Bringing Otherness Home: Where's Diversity in YA Literature?
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When black actress Noma Dumezweni was cast to play adult Hermione Granger in the London theatre production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the news caused mini-uproar among the fans.
There were some angry voices, protesting against the 'canon' in which "the smartest witch of her generation" was apparently supposed to be white. This, however, has been since then addressed by J. K. Rowling, who was nothing short of fully supportive of the director's choice:
Actress Emma Watson was equally, if not more excited:
As Chitra Ramaswamy rightfully pointed out in her article for The Guardian, the backlash is not only unreasonable, but "stupid", since fictional characters could be of any ethnicity, and in a multi-cultural cauldron that is modern Britain it would be anything but unexpected.
Let's not forget that 'racebent' Hermione has always had quite a substantial fandom - especially since her background and the way she's treated in the wizarding world is subject to oppression in a way that's very similar to the experience of non-white people in Western societies. As a "mudblood", campaigning for equality and for fair treatment of fellow magical creatures, she's easy to identify with, especially for the readers who come from minority backgrounds themselves.
We live in the culture where white and straight is still an absolute default for fictional characters, unless specified otherwise. In fact, even that might not be enough - remember Rue from Hunger Games? You know, the little girl with "dark brown skin and eyes", as Suzanne Collins described her. However, when the fans saw the character on screen (played by Amandla Stenberg, who happens to have dark brown skin and eyes), we witnessed an unsolicited wave of rage and disappointment.
Many readers claimed that the casting choice has "ruined" the movie for them, and considered it "unfaithful" to the books, as they imagined the girl to be white, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Some of the comments went as far as claiming that Rue's death was "not as sad" once they discovered the character they loved so much in the book was not white (sic!).
The shift from "default" white, straight leading characters to more diverse ones is not happening quickly - but nevertheless, it is now possible to spot the novels which aim to represent different characters and perspectives.
The readers often tend to make same assumptions about book characters being straight and cis-gendered, with no questions asked (as it often happens to LGBTQ folk in real life). There's a few examples of such characters in YA fantasy, most famously Albus Dumbledore, who was, however, "outed" by J. K. Rowling post-mortem and outside the books. As for the most recent fiction, it's worth to take a look at Rainbow Rowell's 2015 novel Carry On, which draws loosely on Harry Potter series, but focusing on all the race and sexuality problems teenagers normally experience (magical or not).
It is difficult to find a fantasy or YA novel in which the character would be "just" gay or "just" a person of colour - instead, if such character does make a rare appearance, their ethnic, gender or sexual identity becomes the leading problem in the book. The very fact that non-normative characters are finally starting to appear, however, is a big progress - and let's be honest, until this is a norm, it probably won't be possible to create these characters in detachment from their "otherness". It's up to us to work on it, though, also as readers.
If you're having trouble to find any books with non-normative characters, here's a few suggestions to start with.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
This sparkling debut fantasy novel by a gifted young Malaysian writer is set in an alternative universe where England is largely governed by The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosopher, an organisation whose task is to maintain magic within all the lands that belong to His Majesty. Our hero is the newly appointed Sorcerer Royal - the head of the Society, who also happens to be a freed slave and a black man, whose position and ethnicity make his work much more difficult due to his 'unsuitable' status, despite his outstanding magical abilities. Sounds familiar? Well, it could have been worse - "at least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession".
Zen Cho delivers a great piece of fantasy writing, liberally laced with steampunk motifs and packed with action, while also addressing some social issues that are still burning our society today (Oscars 2016, we can still see you).
Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa
If you enjoyed Perks of Being a Wallflower and Submarine, there's a good chance you'll appreciate this book. It tells a story of a difficult and delicate friendship between a mixed-race girl and two gay boys. It's thoughtful, it's bittersweet, and the author is not afraid to talk about all the very real problems a fifteen year old may face - from loneliness to questioning one's sexuality and mental health. These kids are lost, they're foolish, and often scared; their complex personalities and somewhat ambigious morality makes the read all the more enjoyable.
Scelsa's characters are easy to relate to: because of their multiple flaws, but also due to their multi-layered backgrounds, which are drawn thoughtfully and in-depth. If you're a teenager, you'll be glad to know that you're not the only one; and if you're an adult, you'll be glad to know that you never were the only one.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (graphic novel)
If you haven't met Nimona yet, prepare to fall in love with the coolest female character you've ever heard of. Nimona is a skilled shapeshifter and a self-appointed sidekick to the most ill-famed villain in town, Lord Ballister Blackheart. However, you'll soon find out that Lord Ballister is not half as good at villainy and destruction as this chubby girl with purple hair and multiple piercings. She mercillesly points out every flaw in Blackheart's evil plans, ensuring that proper pillage and murder take place, helping him to avoid typical plot-traps that lead the villains to fail. She loves pizza, being in the center of attention and a good ol' fight.
We are yet to meet another female character so delightful and likeable, yet deadly efficient at her job. Nimona takes cartoon feminism to a whole new level. Also, a small gay sub-plot adds some extra flavour to this already explosive mix.
The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams
David Walliams is one of Britain's most famous cross-dressing actors, known to the mainstream audience thanks to his multiple roles in Little Britain. He is also a social activist, who - when not taking part in various charity events - advocates more inclusive and accepting attitude towards sexuality and gender identity. The Boy in the Dress tells the story of 12 year old Dennis, who is learning how to deal with his own gender identity and with his fondness of camp and crossdressing. The novel, strongly resonating with Walliams' personal life experience, is both heartwarming and hilarious; it's meant to entertain and educate, not the other way round.
To make it even better, the book was illustrated by unimitable Quentin Blake, the man behind the graphics in Roald Dahl's novels.