Monday, April 2, 2012

What Diversity Means to Me - Featuring Zoe Marriott

Thanks to everyone who has been reading and promoting this blog series. I truly believe that if we continue to spread the word about the need for more diversity in YA, that we will see more change. The winner of Karen Sandler's fabulous book Tankborn is Mary Ellen! Congratulations Mary Ellen! Please email me at so I can send you off the copy.

I am so very excited to bring to you today's interview. It doesn't come with a giveaway, because the book isn't available here yet, but those of you who live in the UK, have probably already seen and read her wonderful book. Today, I am so excited and honored to have Zoe Marriott on my blog. 

 I am really excited to get my own hands on Shadows on the Moon. It releases on April 24th in the US. Both of the covers are beautiful and diverse! The UK cover is on the left and the US on the right. Quite frankly, I love both of them! So I'm very happy to have Zoe here with us at the blog today.

Ello -  Hi Zoe! Thanks so much for being here today!

Zoe - First of all - thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog to talk about this subject! I'm overjoyed at the frank, productive dialogue that's taking place on the internet about diversity, and I feel especially pleased that so much of it is happening within the YA community. We rock!

Ello - How did your book come to you or why did you write your book?

Zoe - Shadows on the Moon was the result of a collision of several ideas that had been floating around in my head for a long time without going anywhere. None of them were quite strong enough on their own, but together, they became something special, and the setting of The Moonlit Lands, a fantasy version of Japan, was crucial to that.

I teach a lot of creative writing workshops in schools, and because my first book (The Swan Kingdom) is a fairytale retelling, one of the exercises I have the children do is to try and retell a fairytale of their own. I show them how by asking for suggestions of a common story, and then dissecting it and reassembling it with their help. Whenever I asked 'What fairytale shall we use?' Cinderella was nearly always the first suggestion, which made me groan, as it's one of my least favourites - I find the heroine far too weak and passive. So, to amuse myself, I would turn the thing on its head and say 'What if this isn't a romance? What if Cinderella doesn't really want the prince at all? What if she's just pretending to be sweet and weak because actually she's after revenge on her stepfamily, and she wants to use the prince to get it?'

The more I thought about that idea, the more I liked it and wanted to tackle it for real. But I still had a problem, because the idea of using the traditional Cinderella setting of Northern Europe in the 18th-19th century made me feel suffocated. I did not want to go to that place of powdered wigs and petticoats - there was nothing new to show a reader there. But it seemed important, in a story that was so much about illusions of beauty and control, that the setting be a society that was equally rigid, equally obsessed with appearances, equally ready to reject anything new and different.

I've been fascinated by Japanese culture for years and years. I read Manga like it's going out of style and have shelves of Anime DVDs. I'd been longing to set a story in some version of Japan for nearly as long as I could remember, but I could never find a story that fitted. One lazy Sunday afternoon as I was watching Memoirs of Geisha (one of my favourite films) that 'Cinderella as The Count of Monte Cristo' idea floated into my brain and bumped up against the Japanese images I was seeing and it all just fit. I was so excited that I jumped up and did a victory lap around my living room. I still have the scribbled page of notes that I wrote that day - at the top it says 'WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THIS BEFORE???' because it seemed so obvious once I'd gotten there.

Ello - OMG I love that pitch line! Fabulous! So why did you choose to write POC characters?

Zoe - Well, given that I was so ecstatic to have finally hit on a way to write a story set in fairytale Japan, a matching heroine and main cast was inevitable. I found it really freeing, actually, to know that the setting would be doing a lot of the work for me there. Once I'd made it clear as crystal in the first chapters that this story was taking place in The Moonlit Lands, I didn't have to worry about reinforcing the characters as Japanese (the way I felt I needed to introduce each character by differing ethnicity in Daughter of the Flames, my first multicultural book). It was a given. And this then allowed me to focus on their really interesting, individual features - untidy hair, muscular arms, cat-like eyes, musical voice - rather than describing hair, skin and eye colour over and over.

Once I'd decided for once and for all that my Cinderella wasn't really interested in the Prince (who, of course, would be a native of The Moonlit Lands) I started to think about what kind of person she would fall in love with. Who would be the perfect foil for Suzume, a heroine who was so driven and ruthless, a heroine who was convinced she was unaffected by illusions while at the same time being hopelessly trapped by them? I decided that he needed to be someone from outside that appearance obsessed society, who could see the heroine for what she truly was. I suppose at that point I could have brought in a blue-eyed blonde or something - but I had already decided that one of my heroine's self-destructive behaviours was self-harming, and this made me think about cultures where self-cutting and scarring are not seen as shameful, but as a right of passage. And so I imagined Otieno, a young scholar from a country a little bit like Africa, whose family connections, history and achievements would all be written on his body in the form of scars and tattoos that were worn as a mark of honour and courage. I knew that Suzume's own people would be frightened and repelled by his appearance, but that Suzume herself would see through his skin to his inner beauty, just as he would see hers.

It didn't really occur to me until later on that putting a pseudo-Japanese heroine with a black hero might be controversial. But when it did, I shrugged and thought 'Bring it on'. Thankfully, the response has generally been very positive, which convinces me once again that getting worried about possible backlash before it happens is a waste of time.

Ello - I think your reaction is perfect. You can't be afraid to be controversial. That's what is so great about books! And I'm proud of you for that. Why do you think books like yours are important to our kids?

Zoe - Aside from wanting to write cracking good books that turn children into lifelong readers, I really want to create stories that enable kids to LOOK at the world around them. To see it for what it is, with wide open, wondering eyes. Our mass media is so horribly skewed. It presents this idea of 'normalcy' which excludes and marginalises so many for an idea of commercial viability which is really nothing but blinkered prejudice. People who are black and Asian and Middle Eastern and Hispanic, people who are gay or transgendered or genderqueer, people who have disabilities, disfigurements or illnesses - all have this vision of a world which does not include them shoved down their throats almost 24-7, and they're told 'No one wants to see stories about people like you. Films and TV shows about people like you won't make money. Stories about straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied people are universal and everyone likes them. You are small and useless and unattractive and you don't matter.'

How can anyone justify that? It's not only cruel and utterly miserable - it's narrow, tasteless and bland. It's like forcing the consumers of media to live on nothing but plain oatmeal when all the world's rich, spicy, varied gastronomic delights could be available to them.

My worry is that this warped version of 'normal' eventually forms those very same blinkers on children's eyes, depriving them of their ability to see anyone who isn't the same as them, preventing them from developing the ability to empathise with and appreciate and take joy in the lives and experiences of people who are different from them. If Shadows on the Moon - or anything I write - causes a young person to look at their own life, or the life of another, and think, 'Maybe being different is cool' I will die a happy writer.

Ello - I am shouting AMEN! I so worry about the same exact thing. It is this reason that makes me so concerned about sending this message out to all writers that it's ok to include diversity in their books and that they shouldn't be afraid to do so. Just like you are doing!   What does diversity mean to you?

Zoe - To me, it means embracing reality. The world is diverse. People are diverse. That's just the way it is. And that is a wonderful thing. Opening your eyes and arms to the world as it really is and all the amazing possibilities created by that crazy, colourful, beautiful can that not make you a better person, a better writer? I read books all the time which have all-white, all straight, all able-bodied casts, presented by the author without (apparently) a second thought. They're still trapped in that sterile version of 'reality' which has nothing to do with reality at all. No matter how good such books are, I always wonder how much better, how much richer and more REAL they could have been if the author had freed themselves from the constraints of the fake, media constructed 'normal'.

Ello - Ok, my last question, and it is a doozy.
As a white woman writing about POC characters, what was your greatest challenge? How did you overcome them to write your book?

Zoe - Ooh, this is going to be a long answer. Bear with me :)

I had an argument with a writer on the internet last year. She said that her characters 'just came to her', fully formed, with skin colour, race, gender, sexual orientation and physical status in place. She couldn't possibly dictate to her creative brain what characters would come. The fact that all the characters that 'came to' her this way were exactly like her - straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered - was a complete coincidence. And of course there was nothing she could do about it. 'Writing about minorities just for the sake of it would be wrong', she said.

I think a lot of writers use this argument, either to excuse themselves when others point out the lack of diversity in their work, or in their own heads to ease the vague, guilty gnawings of their conscience. But I call bull. I used to say exactly the same thing about my characters, and this resulted in my first book,
The Swan Kingdom - which had a cast of characters all heavily swathed in the thick comfort blanket of my own white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied privilege. Don't get me wrong. I still feel proud of many things about that book. But I know it could have been so much better if I'd tried to reflect something more of reality within the pages, and that I didn't is a source of strong regret to me.

It's stunning how quickly the kind of characters that 'just come to you' change when you struggle out of that comfort blanket of privilege and look at the world as it really is. So that's the first challenge overcome.

Of course, once you've got a headful of characters with all kinds of different cultural backgrounds, sexualities and physical statuses, you've got to have the courage to actually put them in a story. And I'm not going to lie: it does take courage to do that. If you care about getting things right (which I do) and if you seriously don't want to hurt or offend people by accidentally spilling your privilege all over them (which I don't) it can sometimes seem an overwhelming responsibility to depict characters who are so different from you in fiction. If I write white, straight, able-bodied characters, no one assumes I'm trying to make some kind of significant point about all white, straight, able-bodied people. There are so many stories about such people out there. But the second I put a transgendered Japanese woman in my story, the lack of other narratives featuring such characters means everyone assumes mine is intended to represent every Japanese transgendered person in the world. And if I get it wrong, I'm hurting every Japanese transgendered person in the world (or at least, it feels like it).

I think there are two key things you need to do to get over the fear. The first is to make sure that your characters truly are characters, complex and flawed, living in your story in order to serve it in some essential way. If you do that, you're not going to be writing offensive cyphers who only exist to Make A Point. The second is to admit to yourself (and remind yourself frequently) that you, like the rest of the human race, are not perfect, and that you will make mistakes. Inevitably. That's a hard one. You want to get it right SO MUCH, and the realisation that you probably won't 100% of the time can paralyse you if you let it. But once you've accepted it, you can deal with whatever comes.

So far, no one has ever written to me to say 'Your depiction of a Japanese/transgendered/black/disabled/depressed/facially disfigured/mixed race person has offended me, and you suck'. But one day, someone will, and when that happens, I'll be hurt and upset. But I won't turn around and try to whitesplain (or straightsplain, or whatever) to that person just how very wrong they are, and make them take it back so that I can feel good about myself again. I won't throw a tantrum and crawl back into my little privilege comfort blankie and start writing all white, all straight, all-able bodied casts again and say 'So there!'. I won't even try and get them to educate me on how I messed up. Because frankly, after a lifetime of putting up with other people's privilege, the last thing they're going to want is to have to try and fix mine.

I'll tell them that I'm sorry, and I'll promise to keep on educating myself and trying to do better. And I'll thank them for trying my work in the first place, and caring enough to let me know what they think. Because my job is to be the best writer I can be, and that means putting on my big girl panties and doing stuff that scares the ever-loving crap out of me, for no other reason than that it's the right thing to do, without expecting to get a standing ovation from the world in return.

Ello - I'd like to give you a standing ovation right now! Thank you for sharing your words with us here. I truly believe in what you have said here and I hope other writers take it to heart. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.


Bish Denham said...

This is a most excellent post/interview. Thanks, Zoe, for being willing to step into that space and write something from a different perspective. I will be reading your book.

Kristen Kittscher said...

What a fantastic, thoughtful interview. Thanks so much. It's interesting to me (though not surprising) that white writers who people their stories with all-white characters never face criticism; whereas Zoe, who attempts to reflect the diversity of the real world, will undoubtedly do so.

G.M. said...

Thanks, Zoe, for sharing your book and your views with us. Your twist on the traditional Cinderella's story and matching a Japanese woman with an African man is fascinating. I wonder why they have differnt covers for your book. While I agree with Ellen that both are beautiful, they protray different moods to what is Heroine is all about. Personally, I find the UK cover more exciting visullay, while the American cover is more unique. Any plans to translate your novel to Japanese? Best wishes to your book to become a best seller.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you Bish and Kristen :)

Giora - both covers are playing with themes in the story, but in different ways. The white sakura and the red of the lettering on the UK cover represent important imagery of change within the book. The US cover shows the heroine in the process of shadow-weaving, glowing bright like the moon, while at the same time she is fading away (which is what happens to her inside as she becomes deeper entwined with her own illusions). Both cover models have a sad smile which is referenced in the story as an expression the heroine uses to disguise her true thoughts. I honestly couldn't be happier with both of them.

So far we haven't had any offers to translate the story into Japanese - but I'd certainly be delighted if it ever happened!

Rebecca Burgess said...

Me, and several other comic artists/writers, were discussing the subject of 'writing in diversity/writing about other cultures/subcultures' in a forum recently. In the small-press comic scene, we have yet to have much diversity in cultures, beyond that of Japanese stuff (because manga has very much driven the UK small press scene). So the subject was brought up and there is much discussion on it. Interestingly, most people have said they dont write about more diverse subjects for the very reason you expressed- they dont want to get it wrong! This blog post is a very interesting and an insightful look into how to overcome such obstacles, and brings up some great reasons as to why we should explore diversity! I'll definitely be linking this in our forum, I think everyone would very much appreciate it :) Very inspiring! I personally agree very much, and generally have a natural curiosity in other cultures which I put into most of my comics- all you need is research if you want to get things right!
Also, the books sounds fantastic, it sounds like it would be right up my street, I'm definitely going to check it out!

G.M. said...

Thanks, Zoe, for the explanation. I watched the book trailer in your website and it's visually beautiful. I have a feeling that your book will create a buzz in Japan, which is a good publicity. There is less diversity in countries like Japan and Korea, so the kiss in your book trailer will stir interest. Your literary agent and book pulisher know more than me about Japan's book publishers, but you might want to take a look at Tuttle-Mori Agency

I sumbitted to their office in China, and they were very responsive. If they like your book, they'll take care of everything including translation.
Good luck!

Rebecca Barrow said...

Such an interesting interview! I think that at the end of the day we're all just people, whatever ethinicity we are. Sometimes certain things might need a little more research or a more careful approach, but that doesn't mean we should be scared of writing about it. I'm definitely going to pick this one up :)

Sarah said...

Oh my gosh, I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of this, seriously. This sounds amazing! And Zoe Marriott sounds like such a wonderful author ♥ Thank you for sharing this author and her works!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great interview Ellen and Zoe. You've got me really excited to read your book. And so agree with the whole discussion on the importance of diversity in literature.

Ani Louise said...

Great interview Ello and Zoe! Lots to think about. Zoe, thank you for sharing your views and your experience in writing this book. It sounds wonderful, though I'm not sure which cover I like better. They're both gorgeous!

Danette Vigilante said...

Awesome and thought provoking interview, Zoe. I loved your trailer and have added your book to my TBR pile.

The very best of luck to you!

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks everyone :)

Heather Zundel said...

Can I say how much I love this interview/post? No, not really, but I can try. You express yourself so eloquently, Zoe! And I am so grateful and in awe of your open enthusiasm for all of this, Ellen! I adore this series, and I adore both of you. *hugs*

Charles Gramlich said...

Enjoyed this!

C. J. Flood said...

Really enjoyed this post. Look forward to reading your book, Zoe.

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