“It’s been making me think afresh about the problem of scarcity, and how books and other fictionalised narratives with non-straight non-white non-guy protagonists carry so great a weight of hopes—because there have been so few of them, comparatively, that it’s not like you can just shrug and find another with a protagonist that reflects these aspects of your identity if you don’t like it.“”
To say that “not publishing damaging books is censorship” is to start from the presupposition that the industry is publishing a balanced amount of books across the full spectrum of diversity. In that scenario, eradicating one part would be “censorship”. But that is not happening. What is happening is that we continue to broadly publish white people and white stories. When there was pushback about diversity, we started writing stories about PoC and other marginalized groups in an effort to prove we were Good White People. It’s only when we fuck up and get criticized that we cry Foul.
By Imani Josey
I don’t have a daughter yet, but if I did, I would have taken her to see Wonder Woman. And I’m sure she would have been enamored as much as I was. It’s also safe to assume she’d be a young black girl, and while enjoying the movie, she would instantly know Wonder Woman doesn’t look anything like her. She might even go so far as to ask, “Mommy, I like Wonder Woman, but can I be Wonder Woman?’
The movie was progressive and (for the first part) fun, but its lack of intersectionality made it like many other superhero and fantasy series, in that women of color can only enjoy it to an extent. Wonder Woman didn’t have the diversity I want for empowering my future children. It had the kind of diversity that plucks a few POC at random and throws them into an all-white world, that makes them sidekicks and tokens, that others them. Wonder Woman isn’t the only movie to do this, and plenty of YA fantasy book series do it, too. When I have children of color, I want to be able to give them a fantasy series where they don’t have to ponder why the heroes and heroines never look like them. I don’t want them to feel like they must blend into the mainstream, into whiteness, to be powerful and strong.
My debut novel, The Blazing Star, is about a sixteen-year-old black girl named Portia who travels back in time to ancient Egypt, kicks butt, and saves the world. She also takes her twin sister, Alexandria, and a classmate, Selene, on the journey with her. They, too, are women of color. And smack dab in the middle of The Blazing Star’s cover is Portia’s face looking off in the distance, ready to wield her #blackgirlmagic as she sees fit.
I’m not sure how many other black girls are on the cover of YA fantasy book series, and I’m not sure how many lead their own stories as protagonists. But judging by Lee & Low’s annual research, the number is incredibly low. I was hell-bent on my book series doing what traditional pub is dragging its feet to do—fixing the representation gap—a major component of why I went indie. I received the “can’t connect with the voice” rejections from agents over and over, but knew there was an audience for The Blazing Star. Sure enough, it sold out on release day.
What I love most about the series is that I know my future daughter will never have to ask if she can be Portia. She will just know she can by picking up The Blazing Star and seeing a black girl on the cover. And when the second book in the series, The Falling Star, releases in February 2018, there will be another beautiful black girl on the cover, and my future daughter will know she can be Alexandria, too.
My parents gave me a wonderful (no pun intended) gift thirty years ago. They surrounded me with black dolls and books with black protagonists, which permitted me to see myself not as the Other, but as normal. As a well-rounded, complex person with likes and dislikes and experiences that matter like anyone else’s, and who knew her black skin was beautiful just the way it was. It was my parents’ mission to ground my normalcy in my agency, not in my proximity to whiteness. Perhaps that education, that pedagogy of possibilities, is why I sold my car and put the money toward publishing the first in a YA fantasy series starring teens of color. It’s not a series about tokenism. It’s about agency. It’s a love letter to my fascinating sisters and to my future children. It’s beyond diversity—fantasy or not, at its heart, my trilogy is reality.
Imani Josey is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. In her previous life, she was a cheerleader for the Chicago Bulls and won the titles of Miss Chicago and Miss Cook County for the Miss America Organization, as well as Miss Black Illinois USA. Her one-act play, Grace, was produced by Pegasus Players Theatre Chicago after winning the 19th Annual Young Playwrights Festival. In recent years, she has turned her sights to long-form fiction. The Blazing Star is her debut novel.
The Blazing Star is available for purchase.
The Doctor Strange controversy — combined with the push to cast an Asian American actor as the title character Danny Rand aka Iron Fist — has been buzzing for the last couple months. With the release of the first official trailer for Doctor Strange, Marvel’s next would-be blockbuster movie after Captain America: Civil War, the controversy has reached an all time high. So much so that a Marvel spokesperson gave this statement to Mashable regarding the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange:
“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”
Is this statement true though? Has Marvel Studios really pushed diversity in their movies? Have they increased the visibility of marginalized peoples in their film franchise or television properties? Has Marvel Studios subverted stereotypes? Enough to supposedly excuse recent controversies surrounding Doctor Strange and Iron Fist?
Stop Using the Harry Potter series’ Original Publication Dates as an Excuse for Rowling’s Diversity Fails
Every time I talk about J. K. Rowling’s current and continuing diversity fails, someone always has to show up to remind me how she “couldn’t write diversely because it was 1997”.
Without fail, people are more invested in protecting Rowling from criticism she will never see or care about than in acknowledging the way that her writing has continued to erase marginalized people while allegorizing their struggles in order to pad her plot and make her characters more interesting.
Even if I knew (or cared) more about the realities of publishing when I was seven years old, the fact of the matter is that JKR managed to put a ton of atypical things in her “kids’ series”. She wrote about the violent effects of racism and blood supremacy as well as child abuse and children coming of age in a war torn world.
And yet, she “couldn’t” include more than eight characters of color or any queer characters who made It to the end of the series alive or who were queer onscreen?
The “it was 1997” excuse for Rowling’s diversity fails only holds a scant bit of water when it comes to looking at the body of her work. Other writers wrote queer characters into their works, other authors managed to have diverse children’s books during the same period that Rowling was publishing her books.
If you like what you’re reading and want more you can:
Whenever authors talk about how much they hate “forced diversity” and how annoyed they are that readers and bloggers now expect writers to create that they call “unrealistic” worlds where people who are not the default (by being queer, POC (or the fantasy/sci-fi equivalent), and/or not being cis), I always want to laugh.
Or ugly cry.