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Diversity in Literature from the Standpoint of a Biracial Latina Woman

Growing up with a Dominican mother and an Ashkenazi father, I never saw books about myself. Because my father was never particularly religious and my sisters and I were raised Catholic, it was natural for me to feel more connected to my Dominican side. Even from my earliest memory, little four-year-old me knew who she was: she was Dominican. Every night she ate rice and beans and maduros and tried to understand what her abuela and mother were saying. But she also knew that she was biracial and was always proud of that.

In 8th grade English class, though, I had an epiphany. We were reading a collection of short stories (I forget what it was called) about immigration and culture in Latino families. I’ll be honest, I hated this book.  The story I remember most vividly was about a group of preteen girls who decided to wear heels despite their mothers’ warnings about the negative attention this would bring. The heels “allowed” them to be harassed by old men – and they enjoyed it, to the point where things got touchy and one of the old men offered them a dollar for a kiss. I believe one of the girls reciprocated, but after that they stopped wearing the heels. Because of this they magically stopped being harassed and all the old men ignored them again.

See, ridiculous and creepy. I think this story was the end of me dealing with that book. But reading this short story collection made me realize something instrumental. I had only found my culture in books specifically about my culture. Why were we only written about here, in these books? And why weren’t we found elsewhere?

I voiced my frustrations. For some reason I expected my classmates to agree, or if not, to acknowledge my point, but it turned out to be quite the opposite: I was scoffed at. It wasn’t a big deal and I was making something out of nothing. I was surprised and decided to push. It seemed so obvious to me, and I wasn’t someone who was about to back down. My classmates responded with irritation and eye rolls. So I went to talk to my teacher; maybe she’d listen to me. But while she wasn’t harsh, she was annoyed and told me something along the lines of that there was nothing there and I was making up this whole idea. Even my friends agreed.

It hurt: the only Latina in that class was being told her feelings were wrong. My voice about my culture didn’t have any weight. Seething, I decided to not bring it up again. And this rejection caused me to shove my feelings into the back of my mind.

My feelings didn’t disappear completely, you see, but I didn’t bring them up again. Instead, I rolled my eyes at certain titles because, yes, I had gained an animosity for cultural books. I wanted not only Latinos, but all minorities, to not be trapped in one genre; to be characters in any other type of books.

 What Counts as Representation?

Books about cultural identity, in which the plot is centered on the experience of being a POC, are extremely important, and we need more of them. But why should we stop there? Do culture and race have to be the focus of a plot to write about minority characters? Of course not.

We need way more stories about, let’s say, a CIA agent who just happens to be Latino, or stories starring POC working as monster slayers or struggling with first love in high school. Their culture is represented, but it’s not the entire plot of the book. Why can’t people of color be their own stars in a narrative of infinite possibilities? Anyone, including a white audience, can read these books, and POC (especially younger people who probably aren’t going to search for book about their culture identity) can find representation in genres they already love.

Writer Leah Johnson’s essay, “How Young Adult Literature Taught Me to Love Like a White Girl” discusses the negative affect that majority white literature can have on a person of color and what it has done to her personally as a fan of love stories. YA caused her to develop a fantasy; she modeled herself after these characters, but always ending up disappointed and upset, wondering why she was unsuccessful: “what’s so wrong about me.”

I’ve never really read YA romance; I’m not a fan of the movies either. So reading this was monumental. The things that she fixated on were what I most hated about that genre: not only the unrealistic love story (and all the cringe), but the unrealistic white love story, set in a completely white world. Reading books—or absorbing content—like that only shows you one type of heroine, the same type that Leah Johnson thought was the only one that existed.

We weren’t that different, even if what I loved was adventure, fantasy, and superheroes. Those were set in a white world too—even if the stories didn’t take place anywhere that actually exists. It had never crossed my mind that those worlds could be anything but white. Like Johnson, who struggled over why she wasn’t able to love the books she read, I wasn’t even aware that diversity was even possible, and so I never gave it a thought. What I read, what she read, what was available, was white. And neither of us realized this for a long time.

White Authors and Diversity

Many white authors, as they become aware of this issue, want to be inclusive and to have diversity in their stories. However, it’s not easy to write about a different community and doing so is treading a fine line (I’ll mention this more later). Others add diverse characters just to avoid backlash for having written a completely white novel, not always being considerate of the community they’re writing about.

And then there are authors who claim characters as minorities, from race to sexual orientation, after the book has been published, often on social media. I have a couple of theories about why authors do this. One, they feel guilty about writing a predominately white novel in a time when the spotlight on diversity is finally expanding. Two, their fans have put on the  pressure. Whether these authors want to please their fans, settle debates, or satisfy demands, coming out like this can help save the hide of an author – and along with it, stir more criticism.

One author who’s guilty of this is one of the most powerful writers of the 21st century: J.K. Rowling. Rowling is notorious for her “factual changes” on Twitter, declaring Hermione black and Dumbledore gay. Other than being annoying and insensitive, this creates other problems. This is the dilemma of literary death in the Harry Potter series. Rowling’s inability to allow her book to “die” ultimately has changed the course of her works, which is disingenuous not only to the book but the reader as well. As the Huffington Post put it so nicely: Rowling has become the puckish Peeves of the Potter fandom, popping in to disrupt ships or upset theories or spark controversies.”

Jeff VanderMeer is another author who is guilty of adding retroactive diversity to his books. Due to his book Annihilation being released as a movie earlier this year, he’s receiving an increase in publicity – but the actresses who play the two main characters are not of the right ethnicity, because he only mentions in the second installment that these characters are women of color, specifically of some kind Native American descent. Authors are not the only people guilty of this. For example, movie mogul Pixar’s hit move Big Hero 6 (which does contain a diverse cast) only mentioned after release that character Honey Lemon was indeed Latina after fans had pressed them, due to her being voiced by Latina actress Genesis Rodriguez. This caused more problems due to how she was depicted.

Ironically, my own feelings about diversity and cultural books came into full focus due to one particular book written by a white male author: Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid. The Kane Chronicles series has a diverse cast, though no major Latino characters, but it wasn’t a book about culture. It was a middle grade adventure fantasy that happened to have POC as the main and supporting characters. I had never read a book like that. This was what I’d always wanted. And it wasn’t white-washed or “hidden” like my previous examples. You knew the background and race of the characters and the struggles they went through from the start.

Here is the true reason I fell I love with this book: it gave me something that I never knew I was missing. The main characters are a sister and brother. My two sisters and I love anything with siblings (especially sisters); sibling relations really mean a lot to us, and more so if they’re portrayed realistically. (There are a lot of entertainment sources that don’t get it right.) The fact that the main characters were a pair of siblings—with a real, believable relationship—hit close to home.

But what I’ve been teasing at is that these siblings are biracial. Biracial main characters! Biracial main characters that are siblings! I cannot stress enough how much this meant to me. And not only that, a WHITE MALE author accurately represented what it meant to be a biracial sibling. While he didn’t get into major depth (although what he presented was enough), he did do a good job showing what it felt like to be biracial, and while also being siblings. I never knew how important having biracial siblings as the main character would mean to me, and this book showed me how much I’d needed that.

This brings up another question, though. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is an amazing book with its main character being a person of color – but his book, and Rick Riordan’s books, are written by white men. So, who cares? These are good books from best-selling writers, right?

That may be true, there’s a lack of authors of color, and this is a problem that needs to be fixed. Jay Kristoff, Lionel Shriver, Jess Row, and Rainbow Rowell are all white authors swept into controversies over their depictions of race and usage of POC characters. A lot of their books are bestsellers and award winners, and have been praised by white critics and condemned by POC critics. For me, the fact that I recognized the problem that I’ve had with the literary world for years from reading books with diverse characters written by white authors is sad; it’s upsetting.

Is it okay for authors (white authors especially) to write about a culture that isn’t that their own? The answer, in my opinion, is yes. But it’s not always okay. Writing about different cultures is not easy and should be taken very seriously. How much effort are the writer and editor giving to truly understand who they’re writing about? Is the writer respecting the culture(s) or appropriating it? Are stereotypes or exaggerations being used? There are very easy ways to make sure you’re not being insensitive. Connecting personally with the community is a great way, and it’s becoming a must to hire at least one sensitivity reader. Writer Keira Drake was swept into a huge controversy over her book, The Continent, after pre-release readers slammed her on social media about the racism in her book. The book was then pulled from publication (on her suggestion) and rereleased after she had rewritten it.

(As an aside: this brings up another controversial argument. Do sensitivity readers and hyperactive social media harm creativity? In this day and age, would great books like To Kill a Mockingbird have been published at all? The New York Times article “In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?”, goes deeper into this subject with examples of other usages of sensitivity writers and book controversies; with interview comments from the authors mentioned.)

I will give Rick Riordan credit, however, as his exploration into writing about different cultures led to a decision to launch his own press within Disney-Hyperion called “Rick Riordan Presents,” which will only publish writers of color. I assume that his writing allowed him to notice the lack of representation in the publishing world and on his website he states: “…our goal is to publish great books by middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories…of their own heritage.” The press’s first book was Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, which debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list in March 2018.

Diversity in Publishing

There need to be more diverse books written by people of color. It is true that writers of color are starting to get the attention they deserve, and I’m glad that things are progressing. Many people are looking positively at the future, and believe that things are getting better, and are looking forward to young family members getting to experience what they couldn’t. But it’s not enough. You still have to be award-winning author or have award-winning books to reach a broader audience.

The literary world is changing. Writers of color have been getting more recognition. In 2016, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award’s shortlist consisted of six people; they all were people of color, and five of them were women. Mia Alvar’s In the Country: Stories ended up winning. People are actively trying to find books from writers of color; society wants to change. And these changes not only need to keep progressing, but to go all the way to publishing companies itself.

Arguably the biggest problem lies within publishing companies themselves, who are extremely guilty of lacking people of color as their employees. According to the PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey 2016, 88% of employees identify as white: 94% of men and 86% of women. With a white-dominated work force it would make sense that there’s not only less content from writers of color, but lack of knowledge on how to market books their books. An NPR article published in 2016, “Diversity in Book Publishing isn’t Just About Writers—Marketing Matters, Too,” discusses just that, and drops some statistics about the lack of people of color in a certain publishing house. It also dives into the hopeful rise against racial inequality in publishing.

Looking Forward

In a few years, studies show, the majority of children in America will be a minority or part of an ethnic group. And twenty years after that, America as a whole will follow. This is precisely why diversity is so important, especially in children’s books. Doctors Katherine Rose and Mandy Stewart discuss how crucial it is for children to have a mirror in literature, and why reading with your child matters: it helps children’s growth and social skills. But not all children can read with their families, as not all families have access to books in their language, and many children lack a mirror in books that can help with inner concerns.

Growing up as a biracial child, you’re likely to be confused even more so than other people. You’re stuck between two or more cultures, which can cause an identity crisis. I have a biracial friend who has completely rejected one side of his heritage. To reassure himself, he has continuously disregarded and erased my Latina heritage while bolstering up my white side. My white side is more beneficial to him, therefore that’s what he identifies me as; and this is actually a common response I’ve seen to myself and other biracial people. I’ve always been light on my annoyance because I understand why he does it and can sympathize, though I’ve never had an inner crisis about my own heritage. But what if he’d had books as a child and young adult that discussed what it felt like to be part of multiple cultures? What if these characters also experienced confusion and self-doubt about their identity, but ultimately resolved their insecurities and accepted both sides of themselves, or maybe settled confidently on one without rejecting the other? If he had grown up with books like this, I’m almost certain he wouldn’t be having as hard a time with his identity now.

Seeing books like Junot Diaz’s Islandborn hits so much at home. (But when there’s only one major book and its author misbehaves, it’s so much more crushing; I looked up to Diaz and was proud of his achievements and what he has done for the community. I am disappointed and disgusted not only as a Dominican woman, but as a person. An article posted in Electric Literature by Monique Laban, a woman of color, talks about another powerful minority author that has been disgraced for sexual misconduct: Sherman Alexie. She discusses how his actions feel like a betrayal—and her feelings are very current within the community and overlap with how I personally feel. My positive words and feelings, I want to make clear, only relate to the book Islandborn, not to Junot Diaz.)

Still, I wish I’d had a book like that growing up. To my family and to all Dominican people, and probably other Latino cultures as well, it’s indescribable. Now my cousin’s children can read and see their culture through a mirror. All the future family members too (on both sides!) will have something to look towards. And I cannot describe how amazing it feels. None of my cousins had something like that.

It makes me believe that there is a place my culture can fit into the literary world. And maybe I’ll even find it. My biggest hope for the future, well… As of now, there’s not going to be a biracial merengue dancing heroine in an adventure book—written by a Latina biracial author—anytime soon. I, however, will look forward to that day positively, and when it comes, you’ll know what I’ll be doing.

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