I've been thinking a lot about aesthetics lately.
It's not a secret that publishing is a highly subjective business. What gets bought, promoted, and sold has a lot to do with opinion. Someone, somewhere along the line, connects with a particular book, maybe thinks it's "big," and puts their heart and soul into convincing everyone else it's big, too. Plenty of editors and agents will accept manuscripts that need work, if there is something in the manuscript that they connect with. And what they connect with obviously has much to do with their personal experience, preferences, what they relate to, their values, what they consider funny or touching, and which characters they identify with.
So this is why I'm thinking about aesthetics. "Subjective" means it's all about what one likes. What one is drawn to, attracted by, and dazzled with enough to lay down money for it. I've seen the "color-blind" argument over and over again -- that it's not about the race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality of the author, but the story. That a good story and strong writing is what wins out in the end. While I agree with this in part, I also maintain that the race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality, etc. of the author affects the story and the writing.
The way we write, what we write about, how we write about it -- all of these are infused with the sensibility of the writer. And the sensibility of the writer is informed by who that writer is, the sum of their experiences, and how they respond to those experiences.
Let's take language, for instance. I grew up speaking and thinking in Punjabi. My writing has (and always has had) layers of Punjabi thought, fluidity, and lyricism underneath the English words because it's what I know. It's where I go when I ride those emotional currents because so much of my early life and formative years were in Punjabi. I see it in the work of other South Asian authors, as well. There is the thread of a faint, but recognizable tradition in the fiction of my fellow South Asian diasporic authors. I feel it, smell it, hear it in the words they lay on the page. It's something I know.
I also find it not surprising in the least that so many books written by Women of Colour incorporate themes of spirituality, both implicitly and explicitly. Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Linda Hogan, Suheir Hamad, Maxine Hong Kingston, June Jordan, Isabelle Allende, Sandra Cisneros, and fellow South Asian women writers such as Mitali Perkins, Uma Krishnaswami, Arundhati Roy, and Shauna Singh Baldwin, among others, have all infused themes of spirituality throughout their texts at one point or another. My own novel, SHINE, COCONUT MOON, as well the two novels I've written since, JAZZ IN LOVE and INTO THE WISE DARK, have varying degrees of spiritual awakening, questioning, and/or understanding woven throughout. The fact that so many women of Colour have elements of spirituality or faith in their works is not a coincidence. It is a shared aesthetic. It is the aesthetic of struggle, born from the effects of colonization, imperialism, slavery, bearing witness to egregious injustices, and finding a way to break the silence; finding words to resurrect what is destroyed and bring back the dead beloved.
If we look at representations of women in the fashion industry, we see the "aesthetic discrepancy" clearly in terms of gender. The fashion industry is overwhelmingly dominated and controlled by men. The focus is not on what women value, but on what men value. Most women would choose comfort over pain; therefore, stilletoes and thongs would make a hasty exit. I, for one, would never go looking for a permanent wedgie and neither would any of the women I know. Stilletoes not only hurt, they do serious damage to the spine, heels, and feet. The women's fashion industry is a mega-gazillion-dollar industry based on the fostered insecurities of women. If women were dominating the fashion scene and shaping it to reflect their own aesthetic (one that has not been distorted by, or replaced with the aesthetic leanings of men), I am confident that what is produced would look drastically different from what is produced now.
Just as an experiment, I urge you to rent and watch several films written and directed by women, then compare them to several films written and directed by men. To make it even more relevant, you might try picking films that have similar themes and were released around the same time. Can you spot the differences in aesthetic? Is there a difference? I would argue that yes, there absolutely is.
Try these: Sunshine Cleaning, written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs, The Piano, written and directed by Jane Campion, Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, Born in Flames by Lizzie Borden, The Waitress by Adrienne Shelly, Real Women Have Curves by Josefina Lopez and directed by Patricia Cardozo, or the films of Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha. Keep in mind that I'm referring to films written by women, not just directed. But even the films based on books written by women, but directed by men, would work for this little experiment. Films like Fried Green Tomatoes (Fannie Flagg), Juno (Diablo Cody), Anywhere But Here (Mona Simpson), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Thelma and Louise (Callie Khouri), and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares).*
Noticing any patterns? That's an aesthetic, or a sensibility. It takes exposure and effort to develop an appreciation for an aesthetic that is vastly different from what one is used to. It's like learning to appreciate a foreign food or music. Many people can't stand the high-pitched voices of some South or East Asian songstresses. But when you spend years listening to different songs, learning what the lyrics mean, and discovering just how much practice and talent goes into those voices, it's easier to appreciate the beauty in their melodies. I grew up in a household where western music was scoffed at, while at school Eastern music was made into a joke. Again, it's about an aesthetic we become accustomed to.
In terms of representations of People of Colour: An experiment by psychologist Kenneth Clark in 1954 revealed that black children preferred white dolls over black dolls, saying the white dolls were "nicer" and "better." When this experiment was recreated in 2005 by a teenager, the results hadn't changed much.
Beauty that resembles white, European ideals is what sells and is promoted in mass media. Images of PoC are habitually air-brushed to be lighter, with straighter, finer, more Europeanized features. Beauty outside of that accepted ideal takes more work to integrate, promote, and sell. This was the reason a Black Is Beautiful movement was necessary in the 1960s, and the Dark Is Beautiful campaign in India is necessary now. It is also the reason campaigns like Dove's widely publicized "Campaign for real beauty" are hugely popular. They strive to develop a new aesthetic. To pump images of a new way of seeing into the world. A new system which exalts what has previously been devalued, or under-valued.
Let's bring it back to the writing. We are not encouraged to be aware of our own privilege. In fact, it serves to keep the inequitable balance of power in place if we remain oblivious to what we have at the expense of others. If you've been following the recent discussions on race, representation, and equitable distribution of resources in the YA/children's lit blogosphere, and it is important to you to help shape a more just world for our children (and ourselves!), you'll have to do your own research.
Zetta's heartfelt post, Something Like An Open Letter To the Children's Publishing Industry, on the disparities inherent within the (children's) publishing industry and discussion threads on forums have me reaching deeper for reasons why PoC are not getting published and/or promoted. There are tons of writers of Colour out there who have been honing their craft, reading books on writing, and submitting work to agents and editors for years. And yet, there are disproportionately more books by and about White folks than there are books by and about PoC. I'm wondering now if part of this could be the lack of appreciation or understanding for an unfamiliar aesthetic.
And because the images of a dominant, all-pervasive aesthetic seep into our bones, we emulate its ideals (think: Michael Jackson). We become the strongest upholders of that which subjugates us. So it's not surprising when things like that now-forgotten case of plagiarism rise up to remind us that all is not perfect in YA/kidlit world. Writers are desperate to make our dreams a reality and many of us will (happily) sell family members to see it happen. We'll write whatever you want! And if that means catering to an aesthetic that is not in keeping with our histories, traditions and upbringings, so be it!
Let me just say here that every single one of us comes from and subscribes to some sort of tradition -- not just PoC. There are Nordic traditions, Celtic, and even feminist and LGBTQ traditions. The point is that the powers that be (TPTB) have historically favoured a particular set. And those of us writing outside of that have had a much tougher time being seen, appreciated, heard, and valued unless we, in some form, adhere to the dominant aesthetic. Sherman Alexie once said that any amount of mainstream success means you've had to compromise something, in some way. I think this is what he was referring to--bending yourself and your work to fit a tradition, ideology, or aesthetic that is not innate, or indigenous to who you are.
And until and unless there is exposure to different aesthetics and an effort to understand and appreciate what is unfamiliar by TPTB, OR, until and unless the ranks of TPTB more accurately represent the reading/consuming public, what we see on the shelves will continue to reflect the dominant ideals and currently upheld aesthetic.
*Just want to note that, although there have been some great strides in recent years, women directors and filmmakers are still few and far between in the field of filmmaking -- which remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.