S is for Seeing.
People are always trying to define what diversity in fiction means. Well, I read an article by Rain Sivertsen on her blog Writing Up My Serotonin and realised for the first time what diversity in fiction should mean. Here’s Rain’s guest post.
“Can you remember the first time you ever recognized yourself in a book?” I read that sentence in an article a while back, and it got me thinking about something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. Suddenly the old memory jumped out at me like Technicolor in a black-and-white movie.
There’s a lot of talk about diversity in fiction – especially YA – and while I feel very passionately about the subject, I’ve been hesitant to write about it because there are voices out there I feel are a lot more qualified to chime in on the subject. But today I’d like to talk about why I feel it is so important for everyone to be granted the gift of seeing themselves in books.
I’m lucky, and kind of in the middle when it comes to representation. As a white, cisgender lesbian, I see myself more than some people and not nearly as often as others. At least two out of those three can be found on every bookshelf in every bookstore in every country around the world. It’s like sand on a beach. You’re not going to have any trouble finding books about white women (who identify as women). The thing is, people mostly notice what isn’t there. The part about us we desperately want to be seen is what seems to be ignored or missing in the books we read. And that’s very sad.
To get back to that first question, I do remember the first time I recognized myself in a book. It was purely by accident, and it’s still the happiest accident I’ve ever stumbled across. I was around sixteen and just walking around in my favourite bookshop, looking for new fantasy books to read, when a shiny blue-green paperback spine squeezed between two brick-size novels sparkled in the light and caught my attention. I pulled it out and stared at the beautiful cover of a girl in a forest, wearing a slip of a dress and carrying glass shoes behind her back. The book was “Ash” by Melinda Lo, and I apologize in advance if I accidentally spoil anything.
The back cover only revealed it was a re-telling of Cinderella. I love fairy tales and retellings of them, so I bought it. Through most of the first half of the book, it was just another beautifully written fairy tale fantasy, with a main character I cared about, Ash. About 140 pages in, Ash met a young huntress named Kaisa. Kaisa was a great character, I liked her, and it looked like she and Ash were going to have a beautiful friendship. But there was something about the way Kaisa impacted Ash, the way she captured Ash with her movements, her words, how Ash registered it so vividly every time Kaisa touched her. It’s embarrassing how long it took me to understand what was developing between the two young women, the same way it seems embarrassing that it took another four years for me to realize I was gay.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why this spark between Ash and Kaisa seemed so important to me. Why it made me blush a little every time Ash looked at Kaisa in a particularly suggestive way (well, suggestive from a YA point of view). Why it made my heart flutter every time something seemed about to happen between them. What I didn’t understand at the time was that for the first time in my life, I was reading what some part of my soul recognized as me. I wouldn’t embrace that part for years, but that didn’t matter. That feeling I got from reading Ash might be one of the most important moments of my teenage years. It made an invisible part of me feel seen and okay for the first time. Looking back on it, it feels like the beginning of everything. I want everyone to get to experience this feeling. That’s one reason why diversity – not just in characters, but in writers – is so important and wonderful.
Diversity when it comes to sexuality and gender identities, people with disabilities, people of colour, and so on, is extremely important in books, especially YA, because kids are the ones who might need it most. But it isn’t always the good things about us we need to see represented. Things we’re proud of, parts of our identities we want to share with the world and want to be seen for. It can matter just as much to see a part of yourself in fiction that you don’t necessarily want to share, that you’re not proud of, but that is still an important part of you, and it still matters when it’s given a place in the books you read. I’m talking about things like mental health issues. For me, there was one thing in particular that jumped out at me in my teenage years.
I often hesitate to write about it, because it’s one of those things about mental health that still makes people a little uncomfortable and comes across as somewhat taboo – an outdated term for an outdated concept, but I can’t write about seeing myself in books without mentioning the one other time where it really mattered to me more than any other.
Vampire Academy is one of my favourite YA fantasy series ever. The MC, Rose Hathaway, is easily on my list of top five favourite fictional characters, but when I read the series for the first time as a teenager, there was something about her best friend, Lissa, that captured my attention. She was very different from me, except that she struggled a lot mentally. She had issues that overwhelmed her, and so many feelings she didn’t know how to deal with most of the time. She had one way of dealing with it that Rose never understood, but that I understood all too well. So well I started crying the first time it was mentioned. Lissa cut herself when the overwhelming emotions inside her became too much for her to handle.
She didn’t do it often; she didn’t do it much – it was a tiny part of a much larger story – but she did do it. And to my young teenage heart, it felt like the world suddenly changed colours. The reasoning Lissa gave for why she did this, why it felt like the only thing she could do sometimes, it went straight to my heart because I shared all those same feelings, and I had never been able to properly express them like this. Just to see that my feelings were real and valid enough to be put into a bestselling fantasy YA series made me think maybe I wasn’t as broken and alone as I had thought.
As the series went on, Lissa overcame her self-harm. She got help, she got medication, support, and it worked. She got better. For a while when I was young, that gave me hope. But I re-read these awesome books a few years ago, and something about this storyline felt less heart-warming. Lissa’s recovery felt too easy, because I knew I wasn’t one of those kids where counselling and medication helped in a short period of time. It took me years to get to where Lissa seemed to get so easily, and even today I’m still fighting the same old battle.
That was the only time I read about self-harm in fantasy YA, and because of my love for fantasy, I wasn’t willing to move to other genres to find more. I’m not saying that if I’d seen this more in books, I would have been able to deal with and get past this earlier in life. I’m not saying that because I have no idea what might have happened if things were different. All I know is that in all the books I read since, the feeling of being seen for this one darker part of myself, the feeling of having my thoughts expressed in a book that might help other people understand me a bit better; that feeling didn’t really come back. I will say that I’ve read plenty of fantasy stories that touched on depression, even anxiety, and those stories are really important, to me and many others. But this little detail was always missing, and I just didn’t think I could write a post about finding myself in fiction without mentioning it.
Seeing yourself in books is an important feeling, especially when it comes to YA. Young adults need to see that there are so many different kinds of people out there, people of different sexual orientations, genders, skin colours, emotional states, physical states, spiritualities, whatever. So many people exist in the world, and they should exist in stories. We need characters in fiction that show readers young and old that they’re not alone, that they’re not worth less than anyone else. That they belong in fiction as much as anyone else.
As a writer, I’m not saying that you are obligated to include everyone in every single story, but it’s worth remembering that all kinds of people might come across your story. Even just one glimpse of a character who reminds them of themselves could mean the world to someone who might be used to seeing everyone except themselves in the stories they read.
And if you can make that person feel seen for just a little while and make them feel like they belong just as much on the page as everyone around them, why wouldn’t you want to?
Rain Sivertsen is a 25-year-old fantasy writer currently working on her first novel, a YA fantasy she intends to self-publish by 2019/20. She is also working on a darker fantasy trilogy about vampires.
Everything she writes takes place in a fantasy world called Hurst where she spent most of her time, but her corporeal self is located in the beautiful city of Prague – which might be the ideal home for anyone writing fantasy, with magic hiding around every corner.
Writing is the only thing Rain wants in life. Getting her books out there is the only thing she truly desires, and no amount of hardship and depression and crappy jobs is going to hold her back. Without fantasy, her sanity would have slipped away a long time ago and she would be lost to the veil of depression, so she will keep using fantasy to stay afloat as long as it will have her. Her blog, Writing Up My Serotonin, produces new blog posts every Saturday about writing, fantasy and mental health.
Do you have any questions for Rain? What are your favourite books? When did you see yourself in a book for the first time?