Today’s guest is Aisha Saeed—an author, mama, lawyer, teacher, and maker and drinker of chai. She is also the Vice President of Strategy for We Need Diverse Books™. While Aisha loves writing about a variety of topics, her main passion lies in channeling her inner teen. Her debut YA novel Written in the Stars will be released in 2015 by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books. When Aisha isn’t writing or chasing her two little boys, you can find her reading, baking, doodling henna patterns, or daydreaming about eight consecutive hours of sleep.
[pullquote]As a member of We Need Diverse Books, and someone who grew up without diverse books that represented me this area is near and dear to my heart and that is why I am sharing it with Writer Unboxed. I wanted to write for Writer Unboxed because this space has been a great source of advice and information on the writing journey and it’s great to give back some of what I’ve learned along the way.[/pullquote]
Writing the Story of your Heart: Even When the Odds Aren’t in Your Favor
In the increasingly competitive world of publishing, it can be very stressful to wonder if you’ll ever see your book in print. It can be tempting to try to boost your odds at getting published by studying what worked well and which book sold millions and trying to emulate it. But as anyone will advise you, chasing trends doesn’t work. Trends come and go and by the time you identify a trend, the moment has passed and some new trend is likely already just around the bend.
There is one “trend” however that has yet to truly take off, and that is stories featuring diverse protagonists. Earlier this year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin made the shocking revelation that while the United States is growing increasingly diverse, children’s books are still anything but. In fact, of the over three-thousand books released in 2013, only 7.5 percent of those books contained any diversity at all.
The topic of diversity has received a lot of traction as of late from many organizations including one I’m proud to be a member of, We Need Diverse Books™, and while many are working to change how diverse books are perceived, the fact remains that despite the increased (and important) conversations surrounding the topic, the statistics still speak for themselves, and what they say most loudly to me as a writer is: If you write diverse books, your path to publication just may be a bit more uphill.
So why do it?
Why write diverse books when the odds are stacked against publication much less “box-office” literary success?
Growing up, like many of us I devoured books. I walked out of libraries carrying as many books as I could manage while my tote bag strained against my arm. I loved reading. And yet, despite all the reading I did, I never once read a story where a character ever looked like me until I was doing my masters in Education and read Shabanu by Suzanne Staples. In her novel I saw a protagonist who looked just the slightest bit like me. While I spent my entire childhood and teenage years reading the stories of mainstream Americans, my own stories were nearly invisible in American literature. Reading Shabanu showed me that my stories featuring my own particular diversity could be interesting, and that my stories were perhaps worth writing.
And So I Began Writing
I wrote because I wanted other kids growing up to see mirrors of themselves in the books they read. I wrote because I wanted children who may never know someone Pakistani to read my novel and see a reflection of our shared humanity. And I also wrote because diverse stories spoke loudest to my heart and demanded to be told.
The fact that my novel was realistic YA contemporary featuring no vampires in an era of paranormal YA made me nervous about my chances of seeing my novel in print. The fact that in my entire life I had read only one story featuring a character with diversity that remotely resembled my own, hinting at the potential market—or lack thereof for such a book—didn’t help either.
But I kept on writing anyway. I wrote with the hope of publication of course, but I didn’t write with the expectation of it. How can one expect such a thing in a fiercely competitive children’s market where diverse characters are so incredibly scarce?
But the truth is, it’s a rare unpublished author who begins writing with the guarantee of publication. Most of us don’t know when we begin our story what its future may be. We write the stories that keep us up at night and—publication or not—demand to be told.
And then, earlier this year, despite the dire statistics and the odds, I was thrilled to announce that my novel Written in the Stars sold to Nancy Paulsen at Nancy Paulsen Books and sixteen-year-old Pakistani American Naila would live not just in my heart but in a novel hitting shelves March 2015.
Move, but move not the way fear moves you
Once the doors to publication part for you, you discover there is yet another staircase to climb, and while I don’t know the future of this novel, I’m thankful to be here. I’m thankful for a dream come true. But I’m also thankful that despite the dearth of novels featuring diverse protagonists, mine will be another one out there soon pushing against those statistics, perhaps one step closer to changing those dismal numbers. I hope diverse novels will never be a trend because diversity isn’t trendy or cool. Diversity in literature represents the actual world we live in and such books should not be a “phase” or a special section but an integral part of our literary world.
And this why, despite the dire statistics on the odds of getting get published, much less the odds of publishing a diverse novel, I wrote the story of my heart anyway. As Rumi says: Move, but move not the way fear moves you.
Write the story of your heart and let come what may.
Do you write (or have you thought about writing) stories featuring diverse protagonists? Are there times you have written a story despite a fear that it might not have as great a chance of publication?