"I decided at 14 I would stop being Negro—that was the phrase then. Books transmit values, and if you don’t find your life in books, bingo, you have to reach the conclusion that you are less valuable."
Walter Dean Meyers, African-American New York Times bestselling author and Newbery Honor and Printz Award winner.
That quote resonates with me a lot because when I was growing up in Australia, I never saw anyone remotely like me in the books I was reading (hello: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Chronicles of Narnia, Trixie Belden, The Three Investigators and the folk of the Faraway Tree, for starters). Subconsciously, I drew a lot of comfort from reading science fiction and fantasy novels (like Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story) because what speculative fiction brings home is that skin colour, shape, size, background and species can be completely irrelevant. It’s what you do inside your skin that counts.
So when I was lucky enough to start getting published, I made sure—in a non-shouty, hopefully completely naturalistic way—that people like you and me and the person you stand next to on the bus, featured in them. I was granted the ability to adjust the "real" world my characters lived in to include Chinese and Columbian kids, people who spoke Spanish or Russian, or who were forced to work as strippers or waitresses or clairvoyants, just to make ends meet. I've tried to fill my books with the kinds of people we live side-by-side with, the kinds of people we are. And I just do it because it adds to the reality of the story and the characters, and reflects the world I live in. Writing is more powerful, I believe, if it comes from a real and recognisable place. I’m not interested in presenting the lives of pretty people facing mildly perplexing personal conundrums because I don’t know anyone like that.
Unlike the US and UK, there is no distinct push in Australia to publish or read “diverse” young adult fiction that remotely resembles the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign in the US (and the UK equivalent advocated for recently by Malorie Blackman). And this despite our contested history: the fiction that our country was terra nullius, or completely empty, when it was first colonised.
Reaching out to my treasured writing peers who work in Australian YA, I came up with a handful of authors from diverse backgrounds: Randa Abdel-Fattah (Palestinian-Australian), Tamar Chnorhokian (Armenian-Australian), Alice Pung (Cambodian-Australian), Ambelin Kwaymullina (Indigenous Australian), Hoa Pham (Vietnamese-Australian), Melina Marchetta (Italian-Australian), Melissa Keil (Sri Lankan-Australian) and me (Singaporean-Australian). We’re lucky enough to have initiatives such as the State Library of Queensland's "black&write!" project which has published books for children and young adults by Indigenous authors such as Sue McPherson, Jarod Thomas and Teagan Chilcott, but if you look at the sheer volume of YA fiction coming out of this country, the diversity of the Australian stories represented probably resembles an episode of "Neighbours" or "Home and Away": if you blink, you’ll miss the “ethnic” / “native” in the background of the shot, sipping a coffee by the window.
There is this perception going around that books written for children and young adults do not deal with sufficiently complex issues or do not seek to "confront the full range of genuine human experience" in the way that books for adults aim to. While diversity continues to be under-represented in the stories that we offer up to young readers, that perception will likely remain. As Ambelin Kwaymullina put it so eloquently in a recent blog post: "We need diverse books because a lack of diversity is a failure of our humanity. Literature without diversity presents a false image of what it is to be human. It masks – and therefore contributes to – the continuation of existing inequities, and it widens the gulfs of understanding that are already swallowing our compassion for each other."
The Astrologer's Daughter by Rebecca Lim is out on 23rd July (Text Publishing, £6.99).