Marta Acosta

OP dates:

When I started reading Fantasy, I started with Tamora Pierce, Madeline L’Engle, Mercedes Lackey and Jane Yolen. I didn’t think of the characters of those books as any different from me, except that they were in way more fantastic situations. But as I grew into an adult, I started to notice that there was a pointed different between me and the characters I was reading about.

Almost none of them looked like me.

I wasn’t sure if that mattered until slowly I realized I’d like to see more diversity (and admittedly, more of me) in what I was reading. So, I wrote it. And sought it out in new authors. A very wonderful list of authors can be found here. It’s so comprehensive, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

But the point is that all of this thinking has been circling around in my head for years, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who likes a little diversity in her literature. So, when author Cecy Robson got into contact with me and we started to discuss the lack of minority/mixed race in Fantasy, I knew it was something I wanted to further explore. And what better way to find out what other people think than by asking them?

So, I asked a few authors if they’d be willing to share their thoughts and they said yes! Which is how the “Minority Report” was born.

* * *

Initially, I posted the Minosrity Report of each author in entirety. But it struck me recently that if we shared one question a week, it would be easier for everyone to really think about both the question and the answer.

So, this week starting with Marta Acosta’s wonderful answers, we’ll be exploring one question a week.

More about Marta

So here’s the scoop. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area and I can never seem to get away from here for long despite my continual fear of earthquakes. Yes, that’s all I got out of the geology classes I took at Stanford. That and a nifty rock pick. If you haven’t gone to the desert and smashed things with a rock pick, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I went to Stanford and received degrees in English & American Lit and Creative Writing, which qualified me to do very little except read books. That was my goal all along, but no one pays you to do that. I studied in England and missed the sun. I worked in non-profits and the theatre and missed getting paychecks.

I live with the fabulous spouse and the force-of-nature spawn and our insane rescued dogs. A friend who recently visited said, “They arebaddogs.” I prefer to delude myself that they are morally complex.

I’ve won some awards for my writing, but I get a real thrill when a fan sends me an email, or readers say they like the nonsense on my blog. My priorities have always been skewed.

I also write romantic comedy under the name Grace Coopersmith. Why Grace Coopersmith? Because Grace Coopersmith is always elegant and tasteful, and she never leaves her clothes in a pile on a chair or sings to her dogs. Despite Grace’s annoying superiority, she is hilarious and always shows up with a good bottle of wine.

Marta’s Contact Info

Thanks again to Marta for taking the time to answer such difficult questions. I know it’s hard to address questions with such complex and wide reaching answers.

1. How do you feel about the presence of minority or mixed race authors and characters present in fiction, specifically speculative fiction and all its varied genres?

Hi, JM, thanks for having me here to discuss such an interesting topic! I feel that fiction, including speculative fiction, doesn’t come close to reflecting the reality of the American population, let alone the population of the world. I’m particularly annoyed by all the young adult dystopians that are merely the same old secret princess story dressed up with shoddy “there’s no more electricity” worldbuilding. I suspect the authors are just hopping on the trend of speculative fiction without understanding that there’s a sociopolitical context to speculative fiction. Publishers are churning out stories that don’t challenge any preconceptions, including preconceptions about race and class.

2. Why do you think the presence of such authors and characters is at the point that it is? Meaning, are there certain attitudes, stereotypes or expectations that accompany such authors and characters, or maybe that don’t accompany them that make the prevalence what it is today?

The answers to these questions are complicated by unknowable factors, unasked questions, too many variables. Although the publishing world is in culturally rich Manhattan, publishers, editors, and agents are not a diverse group. Those who go into publishing as a career must have an education and the financial stability to survive in such a poorly paid profession in such an expensive city. You’ve got to consider not only the connection between race/ethnicity and social class, but also the fact that an educated person of color might be encouraged to pursue a more stable career and/or a career where she feels as if she can advance and have her voice heard.

An African-American pal of mine was in Hollywood for many years before moving away. She told me, “I got tired of being the only black person in the building.”

So you’ve got a limited group guessing what the rest of the country wants. And they do guess. I think the publishing biz prefers to err on the side of a safe investment by promoting writers and stories that will sell well to the widest audience. What’s safe? Blond, blue-eyed heroines. I assume there’s an unspoken understanding about this.

When they venture out to feature a story with African-American, Latino, or Asian characters, they often select characters who meet their own expectations. If an ethnic coworker said, “Oh, god, not another magical Negro story!” or “Does every Hispanic book have to be about a noble immigrant with religious visions?” they might reconsider. Or not.

As a mid-list writer, I’m always aware that I’m expendable to publishers. I try to be marketable, which means that I tone down my opinions. I occasionally try to discuss racial/ethnic issues with publishing types, but most don’t seem to want to talk about such a prickly subject.

3. Do you feel like something should be done about the popularity/frequency of minority/mixed race characters or do you think how it exists now is an accurate depiction of the audience of such fiction?

First, let me say that I think the American public is actually very open to diversity. Just look at all the wives and mothers dancing with Ellen DeGeneres during her show’s opening segment. They see beyond her sexual orientation to the fact that she’s a really nice, friendly, hilarious person. Look at Oprah Winfrey’s influence on so many of us. She single-handedly rejuvenated the publishing business with her book club.

I think there should be honest discussions about diversity within the publishing biz. “Honest” discussions are often uncomfortable, but you can’t move forward if you’re being so polite you can’t bring up problems. I think there should be hiring programs to create a publishing business that is not only racially/culturally more diverse, but economically more diverse. A poor kid from a rural area, no matter what race, is going to have a different perspective than a rich kid from a metropolitan center.

4. How do you decide what race your characters will be? Does it just come to you or do you purposefully choose certain races?

Both! When I wrote the first book in my Casa Dracula series, I very much wanted to create a Latina character who didn’t fit the stereotypes, yet had the qualities we see in real life Latinas. She bright, inquisitive, sexy, funny, and affectionate. She’s a nut and writes crazy political horror stories with zombies. I found it annoying when I’d get the automatic “spicy” description of Milagro, but even my publisher was pushing clichés like “spicy” and “sassy.” They never understood the implications.

Other times, the racial identity seems natural for the character. I purposefully made Jane Williams, the protagonist in Dark Companion, a mixed race person of unknown background. I see a lot of mixed race girls around and they could be anything or lots of things. Jane is described as having brownish skin, wavy brown hair and brown eyes. I assume she’s at least half African-American, and we know her mother was part Hispanic; it’s interesting to me that only two reviewers out of more than a hundred have mentioned her race.

5. What effect do you think reading books with primarily white heroines and heroes in them has on minority/mixed race readers, if any?

I think we realize the books are like movies: by that I mean that the majority of the population is female, but Hollywood movies are overwhelmingly male dominated: the stars, writers, directors, and producers. Even so-called chick flicks are there to fulfill men’s stereotypes of women and most are written and directed by men. We can still enjoy what’s there, but it would be nice to have terrific movies featuring great women characters with authentic female perspectives.

6. If you could make one statement about the frequency/popularity of minority/mixed race characters in speculative fiction, what would it be?

If you’re going to write speculative fiction, then for heaven’s sake, speculate about the possibilities, and that includes what our majority-minority population will be like in two decades, ten decades, two hundred years.

7. If you could ask successful editors one thing about their acquisition of books and whether or not a character’s culture/race plays into it at all, how would you ask it? Or rather, what question would you ask about this topic, if you could?

If I could ask any question it would be: is there an unspoken understanding about acquiring books featuring racially/ethnically diverse characters, and, if so, what is it? If I could ask a second question, it would be, how do you think the publishing business could move forward?

J.M., thanks again for having me at your site and for asking such challenging questions!

* * *

You’re more than welcome and thank you, Marta, for such thoughtful and honest answers. Like this one. Those are great questions. It would be interesting to know about unspoken understandings or guidelines, even quotas. And of course, like you said, what we can do to make changes to include even more characters in literature.

Learn more about Marta and her wonderful work via her contact info above!

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