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.