Coming off #RamadanReadathon, I’ve learned two things:
- Reading is hard when you’re hungry.
- There is a lot more Muslim representation in YA fiction than there is in any other genre.
Technically, that second one isn’t something I’ve only just realized. It’s a spidey sense I’ve had over the past year as I’ve made more of an effort to discover and follow Muslim authors and Muslim narratives.
I did a little digging and it turns out my spidey sense is pretty solid. The YA publishing industry has been quick to embrace Muslim identity and coming of age stories: Simon and Schuster has a whole imprint dedicated to them, Salaam Reads. There’s no equivalent to that, as far as I know, in the adult commercial or literary publishing world.
I’ve always held that this is a result of the 9/11 generation coming into adulthood. If you were a young teen in 2001, you’ll be in your late 20s/early 30s today. Given how fraught coming of age was in that time, it’s not surprising that those who are inclined to write find themselves using their skill to explore those experiences. YA, then, is a natural fit for these stories.
At the same time, I felt that it couldn’t be that simple. A lot of Muslim YA novels aren’t set in the post-9/11 era; many aren’t even set in the United States or the West. Clearly there was another layer to this. So, when I was accepted into the Representation Matters Mentorship Program a few months ago, I took the opportunity to float the idea by one of my mentors.
The reason for this, it turns out, is very simple. Trends in YA literature are heavily influenced by direct feedback from parents, teachers, and librarians, who have increasingly been demanding to see more people of color and minorities in the books they purchase and distribute to children. This kind of direct feedback loop simply doesn’t exist in adult literature, where publishing houses deal with booksellers instead of consumers.
This dynamic is compounded by the fact that profit margins tend to be narrow in publishing, so when a book ends up on the bestseller list, there’s pressure to recreate that success. This is why, for a long time after the success of Twilight you couldn’t walk through a bookstore without being bombarded by books of the ‘supernatural boyfriend’ type, complete with shirtless dudes gracing dark, foreboding covers. It’s easier for publishers to justify the expense of producing a book they know can tap into a ready-made audience, as opposed to taking a risk on a diverse book that doesn’t have that advantage.
This is also why, when a diverse book does find success, you tend to get a lot of the same stories over and over. Publishers seeking to recreate the success of Amy Tan or Khaled Hosseini end up producing these same narratives repeatedly, so that what started out as a breakthrough in diverse representation quickly becomes another stereotype.
With all that said, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, adult fiction will likely always lag behind YA when it comes to representation, and will likely continue to produce books that rehash a lot of the same narratives. The good news is that this is changing, slowly but surely. With Muslim YA doing so well, and the issue of representation in publishing front and center, many agents and editors are deliberately seeking new narratives from PoC writers. We’re seeing this already – this year’s #RamadanReadathon adult fiction list included a diverse array of sociopolitical books, lighter-hearted romance/family stories, and mystery and fantasy novels. While the first two categories are fairly common today, the last two are definitely new developments.