Friday, January 21, 2011

We Need You

(Aaaaaaaand we're back. Hey.)

This is a post I've had in my head to write for a long time. It comes from a few questions I've heard asked, to me and to others, ever since I've been involved in the YA community, and moreso after BREAK sold.

1) Why aren't you using a penname? (related: You'd sell better if you didn't have a girl's name on your cover. also related, but not a question, and even more infuriating: your name is too Jewish to be on a book cover!)

2) Why are there so many books about white people?

3) Why are there so many Mormon YA writers? (related, also not a question: Stephanie Meyer waaaah waaaaah)

And, the big question, the one that, in its way, sums up all of the above and so, so much more:

4) Why aren't there more characters like me?

It sounds like a selfish question, I guess.

But...why aren't there?

The truth is, this post was hard to write because it is also a post about halfie-guilt. I'm a half-Jewish and half non-practicing Christian. Since religion wasn't important on my Christian half, I was raised largely, if mildly, Jewish, celebrating those holidays along with a nonreligious Christmas (and sometimes some candy on Easter).

I know the Hanukkah and the Passover blessings and all of that, but I don't speak Hebrew and I didn't have a Bat Mitzvah. But when I tried to get involved in Jewish life in college, neither of these things was a problem for me. The thing that was?

That big clunky Jewish last name means that the half of me that is Jewish is not my mother's half. And that is, according to (all but Reform) Jewish law, the half that matters.

I have not reconciled this yet. It's still something that I think about a lot and struggle with. I've heard a lot of people say that whenever they see half-anything characters in books, that their issues with their halfiness are way overwrought.

I need more half-whatevers. So I wrote a book about them. I'm working (and by working, I mean, desperately trying to avoid working) on an MG right now that features a half-Italian, half-Japanese main character who has issues with both communities since he looks more Japanese but speaks Italian. And he's dragging around the clunky last name, too, his Japanese, that doesn't make the other side of his family too happy.

He's not spending the whole book freaking out about it or anything, but it's there and it's an issue and it's important.

Wil, my main character in Zombie Tag, is Jewish. You would only know by his last name and by the fact that he mentions his Bar Mitzvah and his synagogue, in passing. Lio in Gone, Gone, Gone, is Jewish, and I can't remember when it comes up, if ever. I can't even remember his last name. I think he might not have one.

The point is, I throw Jewish characters in without consideration, and without there being a reason for them. It's important to me that there be Jewish characters, the same way it's important to me that I have gay characters and black characters represented in my books as well.

But I'm not fully Jewish, and I'm not gay, and I'm not black, so why were these things easier for me to write about than a true halfie?

Why aren't we writing characters like us?

Regardless of reasons, there are a lot of YA Mormon writers. So...why aren't we seeing more Mormon MCs?

Why are all of our main characters so pretty?

Why are we still writing books that take place in predominately white, predominately straight worlds, without ever noticing that that isn't the way most of the world works anymore? A gentrified neighborhood should stick out. It should warrant at least a passing reference in the book. It shouldn't be the assumption.

Why are so many books with black characters and gay characters still ABOUT being black and being gay, when we have wonderful writers who fit one or both of those descriptions who are living lives that are not defined by either of those?

I'm not saying we don't need books about struggling with identity. I wrote one about a halfie who is, after all, because that was a book I needed.

I'm just wondering why there aren't more characters like you.

38 comments:

Jess said...

<3

Becca C. said...

I love this post :D

Amparo Ortiz said...

Double <3

;)

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Love this post. <3

Joanna Farrow said...

Agreed. Nice :)

ZoeAlea said...

Love love love.

Dominique said...

This is an absolutely fabulous post, and it's definitely something I spend time thinking about since I've started writing. I like the way you put it "characters like me." Books should bear some resemblance to life as we all know it.

hannah said...

Thanks guys!

ashelynn sanford said...

<333

Fantastic post. Definitely something to think about.

Deniz Bevan said...

Sometimes I think I've gone too far the other way! My character is a forced convert to Catholicism in 1492 Spain who then finds out that her Jewish family isn't her family at all - that her real parents were Catholic! I'm almost tempted to write "and hijinks ensue" but it's definitely more serious than that - to a point, since I'm writing romance not a thesis!

Abby Minard said...

I think a lot of people struggle like that with their identity. Who are we really? My WIP is a YA fantasy- made up world, magic etc and one of my characters is gay. Its not an issue. He just is, and that's it. When I was first creating my story and he came to me, it was obvious he was gay. That was who he was. I hope it gets received alright- it really shouldn't matter one way or another. But it always does to someone (especially a parent). But I hope some day there won't have to be a discussion about it because that is the way it is, period.

suzie townsend said...

<3 <3 <3

Especially: "Why are so many books with black characters and gay characters still ABOUT being black and being gay, when we have wonderful writers who fit one or both of those descriptions who are living lives that are not defined by either of those?"

Claudie A. said...

Aah, suzie, I was about to quote that part too! It's important to have these characters, and it's important not to make a big show out of it. Because in a way, if you go "But look, he's GAY!" or "Did you see that, I put in a black character!", you're *still* singling them out.

Loved this post, Hannah.

Robyn Bavati said...

Love this post and totally relate to it. Could almost have written it myself - apart from the half Jewish bit. I'm fully Jewish, was raised orthodox, and understand your dilemma and frutration when people talk about the 'wrong' half. If only everyone could accept everyone regardless! I think the reason so many books are 'about' difference is because unfortunately, there are still so many sectors of society that in fact do discriminate. Thank Goodness that's changing.

cathellisen said...

I really wanted to make a comment, but then I decided i can't because yeah.

but. I love this post.

Kelley said...

Love all of this. I'm gay, and thus far in my books, there ends up being a gay character (or couple). (Even if I'm a girl and thus far my gay characters have been male.) But I have no interest in writing an 'issue' book about someone coming out of the closet because for me, it... wasn't really an issue. Nor do I want those characters defined by their preferences.

ANYWAY. A+ post, and I agree. Would love to see more diversity in novels without it being ALL ABOUT the diversity.

hannah said...

Loving the feedback. Thanks everybody!

Karla Nellenbach said...

LOVE this post! and it's true. why are most books without gay and/or ethnic characters?

I just finished a project and the one thing that my beta readers all said agreed on in their critiques: "We love Dave and Brad and how open they are about their relationship" I loved these comments most, especially since this was not about them having an identity crisis :)

Magen Toole said...

Great post about a topic I deal with in my own writing and life. It's difficult to walk the fine line of diversity in fiction, and making natural, realistic characters that you don't feel you're pushing in there "just because." I try to go out of my way never to bring up a sexual orientation or ethnicity by name, just writing in the fact that say, Casey is gay or Noam is Indian into their identities, and letting them be as they are. All I can do is hope that it works.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Love this post, especially the part about how minority characters in books are so often ABOUT being a minority.

I do believe, as the person says above, that it's a challenge to write diversity into books. Most writers stay in their comfort zone (not too too far away from, and sometimes not too close to, their own experiences). I usually have gay characters in my books because I grew up with a lot of gay friends and feel like I can portray the diversity of that group in a realistic and respectful way.

phyllis sweetwater said...

Hanna, are you mormon? I am, but thus far I have not written a book that even mentions it. Neither did Stephanie Meyer. I feel like I am a minority and so statisticly speaking, if I am reflecting the general population. my main character wouldn't be. Does that mean mormons won't read my book? I don't think so. If I did write about a mormon I wouldn't spend the whole book dealing with accepting his/her identity. I am also white, which is a majority so, statisticly, it's ok if my main character is white. My white main character interacts with, even falls in love with minority races without making an issue of it.
I am a girl so if my main character is a girl I probably will be able to convey her feelings better. I did take your advice a while back and wrote a book with a male lead. I'm trying very hard not to use stereotypes or over exaggerations. I'll admit - men are a mystery so if I don't understand my male character maybe that means I'm doing a good job? - haha. It's fun to try it anyways. My point is - it's ok to write what you know, but it's also great to reach out. Since I'll take my own advice, next I'll try writing about a mormon. So, how many of you will read it?

Bee said...

Sing. It. Out. Loud.

Now there will be more characters like me. Yes.

hannah said...

phyllis--I'm not Mormon (I'm Jewish/half-Jewish, haha) but I would totally read it.

Iliadfan said...

It's been said and said, but I love this post. :)

More than one author's said that when they wrote minorities without the story being ABOUT the struggle of being a minority, they were told there was no market for their book. So it wasn’t that people weren’t writing them – it was that publishers wouldn’t buy them. But I think that's changing. I hope that's changing.

Marie Rearden said...

If you're not feeling the love yet, here's some more.

Books should represent life, and it takes all kinds. My fave character in my WIP is bisexual, but he's also a person who just wants to be happy, feel loved, and have fun.

That should be life. Happy, Love, Fun. Who cares about the rest?

Great post!

Josin L. McQuein said...

Gentrified neighborhoods only stick out where they're not the norm.

If one of those reality shows goes into a run-down neighborhood with mainly boarded windows and chain link fences, bulldozes a crumble down squat and replaces it with a two story mansion complete with a fountain outside, marble steps, and an in the ground pool whose foundation is wider than the original structure, then YES, someone will notice.

Put the same house in Stepford, CT where there are McMansions on either side, everyone's backyard is their own private, gated community, and their dogs cost more than most people's cars... not so much.

When you're dealing with an industry where the overriding assumption is that "all MC's are white and beautiful, as are all covers" because that's what sells, or that "only people of [insert group of choice] will read books about [same group]", or that all anyone looks at on a cover is the appearance of the model (even if they look nothing like the MC) you're into Stepford territory.

No one notices it because when they look left and right, everything else looks the same. They begin to think that's normal.

There's a weird belief that a person needs a "reason" to be [ethnic group] other than the reason real people are in that group, which is [parent A] + [parent B] = [baby with traits from both].

Nicola Marsh said...

Great post, Hannah.

Seriously thought-provoking for a mixed ethnic background like mine. I'm not a halfie, I'm more like a quarterly!

Heather Hellmann said...

I love this post!

Heather Hellmann said...

Sorry for posting twice, but I have something else to say. When I was student teaching at an elementary school last year, a book fair was held in the library for a week. The school was kindergarten thru 8th grade. Since the student body was 80% black, a table was set up for books with characters who were also black. Sadly, there weren't that many books on the table for students to choose from.

This affected me. I looked at my little first graders and I thought about how they deserved more than just that tiny table of books. Because of that experience, my protagonist has brown skin and some of my secondary characters do too.

Books about the fight against racial injustice are great, but when the only books a child sees with characters that look like them are about how that character is discriminated against because of the way they look, how does that make the child reading it feel?

Lola Sharp said...

Love this. All the way down to my baby toe. Love.

Bri Clark said...

Well as a Mormon I am an author... and as a convert I wonder if that makes me a halfie. If I'm half anything I'm half wicked cause I was pretty bad before I joined the church. I don't write characters that are Mormon cause it just hasn't come up yet. I'm sure it will But as a character writer. They just kind of define themselves.

Tanya Reimer said...

Enough talking about it, let's do it! You inspired us!

phyllis sweetwater said...

Hannah - I'll hold you to that! Tanya, I'm starting tonight!

Super Happy Jen said...

Something to think about. I wonder when white and straight and Christian became the default mode.

Girlinbetween said...

I'm a "halfie" and I would love to read more books about characters struggling with two cultures. Haha, I guess we all want characters more like ourselves because its easier to relate.

Phoebe said...

Very belated; I've been sitting on this post for a few days, thinking about it.

We're almost the same degree Jewish, only I have a goy last name and a Jewish mother (who was raised Orthodox! Crazy). Know the blessings: check; don't speak Hebrew and wasn't Bat Mitzvahed: check; Celebrated non-religious Xmas and Easter: check; have some issues related to being a halfie: why, yes, I was detained at the airport when I went on Birthright and questioned about my Jewishness because my last name is North!

I'm agnostic (try telling that to one's Jewish mother! But it's true), but very much culturally Jewish. Yiddishisms pop up all the time in my writing and thought. And so my main characters are often some-degree Jewish. There are often those little details peppered in. I'm also bi, and grew up with a supportive group of queer friends.

It's important for me, so very important, for my writing to reflect those issues of diversity--and those thorny questions of identity, as well. I've had people warn me that it might be unrealistic to put characters like the teens I actually knew (black, gay, bi, fat, zitty, ugly, awkward, Jewish, complicated, brilliant) in my books and expect them to sell. Maybe that's true. But I wouldn't want success predicated on writing something I didn't find emotionally true.

Anyway, I hope some day you can write about being a halfie. I think it's an interesting, difficult story to talk about--hell, Joyce tried, with Ulysses, and to a degree it resonated for me but didn't really resolve anything--but one that might be worth telling.

Also: <3

J. Koyanagi said...

Thank you so much for this post.

Adam said...

Don't think of yourself as a halfie - you are a whole person. You can say you practice Jew-Chi .... like a martial art ... Haaaiiiii - Ketchup!!!! LOL. But it is only a component of what made you and not what defines you.

I admit that at times I used to wish that I could be "Jewish" and resented that "they" would not accept me as such unless I went through a painful conversion... which I was not willing to do. (Men suffer doubley - the rituals and THE Ritual ...) After many years I realized that the church/synagouge is an institution for those that need it but that I have my own very personal relationship with God. The institutions are just a PIA, though I give them credit for getting us started on the concepts of (good?) ethics.

The nice thing is that now you are familiar with both religious cultures, and, when it is convenient and fun, get the fun part of holidays without having to do the ornery stuff. :)