Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Diversity in YA: Culture is More Than Character

This has been a post I've been wanting to write for a while now but have refrained from doing so because I'm not always the best at articulating my thoughts, and I have a lot of thoughts on this.

But with #DVpit and the push for diverse voices in YA literature (and all kinds of literature, though I can only really speak for YA because that's what I write and read), I realized I should attempt this post.

So bear with me here. I'll try not to ramble.

Culture is more than character. By this I mean that in order to write a culture effectively, it's not only necessary to make sure you get the character right (character = looks, values, mannerisms, etc., basically anything embodied in the individual) but that you also consider the way you are telling the story.

Because culture manifests on a far bigger scale than the individual.

Each culture has its unique forms of story-telling. Look at all the various types of story-telling that exist in some of the East Asian countries alone. Light novels, anime, and manga make up huge sectors of the entertainment market in Japan. The popularity of Korean dramas crosses continental divides. Web-novels have become increasingly prominent in China--some, such as the acclaimed Lang Ya Bang, have been adapted into big-budget dramas (and viewership of this drama is equal to that of Game of Thrones.)

Here's the thing: I can't just pick up any YA novel, animate it/turn it into a graphic novel, and call it an anime/a manga. Simple elements that we often know to be universal to storytelling--inciting incident, turning-points, plot arcs--are not actually as universal as they seem. Yes, almost every story has these elements. But how they are handled and presented, how they are written, are often times dependent on culture. Smaller things such as tropes and cliches are not universal, either. What is cliche in one culture's story-telling medium is not necessarily cliche in another's. Tropes (and subversions of tropes) are tied to culture. You cannot separate the manner in which a story is presented from the culture.

I write this because when I write my culture, I don't stop at the character level. The way I plot and the way I construct elements of a culturally influenced story is, well, culturally influenced. And sometimes, this means that the resulting story breaks some conventions of the YA market. But I write this way because it's the only way I can convey my culture on all the levels it deserves.

I admire all different kinds of YA novels. But I also admire other kinds of story-telling. Now, maybe you believe that books should only be comped to books. But people in the book world and industry understand movie comps. (e.g. Six of Crows being comped to Ocean's Eleven). I really hope one day, as this world becomes more an more multicultural and accepting of all different kinds of voices, that people will also come to understand comps of different story-telling mediums and of different cultures.

And mostly, I hope that as the need for culturally diverse works spreads, I'll read not just about culturally influenced characters who live in the culture of YA storytelling, but culturally influenced characters who live in culturally influenced worlds and plots.

I'd love to hear from you guys. Let me know if you have any thoughts on this, or share your experience writing something culturally influenced!


  1. It's a very important and well articulated post.

  2. Awesome discussion!! And very much agreed. There's so much to a culture- it includes all the history, traditions, and values that have developed throughout time that makes it so unique and wonderful. But a thing I feel many YA books should really work on, especially when writing diversity, is to represent those cultures with respect and research throughout all fields. (This is also why ownvoices books is so important as well.)
    The contemporary shoujo for a Japanese manga versus a contemporary YA book versus a contemporary Korean drama (using these examples because those are what I've read/watched my life) are so vastly different, but I'm excited to see the recent influx of various cultures and different tropes added into the YA genre these coming years, which includes those unique aspects of dramas or manga into YA literature.