The Stories That Need to Be Told

I heard a piece on NPR radio* where the host was talking to a variety of authors about growing diversity and representation in Young Adult books. The part I remember most was a gay, Puerto Rican author who wrote about a gay Puerto Rican teen in (I think) the Bronx, and how he had a hard time shopping it around to publishing houses a few years ago. It stuck with me that he said they kept telling him HIS OWN STORY was "unbelievable" and "hard to consider authentic" and that it wouldn't sell. 

His response was amazing. He said, "You publish books about unicorns and dragons, but my reality is what is unbelievable???" 

Great point. 

This is one of several similar stories about diverse authors who have their worked deemed "inauthentic" or "won't sell" because their experience is outside of the stereotype, is outside of a largely white, Christian, heteronormic, "common" experience. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose amazing Ted Talk "The Danger of a Single Story" should be watched by everyone, noted that her MFA graduate professor criticized her first book for not being "authentically African" because the characters were "too much like him." Aisha Saeed, author of Amal Unbound and others, who was told "stories about kids in Pakistan don't sell" and only had her book about a girl in Pakistan published after 26 other publishers said no (but now she's been on the New York Times Bestseller List and is required reading in many schools, so suck it, naysayers).

It's great that it's changing, albeit slowly, but it just underscores why we need these stories that either a) are unfamiliar to the kids publishers think are reading, or b) are very familiar to the kids who CAN'T FIND BOOKS THAT REFLECT THEIR LIVES, and they are missing these opportunities because of that narrow definition of "what kids will read, what parents will buy." There are so many people who want to see stories that reflect their lives, or to peer through a window into a different existence, but they don't seem to be listened to as much.

It reminds me of the story most frequently told about people struggling with infertility. The "success" stories that sell services or clinics or acupuncture, the stories that keep people spending more and more money on treatments or renewing adoption home studies/signing on with multiple agencies because there's always someone who had a baby or were placed with a baby because they just hung on a little longer, and that it was so worth the wait, waiting is the hardest part. The rainbow babies that most people think always follow a loss, because we hear so little from the people who lost and didn't parent. Whose success stories are outside of the norm of "and then I parented children" and look more like "and then I rebuilt my life from the destruction of my dream and it is BEAUTIFUL." There's also not as much of the success story that is the pregnancy, or the birth, or the placement, that then leads into other challenges. It can seem that people stop wanting to know what happens after the newborn shoot, that they see the family picture and fill in the rest. Maybe it's like a friend of mine who finally got pregnant and then complained about the aches and pains of pregnancy to a family member, and was told "I don't want to hear it, you got what you wanted."  There's no patience for anything that's not the fairy tale, even though fairy tales aren't actually real. I wonder if people don't feel free to share the troubled reality, because it messes with the standard narrative.

I would love to see more stories about all sorts of experiences, all sorts of identities and lives, in the mainstream. I mean, what does it say about our society if we can accept dragons and wizards and time travel but not lives that don't fit a prescribed narrative, lives the majority hasn't lived, stories that need to be told? 


*It is killing me slowly that I can't find the NPR interview that I'm going to write about, so if you heard it or can find it, please link in the comments!

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  1. I grew up not reading my stories either, of course from NZ. I don't know when I first read a book written in NZ! Possibly in my mid-late teens or 20s! Though because I'm white and mainstream (in NZ terms), I could imagine myself in other worlds - though that was still very much a fantasy, eg (UK) boarding school or horse books, (US) Cowboy Dan, etc.

    It's how I like to read these days though. I love reading authors from Africa, Asia, India (yes, I know it is in Asia but worthy of its own category, especially in literature), Europe, UK, US/Canada, and Australia, in English or translated, as well as NZ authors. I try to spread it around, rarely reading more than two books in a row from the same culture.

    You're right about the infertility comparisons, sadly. Too often we're told to either shut up, or to change our story to the mainstream, when really we just want our stories heard and acknowledge.

    1. I'm coming back because I've just listened to that TED talk, and OMG - her first descriptions of her reading were me! (We never had snow, and I didn't know what ginger beer was either, or galoshes, or graham crackers etc that were in the books I read as a child). But of course she goes on to expand on that - you're right, it was wonderful. We should all listen to it. Thank you, Jess, for pointing me to it.

    2. Oh, I'm so glad! I love that TED talk. One of my favorites. I agree, I try to spread around my reading and make a conscious effort to not read the same types of authors but to read more outside my own experience.

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  3. Love this post, Jess! :) Like Mali, I grew up reading books mostly from U.S. and British authors. Unlike my husband (who grew up watching American stations from Buffalo), I did grow up watching some Canadian TV shows, because the places where I lived until I was about 14 were far away enough from the border (pre-cable TV!) that the only channel we got was the CBC -- albeit even the CBC back then carried a lot of U.S. shows! But it's very difficult to hold back the tide...! There are a lot of people who think the CBC is obsolete and why do we need Canadian content regulations in a world with the Internet and streaming services, etc... but it's so important to be able to see our own unique Canadian culture and history and experiences reflected back at us. And that certainly goes for the childless-not-by-choice community too!