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Find more Telling Better Stories
REAGAN: You all approach the genre in different ways, but it becomes a vehicle for, among other things, discussing a variety of multicultural issues. So why fantasy?
TAHIR: As a kid, fantasy was my escape, so I have a deep love of the genre—which makes it very fun to write. With fantasy, there are so few limits. I can imagine the world I want to—I can play. I can reexperience that sense of awe and wonder I had as a child, when a ragged towel could be a superhero’s cape and a branch could be a magician’s staff. Imagination is something that, sadly, we seem to lose the deeper we get into adulthood. And writing fantasy helps me keep that part of my mind alive and vibrant.
OLDER: In part, the answer is simply because I love fantasy. It’s the genre I’m most at home in, and whatever I write will touch on how complex and multicultural our world is, so it just seems natural. To go deeper, though, fantasy offers unique ways to think about race, power, and culture, because with fantasy we have a chance to dream up new rules, new arrangements, new forms of power, and also complicate and dramatize existing ones. I think it’s important to allow literature to multitask. Our characters can confront racist microaggressions or police brutality and fight off evil zombie dudes, and they should, because one doesn’t cancel out the other, and there’s a truth in there that’s important to acknowledge.
SMITH: For some kids, fantasy stories are those that feel most real, most compelling. The metaphors those books convey speak more clearly than realistic fiction. The fantastical veil gives these kids the necessary distance, the perspective to relate and care. This is true for teens who we’d consider underrepresented in youth literature. It’s also true for those who see protagonists like themselves all the time. All of them need to see that diverse characters, diverse people, can be heroes that everyone cheers.
REAGAN: It’s been widely acknowledged that publishing needs more diversity, both in terms of characters and authors. At the same time, many writers are concerned about writing about cultures and experiences that aren’t theirs. What are your thoughts on this issue?
SMITH: I refuse to tell a teen that someone who, like them, is, say, Chinese American or Jewish or gay or living with OCD could not appear in my fictional worlds because I’m not a strong-enough writer to pull it off. That’s a fear-driven cop-out. At the same time, I’m not so overconfident that I’d plunge in before I’m ready. I respect that certain stories and insights will arise only through lived experience, and I’ll gladly step aside and signal boost those. It’s not an either-or debate. There’s a consensus that fictional casts can’t reflect our world (realistically or fantastically) without variation. Of my novels, only my debut’s protagonist—from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001)—is Native American (and, as I am, Mvskoke). I have no interest in constraining literary artists and no interest in being constrained. I applaud creative courage and ambition but, at the same time, encourage responsibility. Weighing skills and insights, am I uniquely qualified to write stories inspired by my own experience? Yes. Am I capable of writing heroes different from me in fundamental ways? Yes. Am I capable of writing every hero different from me in a fundamental way? Absolutely not. At least not yet and, in some cases, never.
TAHIR: Certainly, I want to read books that represent lived culture and heritage. It’s especially important to acknowledge diverse voices that are so wonderfully authentic but that struggle to be heard because of decades of marginalization.
That being said, I also want writers—diverse or not—to authentically portray our very diverse world. If an author strives to reflect a diverse world but is not necessarily diverse themselves (in the many ways one can be diverse), I respect that. But I think that it’s important that if you do not understand the type of diversity you’re writing about, you have the decency and respect to research, learn, and listen. One of the saddest things I have ever heard is that authors are too frightened to write diverse characters for fear of getting it “wrong.” Because when authors say that, they are telling every single kid who is underrepresented in books (and that’s a lot of kids) that their lives, experiences, and stories are not worth learning about and listening to. And that’s just shameful. Our readers deserve more effort and courage from us than that.
OLDER: I think it’s a mistake to see it as binary. Writers are always writing “the other“; there’s no way around that. A question that also must be asked is: Can we write ourselves? What we don’t see much of are books by white people examining the meaning, power, and depth of their own whiteness (All American Boys, 2015, is an excellent example of one that does). Same is true about maleness, and cisness. I think the questions go hand in hand.
The most notable way that people of privilege jack up writing about people with less privilege is by, subconsciously or not, trying to protect themselves and their complicity with power imbalances. Conversations about this tend to end with the singular notion of research, but there is so much beyond the acquisition of knowledge that goes into creating real human characters from other backgrounds. It’s a question of soul searching, of accountability, of history, of contextualizing both within the publishing industry and the world at large. And sometimes, if we’re honest, the answer is that it’s not our story to tell.
REAGAN: With fantasy, the lines are, perhaps, a bit more blurred than they are with historical or contemporary fiction. How do the above concerns come into play in this genre especially?
OLDER: It’s funny, because people talk about fantasy as if it’s just now becoming political because more and more kinds of folks who don’t fit into the same old “white straight dude” category are finding their voices in the genre. But, of course, fantasy has always been extremely political; it’s just been so normalized from a very white Western patriarchal construct, and fans that fit within this demographic don’t see it as anything but just the way things are. For those of us who don’t, we’ve been forced to translate ourselves or see ourselves only in the troll hordes, the clowns, the denizens, and demons.
This all falls within that most political realm of representation: the triumph of the noble colonizers over the savages. It’s cliché at this point besides being harmful. If we’re going to get excited about the power of literature to change lives (and we should) because it is powerful, then we also have to be honest about the destructive power literature can have on the vast numbers of people who haven’t been able to see themselves reflected as protagonists for literally centuries. That is why counter-narratives are so important and why this is such an exciting time to be a fantasy writer. I’m thrilled to be alive and writing and reading at this moment.
TAHIR: Fantasists run the risk of making cultural generalizations in an attempt to include diversity in their fantasy worlds. For example, some fantasy books might have a sort of generalized “Asian”-inspired race with “Asian”-sounding names and a mishmash of “Asian” cultural traits. And, in fact, there is no one Asian culture. There are scores of distinct cultural traditions in Asia. You can apply this to the Middle East and Africa, too. Nuances matter, so my hope is that modern fantasists recognize that and reflect it in their work.
SMITH: It sounds counterintuitive, but in fantasy we can be more on point, more blunt. A device like speech making, which would skew preachy in a realistic novel, can work when the speaker is a teen werecat outing herself—owning her furry, spotted awesomeness—via national media in a human-dominated world. Fantasy readers have no problem extrapolating fantastical fact patterns to their daily lives.
REAGAN: What would you like to see more of in the YA canon today? Are there things we aren’t talking about yet that you think we should be?
TAHIR: I think this year has seen a great many wonderful diverse books. Mostly, I’d love it if publishers could not only keep that up but expand. And, beyond that, I’d love it if books traditionally labeled as “diverse” (sometimes, that’s the only label they have) could instead be recognized for the universality of the story they tell.
SMITH: The lower-middle- and, for lack of a better term, middle-middle-class experience is oddly absent from the body of youth literature. What about characters that aren’t poor or affluent but work a part-time job (or two) or aspire to skilled trades? Likewise, where are the fictional families of faith, wherein religion is simply interwoven into daily life and not a point of contention?
We’re also struggling to acknowledge that diversity can be more complex than character or content representation. It can go to worldview. In particular, Native authors, authors of color, and enfolded members of our communities often still tiptoe around the mainstream comfort zone. I’ve had allied non-Indian librarians tell me, one way or another, that they’re committed to telling stories about “real Indians” and go on to clarify that they mean alcoholics living in reservation communities. As if, say, my tribal town and urban characters were somehow less “real.” I’ve had students ask me, “How do I write this without freaking out the white folks?” And yet authors hold back at the peril of young readers. Those who share our perspectives go invalidated, and those who don’t are never exposed and enlightened.
OLDER: Certainly, YA as a whole has a long way to go in terms of really addressing race and power. There are so many important elements of race that we’ve barely even been able to touch on because just getting to the basic truth that we are more diverse than the bookshelf has been such a struggle. Beyond that, we need to unsubscribe from the simplistic notions of both heteronormativity and gender as a binary. Ableism also goes largely unaddressed, both in terms of physical and mental disabilities. The work for writers, editors, and industry folks in general is to see this as a healthy, creative challenge rather than a checklist or an appeasement game. How do we create an industry that can speak to these long-standing difficult questions from experience? Folks tend to see right through transparent and facile forms of box-checking diversity. Ultimately, this is a question of cultivating a more honest, more soulful, more literary YA canon. This is about telling better stories to more people and getting at deeper truths. What are we waiting for?
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