Why My Protags Aren’t White

By Guest Contributor Justine Larbalestier, originally published at justinelarbalestier.com

magic

I’ve been asked a few times why none of my protags are white given that I am white. (So far that question has only come from white people.) I thought I’d answer the question at length so next time I get that particular email I can direct them here.

I don’t remember deciding that Reason, the protagonist of the Magic or Madness trilogy, would have a white Australian mother and an Indigenous Australian father. I don’t remember deciding that Tom would be white Australian or Jay-Tee Hispanic USian. But I made a conscious decision that none of the characters in How To Ditch Your Fairy would be white and that Liar would have a mixed race cast. Why?

Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.

Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.

Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?

I’m not saying my books are perfect. They’re not. If I could go back and rewrite them I would be much more specific about Tom and Jay-Tee’s backgrounds. Tom is just white. I’m specific about his bit of Sydney and about his parents’ occupations, but not about their or his ethnicity. White is not just one flavour. Nor do I go into any kind of detail about what kind of Hispanic Jay-tee is. Is her family from Puerto Rico? Mexico? Venezuela? Dominican Republic? All/none of the above? I say she’s from the Bronx but not where in the Bronx. It’s a big place. (Please forgive me, all my Bronx friends! Especially you, Coe.) As a result I was much more specific about Micah’s background in Liar. All mistakes and oversights in that book will be worked out in the books I’m writing now. The things I get wrong in those books will be fixed in the books I write after them. And so it goes . . . (I hope.)

Questions of representation were not foremost in my mind when I was writing the Magic or Madness trilogy. I’m a white girl who grew up in a predominately white country. Thinking about race and representation is something I have to make myself do because my life is not governed negatively by it as others’ lives are, like, say Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It was the response of my readers that got me thinking hard about representation. Now those questions are foremost when I write.

Thus when I sat down to write How To Ditch Your Fairy I already knew none of the characters would be white. I also knew that I was writing a somewhat utopian world* in which race and gender were not the axes of oppression that they are in our world. Female athletes having as strong a prospect of making a living at their sport as a boy is clearly not true in our world, but it is in the world of HTDYF. Nor is there any discrimination on the basis of race. But there is on the basis of class and geography. (I was not writing a perfect world.)

Not many people noticed, or if they did, they didn’t mention it to me, but I was dead chuffed by those who did. Thank you.

*In some ways it’s very dystopian.