Does my protagonist get to be Black and have clinical depression? Be neuro-divergent and transgender? The default setting to writing diverse stories often presents as a “this or that” scenario. Or leaves an author feeling as though certain demographic boxes need to be “checked” to ensure their book is perceived as inclusive “enough.” The fallacy to these mentalities is that neither is an appropriate benchmark to strive for.
Unfortunately, this is where numerous character compositions go hopelessly awry—ultimately undermining story arcs no matter how well they’re crafted. It’s not enough to simply make one’s heroine Asian or disabled, then proceed with the plot. What truly makes characters resonate with readers is complexity, usually achieved via intersectionality.
The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines intersectionality as the “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” It also astutely credits the scholar and a civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw who originated “the idea that when it comes to thinking about how inequalities persist, categories like gender, race, and class are best understood as overlapping and mutually constitutive rather than isolated and distinct.”
Crenshaw’s theory exposes the reality that those within BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and/or different-abled bodied communities rarely connect with a single identifier. Thus, a “White vs. Black” antagonistic premise set in suburbia now falls flat because a narrative should be based on more than blatant friction between teens with different skin colors.
“Representing experiences at the intersection of two or more marginalized identities is so necessary for children’s literature. Authors often hear that their stories (and their lived experience) are ‘too much,’ that a character cannot be both Black and Muslim, or both trans and Latinx, and so on. Authors come up against gatekeepers who want them to sanitize their work and remove an aspect of who the characters are or what the story is in order to make it more palatable and ‘marketable’ to readers,” explains We Need Diverse Books Communications Manager Alaina Lavoie.
“But readers—kids and teenagers—live these experiences, and very rarely get to see themselves on the page. This could result in them feeling they need to sanitize part of their lives for others; someone might feel they need to be “less disabled” in order to be accepted by the LGBTQ+ community; or that they need to downplay or hide their Blackness to feel at home in Jewish spaces,” Lavoie states. “Books that center the multiply marginalized, such as Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender or Color Me In by Natasha Diaz, might be the very first time that a reader sees that they can show up as their full self, without trying to mask or change who they are in order to be accepted and seen.”
Lavoie’s insight into the current publishing climate is a crucial reminder that within no community does one word ever “fit all.” As a writer, I can personally attest to navigating what, at times, is a grueling creative process. The need for more representation in YA for people of color with mental health issues inspired my short story, Brown Girl Blues. Writing from personal experience can provided a feeling of connection for others, plus be cathartic for oneself. I’ve been in clinical treatment for an eating disorder off and one for over two decades. But I never read one book growing up that featured a young woman of color grappling with this sort of illness. Would it have made a difference? Perhaps. I may have felt less isolated or… “crazy,” since I was already coming of age in an environment in which mental health struggles weren’t openly discussed and acknowledged, aside from alcoholism or drug addiction.
The need for more own voices sharing real, lived experiences is one young audiences continue to crave. Challenge yourself to share the stories no writer other than you can tell. One day, a kid might thank you for it.