We Need More Mirrors and Windows

by Jessi Parrott - Inclusion Ambassador

Reflections on “Diversity – where’s the issue?”

Inclusive Minds' London Book Fair seminar 2019

On Wednesday 13th March, I attended the seminar hosted by Inclusive Minds as part of this year’s London Book Fair.

Inclusive Minds have previously held seminars at the prominent publishing industry event, to promote the importance of diversity and inclusion of all kinds in children’s and young adult literature. This one, though, was a little different, having been devised and pitched by members of the collective’s network of Inclusion Ambassadors – young people and parents who advise publishers, authors and illustrators on representation.

As I am lucky enough to count myself in this number due to experience relating to disability and sexuality, I was invited along to write this report reflecting on the discussion and response.

Before summarising the topics covered, it seems important to acknowledge that the seminar itself made great efforts to replicate its content in its form, and thereby emphasise the very real possibilities of implementing the messages it conveyed. The diverse, inclusive and intersectional panel (all adjectives suitably interrogated throughout the course of the hour), chaired by my fellow Inclusion Ambassador and ‘Cerebral Palsy haver’ Heather Lacey, was comprised of presenters and children’s authors Ade Adepitan and Cerrie Burnell, as well as two others of our Inclusion Ambassador colleagues, Jay Hulme (written and spoken word poet and transgender activist) and Rose Robbins(children’s author with a passion for proper and appropriate representation of autism and neurodiversity). Additionally, to ensure the discussion was as accessible as possible, the panellists were accompanied by BSL interpreter Sarah Meeks and illustrator Ros Asquith who drew along with the discussion.

There was also video footage taken by another Ambassador, Jo Ross-Barrett, which is available online with an associated transcript. All this preparation and input made the environment of the event more conducive to constructive conversations in which everyone was able to contribute. It also created a physically and emotionally comfortable atmosphere.

Once Alex Strick (Inclusive Minds co-founder with Beth Cox) had introduced the panel, Heather took up the position of chair and began by explaining the impetus behind the slightly provocative rhetorical question in the seminar title.

She described how “Diversity: Where’s the issue?” encapsulated the observation made by many Ambassadors that, all too often, the presence of an aspect of diversity in literature means that it’s the central issue of a character’s life, and consequently of a book. Whilst this type of representation still remains important, and in some areas more than others, there was nevertheless a desire to challenge the dominance of such storylines – and to push instead for plots which present individuals’ identities as multifaceted and encompassing multiple points of perspective on their place in the (fictional) world around them.

Subsequently, diversity is then included as an important aspect of a character’s experience without becoming the main focus. I should note here that this shift in language and sentiment is underscored by the name of the Inclusive Minds collective and the ‘Everybody In’ charters it promotes for comprehensive representation.

During her opening explanation, Heather also observed that the scope of the subject was too wide to be covered completely in a single seminar. In line with this, my own report seeks simply to touch on some of the pertinent themes explored rather than individual answers to specific questions. These themes are: portrayal, intersectionality, and moral and financial imperatives.

The first theme, portrayal, was in many ways the thread which wove the tapestry of the whole seminar into a coherent whole, from its conceptualisation to the actual event – and it also tied together several points made across the conversation regardless of the questions the panellists were addressing in their answers. One of the most affecting and effective was Ade’s rearticulation of Rudine Sims Bishop’s (1990) framework for books as being ‘mirrors and windows’, which I chose to reference in the title of this report. It illustrates the power of literature simultaneously to reflect back individual experiences and offer the opportunity to consider and understand perspectives which might be vastly different from our own.

Cerrie echoed this sentiment, emphasising the inherently diverse nature of society as a whole, suggesting that it is the job of literature and the arts to provide a fictional resemblance of that diversity. This connects to the third theme of moral and financial imperatives, but was an important point on its own, because it also highlighted the scope in society for finding potential future writers – and the idea that, as Cerrie phrased it, ‘if you change the storytellers, you change the story’. Ade and Cerrie’s comments additionally encapsulated the relationship between representation and perception, both negatively and positively; because fictional portrayals have discernible impact in the rest of life, in terms of changing attitudes and opening up career pathways.

Another aspect of the portrayal points linking across all areas of the seminar discussion was subtlety. It first arose as a result of the title, and the efforts to shift focus from diversity as an ‘issue’, which then led panellists to advocate for more ‘incidental’ inclusion of characters and character traits. The hope is that this would decrease the reliance on particular kinds of narratives. For instance, in relation to sexual orientation, these might be the dominance of ‘coming out’ storylines or the inherent privileging of heterosexual relationships as the ‘norm’, which leads to unhelpful assumptions that anything featuring an LGBTQ+ character is going to be sexualised (or over-sexualised) and inappropriate for children.

What was interesting, though, was the parallel sense that some areas of representation are closer to this incidental ‘holy grail’ than others; and it was noted especially that disability and neurodiversity seem to be those further, or furthest, away. This provoked intriguing comments on the difference between ‘good representation’ and ‘representation for the sake of it’ where Rose visualised a literal line separating the two concepts, and spoke about the importance of ‘experts by experience’; a phrase borrowed from the social care sector which is also apt as a description of the role played by Inclusion Ambassadors. She felt the idea and practice allows for a more nuanced perspective on subject matters, which then avoids potential recourse to stereotype or inaccuracy.

The thought of nuance is a helpful segue to the second theme I’ve drawn out for this report – intersectionality – because it is a reminder that often single identity labels are insufficient and that the majority of people will in fact have multiple perspectives to share, especially within and across families. It is of course important to remember that Kimberlé Crenshaw originally coined the phrase with specific reference to the intersection of race and gender in order to amplify the experiences of black women, but it offered a useful shorthand in the seminar. Moreover, intersectionality was considered by the panellists as fundamentally positive and important to promote, but its basis in multiple forms of structural and institutional oppression also highlighted a continuing difficulty that was equally and emphatically acknowledged.

There were repeated references to moments within careers where panellists had been told that they were not ‘financially viable’. That an individual’s experiences could be reduced to potential monetary value is problematic, if unsurprising, and it raised questions about the split between artistic merit and business sense – especially in an essentially creative industry.

One answer was to emphasise the positive responses of potential audience demographics to instances of relatable representation (summarised by Jay through the joke in the lesbian and bisexual communities that the inclusion of a character results in guaranteed interest and engagement). Such a humorous example of the ‘business case for diversity’ holds certain sway, but it also belies the historical and long-term impact of consistent underrepresentation, underscoring the vulnerability of marginalised groups who are so desperate for validation and acceptance in fiction because they have not received it elsewhere.

The above point of convergence between financial and moral imperatives brings this report full circle. It invokes both the importance of the right to representation foregrounded by Cerrie and the power that literature (and publishing) possesses to uphold that right – if it has the suitable infrastructures, organisations and individuals in position to do so.

Such consciousness of the need for, and potential power of, collective cultural change was the overarching atmosphere of the seminar; and indeed is also the driving force behind the group of Inclusion Ambassadors who worked to put it together.

It therefore is apt that the event had an additional, surprise, element saved for the end: the announcement of Ade Adepitan and Cerrie Burnell as the first Celebrity Inclusion Champions for Inclusive Minds and the Inclusion Ambassador Network. Their presence as our first figureheads will offer those in the industry and beyond a window into the work we do, in turn assisting us in our attempt to create more literary windows and mirrors so children and young people like us can read – and hopefully go onto write! – books celebrating both difference and similarity.