GLA 2019 Keynote
Hey everyone – I hope that your experience at the GLA so far has been as rewarding as mine has been. There’s been a lot of great conversation around making change and building communities, so today I’m going to share some of what my journey of activism has been, specifically related to my work in pushing for better representation in kid lit.
I want to start by sharing a picture of what my class looked like when I was a kid.
Guess which one I am.
(It’s a picture of my two white Kindergarten teachers, their eighteen white students, and uh… me. I’m the brown one.)
I know. I was adorable.
Despite the looks of this isolating image, I was actually kind of lucky. I grew up in a very small town in West Virginia. My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s. My dad came over to practice medicine. As is the story of so many Asian immigrants, a few years after they came to the states, they found a small town that was in need of a medical practice (this is a whole Thing). They moved to that very tiny town in the South.
When they moved there, the population was just a little over five thousand people. I promise that you 99% of those people were White Southern Americans. My parents (and now my older brother, just a year old) had embarked into the Great White Unknown.
By the time I was old enough to remember, however…. We had a thriving Indian community. My mom’s cousins had immigrated over, my dad’s med school buddies. I grew up having a gang of Indian-American friends and family.
Not to say there were a lot of us (remember my class?), but enough that I didn’t want for kids who looked like me, who understood my cultural references. Who understood the language we spoke at home. Looking back, it seems like a small thing, but it instilled an important understanding in me, even if I didn’t have the language to express it back then: We can excel when we’re surrounded by people who don’t need explanations for why we exist.
I’ve taken that with me my whole life. And it’s not just specific to being South Asian American, it can be any part of my identity: a first generation born American, a nerd, a fan, someone with brown skin, someone who reads an absurd amount of fanfic at one in the morning… whatever it is.
What does this have to do with community organizing, or fan activism?
My activism begins with human connection. It begins by recognizing how I can relate to someone, and how that can spark a conversation. A commonality. Sometimes that commonality comes from pain. Sometimes from joy.
Whatever it is, you find it. We’re all Potter nerds, yeah? We’ve all come here, to the Granger Leadership Academy, spurred by our common love of the fannish thing. And a desire to do good.
But I bet a lot of us have pain, too. Pain of not being seen by our favorite series. Of making up our own entry points for validation, because we weren’t given any by the canon. (I mean, we had fanon!South Asian Harry and a magical Black girl in Hermione long before The Cursed Child came along.)
I spent ten years working in the children’s publishing industry. I got my first official job at Scholastic in 2008 (I think you all can understand how absolutely thrilling that was for a Potterhead, to be at 557 Broadway just a year after Deathly Hallows came out). I worked as an editorial assistant on the book orders for picture books. You remember those flyers, you get them in school, circle approximately 85% of the books you wanted to buy, take them home to your parent who inevitably said, “No. There can only be one.” Like your Scholastic Book Club order was highlander or something. And it was the worst. Okay maybe this is bringing up some painful memories.
But, I digress.
I worked on these fliers. And I looked at books coming in from every publisher. We wanted to get the best of the best out there! We had to read everything. And what I was starting to see was that … a lot of the ‘best to of the best’ seemed to be about a singular experience. I still didn’t have the language to understand the sinking feeling in my stomach when I read a book about American kids that only featured one kind of kid. I’ll let you guess what that particular kid looked like. (Spoiler alert: not this.)
Early on in my publishing career, writing to a friend (of color), I said, “I feel bad sometimes. I think it’s a problem, white vs. non-white representation. But then I feel like our white friends might be offended. I don’t want to be the angry brown girl.”
At the time of writing that, I could count the number of people of color in the kid lit industry that I personally knew on one hand.
2008 was also the year I joined Twitter. I didn’t really understand it, (in case you think I’m kidding, I submit as evidence my very first tweet). That said, as I got more and more in tune with its reason for being, I started seeing the potential. I found other publishing people, other book nerds. Authors and readers, agents. It was a place to have conversations about our industry, and about how we talked about books, how we sold books. It was also a place where people of color were able to speak up about things we noticed, trends we wanted to discuss, without worrying about being the only one in the room. I built a solid list of people across the country and across the industry whose work and words I appreciated. Most often, it was women of color. Twitter gave visibility into something I had only guessed, that I had imagined to be true. That we were there, but we didn’t always have a voice in our companies.
Now, I tend to take solace in knowing that I’m not the only one going through something at any given time. That if I stub my toe, there are probably 100 people who stubbed their toe at the exact same time and we’re all in it together with this horrible, annoying pain.
There’s a universality in anguish, and I find strength in that universality.
In April 2014, I caught sight of a hashtag on my timeline. It said, #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Author Ellen Oh was the first one I saw (and in truth, ended up being the co-founder of the organization the hashtag eventually became). But then the tweets started coming faster and faster, people sharing the reasons why they felt they and their children needed and deserved diverse literature in their lives. I wanted to add something. I knew what it felt like to want for diverse books. I knew that books were an avenue through which kids could see and be seen. Through which empathy could be built.
I want to share a quote from middle-grade author Alex Gino. Alex wrote a book called George that’s about a young trans girl named Melissa, and it was revolutionary in that it was one of the first widely-published books about a trans character, written by a trans author, created for 8-year-old readers.
“I have this image that runs through my mind,” they said. “It takes place 10, 20, 30 years from now. A cisgender, heterosexual, heteronormative, dudey-dude-bro, football playing, fraternity faithful guy is walking down the street. I mean, Dude-Bro. Total stereotype. Drunk as drunk on PBR at 4 in the morning. And in the other direction, walking towards him, is someone he identifies as trans. And somewhere in his notions and connections of transness, is Melissa’s story. And he thinks of Melissa as a person, and he sees the person across the street, and that real, live, possibly-trans person makes it through the night. And nothing happens. Nothing happens.
We book people say it because it’s true: BOOKS SAVE LIVES.”
And Alex was right, it’s true, books do save lives. And even though I hadn’t yet heard Alex’s speech back in 2014, I knew that books had the potential to do so much good. So, I wanted to do the work, I wanted to speak up about why WeNeedDiverseBooks, why I needed diverse books. It was personal.
There was a fear in participating in this very public and naked wanting. You wonder, if the wrong person is offended, will this affect my life? My career? There’s always that fear, especially in industries and institutions and societies that are old and stuck in their ways. And it’s something that you may have to contend with one day, in the early moments of a movement. Before it becomes widely and socially acceptable to say “Yeah, this is the right move.” It often takes looking at your own privilege. Activism cannot be a zero-sum game, because that’s not how we’re built. We find balance, you participate when and where you can, without losing yourself. But that’s not to say that your activism should be comfortable. Activism is, at its core, meant to disrupt the status quo.
Back to We Need Diverse Books, I made the jump and spoke up, and was very lucky to have a supportive boss, and supportive coworkers who saw the good in wanting to diversify literature. I was privileged in that I had a few years under my belt in the industry and had made contacts at different houses. Could I expect someone who was in an entry level position to make that same decision? Would it be better for them to speak up early in their career, potentially losing a job where they could effect change before they’d even had a chance to build anything?
My point is not whether they should or shouldn’t, but that these are things we consider as activists and while we’re building communities.
Privilege is a big word for us to think about. I’ve said it a few times already. It’s been discussed at sessions over the past two days. I stand here as a woman of color – but, I’m South Asian American. There are assumptions about my character that can work to my advantage: that I’m educated, affluent, intelligent.
(How even “positive” assumptions can do harm to their communities is an entire other keynote in and of itself.)
There are, of course, less glowing assumptions: that I’m a terrorist, that I don’t speak English, that I’m not creative.
I recognize these things. I use the assumptions to benefit my causes and if I can, colleagues in less fortunate positions. My white colleagues have even more privilege, and my white male cis straight non-disabled and neurotypical colleagues have the most. They have the benefit of years of indoctrination that their opinions hold weight, that they have experience and intelligence. That they don’t have hidden motives because their perspective is the baseline. All of us have these internal biases to work through (biases that truly might never go away, but we can actively recognize they exist and choose not to let them influence us).
There’s a certain amount of assimilation required to exist and survive in our society. It’s painful, yes. We have a heightened sense of both wanting to retain our culture, but recognizing that we must be able to exist outside of it. We constantly have combat a deeply ingrained idea of what is quote-“normal”.
If you’re white, you’ve probably never wanted for characters who look like you. If you’re straight, you’ve certainly seen relationships that reflect what you might hope for one day. If you’re cis-gendered, you’ve encountered hundreds of people who have never had to question their own body. If you’re Christian, your religion is the most widely recognized and understood and defaulted to in this country. If you’re all these things, neurotypical, and non-disabled, you’re Normal by our society’s standards. Everyone else is a hyphenate, everyone else needs a descriptor for why they are the way they are.
I’m talking a lot about identity. But identity is what makes us who we are, it’s all the pieces of how we define ourselves. And it’s through those pieces we find strength and understanding and empathy. Identity matters because you must think about those pieces in relation to the causes you want to support, or the activism you want to engage in.
When We Need Diverse Books was picking up off the ground, and was starting to push conversations within the publishing industry, it made a lot of people really uncomfortable. All of a sudden, people who had never really considered how their words would impact marginalized communities had to confront this idea that their preconceptions about the industry were as much a result of their own biases as they were from “facts.”
Let me take you through a quick and dirty version of the process of what it’s like to publish a book. You’re an author, you write a book. You send that book to a bunch of literary agents and hope that one will represent you. An agent picks your book. You sign with them. They start trying to get editors interested. An editor picks your book, loves it. They want to buy it.
That editor now has to go to an Acquisitions meeting, where they will make the case that their publishing house should spend money on your book. They’ll make an impassioned plea to the head of Editorial, Finance, and Sales (and probably several others). There will be a discussion, and yay! The editor gets the go ahead to make you an offer.
Then, the book goes through edits, it starts being designed. There’s a discussion about the cover in which, again, everyone weighs in from sales representatives to marketing to publicity. The cover gets shown to major book buyers from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores. (If major accounts have a problem with it, it can often go back to the drawing board.)
The book might have galleys, early versions, that go out to tastemakers and reviewers to build buzz—as much as we’d like a magic formula, the best marketing a book can get is still word of mouth. Reviews come in, maybe some money gets spent on ads. And then your book comes out! Yay!
Sounds so easy, organized, and democratic, right?
(I think maybe you can tell from my tone that all is not as it seems.)
In 2015, independent publisher Lee & Low started doing a survey of the publishing industry trying to figure out what the people who published books were like. It was called the Diversity Baseline Survey. What they found was almost 80% of the industry identified as white, cis-women, almost 90% straight, and over 90% non-disabled. (Of course, when you get to the executive level, those numbers grow even higher, except for cis-women because a significant number of executives are cis-male… surprising none of us.) Even book reviewers, not a part of the industry in terms of the business side, were overwhelmingly cis-straight-and-white.
But, why does this matter?
How well does democracy work when there’s only one kind of person in the governing body?
How does it work out for all those people who aren’t reflected in the makeup of that body?
There aren’t other voices being represented at the table when deciding what books are being published, promoted, and how those books are being sold.
So, the following happened:
“Those communities don’t buy books.” Sales reps might say, when asked why we can’t put a Black girl on a book cover. “People won’t pick the book up.” Implying white people won’t pick up the book, and they’re the only people who matter, because they’re the only people who read and buy books. Implying that white people won’t read a book about a Black girl.
“We can’t acquire that book, we already have a book about an Asian person on the list of books being published this year.” Because the idea is that even though there are 17 books about white kids, those books are for everyone. A book with an Asian protagonist would only be for Asian readers.
“Maybe there just aren’t enough good writers from that community.” This ignores the fact that publishing sales forces are very homogenous and may not know how to engage with the text, or how to discuss a text, or how to make it sound saleable.
“Sorry, I just didn’t connect with the character.” An agent might say, not willing to dissect why they can’t connect with a character who happens to be brown.
WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) was about book content and authors, yes, but it inspired conversation at a time when there was little conversation happening. That survey about the publishing industry told us that more often than not, a room would have maybe a single person of color, or maybe none at all. And, having been the only person of color in a room more times than I can count, I can tell you that when you’re in that position, it can be a terrifying prospect to speak up. Especially when you feel that burden of representation, you have to succeed because you’re the only one.
When researching this keynote, I went back and read one of my favorite essays on the subject, written by novelist and all around bad-ass Daniel José Older for Buzzfeed in 2014 (the same year WNDB launched), Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing. In it, he frankly discusses the influence Whiteness has over publishing. He remembers a moment when a panel of agents was asked why they received so few submissions from people of color, and one agent said, “This seems like a question for the author to answer.”
Daniel, in response, writes “This is the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of a mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being at the bottom.
If it's not the intangible Market that's to blame, it's the writers of color, who maybe don't have what it takes and don't submit enough anyway. Read the subtextual coding here – the agent first places the onus of change on the folks with the least institutional power to effect it, then suggests we probably won't be able to find the time (i.e., lazy) to master the craft.
Of course,” he continues “we have climbed many mountains, and mastery of craft is not a luxury for writers of color, it is a necessity. But many of our gifts and challenges won't be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.
The disproportionally white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers.” He said.
So, you see, is it truly a democratic space?
It’s always worth examining the status quo, what we consider true and necessary, and questioning it. Marginalized people are just beginning to be heard (and even then, barely), but we’re just beginning to be heard after so many of our societal and cultural institutions have existed for years, centuries without giving a single thought about us.
Let’s fast forward to June 2015. I’d recently returned to Scholastic following a stint at another house. I was working for those Book Clubs I mentioned earlier, choosing what books we sold into classrooms. One of the very first things I did was put my girl Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, on the cover of a September flyer so that little brown girls wouldn’t have to until they were adults to see someone who looked like them on a book cover. It felt really good.
Slowly (but quickly by industry standards), WNDB, was shaping a language, a lexicon, that people could use internally to push change. They were hosting panels at industry conferences. They were pushing editors to adopt new eyes. Pushing agents to reconsider where they were finding their new clients. Pushing publishers to consider the faces at the table, and who was missing.
That didn’t mean it was easy. During a conversation once, with a white colleague, I mentioned that idea that we needed sales reps who knew how to sell books by black and brown people. His response? “Don’t you think you’re pulling the race card?” Look, if anyone could have pulled the race card in that discussion, it was me.
There’s an armor you learn to develop, to stop these thousands of tiny comments from cutting you. And I knew that supporting books by and about marginalized people was important. And I wanted to do what I could to help.
So, June 2015. I reached out to a friend, Jen Baker, who I knew was volunteering for WNDB, which had now become an author-based organization, active about effecting change. I reached out and I asked if they’d be willing to have a conversation about being partners on a project for Scholastic.
So we are in the veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery early stages of discussing how to promote diverse titles through Scholastic Reading Club, and I was wondering if that's something WNDB would be interested in / able to partner with us on?
I'm heading to a brainstorm tomorrow, and I was thinking (again having not discussed this with anyone) how it would be to do, I don't know, a WNDB Titled book club catalog where we highlight diverse titles.
Do you think that's something that would be possible?
Of course, this is all in my head, and I'd be presenting it to my boss and her boss, but before that I wanted to test the waters :)
Let me know!
(If you’re reading the slide, please ignore my typo. Yikes.)
Jen wrote back that there was a definite interest in pursuing something. So, I went to my boss at the time, who I was very, very lucky to have. Ann Marie Wong. She was a fellow woman of color, she was someone that I didn’t have to push into understanding why diversity conversations were important. (Remember? Excelling when we have people who implicitly understand the why of us). I went to her with this idea, and she, bless her, fast tracked it so that within a week we were discussing the ACTUALITIES of a partnership to get a catalog highlighting books by and about marginalized people into classrooms. Our first catalog came out in October 2015. It only took us four months to actually get it published. Four months! That’s like, a day in publishing time.
But, I don’t want this to ever sound easy. We were still two women of color in an industry where we were very few. And we were working with two women of color who headed up our partnership with the WNDB organization, Ellen Oh and Dhonielle Clayton. We had to navigate uncomfortable conversations with white colleagues who were in higher positions, and it truly was a push and pull. Choosing our battles every day, because we couldn’t win them all.
We had a lot of frustrating conversations, and there were tears and anger, because things we knew to be true thanks to experience, were not recognized by people who had never had those experiences. But we stayed the course, because for us personally, we could get more done, we could make more change from within the system than from the outside, even with all the barriers that existed for us. Of course, we made mistakes, and we had to learn to be better with every book we sold and every catalog we created. But that’s part of the job, knowing that you can always be better, and that you can always be learning.
What’s interesting about being a book buyer, as I was at Scholastic, is that publishers want to give you what you want to sell. In my position, I was the ever-elusive Market. (It took seven years to get there, but I was there.)
I had a position of relative power (my decisions still had to be approved, lest it sound like I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted). I wanted to know how I could use that power to benefit voices who were not being heard. (That’s the first question to ask when you’re in a position to make change, how can you use that power to benefit people who don’t have any.)
How could I effect change? By facilitating this partnership, and creating a space that specifically was about diverse titles, I was able to go to the people creating and distributing content and say “Hey. I want more of this. I want to sell this. Give me more.” It was actionable and it was loud. It made them look for new content.
Like I said, a little bit of power. Remember earlier, how I mentioned my privilege? A specific example I can share is that I wanted to use my straight-privilege and my position to advocate for more books by and about the LGBTQ+ community. Like Alex said in their Stonewall speech, Books Save Lives, and I knew that my friends (especially friends of color) in that community were among the most at risk and the most marginalized. I listened to them, I read their words, and learned that something they needed was for their voices and stories to be elevated. It’s important to remember that when you want to be an ally, when you’re supporting a cause that doesn’t focus on you – remember to listen to the community, to educate yourselves, and to speak up, but never over.
So, we pushed to get books like George by Alex or Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee or Star-crossed by Barbara Dee directly into the hands of kids, and we were able to show that these books could sell. Which in turn showed publishers that there was an audience hungry for these books.
And now Scholastic’s We Need Diverse Books fliers have been going on for four years, because people do want to see themselves and others.
I also want to stress that the work we were doing was in tandem with work being done across the industry by people of color. Every piece of it was important, whether it was We Need Diverse Books, or Alvina Ling’s diversity committee at Little Brown, or the People of Color in Publishing organization started by Patrice Caldwell, or so many other things activists were and are doing. Everything added up to making our industry more equitable for the people in it and our readers. You can see it evidenced in the NYT YA Bestsellers list. Just five or six years ago, that list would have been 8 to 10 white people, with authors of color being lucky if they could get on it. Now? We dominate, but that was thanks to people pushing forward the idea that publishing needed to examine its own biases. To people who were creating a new idea of what was “normal” – people who were disrupting the baseline. To people who found a common goal, and used their own spaces to contribute to it. To people who didn’t need a why for marginalized authors to exist.
We can excel when we’re surrounded by people who don’t need explanations for why we exist.
Publishing still isn’t close to fixed, and now I contribute by being vocal, by supporting new members of the industry, by elevating other marginalized voices, by being an author myself. By coming to talk to groups of new activists, like you.
We’ve gained movement thanks to having a voice (though you will still find naysayers, calling us mobs or censors).
It’s funny how change is so scary for people in power, huh?
We’ve moved forward in the last five years, and so much of that is because we recognized our shared anguish and are working, every day, to alleviate that pain. It’s because we found connection in our identities and our wants.
We’ve moved forward, and we will move forward and forward and forward.