Last year, BookCon’s initial line-up provoked a serious outcry regarding the lack of diversity in publishing. This movement grew into a grassroots organization called We Need
Diverse Books that has been working endlessly over the past year to promote diversity, especially in children’s books. One year later, it is clear that these efforts have not been in vain. Diversity was a hot topic at both Book Expo America and BookCon this year. The two events featured at least four panels directly addressing diversity between them. Unfortunately, I was only able to make it to one of these: BookCon’s Saturday morning panel, “We Need Diverse Books Presents In Our World and Beyond.” This panel discussed diversity in the abstract and its relation to the genres of science fiction and fantasy. The panel was introduced by VP of outreach for WNDB, Miranda Paul, and speakers included Saga Press editor Joe Monti as well as authors Daniel José Older, Kameron Hurley, Ken Liu, Marieke Nijkamp, and Nnedi Okorafor. Highlights from the panel are given below:
Diversity is about the truth
Daniel José Older started off the discussion with this line. Our reality is diverse. People of color, people on the LGBT spectrum, people with disabilities, and people who are different from each other in any number of ways exist in the world around us. To not represent this reality in our fiction is to not tell the truth. And not to mention it’s also bad business, as Joe Monti pointed out.
Diversity is collective and inclusive
“The diversity movement on the whole is a very West-centric movement.”
Sometimes “diverse” gets used as a euphemism to try to stay politically correct when referring to a specific person. But there is no such thing as a diverse individual, as Ken Liu wanted to make sure we understood. Diversity is a collective and big picture thing, and what it means is that there is more than just one type of person represented in that big picture.
Ken was the first to point out that “the diversity movement on the whole is a very West-centric movement,” but Nnedi and many of the others who have lived or travelled outside of the U.S. were quick to agree. Even the language that gets used in the diversity movement is in many ways problematic and assumes that aspects of Western culture are the default. Real diversity needs to be all-inclusive and involve all of humanity. This is especially important in fantasy and futuristic sci-fi worlds that tend to ignore the existence of places and people outside of America and Western Europe.
Sci-fi and fantasy are totally appropriate venues for politics
“Fantasy has always been a political endeavor.”
Many of the authors at this panel had been told that politics did not belong in their sci-fi/fantasy fiction, that politics ruin fiction, or that writing about people of color, LGBT characters, or feminism would create a niche market for their books, which would be more widely acceptable without the politics. Daniel was quick to point out that “fantasy has always been a political endeavor.” The difference now is that a wider spectrum of political views have emerged in mainstream fiction. Much of the science fiction and fantasy of the past showed clear colonial and racist undertones, but since these political ideas were normalized, the so-called “classics” are often considered to be apolitical. Kameron agreed that “the status quo is not a neutral position.” In fact, no one’s writing is neutral. Nnedi explained that because she is a political person, everything she writes is going to be political. She doesn’t necessarily sit down to write with a political agenda in mind. For many of these authors, they couldn’t avoid politics if they tried. As Daniel said, “If we are people of color in the U.S. telling the truth—it’s a political act.”
Not only is politics unavoidable in fiction, there are many advantages to presenting politics through this venue. Ken explained that fiction is powerful because it persuades by experience, and it allows us to experience different modes of thinking. Nnedi further pointed out that sci-fi and fantasy allow us to present sensitive issues at more of a distance or to take old, beaten issues and present them as new and exciting.
The fight for diversity is a fight against censorship
“Speak your truth.”
As the representative from the publishing industry, Joe wanted to make clear that the industry itself has institutionalized biases. There is an idea going around the industry that books on certain topics don’t sell. Many in the publishing industry feel that if you make your main character a member of an ethnic minority in the U.S., you are narrowing our audience. For this reason, many books featuring characters of color or authors with views that don’t reflect the majority are turned down at the publishing stage before they even get the chance to reach the public. Joe pointed out that there are many “well-meaning people that aren’t overtly racist” who are still contributing to this problem. Part of the issue is that the people involved from the publishing end are not a very diverse group. Daniel explained that even as a person of color writing for other people of color, he still has to go through a white gatekeeper (the publishing industry) in order to get his books published. The institutional bias within the publishing industry is essentially a form of censorship, since it affects what kinds of books are able to reach the public.
Tone-policing is another form of censorship. Daniel feels that in the U.S., we fetishize comfort and try to shut down the people who say things that make us feel uncomfortable. Ken explained that being polite is not the only way to be taken seriously and all kinds of discourse are valid, even the often sneered at “twitter activism.” Kameron urged the audience to “speak your truth and don’t be afraid to do that.” After all, the whole WNDB movement was started by authors of color who decided to speak up about something that made them angry.
Don’t give up! Be the change you want to see!
“If you don’t see an example…don’t let that stop you.”
The final message from this panel was to keep on pushing forward. There are many obstacles in the way, such as institutional biases, angry opponents, and few precedents whose shoulders you can stand on. But the only way to improve things is to keep trying. Nnedi had a message for pioneering writers in the audience, “If you don’t see an example of what you want to write out there, don’t let that stop you.” It certainly didn’t stop her. Ken also had a message for the readers in the audience: Demand the books you want. Nothing will change if we don’t get out there and start changing it ourselves.