Racial Diversity in YA fiction, Angel’s Fury and The Weight of Souls by Bryony Pearce
Are there enough racially diverse protagonists in YA fiction? There has been some recent debate about the fact that books with dark skinned heroines have white girls on the cover (which already seems to be bringing about a sea-change in publisher’s cover art) and there are very real concerns about the fact that minorities do not see themselves represented in the literature that is presented to them.
Of course you can reel off a list of YA characters that are not white. Chadda’s Ash Mistry, Blackman’s Sephy, Lu’s Day, Marriott’s Suzume, Alice Walker’s Celie, Kipling’s Kim and Mowgli and so on. But these characters are, lets be honest, the exceptions. Try it. Compile a list of the main characters from the last ten books you read. I bet the vast majority are white. They might be werewolves or vampires, ghosts or demons, but they’ll still be white (I’d love to be proved wrong here – please let me know in the comments section).
Why this preponderance of white protagonists? Well, at the end of the day most of us write the characters that pop into our heads. They are the characters that speak to us. And what speaks to us is what we know, what we see in the mirror.
So, as I see it, the problem isn’t the lack of racially diverse protagonists, it’s a lack of racially diverse writers.
Hands up, I am white and solidly middle class. I live in a village where the lack of racial diversity, if I’m honest, is a concern. I moved to Cheshire from London because it was a better environment for my children to grow, but in their small world people are primarily white. There is one person of colour in my son’s class, none in my daughter’s. They don’t have a clear understanding of other colours, religions or ways of life and that is a shame.
How else will my children learn familiarity with people of other skin colours and learn about other cultures, if not from books?
I personally know (and by that I mean ‘am friendly with’, not ‘have heard of’) only two writers who are not white, none who are not what I would consider to be middle class.
Why are there not more non-white writers in the YA literature community? I do not know. I will not speculate.
But I am certain that this is the primary reason for the lack of non-white protagonists.
When I wrote The Weight of Souls I did not intend for it to add weight to the issue of racial diversity in teen literature. I did not set out to write an Asian protagonist in order to redress a balance. I simply wrote the character who appeared in my head and spoke to me. However, given what I have said above about unconsciously writing what you see in the mirror, I had better explain why I think she isn’t as ‘White British’ (official designation) as myself.
The main character in Angel’s Fury (my first book) was a white teenager who in her past life was a Nazi (apologies for the spoiler). I first saw her waking from a nightmare, patting herself down to check that she was alright. I knew what she looked like, her name, the problems she had to deal with. Then I populated the book with her friends.
It was only after the novel had been published that I looked at it and realised that all of her friends were white.
Not really Cassie and her friends
Part of that was deliberate. In Cassie’s past life she was a Nazi and when she starts to regress under the Doctor’s ministrations, the Nazi begins to come through (the story is a fight for Cassie’s soul). I was legitimately worried that if I included a black character Cassie ‘the Nazi’ would have to be cruel to him or her in order to be true to her arc, and I would therefore lose all reader sympathy. Confusingly, I had to have an all white cast in order to avoid accusations of racism.
But I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t feel that my book was true to the Britain I know. I decided my next book would be set in London and would therefore be much more multi-cultural. I did not, however, have particular plans to make the main character Asian, or otherwise non-white.
One day Taylor Oh appeared in my head much like Cassie did. In my mind this attractive teenaged girl is wearing a school sports kit, holding a hockey stick over her shoulder, looking pretty damned belligerent. She is watching a man approach her across the field. Only she can see him.
Oh, and she is half Chinese.
As I said, I write the characters that appear and speak to me. I had no preconceived intention of writing a Chinese protagonist. She genuinely did just turn up that way. But I did intend to write a more multi-cultural book so I am sure my subconscious got involved.
I do not spend time in The Weight of Souls covering Taylor’s Chinese background, just as I wouldn’t spend time covering the background of a protagonist of Irish derivation. Taylor, as she appeared to me, doesn’t particularly identify herself as Chinese: she is a Londoner, as are her parents.
Taylor’s best friends are a black boy and a white Scottish girl with multi-coloured hair. Her mother died when she was young, her father is white. He has no interest in fostering her Chinese heritage, not because he is a bad man, but because he is much more concerned with the Egyptian curse that has destroyed his family.
Taylor’s ethnicity does not play a huge part in the story (just as it would not if she were white). She just is. Her appearance is the source of some bullying (she is the only Asian in her year group at school), but she is not bullied because of her ethnicity, her appearance simply gives ammunition to bullies seeking something, anything, on which to hang their vitriol. A very insightful review was written about this exact thing by Leo Cristea on Jet Black Ink:
“The Weight of Souls is a book that explores bullying subtly and therefore gets to the heart of the issue succinctly. Taylor’s race is refreshing in YA fantasy—especially urban fantasy (never mind the fact that there is a Chinese model on the cover and the protagonist is half-Chinese, instead of the wrong ethnicity or a total lack of model whatsoever, electing instead for graphics). I’ve read so few books with protagonists of a different ethnicity and it’s a pity! In relation to Taylor’s race, I feel that Pearce demonstrates that with bullying, it’s not always about race or weight or anything else that could mark a person as “different”, but rather the fact that these things become ammunition for the bullying. Sometimes people are bullied simply because the bully chose them. Taylor is bullied because she is Taylor.”
I was so proud that Strange Chemistry did not shirk from putting Taylor herself on my front cover. The artwork shows her as she is: an Asian heroine with a white father, haunted by an Egyptian curse, living in London.
That’s about a multi-cultural as you can get.
I love Taylor; she is gloriously feisty and has a backbone of steel, she is naïve about boys – never having spotted Justin’s interest in her, she is loyal to a fault, she loves her friends, she loves and supports her father, she misses her mum, she resents her power, hates the ghosts who haunt her, detests the bullies who make her life a misery, wishes she had the time to do better at school, loves London, lives wholly in the moment. She is a fully rounded, beautiful girl.
And she is half-Chinese.
Through literature we have a chance to help our children become familiar with a rainbow of faces, so that when they grow up, they do not view other cultures with a sense of suspicion, but with familiarity and trust.
Bryony Pearce lives in a village on the edge of the Peak District and is a full time mum to her two small children, husband and cat. She is vegetarian and loves chocolate, wine and writing. People are often surprised at how dark her writing is and since the publication, by Egmont, of the award-winning Angel’s Fury, have started looking at her as though worried she might start serial killing in her spare time.
She enjoys doing school visits, festivals and events, when the children let her out of the house. Her new book The Weight of Souls is published by Strange Chemistry on 1st August 2013.
For more information on Bryony, please visit her website www.bryonypearce.co.uk follow her on Twitter @BryonyPearce or like her FaceBook author page BryonyPearceAuthor.