Collaboration – between marginalised creators and concerned publishing professionals – is at the heart of all grassroots movements that aim to eradicate the kinds of systemic biases that keep people from Indigenous and diverse backgrounds (including people of colour, people living with physical, physiological or neurological difference and people who identify as LGBTIQA) from telling their own stories, in their own words and pictures.
The lack of diversity in children’s and young adult literature in the English-speaking world has existed and persisted in plain sight since the publication of books for children and young adults in English became a thing.
Broadly, while marginalised people reflect a huge percentage of the English-speaking world, their work and/or stories that feature people just like them, are largely missing from the children’s and YA literary ‘canon’.
In 2017, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin– Madison surveyed 3500 children’s books published in the United States in that year and found that only twenty-five percent had black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main characters (this being only part of the overall diversity picture in publishing)1. Commentators, including publisher Lee and Low, believe that roughly eighty percent of the US children’s book landscape – comprised of authors, illustrators, publishers, editors and other publishing professionals and reviewers – is white2. While I won’t hit you with too many more facts and figures, Lee and Low – minority-owned and the largest multicultural publisher in the US, whose mission it is to increase the number of diverse books available to children3 – has also noted that while the number of diverse books has increased substantially since the founding of the celebrated grassroots, minority authorled, We Need Diverse Books campaign, the majority of those ‘diverse’ books are still written by white authors4. This indicates a continued reluctance by publishers to allow marginalised creators to tell their own stories, leading to the risk that representations of marginalised peoples are taken to be the truth – whether or not this is, in fact, the case.
In the UK, the grassroots approach has spawned organisations including the Inclusive Minds collective, the Megaphone mentoring scheme for unpublished BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers and the BAME in Publishing networking group for publishing professionals.5
In Australia, the groundbreaking black&write! project offers writing fellowships and editing internships to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and editors. The Australian Publishers Association, through its Publishing Industry Internship Program, seeks to find publishing interns from diverse backgrounds. While the #LoveOzYA movement was created in 2015 to focus discussions around YA fiction in Australia and 'promote local content to local readers'6, no organisation then existed to focus attention on, and tackle, systemic bias – or what I like to call problems with the filter – which was why acclaimed Indigenous speculative-fiction YA author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, and I were moved to found Voices from the Intersection in 2016.
I’ve written before about intersectional theory and how marginalised people are often affected by systemic injustices (such as racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia) multi-dimensionally7. What Voices from the Intersection seeks to do is to support Indigenous and diverse creators and publishing professionals who fall within one or more diverse backgrounds.
Voices aims to support the creation of own voice8 stories through establishing publication and mentorship opportunities for emerging YA and children’s writers, illustrators and publishing professionals who are Indigenous, people of colour, LGBTIQA or living with disability. Because the project is run on a purely voluntary, zero-funding basis from a study in Fremantle and a study in Melbourne, we’ve had to be creative about the initiatives we’ve been able to offer so far.
While Voices isn’t in a position to offer the kinds of mentorships, internships, teaching initiatives and grants/awards run by We Need Diverse Books or publisher Lee and Low, our initiative has so far been able to offer:
• A publisher pitch day for almost forty emerging marginalised creators (writers and illustrators) held at the State Library of Victoria (SLV) in March 2017 with the generous assistance of Adele Walsh and the Centre of Youth Lit at the SLV and representatives from publishers Walker Books, Allen and Unwin, Black Inc., Clan Destine Press, Hardie Grant, Penguin Random House, Text Publishing, Midnight Sun Publishing, Hachette Australia, HarperCollins Publishers, Berbay Publishing, Bonnier Publishing, and Jacinta Dimase Management.
• Publication opportunities for emerging, marginalised YA authors via the first Voices short story and memoir anthology to be published by Fremantle Press in 2018 called 'Meet me at the Intersection'.
These two opportunities would not have come about without intensive collaboration between writers (many of Australia’s most loved YA authors turned up to usher pitch attendees on the day and direct traffic) and between writers, publishers and industry experts. Ambelin and I have had months of negotiation and a multitude of meetings – formal and informal – to get Voices’ first offerings off the ground.
We’ve also had to lean, in the nicest possible but most persistent way, on a lot of friends and contacts in the publishing and writing industries to make just these two things happen.
We have to acknowledge, in particular, the incredible enthusiasm of Fremantle Press and Clan Destine Press for the anthology. It shows a great bravery in the independent presses – who were unconcerned with whether the numbers worked – to champion memoir and fiction from YA writers who identify as queer and disabled, LGBTIQA and chronically ill, or Muslim and queer, for example.
I also have to highlight the great joy and privilege of having the opportunity to collaborate with Ambelin, who is not only a writer but also an illustrator, educator and legal academic. An expert on current theory surrounding the lack of diversity in publishing, Ambelin has guided me to the resources and literature and put me – just a bumbling, concerned citizen – in touch with creators and publishing professionals I simply would never have had access to.
Voices’ brief is simple – we are hoping to create fresh spaces and find a readership for marginalised voices in the Australian publishing landscape for YA and children’s stories. On a personal level, I have three young children. I don’t want them to grow up in a world where their stories, and their friends’ stories, are not reflected in the copious amount of books that they read. I don’t want them to have to turn to science fiction and fantasy novels (like I did) for comfort because stories about talking cats are still somehow deemed more publishable than stories about people like them.9 If, by default or through conservatism, publishers won’t take risks on marginalised stories or creators because they are not considered 'commercial' enough, it’s up to concerned creators themselves to advocate for non-mainstream stories, creators and publishing professionals, in any way that they can.
Here’s to a day when there are just stories – by everyone, for everyone – and initiatives like Voices from the Intersection will have rendered themselves obsolete.
About the author
Rebecca Lim is a Melbourne writer, illustrator and lawyer. The author of eighteen books, most recently 'The Astrologer’s Daughter' (A Kirkus Best Book of 2015 and CBCA Notable Book for Older Readers), 'Afterlight' and 'Wraith', her work has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award, Aurealis Award and Davitt Award, and has been translated into German, French, Turkish, Portuguese and Polish. She is a co-founder of the Voices from the Intersection initiative.
2. https://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/09/diversity-childrens-booksslavery-twitter/; http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversityin-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baselinesurvey-results/
7. See Rebecca Lim, ‘Good Migrant Girl’ in Caro, J. (ed.), Unbreakable: Women Share Stories of Resilience & Hope (UQP 2017).
8. Own Voices refers to diverse stories written or created by authors from the same diverse group