Earlier this month in October, T wrote a thread on Twitter about criticizing problematic portrayals that are ‘realistic’. The idea of today’s discussion post came to me after reading T’s tweets, and I felt compelled to reflect on my preference of books that tackle marginalized social identities.
In today’s Let’s Talk About, I talk about the importance of reading books that explore social issues, particularly those relating to people of marginalized identities and what they may face and experience, as well as why it is important – in fact, necessary – to have happy stories too.
The importance of ‘issues’ stories
I define ‘issues’ stories as books that have a thematic focus of social issues or explore negative experiences that people may face. For this discussion, the negative experiences I discuss adhere to the shades of sexism, racism, ableism, classism – or all types of oppression. Depicted can be a character affected on an individual level – instances of blatant or subtle prejudice – to also encompass systemic and structural violence. Reading such narratives can be awfully difficult to read sometimes, but it’s important to read these stories.
1. An opportunity to empathize and understand
I’d like to think that books that contain instances of violence (from physical to structural) are there to show the effect such violence has on the character affected. Narratives that portray struggle and difficulties faced by people with marginalized identities should implore the reader to empathize with the characters having the negative experiences. For those who have not experienced the struggles depicted in a story or have privilege, it is an opportunity to see, understand, and learn.
2. An opportunity to understand your identity
For those who have experienced prejudice and discrimination, it can be an opportunity to locate identity and struggle within these narratives and thus in our own lives. For some young people, it can feel impossible to give certain feelings vocabulary – you know how it makes you feel, but you can’t find the words to describe it. It can be very confusing, and that dissonance can create emotional barriers.
More so, hurtful experiences affect people psychologically and emotionally – there can be anger, guilt, self-doubt, blaming yourself, and all sorts of terrible things. Books that explore negative experiences, especially those that reconcile or address the experience itself, can provide an avenue for understanding, reconciliation within the self, and validation of one’s experiences. Books can, and do, help with the healing process.
3. You are not alone
Pure and simple: stories that portray negative experiences convey that you are not alone.
I am certain that some of you can agree that seeing a negative experience in a book, one that you’ve experienced too, can be a strangely liberating and profound experience, especially if you felt alienated from the experience or confused by it. Seeing stories that mirror your personal one can mean: this is written because I acknowledge this experience, or have had it happen to me; what happened was not okay; you are not alone in this.
Examples of books that explore negative experiences
- Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
- For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu
- More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
- Black Iris by Leah Raeder/Elliot Wake
The flip-side: the importance of happy stories
Up until this year, I didn’t read a lot of stories that explored identity and had happy characters. It sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but back then, I fell for the idea that if we wanted to explore identity, we had to be honest in how pervasive, cruel, and hurtful it was. It had to be a slap on the face, or it wasn’t good enough. Needless to say, I was wrong.
I owe a lot of my new perspective to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which opened up a new world to me. Not only was the romance fluffy, adorable and just good, it showed me that it is possible to write a happy story that explored coming-out, high school, being gay, and falling in love. That’s not to say that portraying a Simon’s sexuality and coming-out experience in a positive way negates negative coming-out experiences; what Simon Vs does is offer an alternate narrative, a portrayal of a different experience that could be real too.
1. Normalizing happiness and happy stories
The more books we read that portray positive representation, the more our worlds open up. As I said above, the only books with people of colour that I read were books that explored social issues and negative experiences. For the longest time I believed that all stories with marginalized identities had to explore struggle with identity, or it wasn’t ‘realistic’. I cannot emphasize how wrong I was to believe this, and how it isn’t true at all. Because I only consumed such stories, in my mind, they were normal to me and seeing otherwise was unusual.
Happy stories should not be something that is rare or perceived as ‘unrealistic’; seeing happy, fulfilled characters with marginalized identities should not feel jarring or impossible. We need to normalize happier stories, so that we are shown over and over again, that marginalized identities do not equate to sadness and pain. We need to normalize happier stories to show that they are possible, that struggles may be a part of us but we are other things too. Happy stories affirm that people are complex and can have a wide range of experiences.
2. A celebration of identity and diversity
It may sound strange, but it’s something we take for granted: sometimes we need to be reminded that we are beautiful for who we are, and that diversity and differences should be celebrated.
While struggle is inherent in many stories, I want to see books that explore the many facets of identity and why they are wonderful things that can bring joy — things like self-love and helping others find their self-love, empowering each other, achieving a sense of solidarity and unity, creating networks of support and friendship, and celebrating each other’s differences. Books that portray struggle in its raw form could very well elucidate these positive things, but happy stories have a place to convey the same core messages and stories too.
3. Most importantly: happiness exists; it can be and is real
Stories that feature people with marginalized identities do not always have to be about struggle; our lives can be more, are more, than enduring, surviving, and suffering (even if that is a big part of our lives). Our lives can be also be wonderful with beauty, joy, and love, because those things exist too. We rarely see this in (Western) media – people with marginalized identities are often absent or removed from the show, or if they do find happiness, it is fleeting and followed by tragedy.
I want to read about characters with marginalized identities that are happy, accepted, and loved. (And I hate how it needs to be said, but also alive.)
Examples of books with happy stories
- Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee
- Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
- To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
- Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
The good and the bad: why we need both
I want to acknowledge that ‘issues’ stories and happy stories are not mutually exclusive. There are stories that explore negative and harmful experiences but are ultimately happy and fulfilling stories – and vice versa. Life is complex, diverse, and full of ups and downs, and I want books to reflect this.
A large part of my reading experience, especially when I was younger and new to YA fiction, was reading a lot of books that were dark, ‘problem novels’, or devastating in some way. I actively sought books that depicted struggle and pain, because I sought validation for my own experiences. Reading such books put how I felt into words, gave them voice, and tangibility. Reading books that explores issues and negative experiences taught me much and helped me develop my own self-awareness and empathy.
This year, I started reading happier stories about characters with marginalized identities who also found happiness, love, friendship, and everything good in the world. And why not? Everyone, including people who have suffered, struggled, and have experienced terrible things, deserve happy stories – stories where their identities are accepted, where they are loved, where there is a better society. I also feel like these books give us something to aspire to and something to hope for.
Right now though, I want to see more happy stories with PoC, queer, disabled, and/or neurodiverse characters. By wanting happy stories, it doesn’t mean I want these characters to have problem-free lives, but I want to see characters with marginalized identities overcome obstacles unrelated to their identity. I want to see PoC, queer, disabled, and neurodiverse characters fight dragons and win, be the Chosen One and save the world, or even small things like fall in love or pursue their passions – I want them to succeed and emerge victorious in whatever they pursue.
So, we need both: we need books that explore negative experiences and social issues, and we also need happy stories. Both contribute important things, their narratives possessing the ability to help people learn, understand, and grow.
Let’s talk about it!
Without further a do, let’s hop straight over to the discussions! I would love, love, love to hear your thoughts on the topic. I acknowledge that my perspective is shaped by the books I have read, so I’d love to hear your experiences and what you would love to see!
- What do you think we need more of? Issue narratives, happy stories, or a balance of both?
- What are some narratives or identities would you like to read about?
- What have you read more of – issue stories or happy stories? Why do you think you’ve read more than the other?
- Do you have any recommendations of good social issues books or happy books?
Again, thank you all so much for reading! (You’re all the best.)