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The Main Character in Their Own Lives: Does Diversity Make YA SF/F Better?

Julia Rios of the Outer Alliance and Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press recently ran a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible to raise support for Kaleidoscope, a proposed YA anthology of contemporary SF and fantasy with protagonists of diverse backgrounds. They were looking for main characters who would help create a broader picture of what a ‘typical teenager’ is, whether through their race, sexuality, culture, or living with a disability. As examples of what they were looking for, the editors of Kaleidoscope had already commissioned works by Sofia Samatar, Ken Liu, Vylar Kaftan, and Jim C Hines.

During the fundraising process, they also ran a month-long carnival of diversity on their blog, featuring a variety of essays from writers, presenters, publishers and readers about what diversity in pop culture means to them, why it is important, and how hard it can be sometimes to battle your own internal barriers to put such experiences on the page.

In the project outline, Julia writes:

“I’m half-Mexican and bisexual. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of characters who were like me, and I was sure that my very existence was at best, not ideal, and at worst, very wrong. I believe that showing characters from different backgrounds helps everyone accept that people come in all sorts of varieties, and that’s a good thing.”

Before funding had even closed for Kaleidoscope, a second crowdfunding project also opened with similar goals, this time on Indiegogo. Inscription Magazine describes itself as a weekly publication of “free, diverse young adult science fiction and fantasy,” and credits Rachel Halpern as editor-in-chief.

Then there’s Visibility Fiction, a webzine that has been going for some time. Dedicated to the promotion and publication of inclusive young adult fiction, their motto is: “Because everyone’s the main character in their own lives, so why not fiction?”

These projects and their teams are all attempting to address the need for greater diversity in the fiction available to young people in particular—for teens of all kinds to be able to ‘see themselves’ in stories—and as the main character, not just the best friend or minor supporting character who assists the straight white able-bodied American protagonist along their journey.

Publications like Kaleidoscope and Inscription, then, are not only useful in producing new material for the teen readers out there, but also in helping to raise awareness in the publishing community of the needs of young readers.

YA author Malinda Lo, whose debut novel Ash featured a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, has done some vital advocacy work in discussing the presence of queer characters in YA fiction, backed up by hard data on the subject—publishing is definitely improving in this regard but it is a slow change. Many of the statistics that Lo has presented and discussed look at the big publishers and among other things, her research reveals that Simon and Schuster were the most ‘LGBT-friendly’ major publisher of YA, based on their history over the last several years.

Lo notes that while it’s important for teens to see ‘themselves’ in fiction, we shouldn’t discount the value of the gay best friend or equivalent trope in YA novels, especially high profile and bestselling series like Pretty Little Liars or The Mortal Instruments—for many teens, this may well be the first time they have encountered fictional characters who are LGBT. She also recently discussed how hard it was (before she discovered Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters) to find any fiction at all featuring lesbian characters who didn’t die at the end.

This trope is pretty similar to the one where the only characters of colour in an action/horror movie get killed off first—a trope so familiar to us now that it has been widely parodied, and yet still happens in mainstream movies. The last few years have at least seen some great YA SF or Fantasy novels for teenagers with non-white protagonists, authors or both discussed and recognized within the SF community. The last few years of the Norton shortlists, for example, include works by Nnedi Okorafor, Malinda Lo, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, and others—the 2013 winner, Fair Coin, was written by Korean-American author E.C. Myers, while the 2012 winner, The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman, is about a mixed-race protagonist who is able to “pass” for white when she travels back to a time of legal slavery in America.

It’s important to note that calling for diversity doesn’t mean ignoring the many excellent YA books out there that already address race, culture, sexuality, etc. alongside a rattling good SF or Fantasy story. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a need for more.

Tehani Wessely of Fablecroft Publishing, who also regularly judges for children’s fiction awards, blogged recently about supporting diversity in Young Adult fiction:

“As a secondary school teacher librarian by trade, and a passionate lover of YA fiction by heart, I am frequently asked by other library staff and readers for recommendations of young adult fiction that features protagonists who are not necessarily white, straight or able-bodied. So many of our students and reading clientele experience life through a lens that is different to what the majority of YA fiction presents as ‘normal,’ and it’s just heartbreaking to have so little to offer with a protagonist outside of this range.”

Issues to do with disability, mental health and not being neurotypical often affect many genuine teenagers but are rarely reflected in the fiction they read. On the Kaleidoscope blog, Jim Hines talked about his story, which examined the teen years of an autistic character from his successful Libriomancer books:

“It’s always a choice, though it’s not always a conscious or deliberate one. Choosing to write Nicola Pallas the way I did wasn’t about political correctness or tokenism or meeting some imaginary diversity quota. It was about trying to write a more honest reflection of our world, a world that—despite what some stories might suggest—includes a wonderfully vast range of differences.”

One of the most interesting things about science fiction and fantasy is the way that the genres can offer different perspectives on matters to do with the body, the mind, medical technology, and the way we live our lives. At a time when YA’s regular diet of vampire fantasy and oppressive dystopian regimes is expanding to include a wider range of fantasy and futuristic fiction, surely it’s a very good time to look at addressing some of the real health and ability concerns of current humans through the lens of SF or fantasy.

But do the teen readers themselves actually care? I asked Julia Rios, co-editor of Kaleidoscope, whether diversity was really what teenagers wanted to read about, as opposed to what adults think they should read.

“I think there’s no one thing that all people want to read about. That’s why having a healthy variety of fiction available is a very good thing. People often like to see themselves reflected in fiction. It’s fun to imagine that you might be the chosen one who gets to go off on a magical adventure. But I also think that most people of any age want to read things they find interesting, and that means sometimes reading about people and places who aren’t obviously exactly like the reader. Judging by how many teens these days love manga and anime, and how many boys like My Little Pony, I do have to conclude that diversity and variety is fun for everyone. We just all want good stories.”

As examples of authors being published right now who are doing great things with diversity in their fiction, Rios recommended Malinda Lo, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, E.C. Myers, Merrie Haskell, Nnedi Okorafor, and Libba Bray. Tehani Wessely, meanwhile, added Alison Goodman, Laura Lam, Karen Healey and Ambelin Kwaymullina to the list.

Now that it has been fully funded, Kaleidoscope will be paying pro-rates to its authors and has submissions open until the end of December. They’re looking for contemporary fantasy (and some science fiction). “I’m very excited to see submissions coming in from both established names and authors I’ve never heard of,” says Julia. “We’ve been getting some QUILTBAG characters and characters of color, which is fantastic. I hope we see more! I’m really hoping we’ll see more stories from international authors, stories with great disabled, neurodiverse, and mentally ill protagonists, and stories that surprise us in ways I can’t possibly imagine right now.”

Some further highlights of the Kaleidoscope blog:

A Secret Book by Josh Sarantitis, part of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
Photo by J. Smith for Visit Philly.

Tansy Rayner Roberts is the fantasy author of the Creature Court trilogy and one of the three voices of the Hugo-nominated Galactic Suburbia podcast. She has a PhD in Classics, which she drew upon for her short story collection “Love and Romanpunk.” She also writes crime fiction as Livia Day. Come and find her on Twitter!


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