In Defence of Diversity aka What the heck, Meg Rosoff?

I spent the entire day thinking how I would begin this post. What anecdote I would share that will ease people into paragraphs that discuss a movement so dear to my heart. I thought I would share my experience reading The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan. I have read other novels depicting the helter skelter lifestyles of 20-something women in search of fulfillment and romance but rarely have they evoked the same response in me as The Zoya Factor did and it did so simply because I could see glimpses of myself in her.

Finding slivers of yourself in fiction is hugely reaffirming of your existence. I never realized that because I very rarely come across books that truly reflect me. Seeing yourself through fictional windows is far more important than I ever considered it to be. When you come across someone like yourself in fiction, you feel acknowledged and your narrative becomes something to be read, shared, and experienced. You become important; your stories become important. I have little common with the titular Zoya apart from Indian heritage and language, but reading her story felt empowering. That’s why the fact that this kind of reaffirmation, this fictive empowerment, is reserved, usually, only for the hegemonic group is deeply problematic.

So what is this Meg Rosoff thing about? Let me share with you the Facebook conversation that set it all off.

Med Rosoff

Before I address her remarks, let me just say that the title is a bit of a misnomer as I don’t think I need to “defend” diversity because I don’t think diversity in media is privilege. I think diversity is a right and I think that pretty soon people are going to stop demanding equal representation of gender, race, and sexual orientations and start creating equal representations themselves.

That said, a lot of people have talked quite eloquently about how problematic Rosoff’s comments in this excerpt are. And every time I read her comments, I have this desire to scream because I cannot understand how a writer whose job description is to observe and relay the human condition can be so unaware of it.

I will provide links below that desconstruct and discuss Rosoff’s comments quite wonderfully so I won’t do that. I’m just going to talk about my thoughts regarding this issue in a hopefully calmer state of mind than I currently feel.

As a POC, I’m always looking for diverse books by diverse authors to read. I read a lot and rarely come across books that act as mirrors so I’m not sure where the books that Rosoff talks about are. Perhaps in publisher reject piles? Rejected because they challenge the norm? There are some books that are released and that loudly celebrate their diversity but that fail to be truly diverse on a closer look. Books that misappropriate and commodify cultures that do not belong to them so that even our representation is on hegemonic terms. Our narratives are controlled and shaped by people who have no idea what it is to be a POC, a minority whether in sexual orientation or skin colour, or both. Normative diversity occurs when a privileged white male writes about the experiences of a coloured queer female.

Rosoff says that children should read newspapers to find mirrors. What do the recent newspapers give us? Do we want our children to find themselves in victims of police cruelty, shot while walking down the street? Or maybe we want them to find themselves in displaced refugee children who wash up on beaches because humanity failed them? Find mirrors in movies? Is she talking about Hollywood movies and if so, is she serious? Hollywood’s tendency to white wash is so well documented that all you need is a Google search to bring up thousands of examples. Stereotypes are deliberately perpetuated in Hollywood as a recent Buzz Feed video analysis of the casting calls from well known production houses proved. So excuse me if I scoff at the suggestion.

It seems to me that Rosoff feels threatened by the idea that diversity activists/advocates are truly making a difference and changing peoples’ expectations and ideas about representation. The world we live in is changing rapidly and I have made this point at various points and in various posts on The Book Wars but POC/different abilities, sexualities, and genders are no longer content to sit aside and wait for equal representation. We are not going to be satisfied with dregs that pretend representation. We have agency and we will use it. We have voices and we will be heard. Whether you want to cling to your outdated notions of white hegemony or move forward with us and celebrate art and literature in all its diverse glory is up to you.

Links for your edification.

https://campbele.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/sundaymorningreads-107/

http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.ca/2015/10/spouting-off-while-white.html

View at Medium.com

Dear Meg…

The Unbearable Whiteness of Meg Rosoff: A Dissection

http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.ca/2015/10/about-meg-rosoffs-next-book.html

34 responses to “In Defence of Diversity aka What the heck, Meg Rosoff?

  1. I agree with you one hundred percent. The movie industry and newspapers are definitely not the best place to get diversity. If anything, they are an invalid representation of our diverse cultures. And seeing people who are diverse getting hurt and misrepresented is not what we want to see.

  2. Yes, Nafiza, yes! I will be discussing this issue with my class on Tuesday, and now I will be quoting you. Great work!

  3. This is outrageous. How does a person not truly see the lack of diversity in children’s books? There are so many things awful about that writer’s opinion, but what’s really awful is that she’s not the only one who thinks this way which is evident in the lack of diversity in children’s literature today. Thank you for sharing this.

    • I think one positive aspect of her comment is that it reveals the often unspoken opinions of those in a position to actually actively advocate for diversity. A pity but at least we know now.

      • I can’t help but wonder how many stories have been rejected because of this attitude. It is sad, but as you said, at least now it’s out there and can be addressed.

  4. “Books are to teach kids about the world, about being different…” Well, yes. Precisely. I’m pretty sure Meg contradicted herself here because having diverse characters stops this… how exactly?

    Books are *exactly* the forum for diversification. There are so many people in the world, so many cultures, personalities, preferences and identities. If children learn about the world through books, which they do, then books should be representative of that world, and not just a white-washed and sterile imitation.

  5. With no other context than that exchange, I’m inclined to give Rosoff the benefit of the doubt. It sounds to me more like she is commenting on the “diversity checkbox” school of thought on writing and publishing, which has in certain cases led to situations where authors are damned if they do, damned if they don’t in terms of either not representing what aspects of diversity are en vogue or representing them while not being part of that class and therefore having no authoritative right to comment on that group’s experiences.

      • Seems to be a silly thing to be set off by, all things considered. But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, it could have been the unfortunate and immediate target of a frustration that may have been building about other things; I know in my own blogging, a fey mood I’d fallen into led me to rail pretty hard against Basic Fantasy RPG for a rather unfortunately worded few bits one of its mainstay modules; there were many more egregious offenders that had put me in that frame of mind that led me to lash out at BFRPG (I’ve since talked with the creator about it, and he’s even acknowledged me in his notes about the new edition, but I still feel like a heel about the thing).

        I don’t know anything about Rosoff, so I can only make observations based on what you’ve shown here, but think for a moment what the response would be if someone had written something like “the unbearable blackness of NK Jemisin”. In fact, you could just google Vox Day…

        Rosoff could very well be wrong about Wish Upon a Mars (don’t know, haven’t read it), but I do think she may have reason to be frustrated by agenda driven diversity as opposed to actual diversity. Those who attack her for her “whiteness” seem indicative of this.

        While I can’t possibly justify any frustration about this particular book without having read it, I can observe that some (not all, certainly) of the push for diversity in many media are checkbox driven, where works are expected to have x, y and z to be deemed ‘acceptable’ within certain critical lenses. I’m not sure if this stems from or is reflected in our popular culture by the gross misunderstanding of Bechdel Test (wherein the punchline of the original comic was passing that rigid set of criteria was not actually indicative that the work would be anything that a pair of butch lesbians who hated 80s macho action flicks would enjoy).

        • Whether she had reason to be frustrated or not, the fact that remains that her words, taken in context of the medium in which she wrote them, and the article which she responded to paint her in less than flattering lights. More than that though, to say that “mirrors” are available in movies and newspapers shows a lack of regard for the multiple human experiences that need a place in literature. She goes so far as to say “write a pamphlet” about the issue which can be her effort to separate agenda and literature but that in itself is faulty as she goes on to say what she *thinks* literature does or should do. Perhaps it is because different people will read her words differently but to me it felt like she is implying that white experience is universal experience which is problematic even in white culture because it implies a homogeneity of experiences (at least) that does not exist. The picturebook does not impinge upon her audience or readers in any way so her reaction to the article is unwarranted–unless, it is the entire diversity advocacy movement that annoys her. Tokenism is a thing and one I’ve spoken about. There are degrees of diversity as well and I think many of the people conversing about this are aware or becoming aware of it.

          Her follow-up to the people responding to her words damn her further. She does not want to listen to opinions that contradict her own and dismisses questions and comments as being ‘funny.’

  6. <3 Amazing. I read through all of this Meg Rosoff business and I was flabbergasted, I didn't know what to say. In a way, a very slight way, I too see her frustration – to her, her only job is to tell a compelling story, why should she be forced to change that story to check off a box (as Cirsova mentioned)? Of course Rosoff stuck her foot in her mouth because diversity and the need for it is much more than simply checking off a box, and you're post covers that beautifully.

    Perhaps what we are calling for is a revolution in the publishing industry (as you mentioned). We can't change the stories that writer's write and want to write, but perhaps publisher's can more actively select books that celebrate diversity. The publishing selection process is, in it's own way, very limiting and a form of censorship (as is the library selection and the way that parents select the books for their children).

    Well, it's all been said. ^_^ Thanks for the post! Great response.

    • I understand what you are saying but think of it this way. When you tell a story, you do worldbuilding even if it’s a contemporary/realistic fiction. The world you build should, if you want it to be a reflection of our world or have some verisimilitude, include characters who are of more than one colour/sex/gender/abilities. No one is asking her to write books containing diverse characters telling diverse stories, in fact, I think many people would prefer she wouldn’t considering the slur in one of her books against Native American women (Debbie Reese has more information about it on her blog, follow the link). What people didn’t expect is that in a post that shared an interview of an author who wrote about a gay black kid, an award winning author would take umbrage at the representation of the gay black kid in literature. She essentially said that kids like him don’t need mirrors of themselves in literature because they can find it in the wider narrative already present in published novels, or movies, or newspapers. That kind of attitude screams white privilege. She has no idea what it is like to be part of the minority and yet we’re supposed to find our experiences, our selves, in her books? Eh. This is not to say certain human experiences aren’t universal because that’s not true but equal representation, diversity, is not a privilege as she seems to be implying. It’s a right.

  7. I just heard about Rosoff’s ‘new book’. I think it’s pretty obvious she regrets commenting on the issue at all, what with the backlash she’s receiving. A poor attempt at damage control. If you ask me, she should work on being more open-minded and knowledgeable about this topic before writing a ‘book’ about it. Also, I really admired your mature take on the situation. I would have been to hot-headed to write rationally. ;-)

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  9. Thank you for writing this article. I was hurt by the ignorance in the facebook response, especially when I had enjoyed reading How I Live Now in the past. I could relate to Kaye M.’s open letter in that regard.

    I’ve talked about some of the rare books that I found mirrors in the past, but I now have more motivation to read and share the great stories I come across now. If those stories widen the world by creating mirrors, so be it.

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  12. This was refreshing to read, the post and the whole comment thread. Not to mention eye-opening in some ways. What’s great though is that there are more stories being written and published about different experiences. So while Rosoff’s ignorance is indicative of an unfortunately wide-spread tunnel vision, there is a lot coming up on the periphery. More and more authors are publishing stories independently on blogs and public forums, and many are self-publishing. And this has and will continue to drive the market, and ultimately influence publishers’ criteria. It already has. Rosoff is part of a generation and a demographic that has been dealt all kinds of blows to “tradition”. And while she and others like her may not like the changes to their cushy existence, there’s not a whole lot they can do to stop it. And this is what we have to look forward to.

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