A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
This past weekend I was at the American Library Association (ALA) conference in San Francisco. I’ve always wanted to go—I love libraries. I grew up in them, and I worked at one as an assistant for about 8 months, contemplated becoming a school librarian, and was essentially a corporate librarian for 3.5 years. The fact that it was over Pride weekend was extra awesome, as it meant I could also experience one of the biggest LGBTQIA celebrations ever right after the SCOTUS win for marriage equality (Jim Obergefell’s happy, tear-streaked face was my best memory. Such joy, gratitude, lingering grief, and pride).
A very welcome overarching trend that weekend was diversity. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks group was there in force, and I saw a great panel—probably one of the best I’ve ever seen—yesterday with Marie Lu interviewing eight diverse debuts (Anna-Marie McLemore, Dhonielle Clayton, Holly Bodger, Ilene Wong, Kelly Gilbert, Renee Ahdieh, Sabaa Tahir & Stacey Lee). I’ve been seeing that same push in more sci fi and fantasy conventions too. So the conversation is happening, even if we still have a long way to go.
My first few books, the Micah Grey series (Pantomime, Shadowplay, and to-be-released Masquerade) feature Micah Grey, a bisexual, genderqueer, intersex protagonist. I wrote and released this series just before the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit formed and took off in the most amazing way. The push was there, but there’s so much more awareness now, and it’s great to see. Other writers have written about intersex characters (like I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above), so I don’t get as many blank looks when I say the word, though still many more than I’d like. When the series is re-released by Tor UK next year, it’ll be interesting to see if it’s received differently now that people are more aware that so many desperately need and want diversity in YA and adult books.
In the panel I went to at ALA, one of the authors (I had a seat where I couldn’t see people easily, so I’m not sure who said this, and it might have been more than one participant) mentioned the notion of doors and windows. Reading is Fundamental (RIF) states:
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
Many teens are looking for characters like them in books—mirrors. A lot of the time, especially with LGBTQIA teens, they can’t find them. Either they aren’t published, or don’t receive wider publishing support to appear in as many libraries or bookstores, or the fact they contain LGBTQIA characters is not made easily available on the cover copy or bibliographic data. I didn’t read many books about bisexual characters as a teen. If I had found them, I might have realised I was bisexual much earlier and easier. Instead, it took me writing 4, nearly 5 books with bisexual protagonists before I realised why I was so drawn to writing bisexual characters; I was looking for a reflection.
Those who don’t need mirrors because they are represented in media all the time (straight, cis, white people, for instance) can benefit from windows—reading is a perfect way to step into someone else’s shoes and to gain empathy for people who are different from the reader. From the books I read, I learn what it means to be disabled, or a person of colour, someone of another religion, or somewhere else on the LGBTQIA spectrum. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, bringing to life a different world realistically is a mark that I’ve done my job. Plenty can step into an alien planet populated by blue cat people (hi, Avatar). It’s important to keep in mind that even if we’re writing in fantasy or sci fi settings, we need windows into the people who populate our existing world.
There are many ways to write LGBTQIA characters in fiction. If you are LGBTQIA, draw on your own experiences, but also recognise that there is diversity within diversity. I haven’t experienced a lot of biphobia myself, but many other bisexual people have. That’s important to keep in mind for your story. If you’re writing about a trans person and you’re cis, for instance—do a heck of a lot of research. Read books (windows!), read interviews, watch documentaries, reach out to people. I’ve interviewed a few trans men for my next WIP by putting out a call on Tumblr. People are often more than happy to share their experiences for a writer if you ask nicely. Be mindful of stereotypes and try to avoid or subvert them, or if you do use one, at least do so mindfully rather than out of ignorance or laziness.
I didn’t get everything right in my books. I made some mistakes, fell into a couple of stereotypes unwittingly, and I feel sorrow I didn’t manage to nail everything as well as I’d hoped. I learned a lot. Conversely, I received some really wonderful messages from readers about my books, some saying they had never been able to read like anyone like them in books before, or that they helped them come out or come to terms with their gender identity. That is, hands down, the best part of writing and a big reason why I do this. Those messages will never fail to make my day and help me feel I’m making a difference. It’s a challenge to make sure you’re representing diverse characters in a respectful way, it’s always so very worth it if helps even one reader see themselves in a piece of literature for the first time, or in a way that speaks to them.
Recognise you might not get everything perfectly but try your very darn best, because LGBTIA teens (and all diverse teens) damn well deserve it.
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Laura Lam was raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. Both of them encouraged her to finger-paint to her heart’s desire, colour outside of the lines, and consider the library a second home. This led to an overabundance of daydreams.
She relocated to Scotland to be with her husband, whom she met on the internet when he insulted her taste in books. She almost blocked him but is glad she didn’t. At times she misses the sunshine.
Her YA fantasy, Pantomime, debuted in February 2013 through Strange Chemistry Books, with the sequel, Shadowplay, following in January 2014. Pantomime, Shadowplay, and Masquerade will be re-released/released by Tor UK in 2016-2017, along with False Hearts, a near future thriller (which is not quite YA). She can be found on www.lauralam.co.uk or on Twitter as @LR_Lam.