Truth More Cruel Than Fiction

The main character of my novel-in-progress, Songbird, is a trans woman. She struggles to find acceptance in a world that doesn’t always understand her. Along the way, she makes friends and enemies, and finds herself getting into and out of trouble trying to live her life. But how closely does her story reflect reality?

According to a report by the US-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, trans people in America are 4 times as likely to live in poverty as the general population, and 4 times as likely to be houseless. 41% attempt suicide in their life, compared to 1.6% of the general population. 78% experience persistent bullying and harassment in K-12 schools, and 90% report harassment and discrimination at work. 47% have been fired, not hired, or passed over for promotion due to their trans identity.

Adding race and the effects of racism bring the numbers even higher. 34% of Black trans folks have been houseless, compared to 19% of trans folks overall. 21% of Latino/a trans people left K-12 education, compared with 15% of all trans people; a further 9% were expelled from school as a result of bias. 24% of Asian American respondents engaged in sex work or drug dealing to survive, compared to 16% of all trans people. 34% of Native American trans folks reported being denied medical care, compared to 19% of trans folks in general.

Pretty bleak numbers. Across the board, trans people — but especially trans people of colour — are more likely to suffer discrimination and harassment. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation reports that anti-LGBTQ2 murders rose by 11% just from 2009 to 2011. Of victims, 87% were people of colour; 45% were trans women.

Every year, November 20th is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Folks gather to reflect and mourn those who have been lost in the past year. Recently, there has been a movement to change the focus to emphasise the strength and resilience of trans people, and I think that’s a great idea. If anyone has honoured you with the knowledge of their trans identity, take some time to let them know you support and love them. Make your work environment a safer space. Take a moment or two today to honour the memories of hate crime victims, but also hold in your thoughts the survivors of hate crimes.

Conference High

This past weekend was the Oregon Students of Color Conference, and it was amazing!

I presented two workshops: “Sharing Stories Saves the World: Storytelling for Education and Advocacy” and “Work It, Gurl! The Impact of Ball Culture on Modern Performance”. I also facilitated one of the identity caucus spaces, for students of colour with disabilities.

It felt transformative to be there: during meals and keynotes we were in a ballroom, laughing at the same jokes, snapping for the same points, and cheering for the same causes. Everyone in the room was there to share and learn; we came to that space because we believe in supporting the needs of students of colour.

Sessions ranged from introductions to racial justice and organising to discussions about shadism, from media representation to abolishing the prison industrial complex, from breaking down -isms to radical problem-solving. Every panel or workshop had interested, passionate students attending. The discussions were nuanced and informative, and the keynotes were engaging.

Being able to share space with other student leaders always leaves me excited to get to work–the trouble is reining in my enthusiasm! This generation of student leaders has so much to give; we’re already doing so much, and I can’t wait to see where we’ll go.

Review: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano

Last year, a friend of mine won two passes to go to the Pacific NW Bookseller’s Association Fall Tradeshow and decided to take me along. We got to attend many great panels, and got to go to the author’s dinner, where we got to ask questions of published authors and take away autographed copies of one of their books.

One of the best parts, though, was the tradeshow itself. My friend and I both collected large bags of recently published and soon-to-be published books, and I am just now getting around to working through them.

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One of the books I got was The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano.

Wow.

This book tells the story of a young woman, Rosa Maria Evelyn del Carmen Serrano, living in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood in New York. She makes everyone call her Evelyn because it is the Whitest-sounding of her names. The story is about learning to love her family and growing in her understanding of the world as the Young Lords tried to improve the neighbourhood in 1969.

A really amazing thing about the book is the history that it tells. The Young Lords were a gang in Chicago that turned into a Puerto Rican rights organisation in the late 1960s. They fought gentrification in Chicago, sought social uplift for poor Puerto Ricans living in the US, and advocated for an independent Puerto Rico. The media has largely re-imagined them — like the Black Panther Party before them — into a dangerous group of hoodlums, but they wanted to create change and bring justice to their communities.

Though they are an important piece of the book, Revolution isn’t really about the Young Lords; it’s mostly the tale of Evelyn, her mother, and her grandmother learning to be a family as the neighbourhood changes around them.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The Spanish sprinkled throughout the text lends realism to the conversations and characters. There is humour aplenty, but it also is sombre in some parts. Most of all, it is real in the way that some things are: though I did not grow up a poor young woman in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood in the 1960s, I have lived in poverty. I have heard poetry that seemed to be about me, and told me something true about the world and how I move in it. I have been in moments of social justice community where everything seems to be on the verge of change, and you’re riding high on the shared feeling of possibility around you.

This is a fictionalised version of events, but that doesn’t stop it being true in the most important ways.

Diversity in YA Science Fiction and Fantasy

My parents took great pains to instil in me a love of reading from an early age. By the 3rd grade I was picking out books for myself, and I went straight for the fantasy section. I read a lot of the classics: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Black Cauldron, and more.

I soon found my way into the adult section, devouring Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Mercedes Lackey, and Robert Jordan. Still, I continued to read young adult fantasy; something about characters my age going through pimples and dating and dragon-slaying spoke to me. There was a sense of connection, but even then I was aware of something that’s still true to this day: none of the protagonists were like me.

My favourite young adult author to this day is Tamora Pierce. I have faithfully read every book she has published since I stumbled across the Song of the Lioness quartet at age 10. I love each new one, and I have both physical and ebook versions of all of her books.

Despite my great love for her, I noticed on a re-read of all of her books (not kidding—I’m a huge fan) that her early works contained very few characters of colour—and those that were there were simplistic, and often stereotypical. There’s a whole book that deals with a very idealistic and well-intentioned critique of an analogue for Arabic tribal cultures, and it comes off as imperialistic and judgemental.

Her portrayal of characters of colour has improved leaps and bounds since that first series, but her main protagonists are still primarily straight White girls. They have red hair, wavy or straight. They have pale skin and freckles. They have light coloured eyes. I have none of these things. (Well, maybe the freckles, if you look very closely.) Her protagonists don’t look at all like me.

Of all of the books she’s put out—28 novels in two worlds, plus a collection of short stories—I have counted perhaps 4 LGBTQ2 characters. Only one has been a main protagonist.

There are young adult books that feature protagonists of colour, and LGBTQ2 protagonists, but most of them haven’t been in the science fiction and fantasy genre(s); not until pretty recently has there been a surge in fantasy that features people of colour as the main characters, and there still isn’t much in the way of gender and sexual minorities in young adult sci-fi and fantasy. The problem with this is that a message, however unintentional, gets sent to young adults and children—there is no place for them in the imaginary worlds of fantasy lands, and there is especially no place for them in the future worlds of science fiction.

This seems silly to me—in a world where there are goblins and dragons and spidrens, how can you tell me there are no black or brown people, no gay people, no trans people? When we exclude these people from our imaginary worlds, what we are really saying is that the perfect worlds we imagine—the future worlds, the fantastic past worlds—can only exist through the absence of brownness and queerness.

However, including LGBTQ2 characters and characters of colour says something quite different. Inclusion of these characters is part of how we realise those better worlds. We are currently living in a world that excludes, but inclusion teaches us that every human being has worth, and that we can—and should—work together to achieve what we imagine.

We’ve come a ways, but we still have a ways to go yet. I write YA fantasy fiction with diverse characters because these young people are more vulnerable, and they need someone to tell them, Yes, you belong here, too.