REAGAN: You all approach the genre in different ways, but it
becomes a vehicle for, among other things, discussing a variety of
multicultural issues. So why fantasy?
TAHIR: As a kid, fantasy was my escape, so I have a deep love of
the genre—which makes it very fun to write. With fantasy, there
are so few limits. I can imagine the world I want to—I can play.
I can reexperience that sense of awe and wonder I had as a child,
when a ragged towel could be a superhero’s cape and a branch
could be a magician’s staff. Imagination is something that, sadly,
we seem to lose the deeper we get into adulthood. And writing
fantasy helps me keep that part of my mind alive and vibrant.
OLDER: In part, the answer is simply because I love fantasy.
It’s the genre I’m most at home in, and whatever I write will
touch on how complex and multicultural our world is, so it just
seems natural. To go deeper, though, fantasy offers unique ways
to think about race, power, and culture, because with fantasy
we have a chance to dream up new rules, new arrangements,
new forms of power, and also complicate and dramatize existing
ones. I think it’s important to allow literature to multitask. Our
characters can confront racist microaggressions or police brutality and fight off evil zombie dudes, and they should, because one
doesn’t cancel out the other, and there’s a truth in there that’s
important to acknowledge.
SMITH: For some kids, fantasy stories are those that feel most
real, most compelling. The metaphors those books convey speak
more clearly than realistic fiction. The fantastical veil gives these
kids the necessary distance, the perspective to relate and care.
This is true for teens who we’d consider underrepresented in
youth literature. It’s also true for those who see protagonists like
themselves all the time. All of them need to see that diverse characters, diverse people, can be heroes that everyone cheers.
REAGAN: It’s been widely acknowledged that publishing needs
more diversity, both in terms of characters and authors. At the same
Despite the inherent flexibility of the genre, fantasy remains an area of children’s literature that suffers from a lack of diversity. Below, we talk with three YA fantasy authors who combat this disparity—Daniel José Older,
(Shadowshaper, 2015); Cynthia Letitch Smith (Feral Pride, 2015); and Sabaa Tahir
(An Ember in the Ashes, 2015)—about the incorporation of diverse characters in a
fantasy narrative, the process of writing multicultural otherworlds, and the current
state of diversity in publishing.
time, many writers are concerned about writing about cultures and
experiences that aren’t theirs. What are your thoughts on this issue?
SMITH: I refuse to tell a teen that someone who, like them, is,
say, Chinese American or Jewish or gay or living with OCD could
not appear in my fictional worlds because I’m not a strong-enough
writer to pull it off. That’s a fear-driven cop-out. At the same
time, I’m not so overconfident that I’d plunge in before I’m ready.
I respect that certain stories and insights will arise only through
lived experience, and I’ll gladly step aside and signal boost those.
It’s not an either-or debate. There’s a consensus that fictional casts
can’t reflect our world (realistically or fantastically) without variation. Of my novels, only my debut’s protagonist—from Rain Is
Not My Indian Name (2001)—is Native American (and, as I am,
Mvskoke). I have no interest in constraining literary artists and no
interest in being constrained. I applaud creative courage and ambition but, at the same time, encourage responsibility. Weighing
skills and insights, am I uniquely qualified to write stories inspired
by my own experience? Yes. Am I capable of writing heroes different from me in fundamental ways? Yes. Am I capable of writing
every hero different from me in a fundamental way? Absolutely
not. At least not yet and, in some cases, never.
TAHIR: Certainly, I want to read books that represent lived
culture and heritage. It’s especially important to acknowledge diverse voices that are so wonderfully authentic but that struggle to
be heard because of decades of marginalization. That being said,
I also want writers—diverse or not—to authentically portray our
very diverse world. If an author strives to reflect a diverse world
but is not necessarily diverse themselves (in the many ways one
can be diverse), I respect that. But I think that it’s important
that if you do not understand the type of diversity you’re writing
about, you have the decency and respect to research, learn, and
listen. One of the saddest things I have ever heard is that authors
are too frightened to write diverse characters for fear of getting
it “wrong.” Because when authors say that, they are telling every
Telling Better Stories:
Writing Diverse YA Fantasy
BY MAGGIE REAGAN