Important Books About Identity

Last week I tweeted the following:

It was a single tweet that I wrote on the fly before I went off to do some work, but I quickly realized it had legs. People really wanted to discuss this issue, which turned into a stream of responses from people affirming the need for fun books that aren’t about racism or homophobia. I felt that I needed to clarify my original tweet, so I added:

Welcome to that essay.

Pay Attention

The word important and how it’s applied to children’s and young adult books—especially “diverse books,” which is the way the publishing industry has come to describe books about marginalized characters, e.g. characters who are of color, LGBTQ, disabled, and/or from a marginalized religion—has been bothering me for some time. All of my books are about queer girls, and some of them are also Asian. My books have often been described as “important,” and while I understand that this is meant to be a compliment, it’s one that often grates on me.

These days, the word important is almost solely used for books about marginalized characters. I understand the impetus. It’s a reaction to decades of children’s and YA publishing that largely ignored or sidelined books about marginalized characters. It’s a corrective to racism and homophobia and ableism and all kinds of bigotry that have systematically worked to silence or erase stories of people who are not white, straight, cisgender, and well-off. It’s a sign that says: Pay attention to this book.

I understand all of this, and I think that the word important certainly can do some important work.

At the same time, important pushes aside many other qualities that are used to describe less “important” books. I’ve experienced this as an author on countless panels at book festivals or conventions or in interviews when I’m asked, “Why is it so important for readers to have books like yours?” rather than “How did you create this character?” or “How did you engineer that plot twist?” or “How did you build the romance around the demands of the thriller narrative?”

Being asked why your books are important is, frankly, a weird thing. Every single author thinks their book is important; we wouldn’t spend so much time writing them if we didn’t. But why a book is important to me is not the question being asked. I’m being asked why my book is important to others. Note that this is basically asking an author to praise their own work, and while some authors are able and willing to do this, it’s much more difficult for women and minorities. We are not supposed to self-aggrandize.

In response, I usually say something like, “I’ve heard from many readers who are so happy they were able to read a book about a lesbian who didn’t struggle with homophobia or coming out.” 

Once in an interview, I did try to give an honest answer. It didn’t make it into the final piece, but here’s how I responded:

A lot of times I’m asked why something or other related to LGBTQ YA is important, and I want to take this chance to push back a little on the “important” narrative. When I see a book described as “important,” it’s often because it’s one of very few books about the subject, or because it’s perceived to counter an injustice, or it’s viewed as delivering a morally pure representation of an LGBTQ character. Some or all of these things may be true, but it can feel a little self-righteous, and it can erase the hard work and artistry that writers put into crafting their books.

I think YA about queer girls should be marketed to the masses because the writing is good, or the storytelling is skillful, or because frankly, straight people can also read books about queer people. I read books about straight people all the time; it works the other way around, too.

I was disappointed that my answer didn’t make it into the final article, but I understood why. The article, which was perfectly fine in its own right, was not about pushing back against the importance narrative. It was about rallying support for LGBTQ books, and in order to rally support, first you have to convince people that the cause is worthy—that it’s important. My quote would have undermined that.

No Escape

So many of the responses to my original tweet slid immediately into a discussion of “fun” books versus “serious” books, but even this discussion quickly retreated back into the importance narrative in a sort of ironic, circular twist.

For example: “It’s so important that happy romances about queer kids without homophobia exist!” Or “It’s so important for black girls to have books where they’re the heroes!” It’s hard to argue with this, because on one level, of course it’s true. On another level, situating these books as important—books in which the marginalized character is supposed to be having “normal” and “fun” experiences—turns the focus directly on their marginalized identity again.

And that’s what important really means in this context. A book is important if it’s about a character with a marginalized identity; bonus points if that identity is utilized in an educational way for people who don’t have that identity. These days, important in the context of YA literature is primarily being used to signal identity—non-mainstream identity. 

Right now, after decades of fighting the powers that be within the publishing industry that have excluded books about brown kids and queer kids and disabled kids—right now we are in a moment in which diversity and inclusion is hot hot hot. It is the most buzzed-about thing, and I’m not about to say this is bad. Finally, some people in powerful roles in the industry are genuinely coming to understand that minorities are human beings, and our stories are worthwhile.

At the same time, some people in this industry are only paying lip service to diversity and inclusion, and one of their primary tools in this lip service is the word important. This word is being used by some publishers and gatekeepers to signal that readers should pay attention to a book without actually saying anything about what the book is about. 

I often feel as though important is being used in the service of performative wokeness, in which well-intentioned white people publicly signal how well-intentioned they are. The performative aspect of their wokeness is revealed when they ask marginalized authors to speak only about their personal identities, and not about their work as writers.

Authors (especially minority authors) who write childrens’ and YA books know deep in our bones that we get marketing support when our books are important—that is, about marginalized identities. We know that we get invited to conferences if we’re willing to talk about our struggles with marginalization. We know that in order to survive in a culture of performative wokeness, we are expected to perform our identities live, onstage in reality and on social media.

Sometimes we are willing to do this, because (let’s be honest) if our identities are actually going to benefit us now, why not use them? Other times, it’s utterly demoralizing to realize you’re at this festival or this panel or this book event because you’re the token that makes the majority feel good about their inclusiveness.

Maybe Sometimes

The thing I want to know is this: Will it ever be possible to promote diverse books as anything other than important? Will white, straight, cisgender, abled readers and gatekeepers ever be drawn to books about people who are not like them because of the story being told, and not because they’re trying to educate themselves about the Other?

Most personally: Will the books I write ever be judged on their own merits, apart from the fact that I write about queer girls of color?

The answer to all of these question is maybe, and sometimes. In specific instances, books about marginalized characters are judged on their own merits. Sometimes gatekeepers do appreciate a book for its craft, and not because it’s a story about a person of color that can educate a white reader.

I realize that what I want is an end to institutionalized racism, homophobia, and ableism. I realize what I want is for every marginalized character’s story to be seen as a human story, and not as a black girl’s story or a Latino boy’s story or a nonbinary coming-out story. These are big things to want, and frankly I doubt I’m going to get them in my lifetime, except for maybe sometimes.

Step Outside

Nobody asked me, but let me tell you why my books are important to me. Ash is important to me because it was about waking up to the possibilities of storytelling and becoming conscious of what I as a writer could do: I could write a lesbian Cinderella! That alone was a world-changing realization.

Huntress is important to me because it enabled me to dig into my personal beliefs about Taoism and Buddhism in way I had never done before. I’ve only recently realized that this spiritual element is still tugging on me to say more, but it first emerged in Huntress

Adaptation is important to me because it was the most fun I’ve ever had while writing. The deadlines were hard because it was a series, but still, it was fun, and fun is important in writing, too.

A Line in the Dark was important to me because it enabled me to work through some really dark feelings about the publishing industry. It’s unlikely that anybody got that from the book, but that’s the way I will always remember it.

I’m still working on my next book, so my perception of why it’s important to me may change over time, but right now it’s important to me because it has challenged me to write far outside my comfort zone. That’s what we have to do as writers in order to improve our craft: go outside our comfort zones in some way, with each project.

For me, that’s one of the most important things about life in general: being willing to step outside your comfort zone.

Important has become a comfort zone for many people. When you’re in there, you know what to look for and what to appreciate. The problem is, when you’re in there, you don’t see what you’re missing.

I hope that those who regularly identify diverse books as important will take a step outside that comfort zone, and ask themselves what they’re missing.

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Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.