Ask Alice: What can *you* do to support diverse and owned representation in Australian YA?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
NAIDOC Week is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate, amongst other things, the rich and essential stories of First Nations storytellers.
When it comes to Australian YA texts, there are many wonderful recent releases from First Nations authors which are not just bursting with talent, but which offer a First Nations perspective and worldview which we at LoveOzYA believe is vital to building empathy in non-Indigenous peoples, and giving representation and a sense of being seen and valued in First Nations readers.
But when we think about the spectacular variety of recently published texts currently available to us, such as Ghost Bird (Lisa Fuller), The Boy from the Mish (Gary Lonesborough), My Spare Heart (Jared Thomas), Unlimited Futures (edited by Hella Ibrahim, Ellen van Neerven, and Rafeif Ismail), or Tracks of the Missing (Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler), especially in the context of discussions surrounding authentic and owned storytelling, two questions present themselves:
- 1. How can we ensure these stories truly are authentic and owned (that is, have meaningful representation present at every stage of the process, from editing to cover design, to marketing)?
- 2. How can we ensure that we aren’t missing more stories from the voices of people from historically marginalised backgrounds?
I recently had the opportunity to reflect on these two questions with particular acuity because LoveOzYA was invited to give a keynote speech at the Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research conference.
Specifically, LoveOzYA was invited to reflect in line with the conference theme: ‘Owning our Voices: Authenticity, Legitimacy and Agency in Children’s and Young Adult Literatures’.
For us, the only way to do that justice was to step back to allow those voices to speak.
With relation to this keynote, and after much deliberation over how to narrow down the choices from a list of wonderful authors from diverse backgrounds, we sought to collaborate with:
- Rebecca Lim (author of Tiger Daughter and co-founder of the Voices at the Intersection initiative alongside LoveOzYA alum Amberlin Kwaymullin)
- Rachel Bin Salleh (publisher at Magabala Books), and
- Jared Thomas (author of My Spare Heart).
We are tremendously grateful to Jared, Rachel, and Rebecca for sharing their experiences and observations, in addition to what they want from members of the literary sector, much of which has informed the substance of this Ask Alice.
Starting with the first response to the question, what can you do to support diverse and owned representation in our stories?
If you’re a reader, bookseller, teacher, or librarian, you can participate in, and facilitate, sustained and authentic promotion of such stories to a mainstream audience. This is a practical and effective way to help spread the word about diverse stories.
In particular, booksellers, teachers, and librarians are in a unique position to be able to encourage readers to venture outside what they may believe to their comfort zone and to dissolve the barrier between “mainstream” and “other” texts. People are often reticent to try something different, especially if it moves beyond a particular type of story they enjoy reading. Rebecca advocated the need for people who have direct contact with readers to say, “I know you feel comfortable reading this particular genre, but you really need to challenge yourself.”
One of the reasons we here at LoveOzYA adore our book lists is because they can be used as a resource which provides a variety of titles that people in such positions can draw on to make these kinds of recommendations (see, for example, our Migrant Voices or First Nations posters).
If you’re a publisher, you can participate in, or facilitate, this promotional support happening at an industry-wide level.
Jared referred to the “marketing muscle” of publishing houses, which is particularly relevant because it’s often not applied to these kinds of books. Rebecca commented publishers have said “we don’t know how to sell” books which feature diverse and intersectional voices to a mainstream audience”.
So what do we do about that? Well, Rachel offered a way forward in arguing that First Nations and diverse peoples should be in roles across every level of publishing companies, as marketing managers, designers, or production assistants. Being in these roles would see them participating in the production and promotion of all types of text and story. This is how publishing houses can undertake robust and authentic promotion of diverse texts to the mainstream market – by actually asking the people familiar with the worldview and experiences of the text to be an integral part of crafting the sales pitch. For First Nations peoples, this kind of self determination in cultural production is a core human rights principle, but applying this approach across all various and marginalised groups is a vital way forward. In the words of Rebecca: “We need to get more marginalised people into the publishing machine.”
Beyond the mechanics of production, Jared made a key observation: Indigenous reviewers approach texts from a different worldview. It speaks to the importance of having diverse perspectives in voices of review or critique: the other part of the marketing process. However, similar to the need for diverse peoples in publishing to be working on a variety of texts, diversity in reviewers, this shouldn’t look like a neurodiverse person reviewing only books with a neurodiverse main character – although this is important, too. It’s a neurodiverse person reviewing books with a variety of main characters, in a variety of genres. The insight generated by that review is going to see a different interpretation of and reaction to the text to that of a white, heterosexual, neurotypical reviewer.
So what do we need to do?
If you’re someone who employs people within, or in relation to, Australia’s literary industry, you can argue for, employ, champion the employment and inclusion of people from a variety of backgrounds in a variety of roles.
Be critical when that isn’t the case. Be insistent when you receive no satisfactory explanation as to why that isn’t the case.
If it’s true as some may claim that there are very few, if any, truly ‘new’ stories, then the antidote to this is to look at stories through the lens of perspectives which have been historically shut out.
If you’re ANYONE: Don’t be a snob!
The final thing is perhaps my favourite takeaway, and something Rachel said: “Don’t be a snob.”
It’s a sad truth that Young Adult literature in particular is often seen as less complex, less literary, and requiring less authorial talent than other types of literature. It’s a denigration not just to the people who produce these works but to the target demographic – Young Adults. But we need to de-snobbify our attitudes in relation to the types of stories we read and champion, particularly when they are written by and featuring diverse individuals.
A sports novel? Give it a whirl! Romance? Get on that bandwagon! Horror! It’d be horrifying if you didn’t talk about it to other people!
Stories for young adults can be among the most powerful because, rather than having to engage in the uphill battle of challenging an attitude which has ossified with adulthood, they offer people who are still determining who they are and how they understand the world food for thought during a time when they are inherently malleable in outlook and perspective. Don’t hesitate to champion a book because it doesn’t adhere to certain expectations of what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ book, and – especially – don’t hesitate to call out someone for being a snob.
This column features edited excerpts from the keynote address given to the Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research conference on the theme of ‘Owning Our Voices: Authenticity, Legitimacy, and Agency in Children’s and Young Adult Literature.’ Our thanks to Jared Thomas, Rebecca Lim, and Rachel Bin Salleh for their time and contributions.