Black feminists have a range of opinions (just ask one about Beyonce), and so it’s always invigorating to share ideas on the topics that matter most to me. Bitch Magazine‘s blog recently published a conversation I had with writer Ibi Zoboi about race and representation in The Hunger Games and YA speculative fiction. Our 45-minute talk amounted to over 5000 words and we had to reduce that to under 2000 words for the blog. We’ve decided to post the rest of our discussion here, and the full podcast will be available on the Bitch Magazine website in 2014.
IBI: My first contact with speculative fiction was the stories I would hear my family tell. They happened in Haiti—political stories intermingled with loogaroo stories, which is like a vampire-type figure in Haitian folklore. There was always a sense of magic and darkness and fear in those stories. There was always somebody who didn’t come home and it was usually associated with the tonton macoute (a bogeyman with a sack), or a loogaroo who came to get somebody’s child. I had two mystical, folkloric figures woven into these political stories about family and friends, so that line between what was real and what was not was never clear.
ZETTA: In my childhood, that line between fantasy and reality was very clear because I was reading British novels in Canada—C.S. Lewis and Frances Hodgson Burnett, which isn’t exactly fantasy. But her work featured these wealthy, white children living on the moors in England and was so far removed from my reality. And because those books didn’t serve as a mirror, fantasy was very much something that happened to other people. I didn’t really imagine magical, wonderful things happening to me because everything that I read said it only happened to kids of a certain color or a certain class. In terms of gender, at least girls were having adventures, too, so that was a good thing.
You and I are both writers and we’re obviously trying to generate our own stories. Is there a way for us to make an intervention in the field of YA fantasy? How do our stories reach our kids?
IBI: I’m seeing it play out on the institutional level. I have children in a diverse school and I see it played out on a very small scale. Not necessarily with the students, but with the parents. When it comes to decision making—like having an author come into the school—they’ll say, “We don’t know of any authors of color. Can you help us?” They have the luxury of not thinking about anything that exists outside of their own—
ZETTA: Bubble, essentially.
IBI: Yes. We cannot do that. If we do, it’s to our own detriment. In order for my children to be successful, they need what Melissa Harris-Parry calls “proximity to whiteness.” Which is one of the reasons I’m going to grad school—
ZETTA: In Vermont!
IBI: In Vermont! It’s not a conscious decision to be closer to whiteness, but I realize there are some skills that I may need to know.
ZETTA: And social connections.
IBI: It is about social connections. I’ve learned a lot. I’m going to school with editors. I can say, “Hey, what’s going on with this diversity thing?” And get an honest answer. “As your classmate, tell me what’s going on. Tell me the truth.” And I don’t think I’d have those kinds of relationships if I weren’t in grad school in Vermont.
ZETTA: They’re lucky to have you, which brings me back to Tina Kugler’s illustration. That little white girl perched atop that stack of 93 books—it’s harmful to her because white children grow up thinking they’re the center of the universe. And that then makes it very hard for them to communicate cross-culturally because they haven’t had to have that experience, just as you were saying.
IBI: Very true. My daughter likes fantasy. She’s doing a report on Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker. She likes that book. To her it seems like there’s more diversity because of what I intentionally put in place around her.
ZETTA: You surround your kids with multicultural books.
IBI: So she doesn’t see a dearth because on our bookshelf there is abundance. I buy books that feature girls and boys of color. Already I set that foundation and they see me writing about kids of color. In terms of what we can do, I think it has to start at the ground level. I see it in the classroom. The teachers don’t know what books are out there. And if the teachers don’t know, the kids don’t know, their parents don’t know.
ZETTA: Librarians, too.
IBI: And on the other end of that, when I ask agents what’s going on they say, “We’re just not getting any submissions.” There’s a huge disconnect, and I wonder who is out there—besides the people we know—who else is trying to write?
ZETTA: That’s one of the reasons I chose to self-publish my latest novel. If we don’t take that route, if we’re afraid to self-publish, then what happens to all those other authors out there who haven’t had a book published but are desperate to see their work in a child’s hands? When I walk into a classroom as a black feminist writer, I know that I embody possibility. Kids looks at me and say “Wow—she’s one of us.” Or they come up to me and say, “You look like my cousin.” Or, “I have asthma, too!” They connect in a lot of ways.
So I feel like it’s important to me as an author who did the traditional route and the nontraditional route, to say, “You know what? I’m not waiting on the system any more because the game is rigged.” And I do encourage people to consider all their options: go the traditional route, wait and see if that works for you. But after ten years of waiting to get a book into print…I was done. I go into schools and I meet kids who need these books yesterday. They can’t wait another 3, 5, or 10 years. And there’s a long, black feminist tradition of self-publishing—Kitchen Table Press—all those scholars and writers and artists who didn’t want to have to wait.
IBI: I address that in my thesis. The Black Arts Movement started with writers self-publishing. I’m thinking on the other end, too, where I kind of want to call the gatekeepers to task. Not to say they have to do something—
ZETTA: They do!
IBI: Ok. They do, but at the same time there’s a lot of talk about diversity. When I do become serious about sending my work out, I want to document my process. “Ok, you say there needs to be diversity. Well, here I am. I just graduated—”
ZETTA: From a prestigious MFA program.
IBI: I’ve worked with some of the best people in the field and I’m submitting to publishers. Let’s see what happens.
ZETTA: I think there needs to be greater transparency.
IBI: I would want to have my process open to other aspiring authors. Because I don’t know what other people are going through. I’m one of two black women in my program and I’m getting an idea of what the different processes are. I’ll say, “Nobody gets six-figure advances any more.” And my white classmate will say, “ Uh, I did.” And I see that it’s possible.
ZETTA: It’s happening for some people.
IBI: Then I’ll talk to my black author friends and it’s a different story.
ZETTA: I think when we talk about what’s happening in our professional lives, that also can lead to greater accountability within the industry. Because there are all kinds of editors who pay lip service and say how desperately they want fantasy and speculative fiction from writers of color. Yet when I submit to them, I’ve been told my work is “unoriginal.” They make excuses. And I just think, when you have an advanced degree and you’ve won awards and you’ve gotten grants and you’ve published before—what really is stopping you from publishing in this market? And I have to say, I think it’s racism. And nobody really wants to talk about that. We need greater transparency and greater accountability: “I sent it to Agent X and she rejected it. Has Agent X taken on any writers of color?” For me, self-publishing is going to become more and more important. I’m open to publishing the traditional way, but I just have so much material and the demand in our community is so great, I don’t know that I have time to wait for the progress that may be on its way.
IBI: I don’t know. I want to see what lies ahead in terms of holding people accountable. I know from my program at VCFA there’s an agent who donated $5000 per year as a scholarship to have more diverse students come in. And that’s great, however—
ZETTA: However, you are already in the program. And once you graduate, are you going to get that six-figure deal? Are you going to have that contract? Are there going to be editors saying, “Ibi Zoboi! She’s won awards and grants, she’s traveled the world. Let’s see what she’s got.” You have how many manuscripts at this point?
IBI: Just three. A lot of people pay lip service to this idea of diversity. But I’m looking for that next author who is acclaimed, who’s winning awards, who’s got that much notoriety. In the UK, Malorie Blackman—
IBI: Right. She is the highest-paid Black entertainer in England. She’s the most highly respected.
ZETTA: And yet we have Walter Dean Myers. He’s the children’s laureate right now for the US. I feel like that’s part of the same system we have here in the US where we can have a black president and that increases diversity, but it doesn’t increase equity. What I’m looking for is for more people to have an equal opportunity. And the way the publishing industry is structured right now, that’s not going to happen.
IBI: I’m way more optimistic than you are. I see it happening with the new Common Core standards. Parents are speaking out, teachers are speaking out.
ZETTA: It’s going to take that kind of collective pressure because it can’t just be three authors of color who couldn’t place a manuscript saying, “There’s a problem with the publishing industry.” It’s going to take parents and teachers and librarians and kids saying, “This is what we want. We’re asking you, as an industry, to provide us with something we’re willing to consume.” I don’t understand how publishers can be walking away from that much money. Every other corporation is going after the Latino market and the Asian market and the African American market, and publishing just seems to be saying, “We really just don’t care. We have a guaranteed market with white readers and that’s what we’re going to go for—and we’re going to assume that white readers don’t want to read about people of color.”
I do think it matters that we have narratives where girls are empowered and are leaders. I just taught After Earth, and I often think about Will and Jada Smith with their production company Overbrook. They decided to create projects that serve not only as vehicles for their kids’ talent, but that also produce the images we know are missing from society. I can just imagine what it means to Black boys to look up at the screen and see Jaden Smith in a spacesuit with two gigantic swords, vanquishing the alien. When have we ever seen a Black girl doing that?
IBI: That would take a movement. I think both the film industry and the publishing industry need to realize there is demand. I am a fan of Madea.
ZETTA: Oh no!
IBI: But it doesn’t have to be dumbed down in that way. You see how Divergent is coming to the big screen. The Mortal Instruments.
ZETTA: Beautiful Creatures was just on HBO the other day.
IBI: When is there going to be a girl of color in the lead role? We need a movement where a book becomes a movie and the whole country rallies around it.
ZETTA: But After Earth didn’t do well commercially. Are we going to be able to find an audience for that Black girl film? I don’t understand how young white kids can consume hip hop and watch Will Smith’s movies generally, but movies that are empowering to our kids don’t seem to get their support. When I think about those teenagers complaining about Rue or Beetee being played by Black actors, I have to wonder if white America—including the younger generations—is ready for a Black heroine.
IBI: It has to come from the bottom up. Like with hip hop. None of the artists was getting rich but they were ’hood rich. No one was thinking how to sell it to white suburban kids.
ZETTA: Big Hollywood studios are not the way to go, then, because they’re going to want that guaranteed profit.
IBI: For me, if I’m writing fantasy, I want to write about that Black Haitian girl from the ’hood in Brooklyn and really focus on my audience in Flatbush. And it’s what you’re doing, too. You’re focused on your immediate community. It’s what nonprofits call, “Local impact, global change.” Somehow there’s a ripple effect when your work is true, and honest, and really comes from the heart of a people. I didn’t see After Earth, so I don’t know how much it would resonate with the kid in Brooklyn who goes to the basketball court.
ZETTA: Your son would love it!
IBI: But there’s another element. I don’t know how to vocalize what I think. It has to capture the essence of what Black kids are going through today.
ZETTA: But that goes back to Rudine Sims Bishop’s idea about mirrors and windows. There are moments when a kid wants to open a book or go see a film and find a mirror—to see his or her community, and self, and family represented. I’ve gone into a special education classroom and seen Black and Latino kids reading The Giver by Lois Lowry. Fantastic book, but the cover has an old white man who looks like Santa Claus. And I just thought, “You can’t give that book to reluctant readers!” Then the teacher gave them my picture book Bird and they said, ‘That’s my world—brownstones! The park! He’s in Harlem on 125th!” They totally recognized the world of the book. But you also want them eventually to pick up a book like The Giver and say, “This isn’t a mirror, it isn’t showing me my world. But I’m looking into another world and I can find a place for myself there.”
IBI: They have to be side by side. They need to see both options to make those literary connections.
ZETTA: We have a lot of work to do.
IBI: There’s a lot of work to do, and I’m glad people are already out there doing the work. I’m so thankful for Melissa Harris-Parry!
ZETTA: She making space for Black women’s voices to be heard.
IBI: I need our girls to know you can speak up for yourself and learn to think about the media critically.