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‘We Need Diverse Books Because’: An Indigenous perspective on diversity in young adult and children’s literature in Australia

Read Monday, 4 May 2015

In a special extended feature, Indigenous author and illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina unpacks key ideas from the US-based We Need Diverse Books campaign for diversity in literature, and lays out an argument for how and why Australian publishers, readers and writers should address the issue – and make our literature a better and fairer reflection of our society, especially for young Australians.

Image: Illustration
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There is a social media campaign in the United States called We Need Diverse Books, part of which involves completing the sentence, ‘We need diverse books because…’. Here is my ending to that sentence: We need diverse books because a lack of diversity is a failure of our humanity. Literature without diversity presents a false image of what it is to be human. It masks – and therefore contributes to – the continuation of existing inequities, and it widens the gulfs of understanding that are already swallowing our compassion for each other.

British author Malorie Blackman once described reading as ‘an exercise in empathy’. But when literature presents an inaccurate view of the human experience, it can also be an exercise in the opposite. And there has never been a time in which understanding is more needed – as violence proliferates across the face of our planet and disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, which is to say, the young.

Image: Malorie Blackman
British author Malorie Blackman

The focus of this discussion is racial and cultural diversity, especially as it relates to Indigenous peoples – although diversity is of course much broader than this. The We Need Diverse Books campaign defines diversity as ‘all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities’. As an Indigenous writer, the meaningful representation of diversity in all its forms is something I support, and it is an issue to which I believe all Australians involved with children’s or young adult (YA) literature should be paying closer attention. In this regard, it would be useful to see data of the kind that has been gathered elsewhere being put together in Australia.

In relation to greater publication of Indigenous works, there is not only a lack of opportunities for authors, but a critical lack of Indigenous editorial expertise.

One of the results of the campaign in the US has been to highlight, and encourage the production of, research on diversity. To give a few examples: publisher Lee & Low Books recently produced an infographic on children’s books based on data gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. That graphic showed that although people of colour constituted 37% of the US population, the total number of children’s books published in any given year with multicultural content had been hovering at around 10% since 1994. An informal survey by author Roxane Gay of books reviewed by the New York Times in 2011 found that of 742 books reviewed, 655 (or almost 90%) were written by Caucasian authors. Writer Malinda Lo, one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, analysed the Young Adult Library Services Association’s 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults list and found that around 10% were written by authors of colour, and around 15% contained main characters of colour.

Diversity, disadvantage and Indigenous Peoples

It should be noted that ‘people of colour’ is a phrase commonly used in the US but not so much in Australia – and in either country, this term is problematic when applied to Indigenous peoples. (For Indigenous comment on this in a US literary context, Debbie Reese’s discussion at the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog.)

Indigenous peoples are in a unique position. We are defined by a prior occupation of, and connection to, land that is shared by no one else, and it is a connection which has legal consequences, including in the form of native title (or Aboriginal or Indian title, as it is known elsewhere). We are not therefore another minority; we are those who were here before and in that respect are different to all those who came after.

Silence does not always exist to be filled; sometimes it should be interrogated.

Indigenous peoples are also likely to be the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people within any given nation-state. The disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous living conditions across four ‘settler’ states – the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – was highlighted in 2001 when the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (measuring health, education and standard of living) was applied to those four nations. At that time, Australia ranked 3rd in the world – but the Indigenous peoples of Australia ranked 103rd. Similarly, the US ranked 7th while US American Indian and Alaskan Natives 30th; Canada ranked 8th with Canadian Aboriginal peoples 32nd; New Zealand ranked 20th and Maori people 73rd (see the United Nations’ State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples Report, p.23). The massive disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia is of course what led to the ‘Closing the Gap’ policy which, as was acknowledged in the latest Prime Minister’s report, is failing to meet most of its targets.  

Image: Book cover, 'Indigenous Australia for Dummies' by Larissa Behrendt
Larissa Behrendt’s *Indigenous Australia for Dummies* (Wiley, 2012)

Aboriginal author and lawyer Larissa Behrendt, of the Eualeyai and Kamilaroipeoples, once wrote that the fairness of our laws should be judged not by their effect on the powerful but by their effect on the poor, the marginalised and the culturally distinct (from Larissa Behrendt’s 2004 Clare Burton Memorial Lecture, ‘Law Stories and Life Stories: Aboriginal women, the law and Australian society’, p.11). It occurs to me that the fairness of our literature might well be judged in the same way, and that fairness, whether in the legal or literary sphere, is a desirable goal. That, after all, is what lies at the heart of the We Need Diverse Books campaign – the chance for all voices to be heard. And I would submit that considering the effect words that can have on the vulnerable is also a useful gauge for all writers seeking to write of cultures and identities not their own.

Non-Indigenous writers and Indigenous characters

Inaccurate representations of the Indigenous peoples of the globe by non-Indigenous authors abound, and they are a problem for us for so many reasons – but I will name three.

Firstly, they occupy the space where our voices might have spoken, crowding out our struggles and identities in favour of a version of Indigenous peoples that bears no relationship to Indigenous realities. I’ve sometimes had aspiring non-Indigenous writers tell me they want to write about Indigenous peoples to fill the ‘gap’ which exists because Indigenous voices are not speaking. My question to such writers is: are you certain we’re not speaking? 

The briefest glance at the catalogue of the Aboriginal publishers in Australia (IAD Press, Magabala Books, and Aboriginal Studies Press) is enough to show that there is an extraordinary range of Indigenous voices across every genre, and there’s plenty of Indigenous writers being published by other publishers too. Indigenous voices are speaking. They are just too often not being heard. So silence does not always exist to be filled; sometimes it should be interrogated. And if there is a true silence, that does not always mean it is an appropriate place for non-Indigenous writers to speak. I think that one limit on non-Indigenous writers is that the realm of ‘I’ (narratives in first-person or deep third) should be left for Indigenous authors to occupy. Given the vast disparity of living conditions and equality of opportunity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples (noted above), I believe fairness requires that the space of relating our experience from that personal perspective should be left for us alone.

Image: Book cover, 'The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf' by Ambelin Kwaymullina

The second reason that inaccurate representations of Indigenous people are a problem for us is that our own works are judged against how well they measure up to stereotypes of the ‘authentic’ Indigenous experience produced by others. Lakota Sioux thinker Vine Deloria perhaps captured this phenomenon best when he wrote: ‘the more we try to be ourselves, the more we are forced to defend what we have never been’ (Vina Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, MacMillan, New York, 1969, p.2). Anyone who has read our stories knows the vast variety and diversity of the Indigenous experience in Australia, and that same diversity is present amongst Indigenous peoples throughout the world. But so often, the stories that are read are the ones told about us, not by us. And many of the tales told about us are the stories of who we have never been, not least because these narratives often include things of which we would not speak.

Perhaps the biggest danger in writing of a culture not your own lies in knowing what not to say. Indigenous peoples, like all those who have lived under oppressive systems, know well the value of silence, and Indigenous silences run deep. Speaking no words at all remains an effective tool of resistance against new forms of colonialism, including the ’bio-colonialism’ that would see our ecological knowledge taken to develop plant based medications without any return of benefits to the knowledge-holders. As Yuin elder Max Dulumunmun Harrison recounts, speaking of healing plants in his country:

…someone showed some people the particular beautiful little plants, and told them a little bit about it. And then the plants were taken; probably to be grown somewhere else for profit. But the minute you take that plant, the rest of it all just dies. The ancient knowledge should stay there. When the ancients used it they only took part of a leaf to help with childbirth. Now it never grows back, won’t grow back. I know where there’s more, just a bit more. But now I can’t even show that to anyone.

– Max Dulumunmun Harrison in My People’s Dreaming: An Aboriginal Elder speaks on life, land, spirit and forgiveness, Finch Publishing, Sydney, 2009, p.26–27

Silence does not always exist to be filled. Sometimes it should be respected.

The final reason why inaccurate representations of Indigenous peoples are a problem for us is because they hurt us – not only at a broader, philosophical level, but in every moment of every day. These stories manifest in our daily lives in the degree to which non-Indigenous people fail to understand us and therefore fail to trust us, and that suspicion so easily slides into discrimination and a denial of opportunity.

For an example of how discrimination can affect youth: on 2008 figures compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, roughly a quarter of Indigenous young people (aged 15–24) felt they had been discriminated against in the previous twelve months on the basis of being Indigenous. Young people who had not been discriminated against were more likely to be employed; be studying; agree or strongly agree that most people could be trusted; and be able to get general support from people outside the household. They were also less likely to have high or very high levels of psychological distress, and to report having trouble accessing services.

But these are statistics that no good teacher needs, not in relation to Indigenous peoples or any other marginalised group. Teachers are on the frontlines; they are witnesses to what happens to the excluded, and they know how those stories end. It is why so many teachers are such powerful forces for inspiration and change. For them, and for everyone else who believes that diverse voices matter, the question becomes: what can we do to encourage diversity in all its forms in literature?

Where to from here?

For all the readers out there, I ask that you raise up your voices. Do it on social media, at festivals, in bookstores and in libraries. Ask where the diverse authors are, and if you hear someone else saying something about diversity that you agree with, lend them your support.

This last aspect is particularly important, not least because of what sometimes happens to writers of diverse backgrounds when they are the ones who speak up. Ellen Oh, a Korean American YA and MG (middle grade) author and one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books, reports receiving racist and sexist emails. She writes: ‘As an author, I don’t expect everyone to like my book and I must accept criticisms about my writing, plotting, characters, etc. But it was a shock to receive emails that were so discriminatory in nature, that they could only be categorized as hate mail. It made me realize how important this discussion is. Now more than ever, we need diversity.’

It is unfortunately true that books written by diverse authors may be harder to find. It is not true that good books by diverse authors do not exist.

Last year, Malorie Blackman – the United Kingdom’s first black Children’s Laureate – faced a torrent of racist abuse on Twitter after she was wrongly reported as saying ‘children’s books have too many white faces’. There was immediate support from her fellow authors and readers; Malorie returned to Twitter and later made a call for diversity marked with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooksUK.

And #WeNeedDiverseBooksOz as well.

What about those who provide access to books? US librarian Amy Koester recently blogged about the power of book selection, offering in the course of that post a useful definition of ‘privilege’ in this context. She wrote that privilege is never having ‘had to open more than one or two books in a row in order to find a character who looks/speaks/lives like you do’. Applying this definition, the majority of teachers, librarians, and booksellers who choose books do so from a position of privilege. I would ask that you expand your horizons. It is unfortunately true that books written by diverse authors may be harder to find. It is not true that good books by diverse authors do not exist. And your choices matter for exactly the reason that Amy Koester concluded hers did:

I am no longer going to privately roll my eyes when professional colleagues make privileged statements about their exclusionary practices, or when reviewers ignore microaggressions in books for youth. I am going to say something, because ignoring it only lets it perpetuate. And when someone calls me out on something I say or causes me to think critically about my own practice, I am going to try really, really hard not to get defensive and to just listen and reflect and improve. It is hard. And I don’t need to do it.

Except that I do, because the ability of every child I serve to feel valuable and see themselves as a beautiful, complex individual is what hangs in the balance.

– Amy Koester in ‘Selection is Privilege’ 

To the media, especially the mainstream and literary media: I’m afraid you’re largely being outdone by bloggers on these issues. And the presence of the blogosphere in this area is a great advantage for anyone seeking to educate themselves about what’s happening, because most of the information is easily accessible online. The We Need Diverse Books campaign has sparked (or drawn attention to) a series of conversations and insightful advice and reflections from authors, publishers, teachers, librarians and many other people involved with books. I’ve quoted from some during the course of this discussion, but there are a lot more – and if you’re looking to make a start, try visiting websites like We Need Diverse Books, Lee & Low’s blog, Rich in Color and Diversity in YA. But these websites are US-based, and I’d like to see much more coming out of Australia.

What of publishers? I’ve had publishers express the sentiment to me that they’d love to publish more diverse voices if only they received more manuscripts. However, given that this approach hasn’t yet resulted in any great increase in diversity, I think it’s perhaps time to conclude that ‘business as usual’ won’t achieve the desired outcome. The existing inequity of opportunity being what it is (especially for Indigenous writers who are most disadvantaged) means that more is required.

In relation to greater publication of Indigenous works, there is not only a lack of opportunities for authors, but a critical lack of Indigenous editorial expertise. That is what makes State Library of Queensland’s black&write! program so valuable – because that award offers both Indigenous writing fellowships and Indigenous editorial internships. Thus far, every black&write! award-winner has written YA or children’s literature.)

Image: black&write winners' titles
Books by alumni of State Library of Queensland’s *black&write!* project

Finally, to all those who organise literary events such as festivals and conferences: there is now a global conversation happening about diversity in literature (which was partly reflected in the Melbourne Writer’s Festival line up last year). In general, however, writer’s festivals and other events have often struggled in engaging with issues surrounding diversity, and perhaps especially in relation to YA and children’s literature.

If these issues aren’t on your program, why not? And if they are, have they been incorporated appropriately? Because a panel discussing diversity that is comprised entirely of authors not from diverse backgrounds is not really a diversity panel – and when diversity is included in this kind of panel, it sometimes happens that it’s in the form of a single diverse voice. I know because I’ve been that one voice, and it’s no easy task to be the sole representative of the diversity of the entire planet. Actually, it’s an impossible task – I couldn’t even represent the diversity of Indigenous Australia, let alone all the other peoples, identities and experiences of this earth. But my biggest frustration with panels like these is that I know the degree to which the audience is being cheated. I know because I’ve been a witness to, or a participant in, the other conversations, the ones that happen behind the scenes at festivals or conferences when authors from different diverse backgrounds find themselves chatting to each other. Identities are discussed; experiences of exclusion are compared; and hopes for a better world are shared, sometimes with a sigh and sometimes with a smile. These conversations are nuanced, funny, sad, complex, and insightful.

Wouldn’t you like to hear them too?

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which we live and work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present.