of view of POC, then why did you do it?” To wrap this up, neither I nor my publisher are promoting SOTC as a book with diverse characters. It’s a fantasy adventure about a girl on the run from pirates. I don’t want cookies for it. My personal preference is that it not be included on any Diverse YA Fantasy lists because it’s more important for the spots on those lists to go to #ownvoices authors. I sincerely hope I’ve done the work necessary to make the book enjoyable and not hurtful, but I accept that its existence alone may be hurtful to some people. I’m sorry and will try to be a force for change in better more effective ways going forward by buying and boosting other authors instead.