by Daniela Cortés del Castillo
I thought about writing this guest post about my experiences as a young reader and how, as a teenager, there were no kidslikeme in the books I read, and how fantastic and helpful for my sense of self it would have been if there were. Now, all of these things are true, but it’s a topic that has been covered many times before (on this blog and elsewhere) by people who are much more eloquent than I.
Therefore, I’d like to focus this post on something that, albeit a tad less interesting, might be a slightly more useful contribution from my camp. Namely, my role as a publisher and editor who is actively trying to promote diversity in YA books, and the challenges I’ve faced along the way.
Publishers are the gatekeepers of the literary world*. We decide what we publish, when we publish, and how actively we promote that which was published. Generally speaking, if a publisher does not like your book, it probably won’t be read by too many people. As a consequence, many fantastic LGBTQIA novels never see the inside of a bookstore.
A few of years ago, in a surge of arrogance and naivety, I decided that I would become one of these gatekeepers, opening the doors for diverse YA in Chile (and Latin America in general). Thus, Loba Ediciones was born.
From the get-go, we presented ourselves as a publishing company with a “strong focus on feminism and diversity”, a phrase that I’ve used so much over the past few months, I probably whisper it in my sleep. But what does that even mean? And how can it actually be achieved? Below are a few of the challenges I’ve faced since Loba Ediciones was launched.
The problem with diversity
When I first sent my friends and family a demo of our website, their first reaction was… concern. They worried that I would be turning off the general public by using such strong language as “feminism” and “gay”. They worried that I might miss out on publishing good novels just because they featured white, male, middle-class, heterosexual and cisgender protagonists. (Find my answer to this further below). They worried that by branding my company in this way I was restricting my editorial list for years to come. In short, they worried that I wouldn’t sell any books.
I did too.
Chile is a very conservative country and, even though there has been some advance in the past few years (with the legalization, for example, of civil unions between same-sex couples), we have a long way to go in terms of LGBTQIA acceptance. (As an example, take a look at this post by Chilean writer Pablo Simonetti).
This conservatism, however, isn’t easily discernible for anyone looking at our bestseller lists. At one point this year three out of the five bestsellers featured LGBTQIA relationships: No te ama by Camila Guitierrez, Gay Gigante by Gabriel Ebensperger and No ficción by Alberto Fuguet. Sounds fantastic, right? I hit jackpot with this gay YA thing. Let the money roll in!
Actually, no. First of all, the plans for Loba Ediciones were in the works long before the success of these books. Second of all, while these books have gay or bisexual protagonists, they are of a very particular kind. To wit, they are well-educated and (very) rich. This is a big deal because over the past year or so there has been a rift in the Chilean LGBTQIA movement. On the one hand, there is the rich, educated LGBT community represented mainly by Fundación Iguales, an ONG created by Pablo Simonetti. Iguales and its partner, Movilh, have done much for LGBT rights, and were the main force behind the legalization of same-sex civil unions. However, much of the LGBTQIA community, those that come from less advantaged backgrounds, feel that Iguales does not represent them because “being poor and fletx (f*gs) is not the same as being rich and gay”. For these groups, same-sex marriage is the last priority and pales in the face of the violence (from beatings to murder) they must face daily. This part of the LGBTQIA community is inexistent in the mainstream literary world, both as authors and as protagonists. Instead, they’ve found a place in zines such as Tetas Tristes Comics. As a publisher, I want to open up a space for all kinds of LGBTQIA people, not only the rich and white, even if that means our books will probably never be part of the bestseller lists.
On the other hand, the “gay” books on the bestseller lists are all aimed at adult readers. Trying to publish a “gay YA” book in Chile is a whole different story. Mainly, because of the ridiculous amount of fear and censorship that exists around books aimed at teenagers. (Strangely enough, children’s books such as Nicolás tiene dos papas seem to get away with a lot more). Most of the MG and YA books published in Chile are translations of international bestsellers. (Mostly American, but also a few British and Spanish). That leaves local YA authors fighting for a few precious spots. Publishers face the challenge of trying to sell books in a tiny market (Chileans are not great book buyers), which becomes even smaller when dealing only with teenagers. Thus, they tend to pick local authors that cater to their biggest buyers: schools.
Now, as I’ve said before, Chile is a very conservative society, burdened down with a history of dictatorship that we are still trying to shake off. Education is quite militarized and, even though many teachers and librarians are keen on showing new material to their students, boards tend to be comical in their conventionalism. The smallest whiff of liberalism (a divorced mother trying to get her child into a catholic school, for example) and they lose their heads. Publishing companies have tended to follow this trend, at least when it comes to Chilean authors. The stories I’ve heard from some of my writers are quite unbelievable. (I once heard of an author who was asked to change the ending of her book—aimed at 16-year-olds—because the villain committed suicide by eating a poisonous apple and kids should not be exposed to such things… Never mind that no detail of the actual death was given!) So books that “normalize” LGBTQIA characters? Not a chance!
The funny thing is, whenever I’m invited to speak at a school and I bring up the subject of gender and sexual diversity, both the students and teachers pronounce their enthusiasm in relation to the work we are doing with our catalogue. Students are eager to see more diversity in the books they read, and several young Chilean booktubers have taken diversity in YA as one of their priorities. In the end, it seems the problem lies not so much in what scandalizes society, but rather in what publishers and school boards fear will scandalize society. Lucky for me, I’m the only one investing in the books I publish and therefore I have the freedom to publish whatever I want. (At the risk of losing my savings, of course!)
The problem with “diversity”
Saying that Loba Ediciones publishes books with a “strong focus on feminism and diversity” sounds fantastic. However, truth be told, it’s a definition that tends to churns my intestines, as if I’ve eaten bad fish for lunch and my body is just becoming aware of it. To me, diversity is not a good word. Rather, it’s a useful word that tends to oversimplify a whole outlook on politics, culture and life. For the sake of space, I won’t go into all the reasons that make me uncomfortable with the word “diversity”. (I’d rather recommend these two great articles published by Salon and The New York Times). The bottom line is that I worry that “diversity” may become a mere marketing ploy for Loba Ediciones. I worry that I may lose sight of what it really means, or why it is important. I’ve heard the phrase “diversity sells” over and over and I’ve seen how cultural artifacts (books, movies and tv shows) that could have otherwise been wonderful have been ruined by a superficial understanding of “diversity”. There are three main risks, I think:
- Tokenism: This is very common in YA literature. We have the gay best friend, the blind best friend, the black best friend. The function of this character is usually twofold: to provide comic relief and to provide “diversity”. These characters are not allowed greater depth than their “characteristic” (for example, being gay). They do not impact the outcome of the plot, and they are definitely not the heroes of the story. They are merely… diverse.
- Stereotyping: This (thank the gods) seems to be going out of fashion, but it still happens. And I’m not talking just about obvious everyone-can-see stereotyping (the black guy who likes hip hop and doesn’t do well in school), I’m talking about the hidden stereotypes, those that are much more harmful because of their subtlety. As a publisher, I need to read every manuscript with the eye of a reader, an editor, a critic and an academic. However superficial the story may seem, it’s my job to understand it within a cultural context, to compare it to other novels, to read it in the light of critical and theoretical texts. Only then will I be able to perceive the prejudices that every author carries. I’ll never get all of them. My own prejudices will blind me to some of the things hidden in the text, but it is my responsibility to try.
- Preaching: There are many well-intentioned books that (in my opinion) get ruined by a pedagogical function that ends up shoving diversity down readers’ throats. This, in and of itself, may not seem so bad. However, it tends to turn off readers (particularly because novels written with a pedagogical intention are not usually of the best quality). In addition, many of these books are not about the experiences of, for example, the trans teenager, but rather about the cisgender teenager who learns to accept the trans teenager. (There is very great article about this here). Thus, while the book may succeed on some level at generating acceptance, it does so at the expense of a double discrimination for whomever readers are supposed to be learning about. They get discriminated in life, and then again in fiction, and the fictionalized version is not even from their point of view!
Above I spoke about publishers being the gatekeepers of the literary world. We are, but I also like to think of us as the curators of the literary world. Our job is to build collections, to find what fits with our vision (or, in some cases, the vision of some multinational giant) and what doesn’t. To see where two novels by two different authors fit perfectly together and where they don’t. To see when a novel is just too similar to something else that has already been done.
Curating for diversity presents an additional challenge: what happens if the material is just not there? Our call for submissions is very clear on the fact that we welcome protagonists of all kinds. However, the unsolicited manuscripts we usually get are mostly about rich, white, heterosexual kids with names like Emily and John who live in America. You see, Latin Americans have been told for so long that the only YA stories worth telling happen to Americans or Europeans, that they’ve ended up forgetting that Chileans too can be in novels. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about that here). This also means that there are no LGBTQIA protagonists, because no one in Chile is used to reading them in YA books. Sure, we may find a token secondary character akin to those in American books, but no heroes.
So it became my job to go out and find heroes. I did this using three strategies. First of all, I started negotiating translation rights for novels that we liked. Then, we approached Chilean writers we admired to propose stories we thought they could own and write well. Finally, we took good manuscripts and suggested changes (for example, a characters’ sexual orientation) that would make the story less canon. This is the trickiest strategy of all, and it entails a lot of work from the writer—sometimes even re-writing the whole novel!
And to answer my friend’s question: will I reject a good novel just because it features white, male, middle-class, heterosexual and cisgender protagonists? No, I won’t reject it. I’m not stupid. If it’s a fantastic story I’ll publish it (just as I would reject a bad novel no matter how wonderful it is in terms of diversity). However, I’ll ask the author why. Why did you pick only white, rich, straight characters? Is this your reality? Did you consider writing someone else? It won’t necessarily change their mind about the novel, but it might make them think a bit before they write the next one.
*Self-publishing aside, of course.
Editor’s Note: Part 2, Editing Diversity in Chile, will be up tomorrow!
Daniela Cortés del Castillo is a Bolivian journalist, writer and editor. She is the founder of Loba Ediciones, an MG and YA publishing company in Chile. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing, publishing and editing from the University of Melbourne. She enjoys reading, lindy hopping, and ranting about identity politics.