books · discussions · Shar

Two problems with the phrase ‘diverse’

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Hi Virtually Readers! It’s 2017 and #WeNeedDiverseBooks is still going strong, three years after the movement started. Before you read the rest of this post, a disclaimer: #WeNeedDiverseBooks has done really good things for the book publishing world. I wrote a whole post about what I think about it here, but my approach to the matter has changed slightly recently. Rather, I have two big problems with the phrase, which is why I’m writing this. (Side note: I actually didn’t at all remember what I’d said in that previous post and I had to go and read it all again to refresh my memory.) (Other side note: this is the most effort I’ve put into a blog post for a while and I actually did research and stuff)(Final side note: I was kind of worried this was too controversial or I was just wrong but Shanti and Cait told me to post it which was nice of them)

I researched this and found out that We Need Diverse Books was started in 2014 by various children’s/YA authors after a BEA children’s author panel was announced to only have white males on it. Soon the hashtag went viral on twitter as bloggers were like ‘hey look! Most YA and children’s books star straight white cis teenagers who with no disabilities. But that doesn’t reflect the experiences of a lot of readers! We need books that are diverse and star lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds!’

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some diverse books

Although this isn’t entirely true, let’s say that before #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the ‘norm’ for a contemporary YA book is a white straight cis character without mental illness or disability who was middle class, either Christian or agnostic/athiest and attended a high school in the US or other developed country.

Diverse means ‘showing a great deal of variety; very different’ (from the OED). We Need Diverse Books mission statement is: ‘Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children’ (source: their website). It wasn’t like there were no books like that before the campaign, but in my experience (or maybe just the books I choose to read) YA has definitely diversified since then. (2014 was when I started blogging and We Need Diverse Books became a thing).

Here are my two problems with the way the phrase ‘diverse’ is used: One, it limits diversity to characters; and two, individual characters cannot be diverse.

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pooh look random but pretty photo

Let me talk about the first one. WNDB defines diversity as ‘including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.’ (also from the WNDB website). I think this is a good umbrella for a ‘diverse’ character to fit under. This definition is mostly okay, except that a) it should advocate for main characters rather than side characters with the listed identities, b)it would be nice to see a phrase in there about intersectionality (e.g people who belong to one or more minority groups) and c) it doesn’t specifically promote #ownvoices, which I think is important.

These are only little things, though. My biggest problem with this definition is that it’s only talking about the identities of the characters, which isn’t the only kind of diversity a book can have. What about other experiences that are ‘very different’ from the YA norm? Couldn’t a book set somewhere other than the UK or Australia or the US qualify as diverse just on the merit of its setting? (Shanti wrote a whole post about this here) (Also, what about fantasy based on a cultures other than medieval Europe?). What about if a character is homeschooled or poor or has divorced parents or something else that is outside of the YA norm? These types of experiences aren’t an identity the way sexuality or gender identity is, but I think they also qualify as diverse. WNDB’s vision is ‘A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.’, but for this to happen we need characters as well as settings and other experiences to be diverse. We don’t just need characters with the same skin colour or sexual orientation as us, we need characters with similar cultural backgrounds as well—whether it’s because they live in the country we do or don’t do school the ‘normal’ way.

I’m not asking for all of this in one book—if a book entirely reflected me then it would be pretty boring and too much like my life. But I think as well as characters with traits like ours, we also need characters with the same background in other ways. Diversity isn’t limited to the identity of the book’s characters.

Side note: Some people might say that the main readers in English live in developed countries, so books should be set there. But I know a lot of bloggers are from India, the Phillipines, South America, other Asian countries… all of whom read in English. The fact is that there is not very much of a YA genre in other languages. A lot of Indian writers, for example, write in English.

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Fantasy not based on Medieval Europe that I definitely didn’t DNF *ahem*

Point two: ‘diverse’ has two meanings: ‘very different’ and ‘showing a great deal of variety’. If you were the only human in the world, you couldn’t be diverse, because there would be no norm to compare you to. In the same way, a book can’t be different or show variety until it’s being compared to something else.

In my previous post, I said I was diverse. I now disagree with that statement. While my experiences being biracial and growing up in India diverge from many New Zealanders, I myself am not ‘very different’ until I’m comparing myself to an established norm. If I compared myself to a lot of classmates at the school I went to, I wouldn’t be different at all. I guess my complaint is that currently, books marketed as ‘diverse’ are being held in comparison to that cis-straight-white-middle class-not-disabled norm that is (thankfully) becoming less and less common.

A book isn’t diverse until you start comparing it to other books, and realising that it’s very different or shows variety.

The very definition depends on the idea that normal children’s books don’t have characters from diverse backgrounds. If we want this not to be the case, we need to stop treating diverse books as unusual. We need to make diversity in publishing the norm. This hasn’t happened yet. But I hope that one day soon, We Need Diverse Books won’t be necessary anymore. Rather, we have so many that it doesn’t feel unusual to have an Indian, transgender, Hindu, bisexual, non-binary, or wheelchair-using main character, and more people can see themselves in the books they read.

We Need Diverse Books has changed YA, allowing authors with a wide range of experiences to write about characters with experiences broader than the straight-white-kid cliché. I think the movement has done a lot of good. But the phrase is also problematic because it doesn’t encompass all kinds of diversity and also requires comparison to a norm that shouldn’t exist.

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Was that post long or what? Do you agree or disagree with me (I really enjoy polite disagreement)? What’s your stance on We Need Diverse Books? Is there anything I’ve missed? Is this way too political and rant-y?

 

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23 thoughts on “Two problems with the phrase ‘diverse’

  1. You bring up a lot of interesting points, Shar! I’ve heard other bloggers struggle with books that deal with a limited country base and don’t necessarily display diverse cultures. I do think that still falls under the realm of “diverse books,” but I’d agree that we don’t always see a variety of cultures and nations represented in YA novels. It’s definitely something we need to work on!

    There are a couple things I didn’t totally agree with, though. The first part is that I don’t think we should define “diversity” as “variety” in the context you’re discussing here. I think the second definition of “diversity” on the OED might be a little closer to what we’re talking about (“An instance of this condition or quality; a point of unlikeness; a difference, distinction; a different kind, a variety.”), but not really. When it comes to the We Need Diverse Books movement in particular, we are not just looking for a mix of unusual or underrepresented characters/cultures, although that’s part of it. Diversity in the context of We Need Diverse Books is largely about bringing marginalized characters to the forefront. The groups WNDB’s website includes—LGBTQIA, Native, POC, disabled folks, minorities—are essentially groups that have faced serious systematic (and other kinds of) oppression, especially in the United States. I don’t know if that’s true for every single identity covered by their definition, but it’s still true for most.

    To be clear, I don’t want to shoot down your idea that variety itself is bad! I think both diversity AND variety matter! But I don’t think it works when they get lumped together. For example, being homeschooled should not count as “diverse representation.” It would certainly be a less common experience to portray in YA, but there is not a big “Homeschooled Lives Matter” movement due to the police violence committed against them. There doesn’t need to be! And finding healing after your parents’ divorce can be tough, but it’s also not the same as finding healing after Europeans committed genocide against your ancestors and stole their land and now their descendants appropriate your culture all the time. Yes, variety matters. Homeschoolers and the children of divorced parents need their books, too. But for some groups, their “points of unlikeness” have suffered very real, very lethal attacks throughout history—and it’s okay if highlighting and celebrating those points is the only priority of WNDB.

    Which is not to say that WNDB is perfect, of course. Intersectionality is an important topic, and I know I need to spend more time researching it myself. I am curious if you followed the discussions about #ownvoices on Twitter from a few weeks ago. I know Corrine Duyvis (the creator of the hashtag) eventually shared some ideas—you can catch up on her thread here: https://twitter.com/corinneduyvis/status/884437375560163329. (It’s long, so maybe get a snack?) The essential question seemed to be whether #ownvoices was really the be-all-end-all when it came to representation. I don’t have all the answers on this point, but I do think that, at the very least, it’s fair to say that WNDB and #ownvoices are two separate things, and it’s good that they’re two separate things. They have some overlap, which is good. But we shouldn’t equate them—or have to equate them—in order to consider them beneficial.

    I do hope that diversity will continue to grow in books, like you, and someday it will be so normal we wouldn’t even comment on it. Still, one last thought from me (and then I promise I’m done). Yes, the cis-straight-white-middle-class-abled norm is unfair—but I think the comparison has its uses. For one thing, purpose. Writing books with marginalized or uncommon characters/cultures helps to fill a very real gap and address real problems. If people didn’t put words to their purpose and acted as though they wrote these stories “just because,” I think we’d fall back into the habits of the nineties—where the best way to talk about differences was to pretend there weren’t any at all. For some people, it’s powerful and empowering to read and write stories that intentionally differ from the norm society has deemed normal. That’s respectable. On the complete flip side of that point, some people may just be writing the stories on their hearts. To say that writing diverse books requires a comparison to the White, etc. norm in place gives (in my mind) that norm too much credit. Maybe we’re not there yet—I know we’re not really there yet—but still. Suggesting that a book containing diversity must exist for a movement, rather than because it was of the author’s desires, doesn’t quite strike me as true, either.

    You bring up interesting points, and I’m glad you encouraged me to think so much this morning. 🙂 Again, I don’t have all the answers and these are just my thoughts. You might check out people like @corinneduvyis, @bookavid, @SC_Author, @TheBreeMae, or @NativeApprops on Twitter and elsewhere. They aren’t all book bloggers, but they were the people off the top of my head whose feeds you might find interesting.

    Have a good day! 🙂

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    1. ***Oh, by the way, in discussing how “diverse” books often deal with marginalized identity, I don’t want to imply that diverse books have to be about that marginalization for them to matter and resonate with people. Just to be clear. 😉

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      1. Thank you for your comment! I think what you’re saying about diversity talking about marginilasation is really important, and something I didn’t think about enough when writing it. I guess books about home schoolers or divorced parents or things outside of the norm come under the ‘variety’ definition of diverse, and not the ‘marginalised’. And I think that’s what the #WNDB movement was about. I guess I kind of wrote this because I saw a blogger being like ‘80% of the books I read this year were diverse’ which made me think: is this because they had one marginalised side character? A main character? Did it address issues to do with marginalised people groups?”. I first wrote this post without looking up what We Need Diverse Books, which was extremely dumb, because I ended up writing something very critical and inaccurate. Anyway, I learned stuff from my research, which was good.
        Also, you’re right that diversity in books isn’t only because of #WNDB, or some kind of ‘pressure’ for authors to include diversity (although I think this does exist. I’ve read quite a few books where a marginalised character mainly seems to be there for the sake of diversity, which is awkward to read). Of course, books featuring diverse characters were written before #WNDB, and just because a diverse book was written after doesn’t mean the author only wrote it because they wanted their book to be diverse.
        The thread you linked to about Own Voices was really interesting! I’m glad I now know about who started it and what its intentions were and weren’t. I’ll check out those twitter people some other time. *procrastinator*
        Also yeah. The norm exists for a reason, I guess, and comparing books to a norm can be helpful to understand if they are truly ‘diverse’ I still maintain, though, that it would be better if this norm did not exist at all, and that telling marginalised stories became normal.
        You really made me think. Thanks for that 🙂

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  2. Excellent points Shar.

    Growing up as a child, the lack of poor and working-class characters on television really stuck out to me. Even when there was a non-White character or family, they were still upper-middle-class suburbanites like everyone else.

    I can think of even more types of “diverse” characters, some of which would certainly ruffle some feathers.

    * A protagonist who is significantly racist or shows other significant bias, and remains so at the end of the book, but still shows other redeeming and positive qualities.

    * A protagonist who pursues a socially taboo romantic relationship….that really deserves to be taboo.

    * A protagonist in sci-fi, fantasy, or action-adventure who is morally committed to nonviolence.

    * A protagonist in an arranged marriage in contemporary times.

    * A protagonist in YA who struggles with gender identity, but grows to accept his/her birth gender by the end of the book.

    * A protagonist with non-superficial religious convictions outside of religious genre.

    I could probably keep going on with those for a while. I know of “some” books that exist with some of those themes. But they all seem to me to be far less common in the literary world than they are in real life. And it might be helpful for the real world if they were not so ignored in the literary one.

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    1. The first two might be disturbing to read, but real life contains such realities, so I agree they should be written about more. I really like the idea of a non-violent sic fi or fantasy–so many that I read are super bloody, which I’m not a fan of. Recently I read a contemporary about two teenagers in the US whose conservative Indian parents were trying to set them up for an arranged marriage. They eventually fall in love, but one character was pretty conservative and had values more in alignment with his parents while the other wanted to be American and leave traditions behind.
      I don’t know that I’ve read any YA book where the protagonist struggles with gender identity and accepts it. That’s an interesting thought…
      I’ve read a few YA books with religious characters, which is really interesting, but I’d like to read more. 🙂

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      1. Thanks for your feedback!

        On the very first one I listed up there, I just found out today that “The Black Witch” exists, and has received a remarkable range of feedback. Considering that my hypothetical character would be even more controversial, I’m not sure it would even be publishable.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with this idea, that diversity is being different from your norm. I grew up in Brooklyn, as a white girl in a Caribbean neighborhood. I was the minority in my neighborhood. My daughter is a biracial hetsie, who went to a private college and studied in the theatre department. Most of her friends were wealthy, white, and GLBT. So, she was the minority there. Diversity is different for each person. I think that is such a valid point. However, I always feel bad when authors try to “do diversity” due to pressure in the community, and people attack them because they do not like the way they do it. That is where OwnVoices comes in. I have read quite a few OwnVoices coming of age stories recently, and they have been so wonderful. I think an author needs to tell the story in their heart, and you can tell when it comes from there.

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    1. That’s really interesting! I guess what you’re saying is that if all of YA featured POC or LGBT+ characters, then white or straight characters would be diverse! So you’re right, it’s all about comparison.
      I totally agree that sometimes a supposedly ‘diverse’ character is thrown in just for the sake of it, and it’s super awkward. I think it’s okay for white writers to write about white characters. But what’s important is that there are also brown characters or writers or from whatever ‘other’ group. Because that’s real life, too.

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  4. You raised so many good points in this post. I think that the key importance of the “we need diverse books” movement was that it let publishers and authors know that we as a community would be interested in reading books about people with different experiences to our own. I agree that often the “different experiences” part of it is closely tied to race or sexuality, and although those are important things to represent in YA book there are other stories that can be told too.

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    1. Thank you! I totally agree that the WNDB campaign was about telling publishers and writers that we want diverse books, and that it has been largely effective. I guess I’m trying to say that I think it can be limiting and also should not be the end of diversity in publishing.

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  5. YES YES YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS. I definitely agree that a book can’t be qualified as “diverse” unless you compare it to OTHER books. I myself have mixed feelings on the word “diverse” because I think it just means that it represents ALLLLL people. And while a lot of YA books have the “norm” of white cis Christian characters, etc. etc., that is STILL a “type” of person and should be represented in books. BUT it’s important to include just as many “other” (ugh that sounds so mean) characters to represent ALL and therefore be diverse.

    Love this post, Shar! ❤

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    1. Oh this is a perfect way to explain it. That’s my main issue with the word diverse, and in fact, I have written about that too. The world diverse implies ‘othering’, at least the way we use it, instead of being inclusive. It places these books in a complete different category under which to fall. It’s been important to make a distinction, but the next step should be to begin placing these books as the new norm, along with the ‘norm’ from before. The new norm is books that are about everyone, and that’s it.

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      1. I agree! I think I tried to say that in an earlier version of this post, but then I couldn’t find the words to say this properly. Diverse is more about including everybody than just including people on the margins/minorities. A single book can’t be diverse, but many books can be diverse and can be about many, many different people from different backgrounds. We need lots of different kind of books, rather than just cis-white-straight-able books, to be the norm. 🙂

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  6. I really love this post, it was so interesting to hear your take on that topic. I was and I’m stil happy to see how diversity in books is getting more and more real, talked about and overall taking the spotlight in the community, it is an important issue and I’m glad to see it grow every single day.
    There are, however, SO many things included in this “diverse” word, and so many things we still need featured in books. Intersectionality, showcasting ownvoices which are so important and also, yes, diversity in different backgrounds. I can relate to that so much as a French reading in English a lot and I know I’m not the only one in that case 🙂
    That was a great post – and if diversity has come a long way already, I’m always looking forward to see it evolve more and more to represent everyone more accurately.

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    1. I’m glad you liked this!
      I would love to see YA set in france. Do any French writers write YA? I know that in India, most writers write in English and don’t write YA, which excludes most of the young adults in the country. The few books I’ve read set in India are mainly by Indian-origin authors writing in English who don’t actually live here.

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      1. Yes, there are actually some writers, writing for teens, in French – but I have to admit that the young adult sections in bookstores are filled with, well…all of the popular books you’re seeing everywhere on blogs, translated in French. The actual French books by French authors are drowning into this 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree. The word diverse in the book community is somewhat limited. I think that stories with people who have divorced parents aren’t uncommon (maybe because it’s mainly featured in UKYA?) for example, the Chocolate Box girls series by Cathy Cassidy and a lot of books by Jaqueline Wilson.

    And we need more home schooled protagonists. Definitely. Do you know any stories like that?

    You made an excellent point when you mentioned that many readers from non native speaking countries read in English. Yes! English is one of the most spoken languages for a reason… people work so hard to practice and learn it. (Which makes me think…. I should read one of my favourite books in Spanish already xD)

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    1. I guess the divorced parents isn’t really uncommon. Also, as far as I can tell all Jaqueline Wilson books have families that are broken in some way, which is really interesting.
      I don’t know a lot of books with homeschooled protagonists. Marguerite in A Thousand Pieces of You is, but she almost never talks about it in the book.I think it’s more so the character can do whatever she wants whenever, which helps the plot. Kathryn Ormsbee wrote a book about homeschooled characters called Lucky Few. And one I enjoyed, which is more for younger readers, is called Surviving The Applewhites.
      I’d love to read Harry Potter in Hindi one day. But I’d really need some motivation…

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  8. Great post Shar.
    What about seeing “We Need Diverse Books” as a step in a process not an end point. There was a time when just getting out of the straight, white, rich box was a desperate need. Now the discourse (side note- does using that word make me sound like I have something to say?) is much wider (partly because of we need diverse books). We need diversity in all the ways you say as well as political views, life histories, setting, thought processes etc. This will really sort out the great authors from the rest. An average author can make me identify with their main characters because they are like me, I want great authors who give me characters who are NOT LIKE ME, give me their world, their stories, their viewpoints and the rest, but connect me with them because they are human and so am I. Some guy called billy Shakespeare did that long ago and I still like his stuff. (last side note- is this too long a comment.

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    1. Shakespeare is really overrated, and I’m not a great fan. You’re totally right about the difference between good and great authors, though; I totally agree that having characters unlike me who are still relatable takes really good writing. Also, I’m cool with long comments.
      I like what you’re saying about WNDB being a step in a longer process; that’s a really good way to think about it!

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