Lately the diversity debate has been strong, and I thought it was apt to share my thoughts on when books misrepresent diversity. It’s great to see more authors including multi-cultural characters and people from different walks of life in their books, and it’s definitely refreshing to read about characters who aren’t your standard Caucasian girl in a middle class family living in America. While it’s great to see yourself represented in a book, it’s actually quite disappointing when it’s addressed incorrectly or in a misrepresented way, which happens more often than not.
When is diversity being used as a cheap marketing tactic rather than actually representing a culture? The key problems I’ve had with “diverse” books is outlined below:
1. Cultural Misrepresentation
We all want to read diverse books that feature different cultures, subcultures, mental/ physical conditions and sexual orientations. But when so called diverse books do feature them and they’re not given the accurate representation or attention that they deserve, it creates another problem. Those who are actually from said cultures can tell that it’s being misrepresented or type-casted, and it creates an even bigger issue. Because for readers who don’t know any better, they’d think it’s great that it’s diverse and that diversity is being represented, but actually, it isn’t really done properly with justice.
2. Incorrect Language
There’s also books that include cultural heroines, or mythology from different cultures, but with issues when it comes to that. For example, The Girl From Everywhere featured a Persian love interest and a half-Chinese main character, but you could’ve slapped any other culture onto there and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the story. Jo from Word Revel covered the incorrect Chinese used in this novel perfectly. Then you’ve got Cress which included Chinese titles that were used incorrectly covered by Tory from Paper O’Clock. There’s also criticism that Love That Split the World misrepresented Native Americans.
If we as readers are able to pick up these errors in Chinese writing, then why has it never been picked up in the publishing process? For instance, if you really wanted to do it justice, why not conduct more extensive research on Google to ensure you’re properly representing the language or the culture – or get it checked by a Mandarin speaker through the publishing process to ensure it’s correct? Of course, I acknowledge the hundreds of dialects in China that the novel could be featuring, which I’m definitely not an expert on.
3. Characters from Different Cultures
Where are the books that actually do feature say a Chinese/Indian/Filipino/Italian or other cultural family living in America/England/Australia? Out of the hundreds of YA books I’ve read in my life, the only books that I’ve read that have done this well are Australian YA which champions diversity in an accurate and representative manner. Such books include The First Third by Will Kostakis (Review here), The Book Thief by Markus Zusak or Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, which we all had to study in high school.
4. Mixed Ethnicity is Not Represented Well
I’m of multiracial descent, was raised in a bi-ethnic household and lived abroad most of my life. My family moved around a lot when I was younger until we finally settled in Singapore, a nation that prides itself in its multiracial society. This reality sheds a little light on how misunderstood people who cannot be neatly boxed in are. It’s also an internal struggle of identity. With a Caucasian parent and an Asian one, where do I belong?
Intricacies on a cultural level, sadly, are hardly represented in YA literature. Yes, The Vow by Jessica Martinez examines what it means to be caught between two countries, and two different cultures. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz touches a little on what it means to be Mexican while living in the USA. However, such concerns are a rarity.
Granted, I have read a number of newly published books that featured multiracial characters over the past year. Notable ones include The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning, and The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. I’m absolutely delighted by the increasing inclusion of multiracial characters. However, the multicultural backgrounds weren’t all too pronounced in these stories.
During my teenage years, I found only one book about a biracial character. I don’t recall the title but it was about a Filipino-American girl visiting her relatives in the Philippines for the first time. It meant so much to me to read about someone discovering her roots. Knowing that there were others out there who also could relate meant the world to me.
While it’s great to see that more books featuring diverse cultures and themes being published, I still think we have a long way to go when it comes to actually representing cultures in an accurate way. While I can appreciate authors and publishers ensuring there’s more diversity in the books that are published, I think readers would also appreciate more care when it comes to representation and accuracy. Books that simply mention or feature cultural representation are simply capitalising on the fact that we’re all hungry for diversity.
What do you think of cultural representation in ‘diverse’ novels? Do you have any recommendations for novels that do this well?