This could be a simplistic post.

It could bemoan the lack of diversity in YA literature in general, and YA historical fiction in specific.

It could list a bunch of writers who are working to combat the trend. Writers like Christopher Paul Curtis, Saundra Mitchell, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Mitali Perkins, Caroline Starr Rose, Debby Dahl Edwardson, Alan Gratz.

(I wanted to put them in here because it’s important to shine light where light belongs, to combat the idea that we here in histficland just write about white girls doing white-girl things in white-girl places wearing pretty white-girl dresses.)

It could dutifully list out titles of books that feature people of color that are set in the past. That’s diversity, right?

This could be a simplistic post, but really, why do we need another white girl talking about diversity and how much we need it? Plenty of people for whom second-class citizenship is a lived reality are saying some really smart things about the cost of a homogenous white narrative.

So I’m going to try really hard not to make this a simplistic post. I’m a historian. I’ve got the letters after my name to prove it. But even if I wasn’t, I can see the problem is not just in fiction.

Fiction is a symptom.

The problem is the assumptions we make about the past. The problem is how the past is presented to us, especially as young people, since this determines how we understand the past.

The problem is in the narratives constructed by human beings that claim to be a source of truth. Because there is no one source of truth. There is only evidence and the narratives we construct based on this evidence.

It determines which narratives about the past we’re exposed to. Which ones we develop an attachment to. Which ones we consider real and viable and valuable.

This is a problem fiction can address.

Fiction can change how we interface with the past. It can change how we understand the past, see the past, experience the past.

This is why it’s not enough to simply have more historical fiction with characters of color. We need those stories too, but we need characters of color who are gay, autistic, bipolar, deaf, religious. We need characters of every color who reflect the ridiculously vast range of human lived experience, especially when they’re set in contexts that emphasize their humanity rather than the problematic nature of their time and place in history.

Especially when they’re about kids.

Fiction can be the thin edge of the wedge. Fiction is a space where people are receptive to new ideas, where we’re already ready to suspend some level of literary disbelief to enjoy a story.

Historical fiction is the best place for character to meet narrative. For people to see the past as something alive, something not trapped in amber and static. Historical fiction is the best place to bring people in.

And if we’re gonna bring people in, we’ve got to bring everyone in.

A lot of people like historical fiction because it brings the past alive. So those of us who write it have a responsibility to bring the past alive in all its infinite complexity.

This is the kind of work fiction can do. This is the kind of work fiction should do.

About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

10 thoughts on “Diversity

  1. pamwatts says:

    Good post. Thank you. It seems like historical fiction tends to circle around a few key times and places of high interest, though. It seems like part of the problem might be lack of awareness about times and places where current racial minorities lived and worked as something other than slaves. We have to take a broader view of what history actually IS. As you say, the fiction is a symptom.

    My current WIP is set in 18th century Ireland. The MC is part of an oppressed racial group of that time and place (she’s native Irish Catholic–the English Protestants had taken over and enacted really strict anti-catholic laws.) But I would be hard-pressed to place a current “minority” character in that setting. I’ve always been interested in the Celtic Isles. But one wonders if my world-history education had ever included anything besides Europe, if I might be interested in writing books set in historical Japan or Africa with Japanese or African characters?

    • J says:

      If we’re drawn to the familiar, one answer is to make more stories so more things are familiar. 🙂

      And yeah, Ireland’s pretty rich ground when it comes to good stories, and the Penal Laws and Statutes of Kilkenny were pretty nasty. Good luck with your WIP!

  2. carriegelson says:

    LOVE! Bringing the past alive in its infinite complexity. YES!

    • J says:

      It’s an inherently contentious topic, the past—the narratives we create to describe it can change (and have changed) whole worlds. So I’m not surprised at all that there’s a push to simplify and dress it up in ribbons when stories are set there.

      It’s just not a good choice. It’s not an *honest* choice.

      It’s almost seditious to present the past as it probably was, rather than how we *wish* it had been.

  3. Love this post! Only just found you. I am a UK author, Catherine Johnson, mixed race, who has been writing hist fic (and other children’s books) for years – my latest novel for the young end of YA is SAWBONES featuring a lead protagonist who is a black british anatomist http://www.walker.co.uk/Sawbones-9781406340570.aspx It’s my big thing, the fact that Britain has had a significant black population since Tudor Times (Elizabeth 1 complained there were too many of us!) It’s important to me that young people see themselves in the past as well as the future. My publishers – who include Random House and OUP as well as Walker have never published any of my historical novels in the USA. I’m one of the HIstory Girls bloggers. Lovely to meet you x http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/

    • Of course black people have been in the UK since at least Roman times, sometimes I think the UK and Europe forgets its past!

    • J says:

      Great to meet you! Gotta say, your book looks AWESOME. I love the cover, and I hope it comes out in the States sometime soon!

      Are you familiar with the work of Medieval POC? (http://medievalpoc.org) Medieval POC is run by a historian who uses art to counteract the prevailing belief that people of color weren’t in Europe before the era of the slave trade. The trolls this person has to deal with are unreal.

  4. Yes! My daughter introduced me and I love that site! (She posted my book up there too in October when it came out so am blessed). But this subject is so close to my heart. And there are SO many wonderful stories to be told, xx

  5. […] loved J. Anderson Coats’s post on why we need diversity in YA fiction. Thanks to Carrie Gelson for sharing with […]

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