LGBT Diversity in Literature
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Sue Stanley: Welcome! You’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team. I’m thrilled to chat today with young adult author Kosoko Jackson about LGBT diversity in literature. Kosoko, thank you so much for joining me.
Kosoko Jackson: Thank you for having me. I’m super excited.
Sue Stanley: I am too. For those of you who may not know, Kosoko is the author of the young adult novel A Place for Wolves, which will be coming out on April 2nd of this year. He also has two other titles that will be coming out in 2020. So, a busy time for you. A Place for Wolves is coming from Source Books Fire. And can you tell me a little bit about yourself or tell everyone that’s listening a little about yourself.
Kosoko Jackson: Sure. So, I currently live in Brooklyn, in New York City. Moved here about six months ago. My full-time job is that I work as a digital strategist. So, I spend a lot of time online. So, if you have any Twitter presence, you’ve probably seen some tweet at me at some very random hour, because I’m always working, and I’m always online. I’m a workaholic. I mostly write historical fiction as of right now, but I’m branching off soon into more contemporary things. I love to write books that focus on queer black boys and seeing them as diverse and nuanced characters, instead of his pigeon holing them into one box. And so that’s kind of what my writing explores. The idea of race, sexuality, but using that as a backdrop and as a secondary focus to still have cool badass stories.
Sue Stanley: Sounds good. So, what do you think of the current state of LGBT diversity in literature? Especially children’s literature?
Kosoko Jackson: So, I think this is a really cool time in that sphere. I think that we’re having so many more queer LGBTQ books. I remember Dahlia Adler just published queer books coming out in 2019. And she said something like, even before June, I believe, in the span of June, there’s like 60-something books that she says already publishing, coming out from different publishers. Which is kind of unprecedented. I think we are starting to reach a point in the industry where we’re seeing that queer books matter. And that seeing queer characters as main characters instead of just tropes or secondary characters or comical characters. That they can be nuanced diverse things that can also sell books. Because let’s talk. Let’s be honest. Publishing is an industry, and they basically make choices off of what sells. But I think that we’re starting to see that there is a correlation between queer characters existing and needing to be nuanced, and also that they can make publishers hit their bottom dollar, and it’s really, really good. Because the more that this happens, the more queer characters will happen in stories.
Sue Stanley: Certainly, the more successful they are for sure. So how far do you think we have to go for that representation, the LGBT representation in children’s literature to be a true reflection of the LGBTQ diversity among young people?
Kosoko Jackson: I think that, like I said, we’ve made progress, but there’s still a lot of pitfalls. I think with many marginalized stories and storytellers we still hit the block of, well a publisher saying we already have our one queer story for this season. And I think that’s still something that happens really, really often. I think publishing really, really focuses on queer tragedies and queer pain, because in the past that’s what sold. I think we are fighting an uphill battle that, yes, more stories are being told, but they don’t fit a specific box of queer pain. Or one or two queer books a year. Or even there are five queer books, only one of those queer books getting the marketing dollars that they need to become a successful book is an uphill battle that we’re still facing. So, I would like to see in the future for publishing you take more risk in showing more intersectionary stories by queer authors. Especially by queer authors because own voice stories come from a different lens that are so, so important especially when it comes to writing an authentic story. And I’d like to see more of that.
Sue Stanley: That makes a lot of sense. What can listeners do to make that happen? Especially authors and readers people who are involved in the industry. What can they do to bring that representation up to where it needs to be?
Kosoko Jackson: I think the one thing that authors can do is that — and I will never, like, force, like, say, like a queer author needs to write a queer story, because that’s in it of itself putting a lot of your identity into a story and opening yourself up. Like maybe you aren’t out. Maybe you don’t want your experience to be public. Maybe you have a really negative experience you’re still grappling with that. And so, writing in itself can be therapy, but it can also be painful. So, I think one thing that all queer authors can do, or authors in general, is to uplift queer stories. I think it’s really important that we retweet them. We suggest them. When we’re talking on panels and people ask what books we are excited for, I think it’s important that you try to list at least one queer story. Especially if it’s an own voices story. And I think kind of the bigger bubble, which is consumers, which many readers are consumers, many authors are consumers, is that you need to buy queer books. Like, publishing makes decisions based on how many books sell. Like, if a book has five thousand retweets, that’s great. Marketing may use that to increase the marketing budget a little bit, but at the end of the day five thousand retweets doesn’t make money. And so, we need to put our money where our mouth is and actually buy these books and to support them financially.
Sue Stanley: For authors and readers authors in particular who are not queer, who are not LGBT, is there a way that they can research or write authentic queer characters in their stories?
Kosoko Jackson: Yeah. I think the biggest thing to do is like, and I always tell people, it’s like pepper your world diversity. Like we live in a diverse world. I think that there is a lot of non-queer authors who struggle with this question of, like, own voices and taking a space and writing outside of your own lane. And I think that’s a discussion that we could have for like eight hours. And every person that you would ask probably has a different point of view. My personal point of view is that no one is discouraging a non-queer author from having a queer side character or who your best friend or a queer love interest that maybe doesn’t turn out to be like in the end-game love interest. Your world that you want to create as an author should be as diverse as the world that you live in. Even in fantasy stories. Even in science fiction and historical stories. Queer people existed way before Stonewall, and they’re going to exist far after we start traveling through space and time. So, I think the biggest thing that non-queer authors can do is to just fill your world with queer characters to a point where it doesn’t just feel like you’re trying to pander. I think that’s a good line that needs to be established. I think sometimes that just comes from experience. As for research, I mean, just have queer friends. I mean you can often see when you read a book from when somebody writes from any marginalization, and you can see that, like, oh, they only know black people from TV. Or they only know one black person, and I think just, writers should be constantly refilling their well. And learning new things. And pushing their own boundaries to learn more because that is reflected inside your stories. Just as much as we tell authors they need to read more to become better authors, you need to live more to be a better author. And however that living takes form is up to you.
Sue Stanley: So, what can authors do to kind of be the driving force behind moving away from just that one section of the queer story into a broader section that includes diversity and stories that are impacted by the world outside where, where they’re people inside a story that happen to be LGBT as opposed to an LGBT teenager coming out?
Kosoko Jackson: Perfect.
Sue Stanley: Does that make sense?
Kosoko Jackson: Totally. I’m, so I think that’s like a really nuanced question. And I think at least for me, that’s a really hard thing for a reader to change. Because that’s like a publishing trend. In the beginning when queer stories were written, queer pain and queer coming out stories were not only the stories that sold but they were what stories people asked for and bought. And that comes from at least from what I understand a time when there was so little representation and people were living in closeted lives that seeing representation of the book in people struggling to have coming out was something that people need. I think people still need coming out stories, and I want that to be clear. I think coming out stories are very, very important for teens and for adults too. Even in Wolves, there’s an adult character who deals with coming out or questioning his own sexuality. But I think that we just need more stories than that. And I think the biggest thing to do is that by honestly, just again buying those stories. Let’s say if you have, let’s say twenty dollars and you’re going to buy two books. If you can afford to buy the coming out story, but also afford to buy and not even like plugging my own book, but any book that deals with queer characters in those type of settings. Those type of commercial settings or literary settings, then that is good because publishing will see, “Oh, these stories sell. Stories that aren’t just about coming out and pain sell.” And they will support those books. Currently that’s the biggest issue. Marketing and publishing only sees these age-old numbers because publishing is always far behind. They only see that queer pain stories sell and queer coming-out stories. So, which is still true and was incredibly true at a time, but those times are shifting. And like many industries, publishing is not at the same pace as society is.
Sue Stanley: I read somewhere that it’s, that it’s one of the oldest, so it moves the slowest. In other words, film moves faster. Radio moves faster than film, and film moves faster than television. And television moves faster than publishing, and it’s basically because they’re new or television was faster in film. I can’t remember which. But I think that’s a really interesting point about publishing. Is that it does, because it is an older industry, it does take longer to move it. It’s heavier, bigger maybe.
Kosoko Jackson: I think about that, I mean, think about how many stories that, like, have texting in them in, authors that I’ve heard or line or through like social groups have said that like my editor wanted me to change like Y-O-U the word you to letter U. And kids don’t text like that anymore. Like kids all have smartphones and 90% of the spell out for words. That’s something that’s like ten years old or eight years old, because publishing just move so slowly.
Sue Stanley: I think that’s one of the hardest things and social media moves so fast. So, a book that was written five years ago and focused on what was current is going to be completely off base today because technology changes so fast. That is a real issue I think for authors and in all genres, especially YA because it’s so driven. So, are there any books that you would recommend for the, for listeners that show the representation that you would like to see and also tell stories that you think are unique that would be great to uplift?
Kosoko Jackson: Yeah, there’s a lot actually. So, I think some of them, one that just recently came out about, I think about two weeks ago, is Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon. It’s a great literary fiction book, and it has a lot to do with a nuanced story about relationships and friendships and kind of like a toxic codependent relationship in a way that’s done really, really well. That’s not offensive. And I think is brilliantly written. I think a story that’s coming out, I think it comes out next month, is The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg. It’s gotten a lot of good buzz so far. I was able to read an early copy, and it’s really about a relationship between two boys that’s just like a super cute relationship, and it deals with like the life of two boys growing up. And we need more stories like that. To talk about stories that are more in this intersectional field that deal with higher, like science fiction and fantasy. The Afterword by E.K. Johnston, which comes out in February, I think. It’s February 19. Is a great, like King Arthur-esq story that’s female-driven. And it has queer characters, and it’s just I love it so much. And there’s a book called The Weight of the Stars, which I don’t remember who the author is [K. Ancrum], but I know it comes out in March. And that is also a science fiction book, and it’s also by a queer black woman. So that’s, those are just a sample of some books. Oh, and also another book that I really, really love that I got at ALA is King Queens and In-betweens by Tanya [Boteju]. I don’t know how to pronounce her last name, so just Tanya B. I don’t want to butcher her last name. It comes out in May, and it deals with drag queens. And it deals with love. And it’s like a rom-com, but it’s beautiful, and I’m actually loving it.
Sue Stanley: That’s fantastic. Thank you for those recommendations. That’s really fantastic. It’s fun to hear about those new books, especially since they’re all new. People may not have heard of them before, so that’s fun. Are there stories or tropes that you think may be over-represented and it might even be harmful?
Kosoko Jackson: Yeah, I think the incredibly comical gay sidekick is something that needs to be kind of squashed as quickly as possible. This character that’s super flat, and their only role is to add like the hilarious gay best friend role, is a trope that we use very, very often. I think the tragic queer to help the character learn more and to be more of like an empathetic person. Where they have to teach a lesson through their own pain is something that’s done too much. And even a step above that, like killing your queers is something that we do to show empathy. Which is often just a painful experience for a lot of queers. And writing queer characters where the only way that they can grow is through like sexual assault or a hate crime is something that I think that we do too much. Also, I think a lot of it centers around the idea of pain. Or these tropes that we’ve had for age old times where queers are just the happy-go-lucky characters that were how we got representation like in the ’90s and early 2000s, but have come into like a stereotypical trope where that’s all you see. Also, the queer villain. A lot of things are just coded. Disney, for example, has a lot of queer villains that are coded as queer. Cartoon network has it. And I think that like, usually if you see a character who is asexual or has trouble with showing, like, affection or has trouble with touch or is queer that they’re often seen as like darker or evil.
Sue Stanley: That’s unfortunate. What are some sources that LGBT authors can go to for support? Are there communities? Are there organizations? Do you have suggestions for where queer authors can go and reach out to other queer authors or to other places for support?
Kosoko Jackson: I think one of the biggest centers of places of support for, especially for authors and for writers, is honestly Twitter. I think the Twitter is a monstrous beast, which has its positives and its negatives. But I was a queer author and only speaking from the — I because I think every person’s experience is different — is that I was a queer author who decided to write queer books because he heard of Adam Silveira in 2013, and he decided that like now I can see that queer stories exist. Alex London was someone who I touched base with around the same time who inspired me to write. And I got these people from Twitter. I got these from the internet. I think a lot of queer people find their families online. It’s a safe space. And Twitter is not the greatest safe space, but all of my queer friends who are authors that I found have been through Twitter. They haven’t been through social group. They haven’t been through all the multitudes of Facebook groups. Or the multitudes of, like, Slack groups that exist that you need an elusive or exclusive access to. It’s through talking to people and trying to be as social as possible, but also protecting myself and finding people who are similar to me. And I think that’s like a really powerful answer. But I think it’s also a sad answer, because I can’t give somebody, like, this is the solution. This is the A to Z steps that you do. And that takes time. Finding your tribe and your support online takes time. And I like, I don’t really like this expression. I feel like it so canned. But like it does get better the more that you try.
Sue Stanley: Okay. And also, well I was gonna say, it’s depending on where you live. There might be more some places than others, and that is another, going online to research what is actually happening in your physical community might also be really helpful I would think.
Kosoko Jackson: I agree.
Sue Stanley: Okay, and this is kind of a ridiculous question and, but I’m gonna ask it anyway, because I think you might have an interesting answer to it. And that is, is it possible to achieve too much intersectionality in a given story?
Kosoko Jackson: Yeah, I don’t think so. Actually, I think that’s a yes or no question. I think that the no side of it is that we should make as many diverse worlds as possible when we’re writing. I think too often writers have their safety areas. And I think that there’s our blinders worn that we have as writers that are own privileges and our own preconceptions about people. I know that one of the biggest things is that as a writer I write really good female side characters, but there’s usually only one good female side character my story. The rest might seem flat. So, you can find that one who’s usually my main character’s best friend, and it’s usually incredibly well-written, but if you look outside of that, there’s not many other strong female characters besides maybe a mother. And so, I can get better at peppering my worlds with that diversity.
So, I think, no I think that we as authors should strive to make our worlds as diverse and as intersection as possible. But I think, like I said, there is that point that we can hit where we’re just writing intersectionality because we feel like it’s the hot topic thing to do. And I feel like we haven’t really hit that yet. I started to see some signs of it. I feel like when you open a book and you just see very flat, diverse characters that’s when you know this kid author might have just flown them in there to be, fill the diversity quota that they feel they need to hit. Or maybe not. But I feel like when you start to see a pattern of really, really flat diverse characters who just exist to exist. Or where the diversity is mentioned once. One thing that we tell a lot of queer, marginalized authors is that the readers lens if you’re black, white, female, or whatever is always to view a character as white, because that is the norm of what we’ve been trained to view. So as a reader when somebody just says like this character is black. And it’s only mentioned once? To me that kind of just feels like an intersectional checkbox. Until we are reinforcing and reminding readers that like this character is black. You need to see this character from the black lens. You need to understand that some of these things that these characters are doing and the reasons why they’re making these choices come from a point of view, a marginalized point of view, that might not make sense for the oppressor or the majority. But they do come from a point of view that comes from a marginalized background.
Sue Stanley: So, how do we make fiction a safe space for marginalized readers?
Kosoko Jackson: And I wish we had more safe space books. I think that writers will always mess up. Writers are people. And I think the best way to make things as safe as possible is to just do as much research and as much diligence as you can. To write the best book possible. Sensitivity readers are amazing. I will always plug sensitivity readers. I will also always say to pay them well and to pay them what they deserve, because you’re asking them to put a part of themselves into a story that they can’t make any control over. And usually with a deadline, sometimes you just push through and read it. If it’s a story about black pain, and I have three weeks to read it, I just have to power through. And so like, they should be paid what they’re worth. I think doing your due, like I said doing your due diligence. And understanding that like, maybe you want to write a character and you realize before or after, this is really not working. And that it is just filling that quota that I mentioned. Scrap it. I would rather see a story that is completely white or completely straight than to see a story that has bad representation. I mean, you can’t win either way. But if we’re gonna make a mistake I’d rather it be that. I think the biggest thing is still, like I said, writers will make mistakes. And like when a reader reads something and they’re hurt, it doesn’t matter why they’re hurt. It doesn’t matter if you meant to hurt them or not. You hurt somebody and you offended somebody. You wrote something that was bad representation. You just do better next time. I think you will always hurt people. Or you’ll always have bad rep, because not every book can be appealing to everybody or be correct for everybody. But just to understand that. To move forward and to not make that same mistake the next time.
Sue Stanley: So, let’s talk about what bad representation is because I think that’s a really interesting concept. And not something that authors who are not a part of a particular marginalized group or a part of a marginalized group at all can really understand. What, what does it mean for, for an author to put in something that represents a bad representation of a marginalized group?
Kosoko Jackson: Yeah, so, I think bad representation to me is always one of three things. It shows a character in a negative light that has no nuance and doesn’t make the character’s choices and actions feel believable. It makes a character rely on tropes and stereotypes that are as old as time. Like the comical queer. We can have comical queers, but they shouldn’t be comical just because you think that’s the only way that you see queer characters. Or just plain all offensive things. Like, when we have a trans character in the story we should be past the point of like dead naming them. Or we should be a past the point of asking them about their genitals just to be asking because we think it has shock value. Bad representation at its core usually hurts somebody who belongs to that marginalized group. And I feel like if you were a person and you read this and you think hmm, I might, if I was part of this marginalized group be offended by this. Then that’s bad representation. Now, some stories can have bad representation. And I’m not saying they can’t. But if you do include it, it needs to be unpacked on the page. If you have somebody say like the f-word to a gay person, that needs to be dealt with on the page directly. Have another character, I don’t even know, punch them. Have somebody address, why that’s bad. You just can’t let bad representation if you’re going to include it as a teachable moment in your stories.
Sue Stanley: And I think too, that’s where research can come in as well. Especially for, if you’re writing about a marginalized community and that can be any marginalized group, that you actually have spent the time to understand to as much an extent as you can, who those people are. And to find humanity in those, in that marginalized group as opposed to just throwing it in there for your convenience.
Kosoko Jackson: And exactly. And that’s why we as YA writers put such an emphasis on bad representation. I think that when you go into the adult sphere, you see a lot of those conversations less. It’s because in YA, at least for me, the reason why YA is so important — and I feel like a lot of people who are like I don’t understand why YA authors are like — get up in arms about representation. It’s because, like I don’t see that in adults spears. It’s because for many young teens and middle graders, the book that they pick up is their first experience dealing with X topic. It could be LGBT issues, hate crimes. It could be black issues. It could be anything marginalized. And a lot of young readers, even teen readers, make their formative decisions about who they are and how they view their world from books. And if we allow bad representation to exist in a plethora of books, or we only have the single narrative story that queers can only suffer or queers can only be comical, then people grow up believing that. And it’s harder to fix someone when they are older than it is to build a proper foundation.
Sue Stanley: That is the truth. For sure. So, do you think that, this is kind of the flip side of that coin. Do you think that fiction can help people unpack privilege?
Kosoko Jackson: Oh, on hundred percent.
Sue Stanley: So talk to me about that. How do you think fiction can help with that?
Kosoko Jackson: I think that a lot of fiction even deals with that. I think that just as much as fiction deals with, helps authors unpack their pain or suffering, I think that when you see a character that has your privilege or does not have your privilege or has a different type of privilege and how they handle things. And how they react to situations. We can better understand ourselves. Books like we say are mirrors and windows. They help us see ourselves represented, but they also allow windows into other souls, into other experiences. When I read The Hate U Give, to see my privilege as an African American who much like Star’s one side of her life, grew up in a very predominantly white community. I mean not grew up, but went to a predominately white school. I could see how I, when I was younger, I could have been one of those kids in Star’s class. When I was younger, I wasn’t as woke as I am now. And I could see how I might go out and — spoiler alerts if you haven’t seen The Hate U Give or read it — and think, oh, cool, we can protest the shooting, and it will get us the day off. Like I could see how that is what could have been, was my life back then. Going to an upscale private school as an African American who was very smart and had tuition paid for. I could see that. And it was a big zeitgeist shift when I was younger to realize that like, oh, you’re privilege as a male and as an upper-class male does not protect you as a black man. And to feel that and to see that represented in books. If I had had The Hate U Give when I was younger, to see that probably would have made that realization happen younger. To understand that like, damn. These kids are not really all that nice. Are all that great. And wow, I’m kind of one of these kids. And I think that’s an important thing that like I said why books are so important and why good representation is so important. Because people learn about themselves positively and negatively from stories.
Sue Stanley: Thank you so much for that. That’s, this is fantastic. We’re, our time is about up. I really appreciate what you have to say, and I hope that everyone will go out and read your books, and also the books that you recommended by other authors. For those, again as a reminder Kosoko Jackson is the author of A Place for Wolves, which debuts, this is his debut year. It comes out April 2nd of this year. So, congratulations on that.
Kosoko Jackson: Thank you so much.
Sue Stanley: You’re so welcome, and thank you so much for taking time to talk to me today and to share with the WriteOnCon participants your story and your point of view. So thank you.
Kosoko Jackson: Thank you. Always welcome.
Kosoko Jackson is a vocal champion of diversity in YA literature, the author of YA novels featuring African American queer protagonists, and a sensitivity reader for Big Five Publishers. Professionally, he is a digital media manager for a major nonprofit organization, and a freelance political journalist. He has also recently taken the position as Social Media Manager for Foreshadow: A Serial YA Anthology, through 2019 Occasionally, his personal essays and short stories have been featured on Medium, Thought Catalog, The Advocate, and some literary magazines.
When not writing YA novels that champion holistic representation of black queer youth across genres, he can be found obsessing over movies, drinking his (umpteenth) London Fog, or spending far too much time on Twitter. His debut #ownvoices Historical Thriller, A Place for Wolves, will be published by SourceBooks Fire, April 2nd, 2019.