Wednesday, April 30, 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks because Japan taught me it's okay to wish I was David Bowie.

Currently the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag has been trending on Twitter for 24 hours! That is so cool! You can read more about what it means and how it got started here: We Need Diverse Books

(Love whoever included Magic Under Glass on that banner!)

This is a subject that means a lot to me, and has meant more since Magic Under Glass came out and I have been thanked by girls who look a little (or a LOT) like Nimira for putting someone who looks like them in a novel. When I wrote Magic Under Glass, I wasn't even thinking of that, but as it turns out, it is a really cool thing to have happen. It makes up for a lot of the stressful parts of publishing. Seriously.

I am a white middle-class able-bodied mostly straight female. Growing up, did I see myself in books? Yes, in many ways I did. I identified with imaginative & proud writer-to-be Emily Byrd Starr, Betsy Ray and her supportive, loving, artsy family, and Anastasia Krupnik's intellectual household, among others. I read about heroines who looked like me and shared my interests and I saw families that reminded me of mine. The more those girls reminded me of myself, the more they meant to me, at that age. It's almost like Emily and Betsy held my hands as I grew up, making me feel less alone even when I didn't have any close friends. Seeing yourself in a book is such a gift from that writer to you.

However, there were other ways in which I didn't see myself in books.

For one thing, I was unschooled and I came from a very hippie/new age family. When I went to school for one year in 2nd grade, I realized that I didn't eat like everyone else, that new age beliefs were woven into my worldview, and oh yeah, I'd never been to school before and I thought it was really strange. Things that were part of my normal life, like my mom running an organic food co-op out of her garage or giving us homeopathics for health problems or singing along with "The Earth is Our Mother" with my mom's friends in a hot-rock sauna, turned out to be kiiiinda strange to other kids. Meanwhile I went to school without having any idea who New Kids on the Block were. ("Gasp!" went the girls on the bus.) Stuff like this made me feel weird ALL THE TIME, like I'd moved to 2nd grade from a foreign country.

But, we weren't just a stereotypical hippie family either. We ate junk food and liked a lot of pop culture things. I was really into fashion and comic books and video games and my favorite foods as a kid were cheeseburgers and baby back ribs. We were all complicated and different. But I saw a lot of hippie parents in books and thought, "That isn't right." They were always stereotypical and made fun of by the narration and often, the teenage MC. To say nothing of the occasional representation of homechoolers. I can think of one book that seemed to be mocking both homeschooling AND organic apples in one fell swoop.

Through my life, I also wrestled at times with gender identity and sexuality. As a kid I always identified with boy characters in stories. I wanted to BE the boy characters. At the time, it never occurred to me that maybe it's because the girl characters just weren't my type (complicated, wounded yet charming & dashing angst-muffin?). I thought maybe something was just wrong with me. Maybe I was a lesbian (which I understood to be a bad thing since no one talked about it at ALL) even though I wasn't attracted to girls. Then again, I started to realize I wasn't super attracted to anyone, certainly not the celebrities other girls went for, and when I finally did fall hard for a celebrity it was David Bowie wearing blue eyeshadow and lipstick singing "Life On Mars". I still didn't dream of kissing him, though, I just wanted to be him. Then a crush on a female friend snuck up on me and I realized that frankly, my partner is a guy, but it doesn't feel entirely accurate just to say I'm straight without disclaimers. I do have the privilege of not having to "come out" all the time. But on the inside, in my teens and early twenties, I wrestled with my inner feelings and wanting to be normal.

I didn't talk about this stuff to anyone with complete honesty for a long time. What showed me that it was okay was anime and manga and the fan community, because I learned that in Japan, there's a whole gamut of gender-bending and sexuality in Japanese entertainment that is presented as being SO normal that it even shows up in stuff for kids like Sailor Moon. This was then reflected at anime cons and throughout much of nerd/fan culture. But it came first from manga and anime from an eastern culture--which just goes to show on SEVERAL levels how important diversity is. We learn amazing things about ourselves when we listen to others.

So, look, when we talk about diversity we most often talk about the biggies of race, sexual orientation, disability. But it's also important to note that you can be, on the surface, a person who IS represented in books, and yet, beneath the surface, still feel alienated...until the right story(ies) comes along, one hopes. WE need diverse books. Absolutely. But also? I, on a deep and personal level, need diverse books.