A week ago, I queried an agent. One of the questions on the agency’s website’s official query form was; What would your main character say about your book?
It is written.
While it may strike some as impertinent, my response was a nod to the recurring theme of fate in INSTANT KARMA. Southeast Indians are notoriously fatalistic. It’s hardwired into our DNA. We attribute everything life hands us to fate, tossing the phrase, “It is written,” as casually as we would, a “Hullo.” I haven’t had a single conversation with my father without a reference to how the hands of providence work.
If space had allowed, I would have also written that my book is inclusive, though it may not be immediately apparent to a western reader. Part of INSTANT KARMA is set in India during the British occupation. Most of you are aware of the caste system practiced in India. It’s a social pecking order of sorts; our version of apartheid. I’m proud to say my main character is a total badass who hails from the very bottom of that pecking order, surrounded by a diverse cast of characters who blur and defy the battle lines drawn by the caste system. In the face of a common enemy (the British) that did happen.
So I ask; do we truly understand diversity and inclusion? Diversity is more than a catch phrase. In any cultural context, the possibilities are endless. It is so nuanced that the children’s publishing industry has only begun to scratch its surface.
About a month ago, SCBWI announced its 2016 On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award. It’s an award to promote diversity in kidlit. As this year’s recipient, I connected with prior year winners. We total 11. And guess what? Since the award’s inception in 2012, only two winners have an agent or are on track to be published. In emails and phone calls among the winners, the frustration is palpable. The question on everyone’s lips is simply this: where’s the walk to go along with the talk about promoting diversity and writers of color? Perhaps the award-winning manuscripts aren’t main-stream enough, we reason. Filtering through the ether, the chatter quite often touches on the industry’s fondness for cookie cutter stories. We tell each other that if the SCBWI panel of judges found our stories compelling enough to pick out of more than 100 entries, surely there’s hope?
In a fit of exasperation, I recently asked a friend and children’s author if the children’s publishing industry was ready for disparate world views and if so on whose terms? Do writers of color soften their world view to make it more palatable for the mainstream audience? Are agents and editors ready to read about themes that shake their comfort levels? I know readers are. But then again, readers don’t choose books based on how it may affect their bottom line.
At the end of the day, it’s pure economics that continues to keep marginalized voices on the side lines. It is the reason why books written by writers of color aren’t promoted with the same zeal as books written by white writers. It is the reason why individual groups find it necessary to create awards to honor writers who bring forward voices that celebrate and inform their particular world view.
Change is happening, albeit at the pace of molasses. Since its inception, the We Need Diverse Books movement has blossomed. On its official website, WNDB urge people to buy diverse books written by diverse writers, because strong sales figures are the only way to persuade publishers to invest in writers of color.
My fatalistic mind says it will happen. Census data bear it out. It is written. To use Nelson Mandela’s words, we are fast becoming a rainbow nation. Embrace it.