Diversify Your Shelves--"On the Limits and Possibilities of ‘Diversity’: Investigating Form and Content"

diversify-logo

On the Limits and Possibilities of ‘Diversity’: Investigating Form and Content

by Shannon Gibney

In graduate school, we had an epic battle over characters’ racial diversity/representation on the page, and craft. Some well-meaning white writers in workshop were including problematic depictions of characters of color in their stories – the “all-seeing,” “magical” black woman, the homeless black man, the perpetual Asian American foreigner. When confronted, I remember that one particularly irascible, intractable white male peer accused us of policing art. “You can write about whatever you want, however you want,” he sputtered. “If I want to write about a triangle on the moon, I should be able to do it. And no one should criticize me for not including black people.” I remember I smiled wryly and said, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean that it will be good art. If you are using problematic and tired racial stereotypes and tropes in your writing, or just writing a flat universe of (white, male, middle-class) characters it doesn’t matter how awesome your triangles on the moon might be: your form is probably pretty lazy, too.”

Needless to say, he didn’t exactly appreciate my commentary.

It did, however, force us to confront the relationship between diversity of content, and diversity of form – a topic which I thought I’d pose in this blog post. Quite simply, I’m interested in this question: Does more racial/identity diversity of characters and content necessarily mean more formal diversity? Meaning, are stories that include characters from a variety of racial, ethnic, class, gender, and other identities more likely to be better written stories, or take more formal risks, or be more formally interesting, than stories with characters with mainstream (read: white) backgrounds? In the course of writing my new book, Dream Country, I certainly found this to be true.

 

Dream Country is a sprawling story of colonialism, war, family, and home, and features five narrators on two continents, over 200 years. There was no way to write this novel and do the questions it asks justice without pushing myself out of my formal comfort zone. It could not be your standard one-voice YA novel (not that there is anything wrong with that – my first novel, See No Color, is a YA novel of this variety. But this approach just was not going to work for this particular project). I needed to inhabit the voice of a disaffected teenage Liberian refugee, a 19th century African American single mother, a young Liberian revolutionary in Monrovia in 1980, and a modern-day young, queer, African and American writer. I needed all these voices to be distinct, yet compelling, and I needed them to also somehow fit together in the contours of a larger story. Needless to say, my content comfort zone was also deeply challenged in the writing of the book. I am not Liberian, but African American, and balked at the prospect – and responsibility – of representing Liberians on the page. But I realized that this was actually the topic of the novel itself: The chasms and connections between Liberians, Liberian Americans, and African Americans. In my quest to tell this story, I had to attempt to cross these chasms by doing intensive bibliographic and interpersonal research. I read everything I could get my hands on about the colonial period in Liberia; went to Monrovia and interviewed government officials and everyday people about the 1980 coup; and interviewed two gentleman who were generous enough to share their stories of being “sent back” to Liberia from the U.S. by their parents, in their eyes, to save their lives. While I am quite sure that there are still plenty of errors in the book, its formal challenges required me to reach for a new level of excellence in its content – a phenomenon I think may be more common than we realize. 

 

 
 

Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a young adult novel that won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Young Peoples' Literature. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where she teaches critical and creative writing, journalism, and African Diasporic topics. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, her new novel, Dream Country, is about more than five generations of an African descended family, crisscrossing the Atlantic both voluntarily and involuntarily (Dutton, 2018).

 

*This post originally appeared at Diversity in YAand has been 

brought to you thanks to our partner, Cindy Pon!*

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Her most recent novel, Serpentine (Month9Books, 2015), is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received starred reviews from School Library Journal and VOYA. The sequel, Sacrifice, releases this September. WANT, a near-future thriller set in Taipei, will be published by Simon Pulse in summer 2017. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art http://cindypon.com.

What's New In YA ~ October 9th, 2018
Featured Review: Muse Of Nightmares (Laini Taylor)

Related Posts

 

Comments

Already Registered? Login Here
No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

FEATURED GIVEAWAYS

Latest Book Listings Added

Wings of Ebony (Wings of Ebony, #1)
 
4.7
 
0.0 (0)
In this riveting, keenly emotional debut fantasy, a Black teen...
You Say It First
 
3.3
 
0.0 (0)
One conversation can change everything. Meg has her entire...
My High School Royal Boyfriend
 
4.0
 
0.0 (0)
ALEX A tragedy at Langley Estate puts my family...
The Forgotten World (The World Apart Series Book 3)
 
5.0 (2)
 
0.0 (0)
Clark thought he knew what grief was. Addie thought...
Tales from the Hinterland
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
A gorgeously illustrated collection of twelve “lush and deliciously...
Sisters of Shadow and Light
 
3.7
 
0.0 (0)
From the acclaimed author of Defy, Sara B. Larson,...
In the Penalty Box
 
4.0
 
0.0 (0)
Willow Figure skating was supposed to be my whole...
Unchosen
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
Katharyn Blair crafts a fiercely feminist fantasy with a horrifying...
Miracle Girl
 
0.0
 
0.0 (0)
Leanne Strong hates June eighth even though it's supposed to...
The Memory Thief  (Thirteen Witches #1)
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
Twelve-year-old Rosie Singer’s mom is missing whatever it is that...
Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke
 
4.5
 
0.0 (0)
On October 2nd, 1977, Glenn Burke, outfielder for the Los...
The Elephant in the Room
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
It's been almost a year since Sila's mother traveled halfway...
Alone in the Woods
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
Jocelyn and Alex have always been best friends...until they aren't....
Disaster Days
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
Hannah Steele loves living on Pelling, a tiny island near...
Wild River
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
Daniel Redmayne is fast asleep on the first night of...
The Last Hurrah
 
0.0
 
0.0 (0)
3 nights, 2 days, and 1 massive music fest ....

Latest Member Reviews

The Night Circus
 
4.3
"I couldn’t begin to express how much I adore this book. This book, magically, soothed my temper and let me..."
Wings of Ebony (Wings of Ebony, #1)
 
4.7
"WINGS OF EBONY is a beautifully crafted YA fantasy. A year has passed since Rue's life was irrevocably changed. Her..."
The Forgotten World (The World Apart Series Book 3)
 
5.0
"I don't know how this series keeps getting better, but it does. This third book is just... so much happens..."
The Tempest Sea
 
5.0
"This book... oof. It hurt. But if you know me at all, you know my favorite books are the kind..."
The Fractured Empire
 
5.0
"This book grabbed me from the very beginning, throwing me into this beautifully-crafted, intriguing new world. The plot is fast-paced..."
The Gilded Ones (Deathless #1)
 
4.3
"THE GILDED ONES by Namina Forna is a YA fantasy novel and the first book in the Deathless series. The..."
Unchosen
 
5.0
"UNCHOSEN is a fantastic and completely captivating YA apocalyptic fantasy, filled with feminism, friendship, sisterhood, and romance. Charlotte is the..."
The Memory Thief  (Thirteen Witches #1)
 
5.0
"Rosie has always taken care of herself and her mother in their house overlooking the coast of Maine. Her mother..."
Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke
 
4.5
"Maraniss, whose Strong Inside covered Black basketball player Perry Wallace, turns his incredible research skills the the story of Glenn..."
The Elephant in the Room
 
5.0
"Sila's family has been happy in Oregon, even though her father, who is a mechanical engineer, has to work as..."
Alone in the Woods
 
5.0
"Jocelyn always looks forward to the vacation in a cabin that she and her friend Alex's family take every year...."
Disaster Days
 
5.0
"Hannah doesn't understand why her parents are SO overprotective, even though she occasionally has a hard time dealing with her..."
We Dream of Space
 
4.0
"Bird, her twin brother Fitch, and their older brother Chase are all doing the best they can in 1986 Park,..."
Wild River
 
5.0
"Daniel isn't all that sure why he was chosen to go on an outdoor experience trip with four other students..."
In the Penalty Box
 
4.0
"IN THE PENALTY BOX is a cute YA contemporary hockey romance. Willow is a figure skater heading for the Olympics,..."
The Afterlife of the Party (Afterlife, #1)
 
4.7
"THE AFTERLIFE OF THE PARTY is a YA vampire book for anyone who doesn't want to make out with the..."
The Alcazar (The Cerulean, #2)
 
3.0
"THE ALCAZAR wraps up an intriguing YA fantasy duology. The book continues to follow four main characters in alternating points-of-view,..."
Super Fake Love Song
 
4.0
"Super Fake Love Song is about Sunny Dae, a Korean American teenager who is a mega-nerd trying to survive at..."
Hot British Boyfriend
 
4.3
"Ellie lives in Washington D.C. and attends an elite school, even though the tuition is a stretch for her single..."
Charlie Thorne and the Lost City (Charlie Thorne #2)
 
5.0
"After her adventures in Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation, Charlie is hiding out in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador,..."