Monday, March 09, 2015

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Author & Diversity Advocate Marieke Nijkamp

By Mina Witteman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Marieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, and diversity advocate.

She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a queer time traveler.

In the midnight hours of the day, Marieke writes stories full of hope and heartbreak.

She is proud to be the founder of DiversifYA and VP for We Need Diverse Books™. (But all views are her own.)

Find her on Twitter @mariekeyn.

She was interviewed by Mina Witteman for the SCBWI Europolitan Conference.

Could you tell us a little more about We Need Diverse Books?

We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. We Need Diverse Books is committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.

We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

Our mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process.

In order to accomplish our mission, we reach out to individuals and groups involved in many levels of children’s publishing—including (but not limited to) agents, publishers, authors, distributors, booksellers, librarians, educators, parents, and students."

That is straight from our mission statement, but I feel it sums up who we are and what we do.

WNDB is an organization that works toward making children's literature and children's publishing more inclusive, through several programs.

We have our Walter Award, which recognizes the best diverse YA.

We have Walter Grants, to aid up-and-coming diverse writers.

We are creating a program to support publishing interns from marginalized backgrounds.

We also have our WNDB in the Classroom project, which brings diverse books and diverse authors to disadvantaged schools.

And honestly, I could go on.

We have many projects in the works and we are continuously looking for ways to promote and amplify diversity. And that's what WNDB is too: a team of very, very passionate people, working hard to make change happen.

How has your experience and background prepared you to be effective with this diversity initiative?

As a queer, disabled person, diversity has always been foremost on my mind.

I have used a wheelchair and have been completely ignored. I have used a cane and have been stared at, laughed at, shouted at. I have been told that my love is a sin. I have been excluded. I have felt invisible. I have worked with LGBTQ teens who felt alone and scared and as if the world wasn't for them. And far, far too often the rest of the world only reinforced that image.

So I know firsthand what discrimination and marginalization feels like. I know all about that anger and frustration and heartbreak and fear. And it's those experiences that fuel me when working toward better representation, because I know we can do better and should do better. We owe it to ourselves and to each other, because when we work with each other instead of against each other, we can move mountains.

What do you see as the most challenging aspect of bringing diversity into children’s literature?

Aside from institutionalized (and often internalized!) -isms, one of the most challenging aspects is the other side of that feeling that the world isn't for us: the mindset that books (or any form of stories or art) about marginalized people are only for marginalized people.

Not just for wizards!
Not just for Hobbits!
It stems from the believe that white, straight, non-disabled, middle class is somehow the neutral and relatable to all, whereas "other" characters are only relatable to those readers who share their experiences.

This, of course, means Harry Potter is only of interest to wizards and witches, and The Lord of the Rings finds its audience among the vast populations of Hobbits.

I guess you can see how blatantly absurd it is.

The white, straight, non-disabled, middle class character is no more a neutral character than any. But unlike other characters, the difference is that this particular character has been normalized to the point of becoming the standard. And all of us who do not fit that standard do feel excluded, but are told that feeling is invalid. After all, it's a neutral.

Or, we are taught that this neutral is somehow the character we ought to aspire to (relate to), which often includes the implicit or explicit belief that being other than is somehow lesser than.

It's a highly problematic narrative. It's why for so many disabled characters, the happily ever after involves being healed and becoming "normal" (or why their stories are being told through the point of view of non-disabled characters altogether). It's why so many queer romances end in tragedy, while the straight romances don't. It's why too often, non-white characters are sidekicks (or villains!) not heroes.

Before becoming involved in We Need Diverse Books, you created the website DiversifYA. What prompted you and how can writers and illustrators use DiversifYA?

I created DiversifYA as a way to showcase the many different experiences around us, inside and outside our own communities. I wanted the interviews to show just how rich and varied our experiences are, but also how many of the struggles we face are inherently the same. I wanted to focus on those countless combinations of sameness and difference.

As a result, I think DiversifYA has turned into a great database of experiences. It is by no means a substitute for good research, but it is a starting point for anyone who would like to know more about the world around them.

You write for young adults and middle grade readers, both dark contemporary and epic fantasy. In what specific way has diversity shaped your writing?

In every way, and then some. Growing up, I read many hundreds of books per year, but I rarely saw myself represented in the stories I read. And in those few instances when I did, those reflections were anything but good. The "me"s I read about were only ever lessons for the main characters.

Marginalized characters were stereotypes, caricatures, or comic relief.

It left me a very lonely reader and a very determined writer.

From the very first story I wrote, writing has always been a way for me to explore the world and to create all those stories I couldn't find. So my stories are populated with characters who were other than the neutral norm but still very much my normal.

Among the four point-of-view characters of my upcoming debut This Is Where It Ends (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016), there are two queer girls, one of them Latina (and her brother is one of the other main characters).

The story I am working on next has genderqueer characters, disabled characters, all as a matter of course--because they reflect the world I live in.

What can we, writers and illustrators of children’s books, do to foster diversity in our work?

  • Think about the world you want in your stories. Who do you want to reflect? How inclusive do you want to be? What assumptions lie at the basis of your story, your world, your characters? What do the choices you make tell your intended audience?
  • Research, research, research. Whether you are part of the marginalized group you write about, but especially when you're not, research, research, research. Be aware of the tropes. Be aware of the triggers. Talk to people with the same experience, don't just talk about the experiences.
  • Listen and learn. I don't believe the books we write exist in a vacuum. We can't represent marginalized experiences without being aware of a long history of privilege and oppression, and we all have our internalized prejudices. 
  • We are probably going to screw up. I know I have in the past. I know I will in the future. If you end up making mistakes, make them gracefully. Listen to the people who point out what you did wrong and learn from that. It's the only way we can improve, after all.

Cynsational Notes

This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp is told from the perspective of four teens in a high school held hostage who all have their own reasons to fear the boy with the gun. It's forthcoming from Sourcebooks.

Mina Witteman is a published author, writing in Dutch and English. She has three adventurous middle grade novels, over 40 short stories, and a Little Golden Book out in The Netherlands.

The first volume of a three-book middle grade series, Boreas and the Seven Seas, is scheduled to come out in April 2015. She is the Regional Advisor for The Netherlands and Chairman of the Working Group Children’s Books of the Dutch Authors Guild.

In addition to writing, Mina teaches creative writing. She is a freelance editor and a mentor to budding writers. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter @MinaWitteman.

2 comments:

Marjorie (MWD) said...

A great interview - thank you, both! I'm looking forward to reading This Is Where It Ends.

donnaweidner.com said...

Wonderful interview Mina, with great advice Marieke! All the best to you both!

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