On Race and YA Lit

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger

Young Adult (YA) literature has exploded in recent years with the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books, the Chronicles of Narnia, Tuck Everlasting, Lord of the Rings, the Gossip Girl series, The Princess Diaries, and the more recent Twilight series to name a few right off the top of my head. There are some who look down their noses at YA lit and don’t consider it real literature. But, given the success of the aforementioned novels and series, I blow a big, fat raspberry in those people’s general direction.

Kidding. But, seriously. My guess is that the reason all those titles, and many, many others in the YA or MG (middle grade) categories have been so successful is that they reach across age barriers. If you look at the audiences for Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, Lord of the Rings and Twilight – books and movies – you’ll find fans ranging from nine-year-olds all the way through to the middle-aged, paunch set. The same cannot be said for high literary novels, or children’s books. YA and upper MG novels are right smack in the middle and appeal to that vast swath of almost-adult to inching-out-of-adulthood readers. There are often subtle, mature themes, and usually no gratuitous violence or sex.

I write YA because that is a time that ideals were still strong and fresh.

When I write, it is as if I was on the cusp of adulthood where things were still simple: good and bad were easy to define, as were right and wrong. It was a time when my inner life was more vivid than my outer and there were constant, brutal clashes between the two. It was a time where creativity was wild, unencumbered by the expectations and restrictions of adulthood. Anger, pain, joy – all were raw, enormous forces. It is still the place I go when I am seeking unrefined, unfiltered Truth.

My first novel, a YA release, comes out in March, 2009, and the road to getting it published has been full of surprises. I belong to a group of first time authors with Young Adult (YA) and Middle Grade (MG) novels coming out in 2009. We are all working together to promote our first novels. We share resources, commiserate about bumps and bruises along the way, and rejoice in one another’s accomplishments. It is completely voluntary, and no one is obligated to do anything they don’t want to, except participate in whatever capacity they can. The group is a wonderful social and networking space with some amazingly talented authors and many future stars.

And yet, something about the group caught my notice.

I don’t have any hard data or statistics in front of me, but several weeks ago as I was answering questions for my first online author interview, I was startled to realize that I was one of three YA authors of Color debuting in 2009.

The group is not all of the debuting YA authors for 2009, but it is a significant chunk. And though there are, no doubt, other debut authors of Color, I’m willing to bet that the overall demographic wouldn’t reflect a global reality. This, of course, is similar to the representation of “reality” as depicted on television, film, major magazines, and other mainstream media. In our little group of debuting authors, three are people of Color and three are men.

So what does this say about our society’s cultural production for young consumers?

About the stories that make it to print?

On the one hand, it’s great to have so many women’s voices and perspectives out there, especially in literature – a field that has been historically, and overwhelmingly, male-dominated (granted, fields related to children and caretaking – nursing, teaching, etc., have always been acceptable spaces for women to occupy). On the other hand, there is a glaring dearth of racially and ethnically diverse voices out there in YA lit. Same with sexuality. As far as I know, none of the debut novels in our group have a LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning) main character.

Often, when I bring these points up to my contemporaries I hear, “Maybe there just aren’t that many people of Color/LGBT writers out there.” Or, “The market for that type of writing is probably small.”

On the first point, I say: pull-eaze. You need only visit any writers’ chat forum or online writers’ community to see that there are tons of writers of Color and LGBT writers working their butts off, honing their craft, and paying the necessary dues to find an agent and/or editor who will take the “risk” and publish their work. This was the reason anthologies were such a huge hit among “marginalized” writers’ communities during the nineties. It was a way for aspiring authors to get their work out there, see their words in print, and start accumulating publishing credits for their CV’s when mainstream publishers and agents wouldn’t give them a second glance. This is also the reason so many independent presses sprung up around the same time – women’s presses, publishers specifically serving the needs of LGBT readers, publishers catering to multicultural and multi-linguistic audiences, religious presses, etc. These independent presses and publishers became a viable option for underrepresented and historically marginalized groups to have their experiences represented.

Whenever I get this first argument, I instantly rattle off a list of online forums and Yahoo listserves and tell that person to post a short call for submissions. Then I tell them to be prepared—they’re likely to be inundated with more reading material and paperwork than they can handle.

On the second point—that the market is very small—I say: Really. Granted: so far, only the rare (if any?) author of Color has reached the heights of authorly success a là Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, or Gossip Girl author Cicely von Ziegesar and author of The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot. Indian-American authors had a faint brush with this kind of notoriety when a certain Harvard student landed an advance in the half-mil range; but sadly, her writing career met with an untimely and crash-and-burn kind of death.

However, with regards to this same point, years ago when I was submitting my first (admittedly awful) manuscript to agents, some of the nicest rejections I received were accompanied with, “Your novel has much to love, but regrettably, we already have an Asian author for our list.”

Now I understand The Brushoff – I’ve provided plenty of those in my life and do not resent or judge other providers of same. But to be satisfied with ONE author representing an entire continent that consists of countries as varied as Korea, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and Nepal? Seriously?

All you have to do is stroll through the aisles of a bookstore to see that the fantasy, mystery, romance genres are stocked full. And not with fantasy, mystery, or romance by authors of Color. Those, if and when they exist, often get stocked in the African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, or Multicultural sections.

Given the choices that agents, publishers, and major bookstores make about what they acquire and how they promote it, does the market inform what gets published?

Or does what gets published actually inform the market?

I consider myself lucky. I am now represented by an agency which also represents many other authors of Color. In fact, multicultural writing is what they specialize in. They even have (*gasp!*) more than one South Asian author. The fabulous editor who went to bat for my first novel is with a publisher which has a history of breaking ground in uncharted territory – a history that resonates strongly with me – and I belong to a warm, supportive community of debut authors.

But clearly, there is a creative side and a business side to publishing, and this is an economy that thrives on the buying and selling of goods, not the creating of said goods. Publishers lose big when they make risky investments—as evidenced by the many labor-of-love independent presses that have had to close their doors over the years. Obviously, the merging of art and creativity with business and commerce is a fine and delicate balance.

Still, the reasons stated in the past for not publishing a more diverse array of voices do not hold water today. Consider the recent success of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist – originally a novel by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, now turned into a major motion picture. One of the main characters is the only straight guy in a queercore band. Co-author David Levithan, who has written several books with gay/queer themes, including Boy Meets Boy and , is an editorial director at Scholastic and founding editor of the PUSH imprint. He says of his first book, “I basically set out to write the book that I dreamed of getting as an editor – a book about gay teens that doesn’t conform to the old norms about gay teens in literature (i.e. it has to be about a gay uncle, or a teen who gets beaten up for being gay, or about outcasts who come out and find they’re still outcasts, albeit outcasts with their outcastedness in common.)”

PUSH publishes “edgy” YA fiction and has built its success by taking risks. The imprint’s titles include Coe Booth’s Tyrell, about an African-American Bronx teen in the New York shelter system, and CUT by Patricia McCormick about a teen who uses cutting to cope with the pain in her life. PUSH also published Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, the first ever South Asian American coming-of-age story which was listed as a Larry King pick of the week, an American Library Association BBYA book of the year, and a Sunday Times (Times of London) book of the week. The book is available worldwide, and has been translated into Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Italian, and German.

Add to this the fact that, even if the aforementioned Indian-American Harvard student’s writing career crashed and burned, there was a publisher out there willing to bet they could sell half a million dollars’ worth of her novel.

So, yes, some are bravely breaking new ground. And this is slowly changing the face and landscape of YA literature.

Who knows? Maybe in the next several years, we’ll begin to see bookstore shelves reflecting a more accurate depiction of global demographics. And maybe more YA writers will land book deals for stories that never would have seen the light of day some years ago . . . or might’ve been dismissed as “risky” investments because the market for them was believed to be too small.

Since there is such a lack of diverse experiences, there is a hunger for them. The world is ready. Most people want to embrace differences, not ignore them. As the recent U.S. elections have shown, underestimating the often silenced, marginalized masses, then finally providing them with a voice, can lead to surprising and spectacular results.