Term 2 2020
- Feature article
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Windows and mirrors: Visibility and representation in Australian LGBTQIA+ YA fiction
Teacher librarian Nell Day explores how the idea of books as windows and mirrors provides a rationale for diversifying collections across many axes of marginalisation.
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange ... When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience — Sims Bishop, 1990.
The metaphor of literature as being both a mirror to readers’ own experiences and identities and offering a window through which to access the experience of others, is a powerful one to guide librarians in purposefully curating diverse and inclusive collections. While this idea was originally conceived by African American scholar Rudine Sims Bishop in relation to racial and cultural diversity, it provides a rationale for diversifying collections across a number of axes of marginalisation including those related to gender and sexuality.
We reflected on the authors’ own experiences of libraries as queer-identified young people, and discussed LGBTQIA+ writing in current Australian young adult (YA) fiction.
Alison Evans recalled their education in the Catholic system and the extreme difficulty of accessing books with queer stories or characters. Their experience with libraries as a young queer person was ‘pretty awful because there was no queer stuff that I could find’.
For Jessica Walton the school library was a safe space when she experienced bullying after having cancer and becoming an amputee, but she could only find one book about childhood illness (Peeling the onion by Wendy Orr) and commented that ‘disability representation was really bad and queer representation was non-existent’. Walton first read a book with queer main characters (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters) in her twenties, saying ‘I remember just crying ... feeling really angry and bitter that this was the first time I’d read something like that’.
Jordi Kerr recalled ‘not finding any queer representation [in the children’s section]: I have no idea where it was’. Kerr commented that today the situation is ‘better, but there is so much space still for things to improve’. They cited Jenny Pausacker’s comprehensive audit of queer Australian YA in the 30 year period to 2015, noting that during that period there was only one YA novel published in Australia featuring an intersex character (Alyssa Brugman’s Alex as well). It seems that there are particular groups under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella who still suffer from a lack of visibility in literature.
Kerr underlined the importance of Own Voices literature. The hashtag #ownvoices was coined by author Corinne Duyvis to describe books in which ‘the protagonist and the author share a marginalised identity’. Kerr explained: ‘… When the We Need Diverse Books movement started … those who already had access to publishers … were suddenly producing stories about diverse characters, and it wasn’t necessarily reaching the communities who were needing to share their voices ... It’s not that other people can’t or shouldn’t write diverse characters … but if you are writing a story where the protagonist is from a minority community … you are sharing something of that community’s experience, and you don’t have that lived experience. So if you get it wrong, you don’t pay the price of that. And that’s one of the things that really bugs me. Own Voices is a … way of saying that we need diverse books by diverse people.’
Evans agreed that ‘Own Voices is a way of re-balancing the industry.’ Walton highlighted the Disability in KidLit website where ‘disabled people review middle grade and YA books written for kids with disabled representation. The … [reviewer] shares the disability of the character in the book and it’s an incredible resource’.
Walton discussed the importance of intersectionality in YA collections. The concept of intersectionality, explores the ways people may be subject to marginalisation or discrimination on multiple fronts that overlap and intersect with each other. Walton explained: ‘as a disabled queer person, I often reflect on how I don’t necessarily feel at home in either queer spaces or disability spaces … You might go to a queer event and realise that it’s not fully accessible. Or maybe I can get in there … but there are other queer disabled people … who are non-ambulant, who would not be able to get into that space. Or if I’m in a disability space there might be someone talking about gender and sexuality and not mentioning LGBTI people at all … looking at the specific experiences of people who belong to multiple marginalised communities is really important … Having diverse characters … [helps] … kids understand the world around them and the problems that are around them and to be able to maybe work towards solving those problems’.
The We Need Diverse Books movement has been a huge force in promoting YA literature featuring diverse characters and characters with intersecting marginalised identities. As the movement started in the USA, the translation to the Australian context has not always been straightforward. In particular, teacher librarians who seek to improve the visibility and representation of people of colour in their fiction collections may find only a small number of works that speak to the Australian experience. This also holds true to an extent for LGBTQIA+ representation.
Evans reflected: ‘American content feels very alien to Australian teens: it wasn’t my experience and I couldn’t relate to that stuff.’ They reflected that this disconnect with YA realism was instrumental in developing their love of genre fiction: ‘… it’s not pretending to be our world. It’s not contemporary so it’s allowed to be different and you kind of approach it in a different way.’ Kerr added, ‘… the gender affirmation pathways in the US, and the legalities around it, are very different to the ones here. So if people are accessing information around that in [YA] literature from overseas, it’s not going to be accurate information for their own experiences …’
Walton spoke about seeking to create a diverse book collection for her own children. ‘I think about my own kids: they’ve got a disabled mum … two mums, … a donor, … a transgender grandmother, and yet ... there are so many people who are not in the picture books that most kids are reading. And I know from personal experience that when you don’t see yourself in books, it’s damaging … It’s not just about what people are saying … it’s about what they’re not saying and who they’re not including. You start to understand that you’re not in those books … With my own kids I tried to build a diverse library of picture books and … there’s not that much out there. But as I was reading each of the picture books that I found, it was a healing thing, and that was the same as reading the first queer book in my twenties. First acknowledging the grief of not having had that myself, and then going “Oh, this is really healing” to [see everyone in] picture books and then middle grade and then YA and to … go YES, we belong in there and screw anyone who thinks we don’t’.
Kerr added: ‘I just wanted to add how self-affirming that representation is, and how literally lifesaving it can be when someone in a position of power says “this story is worth telling”. … One of my favourite quotes is from Adrienne Rich who said “When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you ... when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.’
By purposefully seeking out diverse and inclusive collections, teacher librarians have the power to enable some of our most vulnerable young people to see their identities affirmed in the mirror of fiction. Evans summarised: ‘What we’re doing is trying to make a softer world.’
The panel agreed that there is still plenty of room for improvement in LGBTQIA+ representation and visibility in contemporary Australian YA literature. Kerr commented: ‘I want to see more trans characters, especially non-binary. Ida [Alison Evans's novel], which was published in 2017, is the first YA book published by a mainstream Australian publisher that features a non-binary character. And yet the latest research on young trans people in Australia shows that 48%, so nearly half, of young trans people identify as non-binary. So where the heck are they seeing themselves?’
Walton spoke about the need to re-examine attitudes to intersectionality in YA writing: ‘There’s been this assumption in publishing for a long time that people don’t want to read something outside of their own experiences, and so when you have a character who’s disabled and queer and has chronic pain someone might go “Oh, that’s ridiculous, that’s a checklist, that’s too weird, no one's going to want to read that”. But I think that young people are proving again and again that they do want to read about people who are different from them … if you never publish those books then no-one’s reading them and you don’t get a sense of whether people like those books and whether they’ll sell …’
Evans reinforced the importance of diversifying publishing across many axes: ‘There are a lot of white people in the room: how are we making room for people of colour? When we talk about “What do boys read? What do girls read?” what about non-binary people? There are at least two nonbinary people in this room and we read a lot because we’re huge nerds.’
These three writers are not only forging their own paths in the Australian literary landscape, but also have a profound depth of understanding of the importance of visibility and representation in young people’s literature. Their passion and authenticity left me with a renewed understanding of how teacher librarians have the power to facilitate transformative literary experiences for the young people in our care through providing access to diverse and inclusive collections, and were a powerful reminder of the words of literacy educator Chad Everett who writes of diverse books ‘in addition to texts being stories to be enjoyed, they are powerful tools of social justice’.
Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), 9-11.
This article first appeared in Synergy, online journal of the School Library Association of Victoria (SLAV).