“Persephone wasn’t tricked into eating those seeds. Do you wanna be a flower maiden, or queen of the underworld?”
The following quotes are from the Boston Teen Author Festival panel “Magic Beyond the Grave,” featuring authors Daniel José Older(Shadowshaper), Roshani Chokshi(The Star-touched Queen) and Zoraida Córdova(Labyrinth Lost). The quotes are not necessarily in order, and I tried to group them together based on theme.
After the quotes are some of my thoughts on how to apply their advice to reading and writing, mostly phrased as questions to ask yourself while you’re writing your story. Let me know what you think about the quotes and my questions in the comments!
Older: “All our books honor female magic, and the world doesn’t honor that enough.”
Older: ”[I wanted to look at] how are women and magic affected by sexism?”
Córdova: “Women have always been symbols of magic. We bleed for seven days and don’t die.”
Is magic associated with any particular gender?
If magic is an integral part of your identity, associated with your gender or your race, what happens to your identity when you are denied magic?
Is magic in a particular gender treated differently than magic in another gender?
A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess looks at the difference between male and female magic.
Córdova: “I wanted to know what power really was. I wanted to write a Latina version of Charmed. Alex is afraid of her power. Because of internalized misogyny, she’s afraid to kick the guy’s ass.”
How can a heroine overcome misogyny internally, not just externally? What are her own inner fears that are stopping her, aside from external enemies?
Older: “Publishing is 90% white women so we don’t discuss sexism – we forget that we live in a patriarchal society.
Older: “Men have a way of intellectualizing the shit out of the patriarchy. Ultimately when we talk about oppression it’s a matter of heart and soul. You have to understand it on an emotional level.”
What are experiences in your life where you have been oppressed/marginalized? How can these emotions translate into what your character is feeling in the story?
Do you have a character who is in a position of power and doesn’t understand oppression? How can they learn to see it as a matter of emotion instead of intellect?
Older: “Imposter syndrome – when do you feel like you actually are a powerful person deserving of a voice?”
How does your character define power? How does that definition change throughout the story?
How is being heard and having a voice related to power?
Chokshi: “Often with girls that power comes from history and lineage.”
What does it mean to be cut off from your history?
How important are ancestors to your character?
Córdova: “When I was writing a 17 year old boy, I could write whatever I wanted because it’s from a man’s perspective.”
What societal groups are in power? If your character takes on one of the aspects of these groups, do they gain power?
Older: “If there’s only gonna be one Latina book this season and it’s written by a white person, that’s a problem.”
Chokshi: “Small details in our writing does so much heavy lifting. It’s the iceberg concept – you’re only showing a little, but you know the whole story. There’s a music, a cadence to writing. If you haven’t experienced it, it sounds discordant.”
Córdova: “How do you make your book feel like your grandmother’s kitchen? There are some cultural details you just can’t get.”
Support own voice authors! Buy books about people of color written by people of color, books about LGBTQ+ characters written by LGBTQ+ authors. Someone who is not part of a culture will not be able to capture the experiences of that culture entirely. If you’re trying to write about a marginalized group that you’re not a part of, some of the best research you can do is read books written by authors who are part of the group you’re trying to represent.
Older: “Retrograde diversity is not diversity. It has to be on the page.”
If a character is black or bi or disabled, you must say it explicitly in your story. It’s not enough to say it afterwards in an interview or assume that it was obvious. If you want your character to count as representation, make sure that there is textual evidence.
Older: “I love Harry Potter, but I’m tired of white boys saving the world all the time, now it’s all white girls saving the world. With fantasy, I lovingly critique something I care about that doesn’t seem to care about me. It’s not enough to paint a brown face on a white character and be done with it.”
Older: “If we allow publishing to oversimplify diversity, we get the burger king club – one of each, check the box – your black character is a clown, but you got one. Sometimes our stories are about how to survive white supremacy, the stories we didn’t have.”
Don’t be disingenuous about diversity. Race, sexuality, and disabilities are all integral parts of identity. If your character is part of a marginalized group, it’s an important part of their identity and the story. Don’t just check boxes and ‘collect them all’. Make sure there’s a reason for all character traits.
Chokshi: “Grief, magic around grief and loss – when your identity is constantly being erased you have to bring it out of the darkness.”
How do you recreate your identity after it’s lost? If a person dies who was an important part of your identity, how do you fill in that part of yourself?
Córdova: “I wanted to be an artist, my mom was like, ‘I didn’t bring you to this country to be an artist.’ I stopped saying I wanted it, I just did it.”
Older: “‘Caminante no hay camino / se hace camino al andar.’ Walk where there is no path, you make the road by walking. (Antonio Machado) If you follow someone’s path and definition of success, you won’t make it. Define it for yourself so you can recognize it when you get there.”
Chokshi: “I wanted to be an artist and my dad said, ‘You can’t eat paint!”
Older: “Don’t judge yourself based on other people. It’s not your path to be a 16 year old chemist or whatever.”
Chokshi: “There’s no expiration on success, especially with writing.”
Older: “It’s not like gymnastics”
How does your character define success?
How do you define your success as a writer?
Córdova: “When you talk about this book, don’t talk about ‘diverse book’ – talk about what you relate to, those things that make us who we are outside of who we are politically.”
Córdova: “Editors should look at books as ‘this is a good book.’ People equate diverse books with bad books, they use diverse books to fill quotas. Readers – storm the gates.”
Chokshi: “One diverse viewpoint does not stand for the whole.”
Older: “Passive diversity is not a thing. Actively seek out voices. There is no lack of talented POC writers, but they don’t like an industry that doesn’t like them back.”
Support authors of color. Seek out diverse books, not just because they’re diverse, but because they’re good and valuable and interesting and resonate with us.
Read many different viewpoints from a group, not just one.
Older: “White men are so sensitive.”
When you make a mistake in writing a group, apologize. Learn from it. Do better. Don’t get defensive.
Which was your favorite quote? Can you apply any of this to your characters, or to your own journey as a writer?