As is quite common in the world of libraries, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about diversity in fiction; maybe more specifically, the controversies surrounding some recent titles, and the impact that certain forms of representation can have.
I was having a conversation with a colleague recently about reading books from Latinx/a/o authors, and she shared that she’d heard feedback from someone close to her about how problematic they felt a specific book was that many others loved. This book, titled I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, was an instant bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Awards, and has topped many lists of recommendations for YA reads with Latinx/a/o representation from Latinx/a/o authors. The person reading it was also Latina, and she felt the book leaned too heavily on negative and inaccurate stereotypes about Mexican families and family dynamics. I did some digging and found others who felt similar. And while most of those critical of the book felt that the story had a positive message for the main character, many auxiliary characters were written to fulfill negative stereotypical Mexican traits, which were not reflective of any of the many Mexican family and friends she knew from her own life.
Coincidentally, the same day I also happened to be reading through a Reddit thread that was asking romance readers if they would rather have marginalized representation that was based on stereotypes, or no marginalized representation at all. Many people had nuanced opinions. Some considered how some stereotypes are based in reality but exaggerated, while others are completely false, and books that include characters with stereotypes based in reality are more likely to get a pass because they might be reflective of some experiences, just not all. Others talked about the motivations of the author, or if there were small details based on stereotypes versus if a character’s entire identity was a caricature. Overwhelmingly though, readers agreed that they would rather have no representation for their own identities than bad representation. The reasoning was two-fold: readers found that these books didn’t work as mirrors for their own identities, but also found that nonmarginalized readers assumed the representation was accurate, reinforcing their own prejudices and stereotyping beliefs.
These situations both touched on something I’ve seen brought up many times before and noticed myself where characters shared marginalized identities with me, which is that not all representation is good representation. Sometimes it can initially be exciting or reassuring to learn that a character in a book shares an identity I have, particularly when that identity is rarely named in fiction. But discovering that this character is designed based on misinformation, harmful stereotypes, or prejudicial understandings is disappointing in a way that can be more harmful than never seeing characters portrayed like myself. When portrayals are problematic, it can harm both the communities supposedly being represented and the communities trying to read more books about those different from themselves.
So, what happens when members of a community feel a book contains inaccurate or negative representation? And as is this case with I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, what happens especially when members within one community disagree about the validity of that representation? For starters, I want to say that nothing must happen. Books are not thrown out or banned from the library because some members of a community find them inaccurate, and there are no literary police taking away publishing deals from authors that inaccurately portray minority communities. Instead, what can happen is that authors can learn from these criticisms, and readers can reflect on these stories. For authors, they can reflect on where ideas for these characters came from. Were they based on real events? Assumptions about those in a particular community? Personal experiences? For readers, they can reflect on why the representation makes them uncomfortable or upset. Is the representation based on harmful myths or true but exaggerated experiences? Is it a minor detraction from an overall instance of thoughtful and positive representation, or an entire character or plot based on tropes? Does the book clearly identify that this is a unique experience for the character, or does it paint the character’s experiences as a reflection of that community as a whole?
This process of reflection doesn’t make uncomfortable portrayals of marginalized characters go away, but it can offer a beneficial opportunity for both the author and reader to examine their own beliefs, assumptions, and ideas about their identities. For readers especially, it may be the case that reflection just increases hatred for a book (which is allowed!) It also may be that a reader is upset that a character doesn’t reflect their own experiences, regardless of whether they are truly reflective of others. Even within very small minority communities, experiences are not a monolith, and what will accurately represent one person may feel completely inaccurate or even offensive to others. This reflection can happen for readers and authors, whether they’re part of the community being represented or not, and it can help create understanding for other communities as well as your own.
Additionally, when we readers disagree with the portrayal of marginalized characters in a story, we can choose to seek out some of the other diverse titles with representation of that community. Authors can take advantage of learning this way, too! Almost every marginalized community, from racial minorities to marginalized religions to disabled communities, has seen an increase in titles with representation in recent years across genres and age groups, and there are more being published all the time. This increase in publishing diverse reads, particularly when written by those within these diverse communities, allows for more varied and unique examples of representation, which can counterbalance the titles that might lean into stereotypes. We can’t undo harmful books that have already been published, and we won’t always agree on which ones are harmful, but we can read many books to create a better view of the unique experiences within marginalized communities, rather than forming opinions based on just one story.