Diversity in YA tour stop: Austin!

So. Living in Austin is great for all kinds of reasons, but one definite perk is the thriving YA community here. Austin’s home to lots and lots of writers; enough that I’m slowly getting over the paralyzing lameness and sweaty palms that seem to overtake me anytime I meet a cool stranger, much less an AUTHOR. Also, a couple of the FYA ladies live here (see again: paralyzing lameness, sweaty palms), and I’m occasionally part of the FYA bookclub. Another fixture in the Austin YA scene is BookPeople, our beautiful, thriving indie bookstore. BookPeople hosts a lot of great events, and on Monday night they hosted a stop on the Diversity in YA tour, so of course, I went!

Malinda Lo (author of Ash and Huntress) and Cindy Pon (author of the Kingdom of Xia series) are the founders of Diversity in YA, a recent (and great) addition to the YA blog scene that celebrates YA by and about diverse characters. They were both at BookPeople on Monday, along with Dia Reeves (Bleeding Violet and Slice of Cherry), Jo Whittemore  (The Silverskin Legacy series and more), Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Under the Mesquite), and Bethany Hegedus (Between Us Baxters and Truth with a Capital T). Varian Johnson, who’s also a YA author (Life as  Rhombus, Saving Maddie) moderated the panel, and even got into the discussion a little bit himself.

The discussion was great! The authors had a lot of interesting things to say about writing non-majority (i.e. white and heterosexual) characters and, with the exception of Bethany, being authors of color. Unfortunately, I managed to leave both my phone and my pen at home, so I don’t have pictures or notes. Since I ALSO don’t have the audio equivalent of a photographic memory, I did my best to jot down some notes about the highlights of the conversation when I got home, and that’s what I’m going from here.

Early on, Varian asked the authors if they felt obligated to write characters of their own ethnic background; did they ever feel pigeon-holed or get pressure to be representative of their race/ethnicity? Pretty much everybody said no (good, because that would be annoying and sort of horrible for them), although Dia Reeves (totally my girl-crush of the night) said that although she doesn’t feel pressure to do so, she’s happy to write African-American characters.

Another interesting discussion revolved around writing characters of color in speculative fiction. In kind of an “oh, duh!” moment for me, one of the authors mentioned the difficulty of conveying race without the geographic markers we use – Asian-American, Indian-American, African-American, etc. There’s no America or Africa in most speculative fiction! I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but it’s hard for me as a reader too – I totally didn’t get that Rue and Thresh were black my first time through The Hunger Games. Um, oops. Jo said she’s previously relied on the dreaded “almond eyes” to signify characters of what we think of as Asian descent. And Cindy Pon said she doesn’t always pick up on “almond eyes” as a marker of Asian-ness (glad I’m not alone!)

This discussion lead to a really interesting tangent about readers’ perceptions, and whether its even important that readers pick up on characters’ diversity. “If its good story,” asked a guy in the audience,” does it even matter?” I was surprised at how little the authors seemed to care how readers imagine their characters, unless race is somehow central to the story. Dia (see?) commented that once the novel is out of the author’s hands, it becomes the reader’s story. It seems, to me at least, that part of the celebration of diversity includes promoting characters who are non-white, which is hard to do if readers don’t figure that out. On the other hand, authors were pretty clear that they don’t condone white-washing on covers – in fact, they were pretty much unanimously against the inclusion of people on covers at all.

All in all, a great event that made me happy to live in Austin where I can be a creepy lurker on the edge of the YA community. What a weirdo. Also, Dia Reeves has a write-up of the event on her blog (I’m hiding in the crowd in one of her pictures), so you should check it out. I bought a copy of her second book, Slice of Cherry, which is not about pie like I thought. It’s about serial killer sisters (I KNOW. Awesome, right?) and I’m gonna read that as soon as I finish You Killed Wesley Payne. Which is great. But I cannot do that if I keep writing, so this is the end of this post.

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