Thursday, 6 July 2017

Get Some Diversity Part Two (ROYA #30)

The time is always right to do what is right” 

--- Martin Luther King Jr.

For a long time I’ve purposefully created diverse, non-stereotypical characters in my fiction work. It’s something I remain passionate about the further my career develops. My initial reasons for doing this stem from a desire to create fresh, colourful stories with interesting characters and atypical scenarios. Essentially breaking the monotony of what crosses my path through mainstream avenues. I’ll admit, my motivations are selfish because all I want is to create the type of stories I enjoy reading. However, it turns out it’s not just me; many want the same thing from entertainment. It's widely recognised that lack of diversity is a huge problem in Hollywood, and too often in fictional stories, non-white characters are portrayed as stereotypes

Let's just go ahead and stop this. We don't want it, we see it for what it is, and there's only so much we can ascribe to suspended disbelief. What's more, those of us who write children's fiction and YA are often creating the main source of information through entertainment to which our readers have access. Yeah, that's right. We are mixed up in this nonsense whether we like it or not. It’s some responsibility, the magnitude of which a growing number of authors recognise, but there’s still a lot of work to do. How? Well, we can all start by interrogating some of our choices as writers and readers. 

“So sometimes fiction is the only medium in which these children engage with the lives of others. Therefore, we need books which talk — not as information or as education, but simply as the setting — of diverse kinds of lives.”
--Sayoni Basu of independent Indian publisher Duckbill Books

Thankfully, things are changing. It's a slow, gradual shift, but it's happening. Blockbusters like Disney's Moana show non-white protagonists as having stories which are compelling to audiences from all walks of life. The Lego Batman Movie has a brown-skinned leading lady, voiced by the drop-dead gorgeous Rosario Dawson, and proves non-white characters can fit perfectly into a story with little-to-no relevance to the plot. Change is happening, and it's marvellous. Yet, even with this progress within the mainstream, a quick search for upcoming teen titles yields a plethora of movie and book posters featuring predominantly white characters. Promo shots with token cast members are like prizes in a lucky dip: they're nice, but you don't know what you're getting, and although it might be something good, it could also be tat chucked in to add bulk to the bucket.

Hard as it is to believe, I’ve heard a number of reasons why writers don’t have a range of diverse characters in their stories. Of course, each excuse can be easily dismissed under the slightest interrogation. Here is a selection of the most common reasons given for avoiding diversity in fiction:

“Of course all the primary characters are white and straight. It’s a Viking/Norse myth/ pick-a-white-scenario saga, it has to be authentic.”
What, so there were only straight Vikings? Right. I happen to think a story about an asexual Viking who struggles with all the raping and pillaging sounds compelling, but maybe that’s just me. Even if sexual preference isn’t relevant to the storyline, there’s still the question of racial diversity. The Vikings made it as far as North Africa, Constantinople, and even North America. Given it’s now believed they returned from raids with women and slaves, it’s unlikely their homeland’s population was as white as the snow that falls there.

“I’m a straight white person and I write about what I know.”
Okay. Are all of your friends straight and white? If so, maybe it’s not just your writing that needs a little diversity. Seriously, I’ve lived in a backwater town, and when I say backwater, I mean like sewage backing up the drains. Sure, it was predominantly white, but other than my husband, the person with whom I conversed the most was the owner of the Post Office, an immigrant from Pakistan. Lovely chap. My point is there are answers to this issue just outside the box. Go on. Open the box. Jump out. It's fun out here, and there's cake we can eat too.

“I don’t want to stick random characters that aren’t white/straight/”other” into the story. That’s forcing the issue and it doesn’t make good reading. Besides, it’s not relevant to the plot.”
Since being white isn’t always relevant to the plot, why does being anything other have to matter so much? People want to SEE diversity in the story; see themselves and more than one version of humanity. Can’t there just be a smattering of differences with which readers can identify? Representation matters, and someone’s ethnicity and sexuality don’t have to have any bearing on what’s happening in the plot. They don’t always have relevance in life, do they? Diversifying your story – or as readers, what you look for in a story – can be as small as what a secondary character is named. 
Yes, writers, all this takes effort. Yes, it’s deliberate and risks coming across as contrived. BUT the result has the potential to positively influence a young audience.  If you feel like it’s forced, find a way to fix it – you’re a writer, adapt! Being a writer means committing to continually develop your skills. Diversity should simply be another string to your bow. Readers, if you’re not happy, here’s the solution: Put the book down and find another. If you can’t, DEMAND one. Because if there’s no demand, things will continue in the same, white, heteronormative cis-biased vein and we’ll all be bored to tears. Don't know where to begin? Social media, bookstores, in your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are all good starting points. The power to effect change resides within us all, and in the digital age is well within our capabilities.

When it comes to tackling the subject of diversity in entertainment, I've barely scratched the surface. It's a topic I'm passionate about, and I'd like to leave the door open for further musings at a later date. However, I'll conclude the second installment of this part-rant-part-observation with a proposal and a call to arms. If you want a more compassionate society, then demand diversity and representation in all forms of entertainment. Especially for children and young adults. Don’t sit back and take mediocrity. You deserve better. We all do.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Review: Anna and the French Kiss

Can Anna find love in the City of Light?
Anna is happy in Atlanta. She has a loyal best friend and a crush on her coworker at the movie theater, who is just starting to return her affection. So she's less than thrilled when her father decides to send her to a boarding school in Paris for her senior year.
But despite not speaking a word of French, Anna meets some cool new people, including the handsome Étienne St. Clair, who quickly becomes her best friend. Unfortunately, he's taken —and Anna might be, too. Will a year of romantic near misses end with the French kiss she's waiting for?

I'm a sucker for romance and have a soft spot for the teen variety. Underneath its glacial layer, my heart is gooey as a syrup-soaked sponge. When it comes to fiction, my cynicism and skepticism are always at odds with my immaturity and longing for a happy ending. I admit to racing through Anna and the French Kiss.  I'll go ahead and say it: I liked it. It's a guilty pleasure. There's no denying it's an easy read which, when it comes to romance, I'm all for. I zipped through it and couldn't put it down. I think it's the fastest I've got through a YA since I was in high school. Nevertheless, there are aspects which don't sit right with me, and I can't move past them enough to find true, unadulterated enjoyment from having read this story.

The parts which make this story work are the sweet romance - it is properly cute - the believable dialogue, and the convincing portrayals of teen angst and behaviours. Even though it's been twenty years since I was seventeen, I do remember how awkward things could get between friends. Yes, there are times when the characters act poorly towards each other, but I don't see their conduct as unrealistic. Far from it. They're normal teens who make mistakes, hurt each other, and generally act within a bubble of self-centeredness. In that regard, Stephanie Perkins gets it spot-on. The dialogue is much more characteristic of teens than John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, (which, I know, isn't hard), and in general the prose is wonderfully authentic. Also, the dynamics of the characters' friendships are ultimately more satisfying than the usual All Boys Like The Main Girl and All Girls Like The Main Boy. However, it barely scrapes past this particular aspect as it's stated pretty much every girl in school fancies Étienne, while Anna has some sort of romantic affiliation with almost all the teenage males.

The secondary characters were slightly more interesting than the average YA supporting cast, but the "villains" were sadly standard fare. It's a shame the female antagonists are considered slutty while the protagonist is literally virginal. It's a tired trope that feeds into slut-shaming, sexism, and rape-culture. I expect better from YA romance these days, but then again I'm numb enough to the tropes to bypass them in search of The Big Love. Sadly, the relationship between Anna and Étienne isn't a healthy one, which makes these smaller quibbles stand out.

The characterisation of the lead love interest is where I begin to take issue. Étienne St. Clair is nice - I use Anna's description of Every. Single. Guy. - and there's plenty about him to like. I could never quite pin down what his hair was meant to be doing, but that isn't so important. He has personality, he's funny, intelligent, and we're assured he's beautiful, but not too perfect. Now, I love a flawed character, I do. But I believe there's a big difference between a flawed character and a romantic lead who's weak. I don't mean physically weak, and I'm not talking about the various fears he expresses throughout the narrative. Those are rather endearing. But Étienne St. Clair is weak-willed and has a weak mind, and it's seriously off-putting. Of course, paired with Anna's hypocrisy and inability to see what's right in front of her, they make a great pair. Then there's Anna. If I have to read one more book where Blondes = Boring or Bad, Brunettes = Beautiful-But-Don't-Know-It-and-Are-Therefore-More-Desirable-to-Boys I will break something pretty and grind it under my heel. The whole clumsy shy cutey-pie thing has been done to death. Despite this, Anna's relatively interesting, witty albeit universally oblivious, and refreshingly well-rounded for a YA female protagonist. However, based on their actions, or rather, Étienne's actions throughout this book, I don't see a happy future for them. And that's a major turn-off, which puts my whole Reader Experience on a bummer.
3/5 Stars