In my previous post, I discussed why the word ‘diversity’ is fraught with problems and how there is a lack of power in the Queer writing community. Today we will delve deeper into how that power is established, distributed and withheld within the Australian YA community and how we as Queer writers can regain our autonomy, self-worth and artistic merit.
The thing about being Queer in Australia is that no matter how you were raised, you are conditioned from birth to believe being Queer makes you weird. It means you’re the odd one out. Before we even have a chance to understand our own gender/sexuality, we intrinsically know that it is considered ‘abnormal’ within our society to be same-sex attracted, non-binary, transgender or any other identity other than cis-gendered and hetero-normative. It is easy to see then why we as Queer persons are so quick to give up our power, our rights and our identities to ‘fit in’.
This action occurs so frequently and often so subtly in our lives that it can be hard to realise this is what we are doing. When we refer to our partners without using gender-identifying pronouns. When we lie about what movie we watched last night to our co-workers. When we talk ourselves down from wearing something ‘too gay’ to blend in. When we do these things, it is not because we are exerting our rights to our privacy, or because we don’t need to ‘prove ourselves’ to anyone. We are doing it because of fear, because of internalised shame and because we do not believe we deserve to be our true selves in this world.
This is no different within the context of Australia’s literary community. Even amongst the AusQueerYA community the majority of power remains in the hands of hetero-normative, patriarchal companies/persons. As Malindo Lo explains in their article Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews: ‘The book industry, from editors to publishers to reviewers to booksellers, is overwhelmingly populated by straight, white people.’ This, and the historical development of this industry, have resulted in the structure of systems set up to establish what is considered ‘good’ writing, what books ‘deserve’ to be published, who is given authority to decide these things and where the money generated from these pursuits flows, to also be ‘straight’ and ‘white’. In terms of the voices being published, paid and rewarded in the AusQueerYA sphere, Queer writers are still a minority. The problem lies not within the writers themselves. There is not a lack of Queer writers, but an inherit bias in the publishing industry on what makes a ‘good’ piece of work, what will sell and who ‘deserves’ to be glorified by literary prizes and lucrative contracts.
Jordi Kerr, in their series of posts for Archer Magazine writes in Queer young adult fiction: examining the underrepresentation of queer voices that, ‘There’s a particular kind of pain that comes with the realisation that even within queer stories for Young Adults (YA), queer voices are a minority. It’s a double-punch of feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness, knowing that the sharing of our experiences remains in the hands of the privileged, and in the frameworks of cis-normativity and hetero-normativity. Hands and frameworks that have historically, and often contemporarily, done our community an enormous amount of harm.’
This harm is compounded by the growing number of Queer writers who are being silenced within the very spaces that are supposed to be safe for us. The toxic culture of our publishing industry toward Queer voices is deeply entrenched in our nations psyche. Queer writers are unconsciously bending themselves over backwards to ‘fit’ into unrealistic and harmful expectations, even when those expectations are inherently designed to keep Queer voices out. It is through this hoarding of power; this dangerously ingrained idea of what makes ‘good’ writing (fed to us from a very early age and via every aspect of our society, including our education system), that Queer writers are unwittingly participating in the silencing of their own voices.
This silencing is happening in multiple ways. It is in the way Queer authors are edited and censored to appeal to an assumed ‘straight’ readership and allow themselves to be, under the guise that they are being made into ‘better’ writers. It is the way authors hide their Queer-ness, under the false allusion that their work and their sexual/gender identity have nothing to do with each other. It is in the way Queer writers are rejected, because that publisher already has two other Queer books out this year. It is in the way Queer writers convince themselves that it is their responsibility to educate non-Queers and that their books need to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘considerate’ of non-Queer readers, despite decades of erasure of our own identities by these groups. It is in the way Queer writers never bother submitting or give up writing altogether because we are conditioned to believe our voices aren’t ‘good enough’.
It is the classic case of believing we are being done the favour when we are given an opportunity to publish in the traditional system, rather than the other way around.
Jonno Revanche, drawing from their own experiences as a Queer writer, explains in their article Between the Lines for Kill Your Darlings, ‘I remember addressing the often lofty submission criteria that literary journals aim for when doing call-outs. They ask for ‘diverse voices’ and people of different backgrounds, but that doesn’t really confront the real work, the deep institutional restructuring that creates conditions for equality. I felt suspicious of the way they went about this – it insinuated that publications aren’t already focused on those issues, and treats them as a secondary concern.’
Meanwhile, non-Queer authors are praised for the very thing that is keeping Queer writers from being heard. They are celebrated for being ‘brave’ or being ‘forward thinking’ in their portrayal of ‘diverse’ people and cultures. These non-Queer writers win literary awards and are paid handsomely for their ‘emotional sacrifice’, resulting in even more resources for them to use to take up Queer space. So how do we as Queer writers overcome this undeniably fucked up situation?
Kerr suggest in their final instalment for Archer Examining queer young adult fiction: The way forward that, ‘Queer writers need to be able to approach mainstream publishers knowing that both they and their stories are safe, if YA is to have a future that is integrated, rather than segregated.’ This I agree with, but it leaves the power in the hands of the already privileged to facilitate this change. Publishers wanting to capitalise on Queer stories can open and close their doors are will, resulting in Queer writers playing the same game, just on a different court.
We need to take back our power and take back our autonomy. We need to believe that we deserve to be heard loudly and fully, not censored for the comfort of a non-Queer readership who might get offended by us. We need to be proud.
To do this, we as Queer writers need to tear down all pre-existing beliefs about what makes ‘good’ writing and rebuild them for ourselves. The current standard on which our writing is judged was not designed to include us. It does not take into consideration our lack of privilege, such as the higher likelihood that Queer youth will be homeless, experience mental health issues, drop out of school, not get into elite university programs or have the free time and money to pursue writing as a profession compared to non-Queer youth. It does not consider that the Queer community is not homogeneous: it is multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-gendered and of a myriad of sexual identities.
A tiny example of this is the great controversy the use of ‘they/them’ pronouns can drum up within the literary community. If the gatekeepers of the Australian publishing community (those that give the grants, publish the books, award the prizes) can’t wrap their heads around the concept of ‘they/them’, how the fuck did we ever think they were going to understand the complexity of the Queer experience?
Within the existing power-structures of the Australian YA industry, this means not waiting for a publisher or editor to allow us the privileged of having our voices heard, but using our voices no matter who is listening. It means pooling together to support Queer writers writing Queer stories, by giving them time, space and recognition. It means criticising literary awards given to non-Queer authors for a Queer story. It means turning our backs on those who wish to use us and swimming against the tide (hard, I know, but we’re surely used to that by now?) and building our own independent structures.
This is a call out to Queer writers, editors, publishers, readers, critics and reviewers. If you have ever caught yourself censoring what you write, or do or say because you thought it was ‘too Queer’, this message is for you. You have the power to shake this shit up. Together we can take back our Queer spaces and see AusQueerYA feature a majority of Queer writers, who are supported by Queer systems, editors, publishers and readers. We can see money that is currently going to non-Queer authors for their Queer stories returning to our own pockets.
The Australian literary world needs to be torn down and rebuilt. This is no small task. The roots of this industry and the power it holds runs deep. While this can seem daunting, it is important to recognise that the helplessness we as Queer writers feel is not because we are terrible writers. We are not failures, even if we have been rejected multiple times. It’s not us, it’s them. We started out on the back foot and we will always be playing catch up, but only if we keep playing their game.
It is time to play our own game.