Robin Talley: LGBTQ Historical Fiction and Diversity in YA
3rd Oct 2014
On Being a Teenage Writer…
When I was a teenager, like many people my age, I was hilarious and brilliant. At least in my own mind.
I loved the sound of my own writing. I’d fill page after page with my witty insights and shrewd analysis of the world around me.
When I read back over my teenage writing now, I see that I was indeed hilarious ― just not in the way I intended. My “insights” were blindingly obvious. My witticisms were embarrassingly coy. My analysis was so rudimentary it’s a miracle I passed honors English.
The thing is, when you’re sixteen, you think you’re brilliant because none of what you’re thinking has ever occurred to you before. At sixteen, I thought I was the most cynical person in the world. Now I’m thirty-five ― old enough to know that teenagers don’t know enough to truly be cynical yet.
This is true at any age, of course. When I’m seventy I’m sure I’ll look back at my current self and marvel at my wide-eyed naïveté.
I’m delighted I saved my teenage writing, though. There’s no better way to capture what it’s like to have those thoughts and experiences for the very first time. And if you write young adult fiction, those records are priceless.
On Queer Historical Fiction…
My first novel is set in 1959, during the school desegregation crisis in Virginia. Its two main characters are teenage girls, one black, one white. Over the course of the story, the girls start to develop feelings for each other.
Usually, when I describe the book to people, their eyes get wide when I get to the part about the relationship between the girls. Most people nod eagerly, but a few people have blinked and replied, “Oh. I never thought about there being gay people back then.”
The first time this happened, I was taken aback. After all, I’m gay. I didn’t turn out to be gay just because I was born toward the end of the twentieth century. I’d have been gay even if I’d been born in 1941, like the characters in my book. Or in 1854, like Oscar Wilde.
Now, though, I can see how this might seem like a new idea to some. Open public discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Which is why narratives about LGBTQ people throughout history, in fiction and nonfiction alike, are essential.It’ll become less radical the more people read it. Which means we authors have to write it. Publishers have to release it, too. And customers have to buy it. This obligation belongs to the entire publishing ecosystem.
Historical fiction with non-straight, non-cisgender lead characters has been around for decades, maybe centuries. Still, though, LGBTQ historical as a genre is only in its infancy. For every Tipping the Velvet, there’s a thousand straight historical romances. Maybe a hundred thousand.
As more and more LGBTQ characters begin to pop up across all genres ― action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy ― I’m sure we’ll start to see more and more LGBTQ characters in historical fiction as well. We’ll see more of them starring as the heroes, too, and we’ll see fewer queer characters reduced to being tragic and/or evil figures lurking in the background.
After all, there’s plenty of material to work with. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Julie d’Aubigny ― a sword fighter and opera singer in 17th century France who had relationships with both men and women, frequently got into illegal duels, and was at one point sentenced to death by burning as her penalty for running away with her girlfriend (don’t worry, she got out of it). She went on to become a famous opera singer in Paris before she died of a broken heart. If her story isn’t begging to be written, I don’t know whose is.
On Why We Need Diverse Books…
When I was a teenager, I looked around frantically for representations of LGBTQ characters everywhere I could ― books, movies, TV. I clung to the few examples I found, mainly in independent movies I rented from the local video store when my parents were out of town.
I knew I was different. I needed to see examples of other people being different, too. I needed reassurance that it was OK to be who I was. I needed it like I needed air to breathe.
Of course, the vast majority of the queer characters I encountered in my misspent 1990s youth were white. Most were also cisgender, middle-class, Christian, and able-bodied. Sure, there were some queer characters of color, and sure, there were occasional transgender characters, but those were very much the exception.
Fortunately, that’s beginning to change. But the idea of a character being, say, both biracial and transgender, like the protagonist in Cris Beam’s I Am J, and dark-skinned, disabled and bisexual, like the lead in Corinne Duyvis’ Otherbound, is still radical for some readers.
It’ll become less radical the more people read it. Which means we authors have to write it. Publishers have to release it, too. And customers have to buy it. This obligation belongs to the entire publishing ecosystem.
Every reader deserves to have the chance to read about someone who’s like them. And every reader needs to read about someone who isn’t like them. Preferably as many of those someones as possible.
It isn’t optional any longer.
Have you read any great queer fiction or LGBT YA recently? Leave us a comment with your recommendations…