Minorities in Ilirya: The Importance of Representation to the Destiny and Darkness Series
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
When I was a child, the American YA and middle grade literary world was by and large homogeneous: characters were almost exclusively upper middle-class and always, always white. They were written to speak with bland midwest accents, rode bikes, and had crushes on the opposite sex. They never worried about what they would eat for dinner, or whether they would be beaten up for looking different from their peers. No one ever mentioned the Prophet Mohammad, and kids thought Egypt only existed only in olden times, populated entirely by mummies. Regardless of whether the series that I read focused on horses, space, juvenile detectives, or knights, all the characters looked the same. Their diversity, if it can be called that, was only whether the protagonist had brown or blond hair. In retrospect, the reason I never noticed this lack of diversity was that it reflected my own circumstances almost perfectly: I grew up in Minnesota (and then Washington state) to upper middle class, white, sort of Christian parents. The stories I read were, for the most part, about me and the people around me. It never occurred to me that there were millions and millions of kids my age who were reading about total strangers, and never getting the chance to see themselves in books.
As an adult, I've written a lot about the need for minority representation on TV and in movies. Specifically, I've focused on LGBT representation, and made lengthy arguments attempting to influence and inform decisionmakers in Hollywood about the benefits of more inclusion. Ultimately, it's impossible to know if the things I've written have moved the needle even a millimeter on representation on screen, but one thing I can control in the world is minority representation in my own writing. I grew up in the protective cocoon of being a privileged majority, but being a sexual minority has taught me the absolute importance of representation for every minority. It doesn't matter if that minority reflects race, ability, sexual orientation, or religion: everyone deserves to be the hero. Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of books. Everyone should be able to imagine themselves as a pirate, sorcerer, castaway, etc.
In my fiction writing, I want people to be able to see themselves, including in positions they might never have read before. Although the fictional world of Ilirya holds no parallels to our world (and thus none of our prejudices like racism or homophobia should be projected onto either it or its characters except for classism), nevertheless, I tried as best I could to write my characters to reflect the diversity of our world. Illusionist Cayleth is what in our world would be Asian Pacific Islander. Evesdropper Kaylara, weather mage Pavo, soldier Gamiel and university Chancellor Vandys are black. Lyse is the equivalent of Latinx, while mage student Draks is the equivalent of Asian. Armorer Maz is blind. Firdas has PTSD. In future books, we find a black king with dreadlocks, an Asian lady knight, and a paraplegic senior military leader. Pavo comes from a poor nomadic hunting tribe in the south and Aeryn comes from a reclusive and poor ethnic group in the north, while some characters come from extreme wealth and privilege and are lifelong city dwellers. Naturally, diversity of sexual orientation is a key component of the series.
I'm not perfect. I still fall back on writing characters that reflect my own personal experiences because it's what I know. But I want the genre to change and experience a renaissance of inclusivity. Harry Potter doesn't have to be a white boy. Nancy Drew doesn't have to be a white girl. In America, one of the fears of the privileged majority is that if they allow more minority representation, somehow they'll lose out on what they have hoarded for centuries. People with this point of view see the world as a pie: for so long, they've had all of the pie to themselves. They think if they share it, they won't be able to satiate their vast appetite. But as tello Films CEO and President Christin Baker once said, "There are infinite pies." And I think that's the beauty of storytelling: there really are infinite pies. If we make infinite pies, then everyone can have as many slices as they want.