Why Authentic Representation Matters in Fiction
Little Box of Books are big advocates for authentic representation in children’s books. Today, we’re going to talk about why.
If you look at the websites of literary agents and publishers, some will say that they are actively looking for #ownvoices material. This hashtag signifies that the author and the protagonist of their work are from the same marginalised group. For example, in one of our favourites, Front Desk, the protagonist Mia Chang immigrated from China to America like her author, Kelly Yang. (We review this book in a blog here; it is also part of our World Book Day Inspiration Box).
But why does this matter?
Could I, as a white middle-class British woman, have written Front Desk?
We are limited by our own life experience, and that’s okay. As much as we might research to understand someone from a different background, or with a different protected characteristic, interpretations without lived experience have limitations. There are many cultural markers that we might not even think about. Cultural markers can be as significant as language, belief system, politics. They can also be as seemingly small as the utensils in our kitchens; the hair products we own; or the terms of endearment we use.
So, yes, as a white middle-class British woman, I could have written Front Desk. But it is guaranteed that I would have missed many of the cultural markers that make it such an authentic, exceptional piece of work.
This applies to race, disability, sexuality, class, and more. Prioritising work from #own voices is a step towards giving a platform to people in marginalised groups so we all get a more well-rounded picture of what life can be like for others.
Empathy & Imagination…
An author has their empathy and imagination. But even so, it is likely that an author would still miss important details. For example, as someone with limited use of my left-hand, I own no clothes with buttons or shoes with laces. If someone were to write about the life of a disabled person, they might imagine the discrimination they faced, and they might be able to paint it effectively. But I doubt they would think of no clothes with buttons or shoes with laces. This is because they lack the lived experience of having a disability.
Of course, an author can do their research. A white author can learn about how to care for black hair. A black author can learn about the kitchen utensils needed to make Chinese cuisine.
But there are different kinds of research; academic, everything learned from books rather than real life, or proximity to people who share the protagonists life in some way.
Last week, in our blog on Disability in Children’s Books, See What I Can Do and Just Because are written by the parents of children with disabilities. That means that they are incredibility intimate with the people they are writing about.
This is authentic lived experience but different from a first person account.
This call for authentic representation applies to sexuality, disability, class, and more. At times, it raises more questions than it answers.
Can men write women? Or straight people write gay people? Can able-bodied people write about disability?
Taken to its logical extreme, the call for authentic representation can lead us to the point where only autobiographical works are acceptable, as we cannot write beyond our own lived experience. This would end genres: fantasy, science fiction, history. I’m not a dragon, or a robot from the year 3000, or an Elizabethan. So, therefore, I cannot write about those things.
However, we can all agree, this shouldn’t be the case. Our bookshelves would be significantly duller if they didn’t include dragons, robots from the year 3000, and Elizabethans. And that’s especially true for kids’ books.
But that’s not what this is about. We can get lost in the theory. Prioritising own voices means ensuring that those from marginalised groups don’t miss out on the money or the power, as demand for diversity grows.
Over the last 18 months there has been a marked increase in books that feature black characters. The market changed in response to the killing of George Floyd. Families looked at their bookshelves, identified the diversity gaps and demand surged.
The result of this has been more black characters.
The discussion about own voices and lived experience must be about who has the power, who makes the money from these books.
One downside of this call for authentic representation is that it forces authors to unveil their backgrounds when they might not want or be able to.
For starters, authors might not want the public attention that would come with sharing their background.
Perhaps, sharing “why” they have written the book means sharing the information of a loved one, and they do not feel they have the right to do that.
Secondly, an author might feel that their own identity is hard to categorise. They might write a book with a bisexual protagonist, and then, later on feel that “gay” is the word that suits them better. We should not demand that authors fit themselves perfectly into a category for the purpose of neat marketing.
At its Heart…
As we can see, when it comes to how authentic representation is actualised, there are so many layers, questions, and nuances to probe at. You could probe at them forever, if you wanted to.
However, at its heart, authentic representation is about raising the voices of under-represented groups and making sure they are compensated with money and decision making power.
We want to steer away from a book industry filled with people from identical backgrounds with similar lived experiences.
Diversity in all parts of the book business gives us all more stories to enjoy and to help us better make sense of the world.
We need to empower the voices of those who too-often go unheard.
Variety makes both humanity and fiction exciting.
Diversity is Not a Trend…
Authentic representation ensures that diversity is not a trend. White illustrators who have no connection to black people should not be colouring in their characters black because Black Lives Matter is trending on Twitter.
Diversity in fiction should not be treated as something fleeting. It is here to stay.
One day, hopefully, there will be no need to push for diversity, because it will be established. It will be the norm.
Furthermore, when it comes to kids’ books, authentic representation is utterly crucial. As it makes kids feel that they can realise their dreams of being an illustrator, an astronaut, a school-teacher. Authentic representation equates to excellent role models for young kids. As well as this, when a child reads a story that features authentic representation, they will feel seen.
We are always campaigning for you to diversify your bookshelf. When you are doing this, you might feel it is important to know the author’s background. You may want to know if the author’s background does align to that of the characters. Or, if they are familiar with the group that they are writing about in real life. That might feel like an important element of ensuring that your bookshelf is fully diverse.
Remember that this information may not be immediately obvious or even knowable. And that’s okay. Readers are not owed being able to gobble up every detail of an author’s personal life.
What we should strive for is an environment where authors feel safe and comfortable openly talking about diversity.
Clearly, there is a lot of debate to be had over this topic. We certainly do not have all the answers. Feel free to share your thoughts with us.
Yet, without being over-taken by the debate, we should remember the key reason why authentic representation matters.
And that’s the raising of marginalised voices and ensuring that the power and the money goes to those who it historically hasn’t gone to.