I’M NOT WHITE. I’M NOT BLACK. I’M JUST ME.
Diversity in YA by Amalie Howard
What is diversity? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of diversity is “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, especially: the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” In the simplest terms, it means when something is comprised of many different elements. When I was accepted to Colby College in Maine, having applied from my native Trinidad & Tobago (the most southerly islands in the Caribbean), despite my worthy SAT scores, I knew that the coveted “diversity factor” had undoubtedly been factored into my acceptance. Not only was I a student of color in a predominantly white school, I also brought the added benefit of being the first matriculated student from my country of birth, adding to the college’s international student diversity numbers.
So as you can see, the word diversity has been a part of my psyche from very early on. To me, diversity means being brown-skinned in a black and white world. It means speaking a different language or dialect. It means having a different cultural or social or religious upbringing. It means educational or economic polarity. It means being labeled as “other” on every single information profiling form. That said, it also means that I’m pretty unique. Would I trade that for the alternative? Heck no, being different is phenomenal! I love being so multi-layered and multi-faceted, and especially, being lucky enough to translate this into my writing.
In BLOODSPELL, the two protagonists are from two different worlds. In literary fiction, this could be a relationship between a white boy and a black girl. In paranormal fiction, it’s a relationship between a witch and a vampire. But the underlying themes are the same. The thing about Bloodspell is that it’s not just a paranormal love story between a witch and a vampire, it’s also a metaphor for loving anyone that isn’t from your world, or culture, or background or class. I’m of mixed Indo-Caribbean decent and I married a white Australian man—I still remember my grandmother looking at me with complete horror saying, “but he’s white.” Even though she came from a very different generation to mine, that kind of thinking is still very prevalent where I grew up—a country that was (and still is) racially and politically stratified between blacks and browns. Everyone else was the minority. This was part of my cultural DNA, so I could easily relate to Christian’s and Victoria’s tumultuous, forbidden relationship. I lived it myself … the doubt, the censure, the questions. But in the end, I knew that what I felt was real despite the fact that we came from such different worlds. We make choices in love, and although the consequences could be dire (being ostracized or worse), we do it because we MUST, just as my characters are compelled to do.
Like me, my main protagonist, Victoria, is not white. Instead she is a mix of different backgrounds. As I mention in the book, she has a hint of Persian ancestry. I’m of East Indian descent on my father’s side and Middle Eastern/East Indian/French descent on my mother’s. How’s that for a diverse ethnic mix? I grew up in a multicultural, multi-religious, multilingual home. Most would consider that as an incredibly cool background, but the truth was, it made it even harder to figure out who I was. I was confused, and for a long time, I tried to fit in, pretending to be someone I was not. I didn’t consciously write Victoria as a non-white character. I didn’t actually see her in any color. Rather, it was more of a feeling for me in that she had to stand out on the outside as well as on the inside. In a few interviews, I describe Victoria as being a part of me, but also as being every girl and no girl at the same time. She’s different, but inside she’s the same … a scared teenager struggling to fit in. She’s a witch who is thrust into a world of vampires—a world she is completely unfamiliar with—and she has to find and accept herself before she becomes completely lost. In metaphorical terms, that was my life in college. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I hid like one. I wasn’t white. I wasn’t black. I was something else. Eventually, I had to define myself before I could stand on my own and accept (and appreciate) my differences. I understood that I was just me, no more, and certainly, no less.
I think diversity in YA is becoming more and more widespread, especially given the popularity of the genre. Readers love reading YA, but the expectation is there to broaden what’s already been done, to give YA fiction more depth and breadth. This is where diversity comes in. YA, like its constantly evolving audience, seems to be more amenable to exploring and embracing distinctive characters or storylines, and authors are responding to that. I recently saw a Twitter stream that discussed Gay in YA—that’s another element of diversity that’s appearing more and more in YA fiction, which is terrific. I think we as human beings are inherently complex, and we are an incredibly diverse species. Why shouldn’t we embrace all facets of ourselves and incorporate that into YA, or any fiction, for that matter? A huge part of reading is education. We live to learn, to expand our minds, to appreciate and love one another. In my opinion, YA fiction will only be richer for it. In my upcoming novel, GODDESS, I leverage and incorporate a huge part of my Indian heritage into the story. I’m a little terrified, but I think it’s going to be something really special and unique that YA readers will embrace.
AMALIE HOWARD grew up on a small Caribbean island where she spent most of her childhood with her nose buried in a book or being a tomboy running around barefoot, shimmying up mango trees and dreaming of adventure. She received a bachelor’s degree from Colby College in Maine in International Studies and French, and a certificate in French Literature from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France. She has also lived in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City. She has worked as a research assistant, marketing rep, global sales executive, freelance writer, and blogger. A lover of other cultures and new experiences, especially of the culinary variety, she has traveled extensively across North America and Europe, and as far east as China, Indonesia, and Australia. She currently resides in New York with her husband, three children, and one very willful cat that she is convinced may have been a witch’s cat in a past life. BLOODSPELL, a Seventeen Magazine Summer Read, is Amalie’s first novel.