Sunday , March 3 2024
Two YA fantasists discuss the dynamics of diversity.

Holly Black and Sarah Reece Brennan Offer Advice on Crafting Diversity in Fantasy

Team Human
Team Human

Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan are two of the most high profile and well read YA novelists of the last decade and throughout their career their books have also been among the most diverse. Holly’s books have featured non-white and non-straight protagonists since her first novel Tithe: A Modern Fairy Tale, a trend which continued throughout her Modern Faerie and Curse Workers Series. Sarah has garnered praise for avoiding stereotypical portrayals in both her Demon Lexicon and Lynburn legacy series. Sarah is also the co-author of Team Human which prominently places its Chinese American protagonist on its cover.

Her co-author on Team Human, Justine Larbelestier, was Holly Black’s adversarial editor in the anthology Zombies VS. Unicorns which the American Library Association chose as one of its Rainbow List suggestions, books which it describes as an annual bibliography of quality books with significant and authentic GLBTQ content.

Justine’s own book Liar helped launch much discussion within the fan community about the unfortunate practice of racebending characters of color for the cover of the novels they star in. Something which Sarah had very passionate feelings about when I spoke with her and Holly online earlier this year.

Her latest book The Bane Chronicles profiles the flamboyant Magnus Bane, a character from the Mortal Instruments Series, who will be making his big screen debut with this summer’s City of Bones. Sarah had this to say about taking on the enigmatic Warlock’s story over the course of the summer and why knowing its protagonist would not take a backseat in promoting the book actually helped her decide to tackle the project.9781442365070

“It’s going to be lots of fun to write about this character with my lovely and talented friends, but an enormous motivating factor for me was that I would get to participate in what will, after the e-stories are all released, be a book with a bisexual person of color on the cover and his adventures around the world inside. It will be promoted not ignored or given a misleading jacket; it will get into readers’ hands, and give them the kind of lead they deserve to see more of.

“While I have talked a lot about public cover disputes and my own experiences, I did want to add: authors of colour are the ones who have the primary experience here, and who face institutional prejudice that I simply don’t. So I did want to mention, without speaking for them or any of their experiences, some really awesome books by authors of colour which are my especial favourites, and which I would recommend (of course) above my own, because I don’t have primary experience–they know better. Malinda Lo’s HuntressAlaya Johnson’s MoonshineMarie Lu’s LegendJulie Kagawa’s The Iron KingDia Reeves’ Bleeding Violet and Nnedi Okorafor’s The Shadow Speaker.runaway queen cover

Both Holly and Sarah are not shy about discussing the difficulties of promoting diversity in Young Adult literature. And they were willing to discuss their experiences in crafting their own works as a way of offering advice to other authors who are seeking to do the opposite of what has been the advice offered time after time to write what they know rather than what they may imagine.

What advice do you give for authors out there who want to get it right while writing outside of their own experiences with gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation?

Sarah: Oh, if I could only get it right myself but all right, let me give it a shot. I would say research, and be respectful: ask someone who does have that first-hand experience if you think it’s appropriate but remember to be very grateful and that it’s nobody else’s responsibility to inform and educate you. It’s your responsibility to educate yourself.

Concentrate on the character you’re writing rather than any idea of them as a Representative of One Thing, because every person is an individual and every person has a million different facets to them, every person is a kaleidoscope, there is no One True Experience and at the same time remember that you don’t have first-hand experience, and so you have to be careful and do your absolute best to get it right: that there is real potential to hurt real people.

 I would also say that, look, this stuff is scary, but don’t worry so much about getting it right that you don’t do it. I honestly believe that it’s worth doing, even if you get it wrong, because the only way to make no mistakes is to do nothing… to not even try… and then you are participating in a great evil.

You’re also writing fiction that is, as Holly says, less true. Fiction that is smaller, meaner, and in a less rich and less interesting world than our own. ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ I often worry about how my books and how my career will do, but I always know this: no financial reward is worth making myself a worse writer and a worse person.

Holly: I am going to be completely honest. The hardest thing for me, in terms of getting it right, is that I write about a lot of terrible people. I love writing about characters who make mistakes, who’ve made really bad decisions, who come from messed up families, and who do messed up things. That’s really tricky to do with a diverse cast, without, as a cisgendered white woman, feeling like a jerk. So I try to be sure that my cast is truly diverse enough that when someone is awful, it’s clear I am not suggesting that their awfulness is representative of any larger group.

.Like Sarah, I worry that I’m not getting it right a lot of the time. And like Sarah, I think research is key. I also think its worth saying that I realize some stories just aren’t my stories to tell. Before I start, I need to think about whether a story is or isn’t appropriate for me to author it. I try to choose the stories and characters where I have enough points of connection that I feel like I’m able to tell them well.

Sarah: Em, yep, I do often have morally dodgy characters myself (murderers, heavy drinkers, literal demons) and am also a cisgendered white woman, and like Holly, true diversity is the aim but mischaracterizing people who are often demonised by fiction is the worry.

And yes, I have to admit sometimes I have ideas and I am like ‘Okay, Sarah, I’m sorry, but you just don’t have the skills-set and/or lived experience to make this not offensively bad.’ Stories are about making choices, as well as things just coming to you: you are responsible, so be responsible.

As an author how explicit do you need to be in describing racial characteristics?

Holly: That’s a really good question. It’s deeply problematic to make the default of a book white, but sometimes I feel like readers need to have the point that a character is not white driven home. I mean, I absolutely loved Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, where part way through I realized that the default of the book was black because the POV character was black. It was a fantastic way to turn white reader expectations on our heads. But, for a lot of people, it was easy to read past and never get, which is incredibly frustrating. I struggle with this in my own work and I don’t know if I am getting it right.

Sarah:  Holly is absolutely right that it’s problematic that only characters of colour are the ones whose race get mentioned, enforcing the idea of white as default.

There’s another issue, which is that you can never be explicit enough to convince all the fans.  There’s a great tumblr post going around which just shows readers responding to author’s descriptions of a character like this:

Author: She had skin the color of driftwood.
Reader: She’s white.

Author: She had skin the color of fine bronze.
Reader: She’s white.

Author: She had skin the color of a brown crayola crayon.
Reader: She’s white.

Author: She had skin that was black because she was black.
Reader: She’s white.

Author: She had skin.
Reader: She’s white.

That’s not always true, of course! But it is true sometimes.

Suzanne Collins has also got a lot of flak because Katniss, her olive-skinned heroine, is played (and the casting call went out for) a white actress. (Jennifer Lawrence is amazing, by the way.) I think it’s sad they didn’t have an open casting call: one fancast I saw for Katniss was Asian actress Malese Jow, whom I love. She would have been a wonderful Katniss too, any number of actresses of colour would have been. But the thing is, if a main character’s described ambiguously–if they could be white, and I don’t know how Suzanne Collins imagined Katniss–oh gosh, they will be cast white. The author would have literally no way to even protest, because they couldn’t point to a definitive statement in the text. Another big issue in the Hunger Games was all the people surprised that people who were explicitly described as people of colour… were in fact people of colour. So I would err on the side of more explicit description. Because, to bring it down to a very basic level, you want your readers to know. But I do think it’s important to be careful about how you describe them.

Holly: Exactly. Yes. I am just nodding along with you.

Have you ever encountered situation with fancasting your heroes of color as white?

Sarah: Sure. Yes. Sadly, I think anyone who writes characters of colour and has had fans cast their books more than a few times has. And it’s complicated, because–whoa, fans, loving your characters! That’s wonderful, and you want to encourage it. But you can’t encourage the perpetuation of an unfair system, or misrepresentation of characters you love, too. I won’t reblog it. If asked directly I just say ‘No, that actor couldn’t play that character because that character is not white.’


I have to give props to the fans, though, with my latest book Unspoken, the fancasting of the heroine has been overwhelmingly Asian. The character is part Japanese, though she presents and identifies as Asian one of her siblings can pass as white.  It’s a complicated situation: and without me saying a word most people have fancast actresses who are either part or fully Asian–have understood without me having to say anything except what’s in the book that cutting out the Asian part of the heroine’s heritage would be the wrong thing. It makes me happy that I have such great, smart fans, who are thinking about things like this: it makes me hope for change happening in the world.

Holly: I have had that experience too and it’s frustrating. I always feel like I’ve done something wrong, like I didn’t describe the character well enough or make their background and appearance clear enough. It makes me uncomfortable and sure that I could have done better.

casselandlilaOnce, I had a reader send me a picture of a white actor and asked me if he looked like my main character, and when I answered that the character wasn’t white, happily came back with a wide range of attractive actors of color. That experienced really emphasized to me that making a character’s appearance clear in a book is really, really, really important. It’s easy for readers to skim past details–and to make mistakes they’re okay with correcting once those mistakes are pointed out to them–and I also learned not to make assumptions about readers motivations. We all need to learn to be more careful, more thoughtful, and better about this stuff. A lot of times that learning comes through mistakes.

Sarah: I am so good at making mistakes that I will one day be the wisest person in the world. I make them all the time, every day, pretty much on the hour. But yes, everybody does, and everybody learns, if they want to learn. Some more slowly than others. (Me. I’m talking about me here.)

This is a personal question for me, about so called invisible minorities, people who are not immediately identified as a minority, in the form of those within the LGBTQ and disabled community. I have a physical disability, and while I may one day be wheelchair bound it’s not something that is evident upon meeting me. I think this is true of many with disability and certainly with sexual orientation as well. How do you generate a balanced portrayal of these communities that have such a range of diversity in experience, whether its out and proud or closeted, someone who is crippled by chronic pain but walking or someone who is in a wheelchair?

Sarah: Thank you for asking the personal question, and my apologies in advance if I say anything hurtful. I think the only way to portray a range of diversities is to do just that, to present a range. No one person of colour, no one disabled character or gay character, can stand for all people of colour, all people with disabilities or all those in the LGBTQ community, any more than, say, one woman in a team full of men can represent all women. That way lies inevitable disappointment and insufficient representation. Take LGBTQ characters: I’ve written characters who were gay or bisexual and out to all the world, gay or bisexual and knew it but did not feel ready to share that information with the world (it’s in the book, mind, if readers don’t know the characters are gay it isn’t representation), gay or bisexual and only learning that about themselves as the book progresses.

I haven’t written everything I could: I can always do better and have to remind myself to do better every day. Consistent effort at representation is key.

Holly: Let me echo Sarah in that it is really important to present a range of characters with a range of experiences within a community. But I definitely realize that there’s a great deal of complexity in portraying invisible minorities. Zoe Marriott wrote a novel featuring a protagonist struggling with depression and has posted about how difficult it was to get readers to understand that the protagonist’s depression wasn’t going to be “cured” by the end of the novel, no matter how happy that end was; depression doesn’t work like that.tithe

I also think that different stories lend themselves to different characters. One of the strangest things about being a writer is that we’re often bouncing back and forth between instinct and planning. We plot and then our books veer away from the plot. We have an idea of who a character is and over the course of the book, that idea changes. So I think that part of making a decision about who to portray and how to portray them has to come from the story itself.

Sarah:  Augh, good point, Black. (Why do you always say it better in half the space? Sorry for not being as awesome as Holly, everybody!)

Holly:: Sarah, you are way more awesome than me.

Sarah: Lies!

I am ending the debate. You are both awesome.

About Gabe_Canada

Gabrial is a native Hoosier. He is a blogger for the grassroots media literacy organization and a member of the team at Kind of Epic Show. A weekly pop culture news podcast whose hosts may or may not form a giant fighting robot.

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