Thursday, May 1, 2014

We Need Diverse Books Campaign

More than ever, people come from mixed backgrounds—
you can't assume that what you see is what you get.
Today kicks off a really cool campaign called #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It's pretty self-explanatory, and it's also pretty obvious that I would be on board with this. Not only am I a white-passing Maori, but I have long been passionate about including diversity in my own books.

I've talked in detail before about what it was like to grow up not looking as much like the rest of my family, not really looking Polynesian save in my body figure and not skin or hair color. Also, how much I actually wished I had black hair and dark skin as a child, which is odd but very true because I wanted to look like my family and ancestors. (You can read about that here and here.)

The bottom line is, we need more books that reflect our diverse world and all the people that live in it. For a long time I thought this was an obvious fact and one that everyone agreed with and was striving for. But unfortunately I've learned, through trying to publish diverse novels, that's not exactly the case. A campaign like this is needed. Desperately.

Race is a weird thing in the US. Even the rest of the world often seems bewildered by how fixated on it we remain. I'm not sure of all the reasons, but the more I learn from my international family the more I tend to agree.

Me and my littlest sister—my only sibling still here in America
and not in New Zealand.
For example, in the US we tend to focus on how people appear and how much "percent" they are of a certain race. Like, you hear people giving their ancestry like a pie chart: "I'm 25% Polish, 16% Maori, 2% Choctaw, 10% German-maybe-Austrian, 8% Scottish…" It's so silly and yet that probably sounds familiar to every American.

But did you know it doesn't work like that in some countries? I was so surprised when my brother went down to New Zealand for med school, and the way they determined Maori scholarships was not on percentage (many Native American tribes have a cut off like 1/8th to 1/16th and the like), but based on LINEAGE. If you had genealogical proof that you are descended from a Maori tribe (we're Nga Puhi), then you qualified to apply for a "Maori scholarship."

That might seem like a subtle thing, but to someone like me, a white-passer, that one concept—basing race on lineage—was a huge and heart-warming concept. I so very rarely feel included in my culture, but the moment I heard that, I DID. I felt entirely included because I could have walked in there and given my lineage no problem, and it wouldn't have mattered what I looked like.

The awesome ladies of my family, before my sister (in the pink)
left the US to go live with her husband in New Zealand.
Everyone should feel like that—like they are included and that they belong. That's what #weneeddiversebooks is all about.

So join the campaign!

No matter who you are, YOU are welcome.


  1. I've been seeing this on Twitter and I think it's awesome! My adoptive sister was half black and a lot of people gave her a hard time for having white parents. Wouldn't it be nice if your family could just be your family?

  2. Thank you for this post, Natalie! I love this #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. I do very much look "exotic" and I also have an accent to ago along. Let's add Arabic first name and last name (from my Palestinian grandfather). I'm married to a Puerto Rican who looks white and misses his island more and more every day. My kids are like the United Nations. I worry about them and their struggle to find their identities because of their race (s) and culture (s), a struggle my nieces and nephews in Argentina don't seem to even be affected by. I hope campaigns like this will pave the way for change and acceptance. We all need to see ourselves in books because they're the mirrors of society and our society is so diverse!

  3. Heh. Shades of me growing up in a small country town, being an olive-skinned Jewish girl in a town descended from Germans. Every few months, the inevitable question would come up....

    Schoolmate: So what are you, Debby?

    Me: My dad's parents are from Greece. My mom's side of the family is a mix of Hungarian, Polish, and Russian.

    Schoolmate: What does that make you?

    Me: American. I was born in New Jersey.

    Boy did that mess them up. But since we are talking about diversity in books, I'm calling or more strong female characters who do not buy traditional stereotypes. I'll leave it up to each writer how she or he wants to handle their female characters in this way. But I will say that when I write strong female characters, I don't just break traditional stereotypes -- I blow them completely out of the water. If someday I land on a "banned books list" then my job will be done! ;-)

  4. One of my sisters, adopted, was a quarter First Nations.

  5. Natalie-
    Was there a special book in your childhood-or any other point in your life-with a Polynesian character that you connected with? Or did you never find one, and that's why you're so passionate about diversity?

  6. Lovely post. My little sisters are primarily Native American, and I'm a bit of a mutt myself, so I totally get the percentage bits. My mom and brother were blondes, but I came out with thick, almost black wavy hair like my Puerto Rican great-grandmother. And it was such a big deal when I was little, having to justify why I looked the way I did, sometimes still is. So I love that the publishing world is finally jumping on board with diversity in a big way, to reflect the world the way it actually is. I also love that you posted a ton of book recs on Twitter the other day; I'll have to check them all out and diversify my shelves even more!

  7. I really enjoyed this post, Natalie, not only for the topic of bringing more diversity into books, but also race in the U.S. I grew up - and still live - in a small community. Considering the melting pot that we live in, it still sometimes gets to me - in a want-to-roll-my-eyes sort of way - how assumptive people are about my ethnicity and origin. An example of this happened not too long ago while I was at work.

    Woman: "You're not from around here."

    Me: I knew what she was implying, but I replied, "You're right. I'm from [nearby town that I really did grow up in]."

    Woman: "No ... um, that's not what I meant. What I meant is that you're not from MN."

    Me: "Actually, I am. I'm adopted and have lived here ever since I was a baby."

    Woman: "Oh."

    I love this concept of a diverse books campaign. Despite all the ways that our nation has grown, there are still many with their eyes closed when it comes to diversity and NOT jumping to conclusions about someone's origin.