Monday, April 28, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Aisha Saeed

Welcome all! For the latest installment of Diversity Solutions, we have with us today author Aisha Saeed! In the last few weeks, the issue of diversity in YA has been heating up, with articles in the New York Times, CNN.com, and Entertainment Weekly.  Here, we focus on how we can achieve the change we need.

Aisha is the author of Written in the Stars, a YA novel to be released in 2015 by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books.

She is also a contributing author in the New York Times featured anthology Love Inshallah.  Her writing has appeared in places such as The Orlando Sentinel, BlogHer, Muslim Girl Magazine, and Red Tricycle.  She writes a monthly column, Literary Mama, at LoveInshallah.com and is the YA contributor at Story and Chai.

Welcome, Aisha! Thanks so much for taking the time to join us to discuss the hurdles we face with diversity in YA today.

First, please tell us a little bit about WRITTEN IN THE STARS. What inspired your novel?

My YA novel is scheduled to be released in 2015 by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books. The book is about a Pakistani American teenager who falls in love with a boy in her community against her parent’s wishes. When they find out, the consequences are greater than she could have possibly imagined.

Naila, the main character of the novel, spoke to my imagination for years and her story slowly shaped in my mind’s eye until I finally wrote it. I was inspired to write a story about a Pakistani-American because growing up I longed to see people who looked like me or had the same experiences as my friends or me in print. While this story is not about my own experiences, friends I know have encountered some of the issues my main character faces in the novel and I hope the novel will not only transport readers as all books should do but also speak to people who may be facing similar issues. 

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

There is definitely a disparity between the number of diverse books out there and the diversity of the general population. I hope for a day that diversity is better reflected in literature and media in general but why that is not the case today, I don’t know. This great interview by the executive editor of Simon & Schuster, Zareen Jaffery, does provide some further insight to this question.

Did you think it is easier or more difficult to get a book with diverse characters published? What was your experience like in the submission process?

It’s hard to know if I had an easier or more difficult time getting my book published but I hope I was not looked down upon for having a culturally diverse story. My agent, Taylor Martindale, absolutely loved the diversity in the story and actively seeks novels with diverse characters and stories. My publisher Nancy Paulsen Books also has many diverse books on their list by POC authors like Jacqueline Woodson and Padma Venkatraman. I have been very fortunate that the agent and publisher I have are both deeply committed to sharing diverse stories with the world. For them, my diverse story was an asset and not a liability. 

I share my story to give hope to other writers hoping to see their diverse stories in print. While the news can often be dire when it comes to publishing diverse stories, and while it may seem that no one is interested in acquiring stories with diverse characters it is not always the case. Hopefully with time it will never be the case.

Do you feel that writing about diverse characters has helped or hindered your career?

Writing about diverse characters has helped my career because writing diverse characters and stories is the motivation and passion behind the stories I write. Whether or not writing diverse stories will ultimately be financially lucrative remains to be seen, but having the pleasure and challenge of writing diverse stories is the reason I write at all. Writing diverse stories is my driving force.

There is a belief in the publishing industry that books with ethnic characters on the cover don't sell as well. If this is the case, what can we do to change it? What types of covers would you like to have for your books?

I was so disheartened to learn about this back when Justine Larbalestier’s book LIAR was given a cover with a white character instead of representing the main character who was African American. It was my first time learning about this issue and since then I’ve seen many other instances of this. That being said, it appears the issue was getting a lot of attention and I hope the attention and controversy that the cover of LIAR sparked is helping to change things.

I am very fortunate because my cover is currently being developed and my publisher is including me in the process and is committed to creating a cover with authenticity. I hope that this is the trend as hopefully more diversity is reflected in literature.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

1. Publishers should encourage booksellers not to place diverse books in special sections marked off for diversity-specific areas. For example, a YA memoir on a girl in Palestine should be with all the other YA nonfiction books, not shelved in a separate section on World History. I have unfortunately often seen this to be the case and when these books are not in the higher-trafficked locations it makes randomly coming across a diverse book while browsing difficult, which results in less sales.

2. Just as there are conversations taking place in the media, on twitter, and by the general public on the lack of diversity I hope publishers are also having these conversations in a formal manner. I hope they are recognizing how important it is and are taking steps to not only acquiring more diverse stories but to nurture diverse authors they already have in their houses. Before anything can change with action, conversations, important ones, must take place.

3. Promote books with POC with vigor and enthusiasm. If diverse books truly don’t sell as well as other books, by not promoting and marketing them with full enthusiasm a self-fulfilling prophecy can be created.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1. Write the diverse book you’ve always wanted to read. And make it the absolute best book you can. The competition is fierce to get published and it gets tougher every day, so take your time, sit with it, show it to trusted review partners, and write the best story you can possibly write. We need more diverse stories and while successful books have a variety of factors behind them, a great story always has a leg up at succeeding over any other.

2. Don’t be afraid to write the truth, including the difficult truths in your book. The truth resonates and the truth sells. As POC we can often feel we carry the representation of our entire culture on our shoulders and we feel pressured to only paint a rosy picture of our culture, our religion, etc. Write the truth because the truth is shades of gray and will give dimensions to everything you say. When you’re simply writing the good it’s something readers can see through but when you write the truth it resonates and people read.

3. Support other diverse authors. Buy their books. Give them away as gifts. Request the libraries to carry them. Promote your favorite POC authors on twitter, facebook and other social media. Word of mouth is one of the most effective tools to sell books, use your words and your actions to support the authors writing diverse stories and hopefully with time we will see more and more diversity in the stories we read. 

Lots of great ideas! Thanks so much for sharing your excellent advice, Aisha!

You can connect with Aisha on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or Tumblr.

Don't miss the other Diversity Solutions interviews with Nathan Bransford, Sherri L. Smith, Stephanie Guerra, Lamar Giles, Jessica Martinez, and Brandy Colbert!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Lamar Giles

For the latest installment of Diversity Solutions, I'm excited to bring to you author Lamar Giles! The issue of diversity in kid lit has been all over the media recently, including in the New York Times, CNN.com, and Entertainment Weekly.  Here, we focus on how we can achieve the change we need.

Lamar Giles is the author of Fake ID, a YA thriller about a teen in the witness protection program.  Writing as L.R. Giles, he has also penned Serpent & Stallion, Live Again, and The Shadows Gallery.

Hi Lamar! Thank you so much for joining us and speaking up on the issues of diversity in publishing today!  

First, can you tell us a little bit about FAKE ID and what inspired your character, Nick?

FAKE ID is the story of Nick Pearson (not his real name) whose family is in Witness Protection. He moves to his fourth town in four years, and makes one friend, Eli Cruz, who dies under mysterious circumstances. When Nick looks into the death, he uncovers a dark conspiracy that leads back to his own, often shady, father.

I wrote Nick for a couple of reasons. I love to tell stories, so that’s the base driver. Also, I wanted to create the kind of character I never saw, but felt a deep longing for, when I was growing up. A kickass black male teen hero. Not the comic relief sidekick. Not the guy who dies first (because we’ve all heard those jokes, particularly in horror and science-fiction, “black guy’s in it, how long does he last?”)

So many people take for granted the power of having incredible heroes who look like them. I wanted to give that gift to some kids who aren’t so fortunate.

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

I don’t know for sure, so everything I’m about to say is speculation. But, maybe the idea of increasing diversity just hasn’t seemed like a priority to whoever decides on a house or imprint’s direction. I don’t think there are malicious machinations behind the scenes. I’m not saying [in my 70’s Blaxploitation voice] “It’s The Man trying to keep Brown down.”

However, the issue keeps coming up. In recent weeks, I’ve seen at least two major entertainment outlets address the lack of diversity in YA. So, it’s not a matter of ignorance. The whole industry has been put on notice. Going forward, I think the questions we need to ask publishers are: 1) Who are the people in power that care about changing the dismal diversity numbers? 2) What proactive measures are they willing to take to initiate the change? 3) What quantifiable differences are they shooting for?

I say “they” because I’m not a decision maker. I do have thoughts on this, though, and would be happy to have a discussion with any decision maker who wants to chat.

Did you think it is easier or more difficult to get a book with diverse characters published? What was your experience like in the submission process?

It’s hard to get published. Period. Think of all the publishing lore around acclaimed books that initially got passed on for some reason or another. It’s the whole “J.K. Rowling got rejected a dozen times before someone bought Harry Potter.” I wouldn’t want to diminish or inflate any individual’s publishing experience based on where they’re situated within the diversity spectrum. What gets published is often based on subjective reasoning. Does an agent/editor like the book? If so, great. If not, why? The reasons are going to vary book to book and no one is going to admit they rejected something because the main character was non-white, or gay, or disabled, etc. The numbers from the Lee & Low post suggest SOMETHING is going on, but it seems almost impossible to determine if a diverse character hurts a book’s chance as much as a pacing problem, or an info dump in the first chapter.

Here’s what we do know about publishing acquisitions. It’s not enough for a book to be good; it also has to be wanted. Again, thinking of Harry Potter, one of the greatest book series ever, and a bunch of people who “know” publishing wanted nothing to do with the boy wizard. Some bold person with a contradictory belief had to get it, want it, and push it through.

My own publishing experience was one of those multi-rejection ones. FAKE ID took nine months to sell, despite receiving praise from nearly every editor who read it. I did wonder if Nick being a black male scared editors away, but no one said that to me. One editor admitted they didn’t feel there was a market for a teen thriller with a male lead. No one ever mentioned Nick’s race. In a way, it made his race (and mine) feel like the elephant in the room. But I recognize that sensation was internal, no one openly discriminated against me.

The editor who eventually acquired FAKE ID (and my next book, ENDANGERED) happens to be Asian-American, a member of another group that has very little representation in the YA space. She has since moved on to a different house, and my new editorial team has been very supportive of who I am and the characters I write. However, if not for that one decision maker seeing the value in my work, and wanting to move forward with me, you and I wouldn’t be having this discussion now. Make of it what you will.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

1) Consider starting diversity development programs like the major television networks. Not just for writing. But for editing, and marketing, and book design. IF there is someone in power who cares about this issue, then let’s talk about this. As I alluded to in my previous answer, more diverse decision makers would probably lead to more diverse acquisitions. With more diverse books on the market, there’s increased likelihood that something will hit big.

2) Examine the marketing practices used for books that are expected to do well. Do the same thing for diverse books if you aren’t already.

3) Be honest about your house’s numbers (and whether or not you really care). If diverse acquisitions are low, consider ways to increase those numbers incrementally and annually (the example I always use is a 2%-5% increase each year, arbitrary numbers, but, still, a starting point). And if there’s a problem finding the material through usual channels, consider contests or referrals. The more product, the better the chances for success.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1) Remain vocal. Keep the conversation in the public consciousness, and sing the praises of great diverse titles as you come across them. Sadly, that may be the only marketing some of these excellent titles get.

2) Keep writing. As discouraging as this industry can be, we must keep generating quality material to challenge arguments that diverse books aren’t good/relatable/marketable.

3) Educate peers and readers on the issue. A lot of folks see the desire for more diversity as an attack on writers and characters that are generally the norm. It’s not. Whenever I’ve seen this topic in any major outlets, there’s an immediate—almost violent—pushback from people crying “reverse racism” or accusing anyone who’s passionate about the issue of “playing the race card.” If you encounter this in peers or readers, take an opportunity to enlighten them peacefully. Share numbers and facts like those in the Lee & Low article. Try to take it out of an emotionally charged arena, if possible, so we can all move closer to real change.

Thanks so much for your excellent advice, Lamar! It was a pleasure having you on Diversity Solutions.

To learn more about Lamar Giles, follow him on his website, blog, twitter, or facebook.  Don't miss his fantastic recent post, Diversity in YA: Don't BS the Change!

Also, check out the Diversity Solutions interviews with Nathan Bransford, Sherri L. Smith, Stephanie Guerra, Aisha Saeed, Jessica Martinez, and Brandy Colbert!


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Stephanie Guerra

Hi all! Please welcome author Stephanie Guerra for the latest installment of Diversity Solutions! There have been many calls for greater diversity in YA recently.  In this series, we focus on discussing how we can achieve the change we need.

Stephanie Guerra is the author of Torn, a YA contemporary featuring a straight-arrow Latina teen who is drawn into a friendship with a wild-child new chick.  Stephanie recently switched gears by penning Billy the Kid Is Not Crazy, a humorous middle grade novel.

She is also a contributor to the Latin@s in Kid Lit blog, dedicated to speaking to issues of diversity in children's literature.

Hi Stephanie! Thanks so much for joining the discussion and approaching some touchy subject matter!


First, can you tell us a little bit about TORN and how you decided to craft your Latina main character?

TORN is my debut novel, and here are a few lines of synopsis from School Library Journal:

Starred review Gr 9 Up–Guerra’s gritty novel (Amazon Children’s Pub., 2012) is a spectacularly realistic portrait of a teen torn between her former friends and the new girl in school, running the family household and having fun in high school, and being a friend who goes along with anything or one who really cares. Often stories like this are moralistic, with the good girl celebrated and the bad one shunned. But sometimes the choices aren’t so clear-cut... This is a wonderful story with real characters in real situations…–Joan Kindig, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

School Library Journal nails it: at heart, this is a book about friendship. Race is secondary and incidental, not pivotal to the plot. The review does not mention race, and I love that. I decided on a Latina main character because two of my closest friends from high school are Latino. The book is dedicated to one of those friends, Carolyn, and although it’s not a biographical story, I did (with her permission) draw on her family and experiences to build my main character.

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

I wish I knew the answer to that! It’s hard to speculate, because I’m on the writing end of the industry rather than the publishing end, and while I understand my own fears and motivations, I’m hesitant to speak for anyone else. 

Here’s my best shot, extrapolated from my own experience: Writing—and I assume publishing—books about diverse characters can be an anxious process. I’m white. (I married into this last name.) I’m scared of getting it wrong. I’ve taken the leap three times now and am working on a fourth, and each time, I confront serious self-doubt. On one hand, there’s a significant, much-discussed lack of diverse characters in children’s and YA lit. On the other hand, there are many critics and readers who are ready to jump on the slightest transgression in the area of stereotyping. 

Many white writers have become afraid to attempt characters of color for fear of offending someone for something… we don’t always know what. And I assume some publishers share these fears. It’s easier to play it safe than to risk being called a bigot. My personal belief is that until we can freely write villains from every background imaginable, there is no real equality of representation in literature.

Did you think it is easier or more difficult to get a book with diverse characters published? What was your experience like in the submission process?

My sense is that the quality of the novel—strong characterizations, plot, voice, and language—matters more to publishers than the color of the characters’ skins. It’s hard to narrow down a good answer to your question because there are so many variables involved in the decision to publish a book. My submission process was fairly painless. I sold my debut novel quickly and followed up with another contract for a book about a white ten-year-old with an African American best friend, and then a contract for a series about a white teen and his Russian girlfriend. Both the African-American and Russian characters are central to the plot.

Do you feel that writing about diverse characters has helped or hindered your career?

I’d like to approach that question from two different angles. First, the “business” side: I don’t know whether writing diverse characters has helped or hindered my career. If someone ever declined or acquired one of my books for that reason, I wasn’t told.

Second, the “creative” side: I feel that writing diverse characters has helped my artistic development and stretched the range of my writing voice. One of the great pleasures of fiction writing is the chance to inhabit a character’s world and try on a personality and set of life experiences entirely unlike one’s own. This experience is amplified for me when I’m writing a nonwhite character. I’ve written Latina, Black, Russian and Italian-American characters, and in each case I’ve been stretched creatively and personally. I teach teens from a wide range of cultural and racial backgrounds, and their language, mannerisms, and world views inform my writing to a great degree. I also lean on beta readers of color to vet my books for anything that might cause offense. Both of these practices—working with kids and beta readers—have pushed me to a higher standard as a writer.

There is a belief in the publishing industry that books with ethnic characters on the cover don't sell as well. If this is the case, what can we do to change it? What types of covers would you like to have for your books?

I suppose that to change this problem, we have to buy more books! Give them as gifts! Vote with our dollars.

The second part of your question is timely for me, because I’m previewing covers for my fall release, BETTING BLIND. My protagonist, Gabe, has a Russian love interest who is an important part of the plot, and she’s featured on all the covers I’ve seen so far. The problem is that the designers are selecting all-American blondes instead of Slavic models. Russians are distinctive looking. I’m standing my ground that if this character is to be featured on the cover, she must look Slavic. All this to say, I’d like to have covers that accurately reflect the backgrounds of my characters, no matter how politically unpopular at the moment.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

1. Publish books that feature diverse characters but are not thematically focused solely on race and ethnic identity.
2. Promote those books to broad audiences.
3. Expect and believe that young readers will be interested in stories about characters from a wide variety of backgrounds. I know that’s an odd-sounding prescription, but young readers often respond to expectations. There may be a self-fulfilling prophecy at play here: if teachers and parents and writers and publishers hold an unspoken belief that young readers will only respond to characters from their own backgrounds, they may unwittingly act in way that influence kids to fulfill their expectations. For instance, if we only hand white students books about white kids, we are saying something. So, perhaps if publishers and other adults change their expectations, they may interrupt this cycle and improve sales of books with diverse characters.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1. If a writer isn’t ready or called to attempt a main character from another background, then he or she might consider including diverse supporting characters.
2. Volunteer with kids from these communities. Make author visits. Make an effort to connect with this audience offline or on.
3. Write books that are not narrowly focused on the race/culture/identity experience. Write a book that everyone will want to read. One of the big issues I see in multicultural literature is that if a book features a non-white character, it must therefore be “about” race. This adds a layer of unnecessary pressure and does not reflect real life.

Thanks for a great interview! I really appreciate that you’re asking questions about this issue! Best of luck on this project. (-:

Thank you so much for your fantastic answers, Stephanie!

Lots to think about, folks.  Don't miss the other installments of Diversity Solutions with Nathan Bransford, Sherri L. Smith, Lamar Giles, Aisha Saeed, Jessica Martinez, and Brandy Colbert


To learn more about Stephanie, check out her website, her posts on the Latin@s in Kid Lit blog, or the video below of an 11-year-old reviewing Billy the Kid Is Not Crazy!







Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Diversity Solutions with Sherri L. Smith

Welcome to the second interview in Diversity Solutions! It seems as if the cry for more diversity in kid lit is everywhere in the media right now. In this series, authors discuss how we can achieve the change we need.  Today, I'm so excited to have Sherri L. Smith share her insight into the many hurdles we face. 

Sherri L. Smith is the author of Orleans, a post-apocalyptic tale told after hurricanes have all but obliterated the Gulf states, and Flygirl, a WWII story about a girl who hides her racial heritage in order to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Sherri has also worked in film, animation, comics, and construction.

Hi Sherri! Thanks so much for joining us and tackling some of the tough questions about diversity in kid lit today!

According to this post by Lee & Low Books, there is a large gap between the percentage of children's books with diverse characters and the actual percentage of minorities living in the United States. It seems to me that if 37% of Americans are non-white, there must be an untapped market of readers waiting for books about minority characters. Why do you think publishers haven't invested further in books about diverse characters?

In general, there is a discrepancy between representation and actual demographics in all of entertainment—film, TV and books alike. Given that we are a “free marketplace” society, the belief is books (and movies and TV shows) reflect the consuming audience. If most of your readers are tall redheads, in theory you should produce more books about tall redheads. What this does not take into consideration is the reader’s willingness and great desire to read beyond his or her own experience. 

If publishers trusted their readership more, they might open up to more diversity. Additionally, if some clever statistician would crunch the numbers and show that minorities do in fact buy books, and buy a sizeable amount of them, then we might facilitate change. 

Another thing to consider is the global market. A book isn’t a blockbuster anymore unless it’s an international blockbuster. A European publisher once told me my novel, FLYGIRL, was “too American” for their readership because it dealt with Jim Crow race issues, which were alien to their nation. Sadly, racism is a universal phenomenon, including in this person’s country (hate crimes were in the news that very week!), but they could not/would not equate themselves with the deep history it holds in the US. The trick there is, how do you take the minority experience and make it universally relatable? Then it might sell around the world, and the publishers will say “yes!” to that.

There is a belief in the publishing industry that books with ethnic characters on the covers don't sell as well. If this is the case, what can we do to change it? What types of covers would you like to have for your books?

This is a common belief in movie posters, too (my Master’s thesis was on marketing “black film.”). Quite often, if the cast is African-American, there will be a color wash over the image, turning everyone a lovely shade of gold or blue or something non-racial. I have never heard anyone say they won’t see a movie because the person on the cover is a certain color, nor have I heard it said about a book. Then again, some characters sell well on the cover, and some don’t. Donald Duck is huge in Italy, Mickey Mouse is preferred over here. Boys won’t read books with girls on the cover, girls will read anything, or so they say. It seems different cover images suit different audiences. 

To me, the solution is to make better covers. A striking image is a striking image. Period. As for my books, I tend to prefer art to photographic covers. As a reader, I’d rather imagine my protagonist than see them strongly imprinted on the cover. It stifles the imagination.

I have heard stories from authors about getting a rejection from an imprint because they already had a book about a particular minority, as if that disqualifies other stories. Have you had any experience with this?

That’s hilarious—clearly someone is filling a quota, rather than looking for good stories. I can’t say that’s been my experience. I do remember developing a story for a book packager based on their springboard, with no mention of race, so I wrote what came to mind. They came back and asked, “Why aren’t the characters black?” I said, “Should they be?” They had assumed they would be because I’m black. No discussion necessary. That surprised me at the time. Needless to say, that project disappeared shortly thereafter.

In your opinion, what are the top three things publishers can do to help sales of books with diverse characters?

1) Seek out great stories from all kinds of writers—not just MFA graduates.
2) Put some marketing money behind those great stories in the ethnic niche as well as the wider audience, not just one or the other.
3) Stop saving your multicultural titles for February (Black History Month), May (Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month) or National Hispanic Heritage Month—which isn’t even a calendar month, but runs September 15th to October 15th! Not every minority gets a month, and every minority should count throughout the year. You don’t need an angle or a gimmick to force people to read a good story. You just need the story to be good.

What are the top three things writers can do?

1) Write great stories.
2) Write your cultural experience.
3) Don’t be afraid to write outside of your cultural experience. Do your research and walk a mile in somebody else’s shoe. If that cultural group takes issue with it, maybe it will encourage them to tell their own stories, too!

Thank you so much for your excellent analysis and advice, Sherri! 

To learn more about Sherri L. Smith, check out her website, blog, facebook, or twitter.

Also, don't miss the other installments of Diversity Solutions with Nathan Bransford, Stephanie Guerra, Lamar Giles, Aisha Saeed, Jessica Martinez, and Brandy Colbert!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why I Write About India

I recently started the Diversity Solutions series, which tackles some of the uncomfortable questions regarding the relative lack of diversity in children's lit.  I want to explore how we can achieve change, and I believe that starts with honest discussion.

Personally, it doesn't seem like writing about India has specifically set me back career-wise.  I can't be sure of course, but if anything, I think fatigue for dystopia and near-future settings have been bigger hurdles.  Most people in the industry seem enthusiastic about diverse or multicultural books, including those set in India.  The only doubts in my mind, and what motivated Diversity Solutions, are from the apparent disconnect between that enthusiasm and the actual works being published.

In terms of representing the population, the most troubling gap is actually the lack of books featuring Latino or black characters.  For my part, I have made a personal goal to seek more of them out and support them.

In any case, I don't see myself changing what I'm writing to suit the market.  I think most of us write what we want to read, and I have yearned to see more diverse YA, especially fantasy and sci-fi YA. While writing Sky Mahal, I was inspired in part by Alison Goodman's Eon, which presents a pan-Asian mythology that I thought was very cool.  On my nightstand, I have Ellen Oh's Prophecy, which I understand is based on Korean folklore, and I can't wait to read that, too.  Similarly, I wanted to create a cool and interesting world based on Indian history and culture.

I think diversity in SFF is something badly needed both to help create a feeling of universality and to offset some of the narrowness bred by our Euro- and US-centric education system and press.  That very narrowness drives xenophobia at home and ham-fisted foreign policy.  If we can instill a better understanding of the world at large, we will have better leaders tomorrow.

I strive to present a different view of India, one that conveys that developing countries aren't just places where depressing things happen, where poverty and corruption reign.  That is part of India, but it's not everything.  In my writing, even though it is science-fiction, I try to convey that India is a complex place with art and culture and religion.  It's a place with a booming and innovative tech industry.  And most importantly for YA: it also has its own urban youth culture which is not so very different from America's.

In short, I try to convey the relateable and universal experience of being a teenager while imparting something of India's culture and history, and yes -- problems.  Plenty of problems, but I don't call my writing "dystopian" because the problems are really today's problems extrapolated to the future.  To be sure, many of those problems are shared with the US: prejudice and discrimination, wealth inequality, privacy concerns, and the increasing and insidious power of corporations. 

Although not all my novels will try to cover so much ground, I don't know if that passion to share India will ever fade.  Even if I decide to write something where race isn't relevant, I will always strive to use diverse characters because there is no such thing as a default race, and I don't want to perpetuate the notion that there is.

What about you? Why do you write the characters and settings you write?