This was originally posted as a discussion post for the class LIS 566: Resources for Digital Age Teens at the UW iSchool in Winter 2018. I really liked this post and I put a lot of thought into it, and I wanted to share it here as well.
I have somewhat of an unpopular opinion: I don’t believe that we should be upholding characters who “just happen to be X-marginalization” as the ideal for characters in YA literature.
The reason I don’t like this phrasing? If a character holds a marginalized identity, that identity is ingrained in their character. It is essential to who they are, and it affects how they live their everyday lives. For instance, my life isn’t about my ADHD, my OCD, or my other mental illnesses, but they are essential to how I approach things in life because they make me think differently from how neurotypicals think. My life isn’t about my queerness, but my constant code-switching between closeted, semi-closeted, and not closeted affects me in ways that non-queer people never have to think about. I just read Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, and the Black love interest character had to explain to the white main character why she doesn’t have to think as hard about trespassing on the property of a gun-owner as he does because he is astronomically more likely than she is to actually get shot.
By saying a character “just happens to be X-marginalization,” we are implying that even though they are part of group X, they still act “normal” — “normal” is usually implied to be non-queer, non-disabled, and white because that’s what dominates publishing. If their marginalizations do not actually affect their lives even the tiniest little bit, are they really part of that marginalization? If we make “just happens to be” the standard and these characters’ marginalizations do barely affect their lives, then what kind of message are we sending to teens who share those marginalizations and want to see them fully-fleshed out on the page?
A book about a marginalized identity is a different thing entirely; if a book is just about the identity itself, then it’s not really a story. It’s also not the ideal because we don’t need diverse books to educate non-diverse people; we need diverse books to show marginalized teens that we have good books that have characters like them that they can relate to and love. We need stories about these characters with these identities, not about the identities.
I believe the ideal shouldn’t be characters that “just happen to be X-marginalization;” I believe the ideal should be characters that embrace being X-marginalization. I want more books like You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon, which has Jewish twins in a bilingual Hebrew-speaking household (set in Seattle!) who are dealing with the prospect of terminal illness and the slow loss of their mother and first love and constant fighting between each other. I want books like Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh (out on January 23rd) that have badass bisexual necromancers who are dealing with grief and addiction and the humongous task of protecting their city. I want books like North of Happy by Adi Alsaid that have a Mexican main character dealing with grief and loss and love and a heavy desire to cook (also set in Seattle!). I want characters who are unapologetically themselves, letting their identities affect them in the way that fits them. This can mean different things to different characters; characters can be unapologetically Muslim whether they choose to wear a hijab or not; You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone has one twin who embraces both her Jewish heritage and Jewish religion while the other embraces her heritage but not the religion.
(All of these books are amazing, by the way, and you should totally read them!)
By saying that a character “just happens to be X-marginalization,” we’re telling the teens who share that marginalization that we don’t believe that their marginalization is important to the book. I don’t think that this is the message we want to be sending to them; do we really want to be sharing the message that we care more about whether the general public can “relate” to a character than they relate to a character?