I Hate The Phrase “Character Just Happens To Be X-Marginalization,” And Here’s Why

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?

A Letter to my Future Children…

Dear future children,

It’s strange writing something for someone who doesn’t exist yet. You are almost definitely not even conceived yet unless I end up adopting (in which case, who knows?), so at this point I don’t have any idea what kind of world you’re going to be born into. The world as it is right now, and has been for the past year (or the past four years or for the past eight years, depending on where you start counting from), hasn’t exactly been the greatest, and it’s probably not going to be great until after you’re born, if at all. Your mother isn’t exactly an optimist when it comes to the world. There is one thing that does make me an optimist, though, and that thing is you.

You’re going to grow up with a mother who isn’t a woman and who uses different pronouns from the mothers of your friends. A mother who is passable as straight to some degree but couldn’t get that much queerer if they tried. A mother who is passably abled but is most definitely disabled. A mother who has a master’s degree but sometimes forgets to eat or sleep.  A mother who isn’t exactly well-loved by the rest of the world, but is still here working away at this weird thing called life. As much as I wish it weren’t so, though, these things are probably going to make things harder for you for a while, and that’s why I’m here writing to you before you even exist.

I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s a story that involves a gift that I started for you back when I was a child.

As of right now in late November 2017, your mother owns 1,276 books, according to LibraryThing (will that still be around? Who knows?! I hope so). A solid third of those are kids’ books, many of which I read and owned when I was a child. Many of these books were my absolute favorite ones to read, and I can tell you which of my elementary school teachers I read them with and how I felt while reading them.

Many of these books are also deeply, deeply problematic.

You see, I went to an elementary school through the ’00s that was very poor and had little money for new library books at any given time. Because of this, a very large number of those books were from around the ’50s-70s — books so old that they didn’t all consistently have barcodes or ISBN numbers. After I left high school the library finally started getting some money to replace those books, and so they began to be weeded from the library. These old books had to go somewhere, though, and the library technician apparently had a really hard time just throwing them out. Your grandmother still worked at that elementary school at the time, and that library technician knew that I collected books. So, instead of throwing them out, the library technician gave boxes and boxes of books to your grandmother to give to me.

And that’s how I ended up with a collection of extremely problematic children’s books.

I still have all of them, though, as problematic as they may be. Many of them I’m going to read with you. I’ll tell you why: you’re almost certainly going to grow up privileged to some degree. You’re probably going to be white, and you might be cisgender, straight, allosexual, abled, and quite possibly well-off financially; all of these things can make it more difficult to understand the hardships of the marginalized peoples you’ll see in your life. You’re not going to grow up understanding their lives because you won’t have the same experiences. And that’s okay. But we’re going to try something with these problematic books that I didn’t get the chance to do as a child: we’re going to read them, and we’re going to talk about why they’re problematic together.

Problematic books drive me up the wall. And you know what? This is actually a good thing. If a problematic book is able to drive me up the wall, it means that I’m recognizing why the content of the book is problematic, and being able to identify problematic things in books can be a really important step to learning how to identify problematic things in real life. I want to teach you how to identify problematic things in the world so that you can do so on your own and hopefully address them in real life. You are my hope for the future, and I want you to have the best set of tools available to you so that you can be a good advocate and a good ally to those who don’t have as much privilege as you.

Does this make reading sound like work? Please don’t worry! Though I have quite the collection of problematic books, I also have a solid collection of great books, especially diverse books, that you can read and enjoy. Be critical, but remember that you can have fun while reading, too. Not everything has to be a lesson. If you want to grow up to be a reader, I promise you I’ll have a great selection of books for you to pick from, and if you don’t see the book you want in our collection then we’ll go straight to the library to get it.

Remember, too, that it’s okay to like books that are problematic — just make sure that you acknowledge that there are issues present. You can enjoy a problematic book without ignoring the problems it has.

You’re going to grow up in a strange time with a strange family in a strange world. As I said, though, you are my hope for the future, and I hope that once I’ve given you the tools you’ll need to navigate it you’ll be able to make it just a little bit brighter.

Love you.

❤ me…

P.S. Here’s Coco back when your mother only had one cat.

Coco the tuxedo cat sitting in her cat bed with her legs tucked under her. She is looking up at the camera.

How Reading More Diversely Broke My Reading Slump

I loved reading as a kid. New books were the most exciting thing in the world for me — during Scholastic Book Fair seasons, my mom would buy up all of the books that I said I wanted, and then she’d keep them hidden in a cupboard and give them to me every so often throughout the year. Barnes and Noble’s summer reading program was exciting because I could get a brand new book at the end of it, and all I had to do was read! I spent countless hours volunteering in a small library when I got a little older, and During those childhood and early teen years I couldn’t get enough of books.

Something changed during my late teens.

During my early teens I didn’t know I was going to end up being a bi, demisexual, non-binary, neurodivergent, disabled* person. That was a scary thing to start figuring out as a teen because I lived in a rural, conservative community with conservative parents and no real support in that regard. All of a sudden, I found myself wanting books that represented my newfound queerness especially, and yet I learned that getting my hands on them was exceedingly difficult. I got tired of all of the white allocishet abled characters and their white allocishet abled romances because the only thing that I had in common with them was that I was white.

I still had my books and I still collected new (mostly used) ones, but from the ages of about 17-21, I almost entirely stopped reading. I didn’t make a lot of time for it, it didn’t feel fun to me anymore, and yet I still liked the idea of it. The idea of reading good books sat so well with me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in libraries. I felt at home surrounded by books, but I couldn’t get myself to read them.

In early 2017, I made a concentrated effort to read more diversely, and my world expanded. I found bi characters who understood me so well that I couldn’t stop grinning. Trans characters who knew how I felt so much that I cried. Characters with OCD who understood what was going on in my brain so well that I had to sit back and just let that fact sink in.

I didn’t just find characters like me; I found characters that weren’t. Even though I could no longer relate to those white allocishet abled characters from my early teens, it’s still a fact that I know far more about that culture than I do other cultures I don’t share. I read more books by Black authors. Latinx authors. Jewish authors. Muslim authors. I fell in love with these characters, and while these books didn’t make me an expert by any means, they did help me grow as a person. They got me outside of myself and into the shoes of others, and I grew more empathetic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Diverse books made me feel excited about reading again. I feel alive when holding one in my hands, and I feel so much more deeply when I read than I’ve ever felt before. Despite being a full-time graduate student with three jobs and hardly any time to breathe, I’ve managed to read 91 books so far this year, and I am well on my way to finishing 100 before December ends. Without diverse books, I don’t think I would have even managed half of that this year. Not every book I read WAS diverse (I’m still on a quest to finish every Stephen King book, I did a Harry Potter re-read, and I read quite a few Lurlene McDaniel books for the Hey Lurlene! podcast this year), almost all of my favorites were by diverse authors about diverse characters, and the excitement I felt while reading those stories kept me wanting more. I’ve pre-ordered and bought more new books this year than I ever have in my life, and all but one of those books was diverse. I found my happy place while reading again. I found that spark.

Part of me wonders whether I would have had such a long reading slump at all if I’d had access to diverse books earlier in my life. I can’t say for sure, but the genuine happiness I feel while reading these books now is something that I probably could have used as a teen. If I were to give my teen self a gift, I’d give them a letter saying “yeah hi YOU’RE NOT CIS OR STRAIGHT FIGURE IT OUT ALREADY” and a box of my favorite diverse reads from this year. I’d like to think that I would have turned out just a little bit happier.

Books I’d include in the box to myself (in the order in which I read them this year, and linked to either my review or the book’s Goodreads page):

These books brought joy back to reading for me. I wish teen me could have had them.

 

*I still have trouble claiming the term “disabled” for myself, but I’m figuring that one out.

**If you’ve read my review then you’ll know that I didn’t think TATWD was THAT great for a YA novel, but the OCD rep in this book hit me so hard that I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to my past self. It would have done wonders for me.