Books can be so contradictory sometimes. On the one hand, they can provide us with excellent representation for marginalised identities and allow teens to see themselves in what they read, critique our society in a way that’s accessible to the young adult audience, and provide us with exciting and engaging content. But sometimes, disappointingly, they can seem to do all the wrong things: provide harmful representations of some identities or come across as problematic.
Let me just say something for a second — books don’t intentionally try to be problematic or insensitive. It’s not like the author sets out to write something that will offend or harm as many people as possible. Additionally, it’s not just the author that should be blamed for these errors. As Danielle Binks mentioned in her panel at YA Day just last weekend, there has to be accountability from the editors and the first readers from the publishing house that allow such insensitive content to be made public. And that comes down to the need for more diverse voices in publishing to ensure problematic or triggering or harmful representation and content doesn’t harm the people who read YA, especially teens.
We need more diverse voices in publishing. We need equality and respect for everyone, and not let those who work in the industry be drowned out by the white males that are predominantly in the high positions in the companies. Another thing Danielle said on Sunday was that women in the publishing industry are ‘overworked, underpaid, and undervalued’, and this needs to change. The ingrained sexism in the industry that so many people are made to just endure because they’re ‘doing what they love’ and they’re passionate about books has to stop. But that’s a whole other conversation for another blog post.
What I really want to talk about today is books that try to be good, but end up harming more people in the process. What prompted this discussion was a book I just finished reading — Miles Away From You. I’d seen a few negative things about it, but I didn’t pay much attention to the few tweets I saw a month or so ago about it being harmful for some people. Because our community is becoming more and more educated about misrepresentations and harmful content, it’s inevitable that more books will be called out for being problematic. And that’s not a bad thing. People need to be aware of how some books may negatively portray some identities because at the end of the day, ensuring people aren’t triggered or negatively impacted by what they read is more important than just shoving something under the rug and trying to forget about it.
So let me get back to Miles Away From You — a book I’d been looking forward to reading because I’d heard there was transgender representation and featured a queer male protagonist. This year, 90% of my most anticipated novels had diverse leads, and I was excited to finally get my hands on one of them. And for the first 50 pages, I was really impressed. I mean, there were a few questionably-worded phrases and I wasn’t too keen on the idea that the only person of colour in the narrative was on life support, but at the 50 page-mark, there was still hope for it to become one of my favourite reads.
What I was really impressed by was the explicit stating that the protagonist was pansexual, which is an identity I haven’t seen in many books (and as pansexual is the first identity I ever aligned myself with, that’s representation that’s really close to my heart), the protagonist has two mums, the protagonist also uses the word demisexual to talk about himself being on the asexual spectrum, there’s a gay love interest, and one of the characters we’re introduced to is genderfluid. There was a lot of positives I saw in the book… but it was just the way this story was executed that I wasn’t impressed by. Miles Away From You really attempted to be a book that represented multiple identities, it just went about it in a very not good way.
It’s not okay to see the only transgender woman of colour with abusive parents in the narrative on life support, with her only ‘purpose’ being to allow Miles to go out and discover who he really is. I know it doesn’t mean much coming from a cis white woman, but I found this book just showed Miles as a ‘White Saviour’, and it could be very harmful for trans readers. Please be careful if you decide to pick up this book.
But something a lot of us have to remember is that more often than not, queer voices are put ahead of the voices of people of colour in the book community, and that’s not okay. I’ve witnessed the discourse about this issue, and it’s something that has to change. There shouldn’t be some kind of ranking of importance of marginalised identities in both the community and the YA novels we read. Just recently, I saw some people getting ‘upset’ over the fact that Love, Hate & Other Filters, an #OwnVoices novel, didn’t have enough queer characters. Authors can’t win. But at the same time, books shouldn’t be ranked based on the kind of diverse identities they represent. It’s not like, for instance, books featuring mentally ill characters are less important that those featuring queer characters. Ideally, books should strive to represent people of all marginalised identities — because that reflects the kind of world we live in.
So what was the point I was trying to make with this long-winded discussion? I guess it’s that we have to acknowledge both the good and the bad aspects of novels, to not disregard marginalised voices in both the community and the industry, and to keep reading more diverse and #OwnVoices books. I’m so proud of all the people that raise insightful discussions in our community about the need for diversity and representation in the novels we read, and I know that people will keep learning with time.
Have you read Miles Away From You? What do you think about it? What are some of your favourite #OwnVoices novels? Which diverse reads are you looking forward to getting to this year? I’d love to know!