Saturday, June 18, 2011

White-bread Wonderland

Today at The Book Lantern, we are very excited to welcome Zoe Marriott, author of "The Swan Kingdom", "Daughter of the Flames" and the soon to be released "Shadows on the Moon." Zoe, whose latest work is a multicultural fantasy inspired by Japanese culture, has kindly offered to be our guest poster for the day and provide us with her thoughts on writing different cultures in YA, and its importance and difficulties -- especially when writing Asian inspired YA as a non Asian
author. Take it away, Zoe!

In one of our most celebrated pieces of children’s literature, little Alice steps through a mirror into a twisted version of reality, where nothing quite makes sense except in a strange dream logic way, and connections to the real world are tenuous and ironic.

When a modern reader walks into their local bookshop, they are (often unknowingly) having a very similar experience.

There’s no getting around it. Mainstream fiction, including young adult fiction, does not reflect the world as we know it to be. White, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered, neurotypical and, often, male (when it comes to active roles anyway) are still the default to such an extent that books which do something differently are greeted with as much surprise as delight.

My second book, Daughter of the Flames, is a multicultural fantasy in which characters of different faiths and skin colours go to war for freedom in a world based on Africa, India and Tibet. The main couple in the story is inter-racial (one of them is also disabled). I expected to get flack. But instead I was astounded to read reviews which branded the setting of the book ‘Medieval European’.

What? You missed the Goddess worship, the rainforests, the variety of skin colours, the matriarchal society? Apparently so. One glance at my author picture reveals white skin and blonde hair – so clearly I couldn’t be writing about black heroes, or a non-European world. All the indications that the characters were neither white, Medieval nor European had simply gone over the reviewer’s heads.

My third novel, Shadows on the Moon, is set in a faerytale version of Japan. I based this setting on my own love of Japanese culture and upon mounds and mounds (and mounds!) of painstaking research. Once I felt I had stuffed every possible fact about Japan that I could into my brain, I took liberties, changing the world of the story to fit the story’s needs, and creating not a historical novel but a fantasy.  And yet, some weeks ago, I received an email from someone who had read an advanced copy and strongly disapproved of certain aspects of the book – because they were not (he felt) historically accurate.

What? You missed the fact that the country in the story is called The Moonlit Land, rather than Japan? And the part where magic is possible and shadow-weaving illusionists stalk the land? Apparently so. Rather than being happy with a rich and diverse setting for a fantasy, the reader wished to impose their own view of historical Japan on the book – and since one glance at my author picture reveals those giveaway Anglo-Saxon features, surely the reader must know more about Japan than I ever could. Right?

This is what happens to white authors who write books which deal with other cultures, even in a fantasy setting.

It’s so easy to avoid such irritations. Bleach my character’s skin, wipe away their cultural complexities and plop them down in that Eurocentric world where no one can criticise me. It comes naturally – of course it does – since that’s the world I see every time I turn on the TV or go to see a film.  That’s the world I’ve been programmed to believe is ‘normal’.

But that wonderland version of reality where 99% of the world is white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered and neurotypical? That’s only available to certain, privileged people. For anyone else, anyone who doesn’t fit the ‘default’, there’s a big old NO ENTRY sign posted on the gateway. And since ‘anyone else’ actually makes up the majority of the world, that’s an awful lot of people getting a sick, sinking feeling as they realise that they’re excluded from the world of books and TV and film. That they’re not considered normal. That they’re not good enough to be reflected in fiction.

Isn’t that heartbreaking on a human level? And what’s more, isn’t it sickening on an artistic level?

It’s scary writing books that take you out of your default settings and away from your comfort zone. There’s always the risk you’ll get things wrong. No matter how careful and respectful you are there will always be someone who will accuse you of being a wicked cultural appropriator – or who will simply miss all the cues you’ve given and assume everyone in the book is white anyway. It’s very tempting to think none of this applies to you, that you can leave it to other authors, braver, better, browner authors, to fix right now, and maybe one day, when things are a different, you’ll consider venturing out of the ‘normal’ world into the real one...

But there will never be a perfect time to start writing books that reflect and embrace diverse ethnicities and cultures. That mythical future, a time when we are so free of prejudice that no white-bread author need fear the lash of a person of colour’s tongue will never exist – if we don’t all pull on our big girl pants and do the work.


And so, to every YA author out there who has opened their imagination and created worlds and characters that bridge the gap between white-bread wonderland and the real world? I salute you. And to all those of you who haven’t quite had the courage yet? I invite you, urge you, and challenge you, to start that journey today. It’s not nearly as long a walk as you think. The real world is only a mirror’s thickness away.


Zoe's YA recommendations: Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo, The Immortals Quartet and Beka Cooper Series by Tamora Pierce, Nation by Terry Pratchett, Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, The Earthsea and Powers series by Ursula Le Guin.

"Shadows on the Moon" will be released in UK in July by Walker Books.

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