Hi Virtually Readers! It’s almost Christmas oh my goodness! I am in New Zealand now which is bizarre but I’m dealing with it. However, I do have a lot of things going on in my life, so I’m not sure how active I’m going to be blogwise for January–but I’m still trying to make Setting in Stone happen. And I would be delighted (not to mention surprised) if you, yes you, joined in. In my last post I mentioned that I was going to write a post about diversity of seting vs. diversity of character. I have not planned this at all but here we go.
So, diversity is something you’ve probably heard about if you’ve been consuming Western media, and especiall media analysis for more than 2 seconds. We’ve written about it lots too. And I’m pleased to say that these days it is far more unusual for me to read a book where most of the characters are white than where they have different ethnicities, ability levels, sexualities and so on. And I welcome that movement: seeing yourself in a book can be so lovely .
For instance I was recenty thinking of Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins, a excellent book for younger teenagers featuring a half indian.half white girl living in India for the summer and how great it was for me to read that when I was eleven and twelve and feel so understood. Your unique circumstances do of course inform who you are. But I was thinking about it, and realised that what I loved most about that book was that, for the most part, it was set in India.
India is, of course, many things. But to me, it’s the place that I lived for eleven years, and is an astonishingly rare setting in the books I read (a complete list of YA books I have read set in India: Monsoon Summer, 5 to 1, a small and cliched part of Just One Year, plus the fictionalised world of The Star Touched Queen, recommendations welcome as ever). The setting of the book, and the way the character responded to it (Jasmine thinks a lot, albeit in fairly simplistic terms, about relative privilege and opportunity) made me feel more seen than the mere fact that the character was a biracial Indian.
I haven’t often had the privilege of seeing myself in settings. But I see myself in most characters. To take the example of one of my favourite books, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, I see myself in Sophie’s commitment to her family and love of writing and history; Henry’s whole hearted enthusiasm; Veronica’s willingness to speak out; Simon’s loneliness; Julia’s love of fashion; and Toby’s flair for the dramatic. The books I like least are the books where I don’t have anything in common with the characters. If the author is doing their job right, the characters will have something in common with you, even if that isn’t skin colour or culture or ability level. This is not to say that all books should just have one kind of character–but race and sexuality are only part of who you are, and not all of it.
I believe that a well written character will be compelling no matter who they are or where they’re from. Race and culture divide humans but at the end of the day we all want the same things: love, security, comfort, all those Mazlo hiearchy things and I’m not really needing this paragraph to be a deep one about the universality of humanity.
Over the last few years, I’ve read books about Swedish people and Korean people; heterosexual people and all sorts of gay people; deaf people and hearing people. But most of these people have existed in the US, UK, or Australia, or fantasy/science fiction evolutions of those cultures. Culture is part of setting as well as character, a bridge if you will. I’m more interested in exploring new settings than characters with a unique combination of intersectionality (again: not a bad thing! everyone is intersectional in some way!). Places are more unique–and, especially in YA, less explored–than characters.
Of course, I could point out that setting informs character and I’m sure’s there’s a literary theory that says that setting is a character but I want to keep things easy for today (I start my literature degree in march and then maybe I’ll inundate you with literary theory, yeah?)
Writing this post has realised that I have a lot more to say about this, some of it good for blog post s and some better for essays, which I actually quite like to write because I am a nerd. So I’ll leave it for today, because (depending on your setting) you might have Christmas things to do on this fine day.
Do you think diversity of setting is more important that characters? What’s a setting you’ve seen yourself in? I’d love to talk about it in the comments!