In honour of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week this month, we’ve dedicated all our July posts to the issue of diversity in fiction. For more information on NAIDOC Week, visit their website here.
I don’t read anywhere near as much diverse fiction as I would like to or think I should. Part of the reason for that is that I am a speculative fiction junkie, and because those stories aren’t focused on people’s individual tales to the same extent as contemporary, literary or romance novels are, they tend to have what Stacey described last week as incidental diversity — the diversity is part of the character, like their hair colour or whether they have sugar in their coffee, but it isn’t a driving force in the plot.
And when there are diverse leads (such as the bisexual Ayala Storm in Emmie Mears’ urban fantasy series of the same name, or the gay Sinjir in Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig — both books you should read, incidentally), their diversity isn’t generally a huge factor in the character’s life or the overall story. That’s not always a bad thing, because it’s important to see diverse characters doing things other than just being (for example) gay, black or disabled. But it did mean that when I started trying to think of books I’ve read this year that have diverse leads and where that diversity is central to their character growth or story, I came up almost dry.
So here are two amazing, five-star books for your consideration.
‘Wake of Vultures’ by Lila Bowen
A historical fantasy about a half Native American, half African American bisexual girl who dresses like a man? This is the book I didn’t know I needed till I had it. Delilah S. Dawson (writing here as Lila Bowen) is one of my favourite authors, and I confess that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if she hadn’t written it — not for any particular reason, just because I don’t usually read books set in the American Wild West (or a facsimile thereof). Wake of Vultures would never have even crossed my radar.
And that would’ve been a tragedy, because Nettie Lonesome’s story is a cracking read. The action whisks you along, and it doesn’t get bogged down in self-reflection — though there is certainly a bit of that, as poor Nettie has received exactly no education and, as other characters keep telling her, has a lot to learn about people. Consequently, she is baffled by notions like bisexuality or why a woman would actually choose to wear skirts rather than pretending to be a man.
From my (admittedly white, non-American) perspective, Dawson/Bowen handled the issues of race and gender identity with tact. There’s no stereotyping — there are good and bad guys both white and “Injun” (as Nettie refers to them, given she was raised by whites; the phrase is something the author acknowledges is not PC these days but would have been accurate in the 1800s Texas that Durango is based off). Even the monsters have a range of good and bad types.
‘Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ by Louise Gornall
This book is an unflinching and in-your-face young adult contemporary — not my usual genre, but I love Louise Gornall’s writing and have been waiting for this one for aaaaaages.
The protagonist is Norah. She has agoraphobia and OCD, suffering debilitating anxiety attacks when she has to leave the house or when things in her environment are out of order. She’s terrified of germs and overthinks things. Like, really overthinks them — and not just the things that most people worry about, but things that might seem tiny in the grand scheme of things but to Norah’s brain are critical. For example, there’s almost an entire page of dialogue where all of Norah’s increasingly anxious thoughts are about how the other person has a piece of hair stuck to their lip.
Norah’s conditions mean pretty much this entire book is set inside her house, and for a lot of that she is alone — but her mind is so busy all the time, and Gornall’s style is so engaging, that I didn’t really notice the lack of variety in the scenery. My favourite thing was Gornall’s cleverly descriptive use of comparisons, and the way she interweaves Norah’s symptoms (such as picking at scabs or chewing her nails) into the action seamlessly.
Recommend me a diverse book!
If you know of a diverse book where the diversity isn’t necessarily the entire story but is still a factor in the plot — especially if that book is speculative fiction — drop a comment. I’ll be scouring them for titles to add to my already teetering TBR pile.
Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer who has included some incidental diversity in her own books to date, but wants to read and write more widely in future.