We Need Diverse Books! I Talked About Diversity in YA Fiction With Aisha Saeed, Sabaa Tahir, and Renee Ahdieh

One weekend. Many books. All the books.
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One weekend. Many books. All the books.

Back in May, I spent a week at Book Expo America and then the weekend at Bookcon, the consumer event that follows BEA — and let me tell you, if you think BEA is an intense event with milling crowds, Bookcon is 100 times worse. It reminded me of standing on the platform at Shinjuku much of the time, and is very much not recommended for, well, anyone with any degree of anxiety, claustrophobia, or dislike of people. 

But I did get to meet up with three great people: YA authors Renée Ahdieh, Sabaa Tahir, and Aisha Saeed, some of whom are on the We Need Diverse Books Project, and all of whom are fantastic. I got a chance to talk with them about their books as well as diversity in publishing initiatives to improve representations in fiction, and more. And it was totally worth braving Bookcon for that. I think. 

Renée's book, "The Wrath and the Dawn," is a retelling of the Arabian Nights, and it has a killer awful suspense ending that will leave you wanting to strangle her. ("Blame Sabaa," she says.) It's also a fantastic book that has some really interesting narratives about love and the distinctions between childhood love and the way we experience love in adulthood — a really sharp, insightful take that gets us out of YA triangle territory and into the real world. 

Sabaa Tahir

Yes Sabaa Tahir is this pretty in person.

Sabaa Tahir's book, "An Ember in the Ashes," is in the process of blowing up — they just signed a sequel and it's in "active development," she explains, with Paramount. I can't even be jealous of her because she's so outgoing, friendly, and unpretentious about herself and her work. In addition to being a YA author, she's also a former journalist, and we talked a great deal about conflict zones and gender — "Ember" deals with some of the complex issues surrounding war, gender, and assault, and it's quite simply amazing. 

Aisha Saeed's "Written in the Stars" takes on a really complicated subject: Arranged marriage in Muslim communities. In a discussion about the text, we talked about how arranged and forced marriages are hardly unique to Islam (they occur among Hindu, Mormon, and Orthodox Jewish communities among others), and that the vast majority of people in these faiths oppose them. They're the result, she argues, of a cultural phenomenon, not a social or religious one. 

Written in the Stars

Three books about three different things: A sweeping fantasy, an epic adventure, a contemporary story. But they all share some serious commonalities, and no, it's not because all of their authors are women of colour, or because their protagonists are too. They're excellent books, and they're showcasing a new generation of diverse fiction. 

As Aisha put it about her work for We Need Diverse Books, an entirely-volunteer run and almost completely community-funded organization, "We want to work ourselves out of a job." Both she and Sabaa spoke to the need for more diverse books such that diverse characters are unremarkable. They're simply part of everyday stories and narratives, reflecting genuine lived experiences and the diversity of our own lives. 

Renée noted that in the end, publishing is a business, and that to make the push for diverse books succeed, supporters need to talk about books, talking up titles they love not because they're diverse, but simply because they're good books. All three authors also discussed the problems with limited representation: Aside from the obvious, they put a heavy burden on both authors and characters to represent vast communities instead of the lives of individuals. 

For Aisha, this was a particularly large struggle. In writing about a topic like arranged marriage in "Written in the Stars," she faced pushback from fellow Pakistani-Americans that she was "going to make us look worse than we already are." Remaining silent on the issue, she argued, was only going to perpetuate it — only by talking about it could we fight both social perceptions and attitudes within the cultures where it takes place. 

Aisha Saeed

Aisha and I were banished to the hall by PBS, but luckily the chairs were cozy.

Notably, she said, in responses to the book she gets a number of people from very diverse backgrounds, including Orthodox Jewish and Mormon women, asking for copies of the book and saying that they see themselves in its pages. This is a mark of defiance to the claim that racially diverse books are just for "them," because "us" is for everyone — and as Aisha told me, perceptions of arranged marriage are changing in their own communities. 

More and more people resist the concept of arranged marriage altogether, and in cases where they don't, she says, parents genuinely mean well — and when they realize that their daughters are experiencing misery and suffering, they support them and work to get them out of those situations. That means bringing them home and helping them with divorces, as well as extricating them from their husbands' families. But, she adds, this doesn't excuse their behavior. 

All three women observed that diversity of all kinds, but particularly racial diversity, is on the rise in publishing, and that within publishing, there's an acceptance of and love for diversity — but also an awareness of the cold hard facts of marketing. Diversity can't succeed if it can't sell, and the concern of sustainability is key, not just for diverse sales but also groups like We Need Diverse Books. Aisha and I discussed the long-term plans for the organization, and the work they're doing already, like giving grants to interns to help them enter publishing in the face of a world where unpaid internships are effectively required. 

Renée's book, "The Wrath and the Dawn," takes on a canon that may feel familiar to Westerners, but as she noted, the Arabian Nights we know is a distillation of translators, cultures, and different attitudes, one twisted far from the original. In many ways, she says, the original is more dark, twisted, and gory, but it's also more true to the culture it comes from, and more authentic. 

When she was approaching her own adaptation, however, she still made adjustments, not least of which was a shift in the Caliph's presentation, because as she put it: "A rapey murderer just doesn't quite work" when it comes to talking about heroes of narratives and love interests. Instead, she explored themes of redemption, as well as the dark and light sides we all have as humans — the scores of possibilities that lie at every decision tree, and where we go with them. 

An Ember in the Ashes Cover

Sabaa was also very interested in redemption with her novel, "An Ember in the Ashes," set in a world that draws heavily upon Roman society while still integrating phenomena from other regions — like efrits. As a child, she told me, her mother surrounded her with folklore, including tales about how efrits lived in trees and you shouldn't disturb them, a story that still frightens her as an adult. 

All three women have told lush, rich, complicated stories drawing upon their own life experiences and their cultures, but they also stress that anyone can tell stories, and that everyone should tell stories. In the end, all three told me, the responses that mean the most are the ones coming from people who contact them to tell them they've finally seen themselves on the page — from hijabi girls holding up copies of books and smiling to women emailing them about their shared experiences, to say "this is me."

Publishing, they say, is finally learning that "this is me" applies to a huge set of people. 

Photos courtesy Penguin Young Readers.