As I write this post I am repeating a mantra:
“No Josh Groban Jokes, no Josh Groban Jokes!”
Because you see, he looks a lot like Josh Groban. Who am I talking about? Why, uber diversity kid-lit super star Matt De La Pena!
At my last SCBWI conference, I had the pleasure of listening to Matt speak on diversity. I also ambushed him in the hallway and spoke to him between sessions. He was an amazingly personable guy! We spoke about living in New York and the cool kid-lit culture scene that exists there. He also patiently answered some of my questions and did not smack me when I told him he looked like Josh Groban (it’s okay, Matt, people tell me I look like Zooey Deschanel, Dakota Johnson and Emily Blunt, though I think those people are confusing “looking like someone” with “having the same haircut as someone.”)
Now, diversity is really important and I was excited to learn what other people thought about it. I did have to wonder why the good people at SCBWI chose to deal with this topic in the most white state in the union: Boise Idaho. I looked around the room and chucklingly noticed to myself that there was exactly two people of color there, and one of them was Matt. (Can I say “of color?”) Everyone else was a very, very white school teacher/mom/housewife type, and because of that, we were scared poopless. We were all human women without color (can I say “without color?”) and were super sensitive about putting people of any race in our books because . . . are we allowed to? If we try, will all the editors strike us down and send their monkeys to dance on our smoking corpses?
Okay. I’m getting dramatic. Slowing down…
I want to do the right thing but I’m scared. In fact, I have written and rewritten this post about 40 times, taking out anything that got as near as forty miles from anything that would either point out race differences or allude to racial inequalities. That’s how scared I am.
This topic was of particular concern to me because an editor had an issue with a Native American in one of my novels. This was said while Twilight—a book where Native Americans ARE LITERALLY WEREWOLVES was topping the charts. I was thoroughly confused as to what the editor meant. Was the inclusion of this character revealing me as “a racial stereotype” writer? Was the fact that this character was eccentric a problem? What am I doing wrong? Did it count that my great, great, great grandfather was full Cherokee?
I’m not alone in feeling slightly unsure when it comes to race. Attendees at the conference (the HUGE majority being 40+ year-old white women) kept asking nervous questions to the speakers. How can we be supportive of the cause of race equality while still honoring what makes certain cultures different?
As Matt would illustrate, it isn’t an easy path to navigate.
Matt is viewed as a Hispanic author but was viewed as white while growing up, being the son of mixed-race parents. Throughout his childhood he suffered from being “not Mexican enough.” Despite this nagging sense, he adopted the culture of the “machismo” which is all about honor and respect. He went on to denounce things that made him openly cry and even went on to a basketball scholarship from the University of the Pacific.
But it was the book “The Color Purple” that finally broke this “no-cry” exterior. He openly wept while reading it. From then on, reading and writing became a safe place to feel. Matt said: “Reading is the ultimate form of empathy.”
One of Matt’s poems won a contest (partly due to the fact he eliminated some of the competition by removing the posters advertising the contest, ha ha!) but all his team mates thought he was weird. Matt then turned to other writers to find his people. He learned that they viewed him as a jock, rather than a writer. Matt felt like he could never exist fully in any particular circle.
That feeling of always being outside deepened his novels, which went on to become New York Times best sellers.
Matt’s talk was filled with a lot of hilarious confessions. Like the time when he ripped out the agent pages in a copy of “Writer’s Market” because he couldn’t afford to buy it. He has since paid that Barnes & Noble back. He also told of how he wrote letters to agents telling them that his mom (who was going through menopause and was therefore extremely moody) would be cheered up if he was signed.
Matt’s most important piece of wisdom for the non-diverse writer: “You can write outside your race as long as you write the inside of your character.”
Bio From Matt’s Website: Matt de la Peña is the New York Times bestselling author of six critically-acclaimed young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoy, The Living and The Hunted) and two award-winning picture books (A Nations Hope and Last Stop on Market Street). Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship for basketball. de la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his family. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.
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