Updated: Apr 8, 2021
Five years ago I sat in my local Waterstones waiting for one of the biggest names in fantasy to start his book reading. In my head, I'm rehearsing the question I've been practising for days: "Mr Abercrombie, do you think that using the word 'cripple' in your latest book might affect some of your readers with disabilities?" I've twisted this round in my head for so long that the words have lost all meaning but I'm still burning to know why he chose to include that word.
Picture me, later that night, as Joe Abercrombie says this: "I started thinking about what it would be like to live with severe pain. It would turn you into some kind of bitter, sadistic person who was capable of anything. That's what inspired me to write that character."
Picture me, swallowing my question down, trying not to choke on the lump left in my throat. I've now lived with chronic pain for eighteen years, finally getting my diagnoses... Lupus. Fibromyalgia. Sjögren's Syndrome. Have I descended into bitter sadism? (Mostly) no.
In 2014, the hashtag #weneeddiversebooks started trending as Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo vented their frustration about the lack of diversity in kidlit. The statistics they quote still make me shiver: for example, only 10.6% of the children's books published in 2013 had characters of colour. Their campaign promotes diversity in kidlit, supporting stories with a wide definition of diversity.
"We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities."
- Mission Statement, weneeddiversebooks.org
I got home from the talk, and I stared at my bookshelves. Three floor-to-ceiling stacks and where was the diversity? Maybe a third had female main characters. Less than a quarter had people of colour in starring roles. Precisely three had LGBT+ characters in the spotlight. Joe Abercrombie's "cripple" was the only disabled character on the shelves. My own reading habits had to change.
The benefits of diverse reading aren't just for kids. Our writing should reflect the people who exist in our world. Stories give us a window into the lives of others, and there's no good reason that shouldn't extend to the fantasy genre as well. There are plenty of grown-ups who need to learn to value all the ways people differ and see past these differences to our common hopes, dreams and motivations.
There are better blogs than mine that explain that NO - "historical accuracy" isn't a valid excuse for whitewashing (check out http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/ ). That talk about how to write different race sensitively and avoid harmful tropes (the mods at http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/ do a fantastic job!). That describes why LGBT readers deserve more than coming out stories (http://lgbtqreads.tumblr.com/ ).
When I look at my bookshelves now, that balance has shifted. I have black authors, Asian authors, queer authors, female authors, disabled authors, all together on my shelf. It's not just my book collection that has grown - it's my whole belief system. I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't done this literary journey. After all, if you can believe in dragons, then a diverse cast should be a snap!
Where do I find these books?
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