I've written a couple of posts already about why diversity matters in terms of race representation, but when I originally started writing 'Diversity Matters' I really wanted it to be a series of posts about different types of diversity. Including sexuality, religion, ability, culture, and more. The post I've always put off writing is this one. Why I think different economic backgrounds matter and why this topic is personal to me.
When I started reading YA, the majority of the books I'd read (in the beginning) were all very similar. They were books about white, straight, Christian, middle to upper class families and the things the main character struggled with (issue books aside!) were usually boys or grades or the idea of 'perfection'. And while I did enjoy these stories, I could only enjoy them up to a certain point before I started asking the questions 'where are all the poor people in these stories? why don't they exist in this world?' Because that is definitely how I grew up.
My dad was in university studying pre-law when he enlisted in Vietnam. He spent three tours out there and came back with a lot of physical and mental injuries because of his experiences. His physical injuries meant that it was near impossible for him to maintain a job and even now, decades later, he experiences severe and chronic pain. He lives mostly on the disability benefits provided by the US government based on his veteran status. Growing up, his disability benefit fluctuated and for many years there was no possible way that this allowance would stretch to providing for a family of four.
My mother dropped out of high school without any qualifications and throughout the time she lived with us as a family, she mostly did unskilled work in factories that operated on a seasonal basis. She also worked as a cleaner, waitress, carer, lunch lady. She worked in convenience stores and petrol stations and fast food. Absolutely anything.
But still, we struggled. There was times when I was really, really ill and we couldn't afford to visit a proper doctor and my mom and I waited for an entire day for a volunteer nurse/doctor to see us at a nearby walk-in clinic. Going to the dentist was a luxury we couldn't afford. There were times we were on food stamps. My brother and I always qualified for the free school lunches and subsidised field trips. At our worst, we had to call in for the local food bank to deliver boxes of food to cover us for several months at a time.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of money and how much things cost. I remember writing a mini-essay in 2nd grade about the costs of Halloween and the effect that Halloween had on our family (and other families like mine!) But the children I went to school with didn't have these same concerns or thoughts. And I was picked on for not having designer jeans or shoes. I didn't have cool hair styles or glasses, I couldn't afford to go on certain trips or do fun activities like some of my friends. When we celebrated birthdays and Christmases (which wasn't always), our gifts normally veered towards the practical.
I look back now and realise the very different experience that I had growing up to that of some of my friends. Without the worry of food and shelter, these other children were able to thrive and develop their interests in hobbies and schooling and dream of the lives they'd lead at university and beyond and my setting was stuck on just surviving. During this time, I couldn't see a way out of this existence I was born into. I couldn't picture any other life other than one struggling from month to month, just barely getting by.
And that's where I think different representations of economic backgrounds are important in literature, especially for teens. To let them know not only do their stories matter but that there is more to this world beyond the microcosm of a lower economic bracket.
And, luckily, there are writers out there doing great stuff in this area, authors that I wish I could have read as a teenager: Keren David and Melvin Burgess and Phil Earle and Dave Cousins amongst others. That do write about characters that I feel familiar with on a personal level.
And I've been reading some interesting stories over the past few months regarding characters and families living in poorer conditions or on on council estates. Liccle Bit by Alex Wheatle was a great story about gangs and how the main character had a way off the estate and into something better. Me and Mr J by Rachel McIntyre was an interesting story of a family in crisis and some of the consequences of that. Even historical books such as Liberty's Fire by Lydia Syson showed us a glimpse of different economic backgrounds during a French revolution that was fascinating and other modern day writers like Sophie McKenzie with Split Second showed us what a near-future dystopian London setting in which austerity cuts have affected the lives of many including one of the main characters.
So I'd like more of that, please.
I love this post. It really made me think about the way I grew up (without any money!) and how I escaped into stories. But the books I read most were Enid Blyton stories in which poor people were looked down upon or patronised by the heroes. Often they were thieves and ruffians too. I would like to think things are better now! I also noticed lots of bookish types commenting on Twitter about how they had related to this post - just as I had. So it seems as if the children with the most worry or hardship are the ones who are most likely to need to escape from that into a book. I think that makes it even more important that they find an accurate representation of themselves once they're safe inside the pages.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the lovely comment, Helen. I'm glad that this post resonated with so many people and I completely agree, it is important to find an accurate representation of yourself no matter what :)Delete