The Importance of Diversity in Novels by Rose Szabo
The first time I ever heard about being gay was the short story “Am I Blue?” by Bruce Coville, from a collection of children’s fantasy stories. It’s about a boy named Vince who gets beaten up by a bully who thinks he’s gay, who then gets a fairy godfather, an out-and-proud angel named Melvin who was killed in a gaybashing. Part of the story is fantasy–Melvin and Vince decide to turn every queer person blue for a day so that there is no more need for secrecy–but the bulk of the story is just Melvin breaking down some basic stuff about being queer, in clear terms, on an introductory level. Tucked away inside a book of children’s stories, a little primer for me. A bit of helpful information that I could use later.
I grew up, it turns out, surrounded by a lot of queer people, none of whom ever talked to me about it. Nobody was clearly marked in blue; no fairy godfather sat me down and explained it all. I learned about queerness, and homophobia, from books. The same place, frankly, that I learned much of what I now know about good and evil.
Diversity in fiction isn’t just about “seeing yourself”; the beautiful thing about fiction is being able to empathize with the experiences of people who are very different from you. To me, what makes diverse fiction so important is the opportunity to see the range of choices that are available to you. What made the character in “Am I Blue” stand out to me wasn’t that he was (like me) somewhat blue, but that he was willing to make a moral choice that carried a risk–exposing himself, and everyone he knew, to the truth.
In What Big Teeth, my protagonist, Eleanor, is on the run from her sexuality. She does and says a lot of terrible things in her pursuit of normalcy, and aligns herself with some pretty terrible people in that pursuit. And she is surrounded by other people who can’t, or won’t, talk about their own queerness. She does some things right–she asks questions and follows her nose. She does some things wrong–she wields power over others, sometimes in unforgivable ways. And she learns, hopefully so that we can learn from watching her.
For a lot of young queer people, traditional narratives about doing the right thing don’t cover the real dilemmas we face throughout our lives. Getting to see how other people navigate a situation–what they do well, what they do wrong–can give us a sense of what we might do differently, when our time comes. Fiction allows us the space to privately explore those possibilities, sometimes years before we ever come out. A chance to prepare ourselves to face the world with courage and dignity.
Thank you so much to Rose Szabo for taking the time to write this post. Be sure to check out their amazing debut novel, What Big Teeth, out now.
Blog tour organized by Xpresso Book Tours