Friday, October 2, 2015

Saviorism in YA

One of the tricky aspects of advocacy is learning the difference between support and saving. Support means learning to listen and respect their needs, trusting they know best and placing them first. This can be really tricky when we’re pulling double duty, self-advocating while trying to be allies for others. Not to mention, the complexity of being an adult advocating for young people. This overlap can often blur the lines between what actually helps others and what makes us feel good.

There is no question the latest conflict in the YA community hit a nerve. While I will maintain that speaking about it specifically should continue, I won’t dispute another important issue emerged. Many authors expressed that they feel a great deal of pressure “to get it right” when writing diverse characters. Marginalized people who are also authors spoke up too, sharing how they to feel this same pressure to be perfect when writing their own experiences. I think one thing feeding into this pressure is how often we mistake advocacy for being saviors.

There is a trend in the online YA community that I suspect feeds both this pressure “to get it right” and the assumption that all forms representation must be perfect. There is an incredible amount of pressure placed on authors to be role models and mentors. Which is not only a completely unrealistic and problematic expectation, but misrepresents the relationships between authors and readers. 

The power dynamics I’m specifically addressing here are between adult authors advocating for and even interacting with young readers. I’m being very specific about this because it’s important to keep these polar opposite positions of power in mind when thinking of how often we see dialogues around why we write and the impact of books, especially in discussions of diverse books. 

Think of the children,” has become a widely mocked battle cry for thinly veiled attempts at censorship and unnecessarily control of information. Those who use these claims often do so out of a misguided belief that kids are so unintelligent and helpless that they require tight control and guidance. I also think some people who do this not only believe they’re helping, but feel obligated to do it. They feel pressured “to get it right” for kids.

I see a variation of this phenomenon in another battle cry: “be the person you needed when you were younger.” 

I know, it looks seductively simply and well intentioned, but notice how it centers advocacy on what the advocate believes they needed when they were young. This mindset makes an adult, who has significant privilege, feel entitled to center themselves, making their experiences the measure of what young people need. At no point does it factor in the unique experiences, opinions, and needs of the very real young people an advocate is trying to help. That is saviorism.

When you assume you know better than the person you’re helping, you are placing yourself in a position of power and authority over them. You know best, and consequently you close yourself off from listening and learning from them. This is how you make yourself a savior versus an advocate. Real advocacy should challenge us to think of others first by empathizing and understanding their wants and needs in order to better help them.

What about marginalized authors? Don’t we know better than anyone what it’s like to be a marginalized reader, and know how best to help them? Marginalized people are not a monolith. 

Sure, I was a teenager once, but every queer teenaged girl of color is not exactly like me. While they and I may share similar experiences, and they might even find my thoughts and stories useful, I am not an authority on what is best for them, and assuming I am doesn’t help them either. They don’t need me to save them. They need books. 

Books could help them know they’re not alone or broken. Books could teach them how to cope with a culture that denies their agency and tries to erase their identity. Books may inspire them to save themselves, or even help someone else. 

An author doesn’t change lives; readers who are inspired and empowered by books do. Authors are not saviors; they write books. Telling a story doesn’t change the world. The people who change because of those stories do. 

Not all books have to save lives, nor should they be required to do so. Sometimes stories help in small ways. They can distract us from our troubles, make us laugh, or cry when we need it. They can help keep someone alive until they’re strong enough be their own heroes.

Authors can advocate for marginalized people by reflecting the reality of humanity in their work. This is accomplished in every genre in various ways. Not all stories are for everyone, nor should they be. Diversity is about getting more stories and representation for everyone. Marginalized people reflect reality by simply telling their own stories, and sharing new perspectives and experiences. They also embody diversity in their very presence in the industry, the impact of seeing someone like you telling their own stories is immeasurable.

Putting a stop to the long standing exclusion of marginalized people from books in every genre in literature isn’t going to be easy. It’s been the dominant narrative in literature for hundreds of years. Authors shouldn’t add to that already stressful and difficult process with unrealistic expectations. 

I see a lot of authors putting undo pressure on themselves, imagining these young readers who are depending on them. Unfortunately, I see the imagined parallel of those imagined young readers become the focus of discussions of individual books with no mention of how they are part of a much larger systemic issue. Representation of marginalized groups impacts all readers, and we should question how YA books impact younger readers. These are valid discussions of systemic issues in publishing, society, and media, not an indictment of an individual author.

An author’s responsibility is to write their book to the best of their ability. That’s it. The industry’s systemic issues will not be solved by one book or its author, many of who lack any real power to do more than self-advocate, to say nothing of marginalized authors with even less power. 

If authors are inspired and motivated to write by imagining the kids they might be helping, great. Even better if they’re inspired by messages from readers who say their books helped and saved them. This impact is real and important, but keep the actual role and responsibilities of authors in perspective. 

Advocate for young readers by treating them like readers. Respect their ability to empower themselves. Young readers don’t need saviors. They need books. 


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