Jandra Sutton is an author, freelance writer, and public speaker based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her passion is connecting with people, and she loves helping young adults reach their full potential by engaging their desire to learn and succeed despite the odds. To me, this excitement for connecting and helping others comes through in Jandra’s writing. Earlier this year, she released her novel Fragile, about a young woman named Ava Collins, who has been deaf for as long as she can remember, and her struggle against the expectation to be “normal.”
Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Jandra on the topic of diversity, and her experience writing and publishing diverse stories.
CC: What makes a story diverse? Why is it important that diverse stories get published?
JS: I think there are several facets of diversity. One, we need diverse characters and diverse stories being told. Two, we need diverse authors telling those stories.
We need stories that many readers can identify with. It’s not just about inserting a token person of color, for example, but making it relatable and accessible for more than just one group of people. J.K. Rowling did a phenomenal job with this with Hermione Granger—in the movies she was cast as a white actress, but in Cursed Child she’s portrayed by a black actress. Rowling’s response? “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified.”
How many characters are described as tall, thin, and blonde with blue eyes? Is that description necessary to the story? Personally, I’ve deliberately left several of my characters open ended when it comes to appearance, and I’ve been consistently surprised (in a good way) when my readers start telling me, “I imagine her as black” or “I think she’s Latina like me.” That’s a phenomenal feeling because it should be open-ended like that.
However, we do need books that are blatantly diverse as well. We need books with PoC characters, LGBTQ+ characters, religious characters, characters with disabilities…the list goes on and on. We need these because representation matters. When I first started writing on Wattpad, my very first book was set in Istanbul. I had countless readers comment, “I never see books that take place in my country.” That’s crazy! I grew up very privileged to see myself in the books I read, the movies I watched, etc…and everyone needs that. It’s so beneficial, especially for young people.
Stepping beyond that, it’s not good enough for our only diverse books to be coming from one group of authors. Not that I believe you can’t write diverse books if you’re a white male, on the contrary. It’s a difficult position to be in, however, because you should never be writing diverse books because it’s “trendy” or to sell books. You need to treat diverse characters and diverse stories with respect (and copious amounts of research, beta readers, and sensitivity readers) and know that—should you fail to offer correct representation—there is a good chance your book will fail as well.
My goal is to write inclusive books. It’s as simple as that. I come from a very diverse family, and that’s a huge motivation for me. My younger siblings are both adopted—my sister is black and my brother is Filipino and deaf—and I want them to see themselves in books. I want them to have the opportunity that I had to identify with characters I saw in movies, tv shows, and books.
It’s important for me to make sure, however, that I’m doing a good job of it.
Beyond that? We need the industry at large to support authenticity and diversity at every possible turn. We need to make sure that we’re creating space for marginalized voices to be heard as well. An increase in diverse stories isn’t enough if we aren’t supporting diverse authors as well.
CC: I was really struck by your tweet about wanting to see a deaf main character in YA, so you wrote the story. What was your experience like creating a story that you wanted to read? And what goes through your head when you go back and re-read it?
JS: It was crazy and so incredibly difficult. I changed my mind so many times about the course of the book, and I actually remember the moment I decided on the ending of the book. (No spoilers.) I was walking around my neighborhood around dusk when it hit me like a ton of bricks, and—I’ll be honest—it actually made it hard for me to write the book.
Re-reading your own books is always difficult. I find things I want to change. There’s an entirely different ending in my head. And a different plotline. And…I could go on and on. I’ll always be questioning if it would’ve been better to do X, Y, or Z, but I think that’s the perfectionist in me. Eventually you hit a point where the story just needs to be finished.
CC: In Hollywood, we see that more diverse stories tend to do better. And yet, so often these stories don’t get produced, or in the case of writing, they don’t get published. Why do you think this is? What was the greatest challenge in publishing Fragile?
JS: It’s tough, isn’t it? I remember pre-Wonder Woman’s release, there were rumors floating around that they weren’t promoting the film as much as others because they expected a female-led comic book film to fail. I think so much of the entertainment industry is fueled by misconceptions and even unconscious bias, which makes it harder to change.
There was a Marvel executive who came under fire for claiming that diversity was killing sales, but—when you look at the numbers—that’s completely wrong. The female version of Thor sold very well, as did the reboot of Iron Man with Riri Williams, and Black Panther was the top-selling comic of 2016 (not just of Marvel comics, but all comics).
One of the problems is looking at correlation and assuming it’s causation. If Marvel is seeing a slump in sales, is it because of diversity or is it because of a lack of fresh content? The entertainment industry as a whole is seeing this—reboots are all the rage, from TV to movies and even books. Do we need a modern retelling of Little Women? Or a third film version of Fantastic Four? Because they’re working on both.
For me, the greatest challenge in publishing Fragile was accurate representation. I wanted to get it right. I wanted it to be honest and relatable, respectful, and I wanted to get the message out there that there is no ‘normal’. My proudest moment was when my little brother read it. He’s got cochlear implants, and my mom sent me a picture of him sitting outside engrossed in the book. He’s not a huge reader, so knowing he liked it…that’s a win to me.
CC: What advice would you give to writers who want to publish diverse fiction?
JS: First of all, I want to acknowledge that I’m not an authority on diversity in fiction. It’s a very complex issue, one I’m very passionate about, but—as in all things—I try to remind myself to keep an open mind. Be open to change. Be open to being wrong. Ask for people’s opinion. Check your personal bias. Know that this is a multifaceted issue.
You have to be honest with yourself, brutally so, and ask yourself a lot of questions. Why do you want to write diverse fiction? Is your portrayal of this form of diversity accurate representation? Is this a story you should be telling or should it be told by someone else? Is the facet of diversity critical to the story or is it just a gimmick to get more publicity? The last thing we need is more stereotypes in fiction.
Once again, I’ll go back to the example of J.K. Rowling and Hermione Granger’s character. You can write fiction that is accessible, allowing readers to see themselves in your characters, without slapping an identifier on a character when you haven’t actually thought about it.
The most important thing, as always is respect. Be respectful of the characters you’re writing, be respectful of the stories you’re telling, of your readers, of your fellow writers. We live in a very polarized society, so it’s even more terrifying to put yourself out there (thanks Twitter). I don’t want anyone to think, “Oh, well, I’m white, so I shouldn’t write a book because we need more diverse writers,” but—at the same time—could I have written a book like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon? Should I? I don’t think so.
Many thanks to Jandra for answering these questions so thoughtfully. Diversity is incredibly important, but also an incredibly complex issue. For more information about Jandra, check out her website at www.jandralee.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on Snapchat as jandralee.
To the reader: What are your thoughts about diversity in publishing? Let me know in the comments!
This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.
Header image from Pixabay.
19 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Diversity and publishing — Interview with Jandra Sutton”
What a brave soldier! Thanks for sharing her thoughts. I didn’t know about ‘Fragile’ and now I’m glad I do.
Having said that, I think I most connected with her words that books with diversity need to be written not for superficial reasons such as sale but to provide representation and accurate representation at that. For that matter, my own advice to add to this is that the author needs to be mindful not to gloss over the harsher realities plaguing diverse communities and to ensure that the “accurate representations” showcase the bleak as much as the resilience.
“Is that description necessary to the story? Personally, I’ve deliberately left several of my characters open ended when it comes to appearance,” Great advice! Thanks for sharing 🙂
As writers, we’re told to write what we know … and I wonder if some writers use that as an excuse to avoid diversity in fiction. Yes, it means work and research to get it right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
I’m white but from New Zealand, so I can totally relate to the novelty of reading a book set in my own country! Having said that, I also love to read novels set in foreign countries (especially anything that’s not the USA), because it’s cheaper and often safer than travelling.
Great interview! Diversity is so important! I love the open-ended description of characters – it makes it easy for many different people to connect with the character.
Great post! I agree on having more diversity in books to open us up to not only new characters – but eliminating the assumptions we may have about certain types of people and being more open to understanding them. This is especially important in children’s books.
Excellent interview. I think the key is a believable story true to the character. Research definitely matters. Thank you for this insightful post 🙂
Fantastic interview. I, for one, am not surprised that diverse stories are selling well. Personally, I’m tired of books and movies about the same person. The best part about reading is living a life outside my experience and seeing the world through a different perspective.
I’ve also read that diverse story lines have a harder time being accepted by publishers. Thanks for your input. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
Such an important discussion and well addressed here. Thanks Jandra and Caroliena! I also tend to leave skin colour off the page. I may not do that for my next novel, but that’s because it will be relevant to the story, whereas it wasn’t in my last novel. 🙂
This was a great interview and made me start thinking about my own characters. Most are white, Southern women, just like me. I have branched out a little because often my books contain53 gay characters. But, now you have me thinking, why not an African American or a Latina? That might be the next leap!
Fascinating interview — and terrific, necessary perspective that has me thinking about how I have cast the characters in my own story and describe them. Can definitely see using what I’ve learned here in my own work — thanks to you both!
Always refreshing to see this. I can’t tell people enough that writing diversity means research and money (in the case of sensitivity readers), because you can’t just throw people in… you have to respect them. At the same time, diverse authors should be elevated, because even if non-diverse writers are writing a diverse lane, the diverse authors COME from that lane, and their stories can’t help but be just that much more authentic. Great interview! I want Jandra’s hair.
I definitely agree! I try to remind myself that I’m writing stories that I want to be heard, yes, but if a more relevant voice emerges, I’d rather support that author. It’s about the long goal here – telling stories, sharing your art, helping others through writing (and yourself) is great. Hopping on the diversity train to make money? Not so much.
Also, thanks! I cut it off two months ago, but I loved having purple hair all summer.
I will have to get her book! Great post – I don’t think about diversity much. Going back over my MC, I noticed that I never say her race or skin color. I didn’t find a place where I mentioned her hair color, either… Poor characterization or great diversity? 🤔🤔
Hi, Good interview. I don’t pay much attention to physical descriptions in books. I’m much more interested in their actions. Not sure if that makes me a good reader or a bad reader 🙂
I agree that when it comes to describing characters, less is often more. I like descriptions that focus more on how a character is perceived, like a reference to their eyes glinting, or the beautiful way their hair framed their face, things that could be said of anyone, but still create a provocative image.
There’s an old fantasy series called the Elenium, which has its faults, but it features a female main character who is physically short, but in most scenes her presence makes her tower over the other characters, who are almost all much taller. Her physical appearance becomes an easily forgotten detail, while her personality and bearing become her most defining qualities.
I think it’s a great interview and I found Jandra to be absolutely inspiring.
I think diversity is a very important and interesting topic which should be treated mindfully and most of all with respect.
I come from Hungary and my dream is to feature Middle European characters, also possible Middle European immigrants in places like London, it’s something that hasn’t been done an awful lot. And with Brexit I think it’s important to talk about these things, just to give perspective.
I’ve always had diverse characters, it’s something that comes naturally to me and something I find very important.
I agree with Janda, the most important thing is respect and you shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions an learning from your mistakes.
This is a great interview. Diversity in books is a hot subject right now and I know authors like myself, who are white, often wonder if it’s our “place” to write about POC and characters not like ourselves. I like the idea of focusing on accessibility and for some of us, that may very well be the answer.
Excellent post and interview! I like description but if I can see the world and picture the unique dialogue, then you have my attention. Happy Hop Day 🙂