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Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens

katniss and rue in the hunger games

Photo: Katniss and Rue hang out in the first Hunger Games film.

What happens when two great black women fiction writers get together to talk about race in young adult literature? That's exactly what happens in the conversation below, where  Zetta Elliott (below left), a black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children, and award-winning Haitian-American speculative fiction writer Ibi Aanu Zoboi (below right) decided to discuss current young adult sci-fi. 

zetta elliott 

ZETTA ELLIOTT: Do you remember reading books as a child that served as a mirror for you?

IBI ZOBOI: Not at all. I remember having to read the Chronicles of Narnia. I went to a Catholic school in Bushwick, Brooklyn and Sister Ann was reading it to us and we were bored to death. It was all Black and Latino kids in the class. The nuns for the most part were Irish. I remember Sister Ann loved the book and we were like, "YAWN." I was that kid who did not read because I just didn’t care about the characters.

ZETTA: I recently met a Black teenager who told me she didn’t like to read. And I said, “But there are so many great books out there and many of them are being made into movies. Did you see The Hunger Games?” And she had. After we parted ways I thought to myself, “What do Black girls do when they’re watching The Hunger Games? Do they identify with Katniss more than Rue?" I thought of Jacqueline Bobo and her work on Black women as cultural readers. So many of us walk into the theater knowing that Hollywood is going to screw us over. And so we’re already prepared to navigate around stereotypes and extract meaning from the film. I was listening to the lively commentary during the film and it was clear the Black women and girls were engaged with the movie. I thought, “They’re finding a way to enjoy this experience even if there are no Black girls on the screen.” Would you take your daughters to see the films? 

IBI: I’m taking my 11-year-old to see Catching Fire. She started to watch The Hunger Games but she stopped at the scene where Rue is killed. Both of them were in awe of Rue. I let them watch the trailer and my youngest said, “Can I have my hair like that?” I watched their faces as they watched this little brown girl. All their friends were into the book and the movie. But I know for sure that if Rue were the hero, it would have a totally different impact on them.

All my friends are waiting for Annie [starring Quevanzhane Wallis]—not that it’s going to be a great movie, but it’ll be fun since we’re all planning to make a day of it, twenty little black girls getting together. I remember taking 5 different groups of girls to see Precious. And by the third time I was like, “Oh my goodness. What am I doing?”

ZETTA: You thought the film would be a mirror for them. 

IBI: And that longing is so deep, you gravitate toward anything that comes up.

ZETTA: This idea of a text serving as a mirror makes me think of Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay about books serving as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. In my author presentation in schools I’ve started using Tina Kugler’s illustration on the statistics on racial disparities:

chart showing that 93 percent of kids books are about white kids

I noticed in the previews that came on before Catching Fire that there are so many YA novels being turned into films—including Divergent. And so you have predominantly young white women being featured in these books that are then being adapted into films—

iBI: And garnering a much larger audience. That’s the subject of my MFA thesis. If you’re going to create an atypical hero—she’s a girl, she’s not as pretty, or maybe she’s clumsy—you’re going to raise her to the rank of hero and let her save the day. Why not go deeper and get that girl who’s really at the bottom of the pile? Around the world, girls of color are the most marginalized group. So if you’re going to write a story about the marginalized, why not reach down and pick the darkest girl?

ZETTA: I haven’t read the trilogy, but I watched the first film at home and the second one in the theater. And when it got to the part where Gale was being whipped, I could sense the tension in the [interracial] audience. And I thought to myself: “How many people in here went to see 12 Years a Slave?” It’s interesting to me that in the white imagination, the dystopian future involves white people living through the realities that people of color have lived or are living through right now! 

IBI: I read the trilogy before I even knew there was going to be a movie. Rue and Thresh came from District 11 and it’s far worse than District 12. The description in the book indicates, at least in my imagination, that it’s a Black district. They’re sharecroppers.  

ZETTA: Picking cotton?!

IBI: Right. And they’re the only district whose residents get whipped.

ZETTA: Really?

IBI: And they sing.

ZETTA: Oh, Lord. 

IBI: That’s their art, their skill. In Catching Fire, District 11 was the first to rebel. 

ZETTA : There were so many moments in the film when I wondered, “Was that really in the book?” Because Rue’s mother has what looks like 5 remaining children, all about the same age. That image struck me as the stereotypical single Black mother with too many kids. 

IBI: Reading the book, I had to wonder why the hero didn’t come from District 11 if they’re the most oppressed. I remember thinking Rue’s role in the whole novel is what this comic book writer calls “fridging.” Women in comic books serve to bring out the male hero’s deep humanity. The woman dies and then the hero taps into— 

ZETTA: His sense of justice. 

IBI: Right. And that was Rue. Katniss befriends Rue, who was like a little sister. You want her to make it as much as Katniss, but we know what happens.

ZETTA: So what do you think of the backlash against the casting of a Black actor to play Rue? I think even President Obama recently said he has hope because the younger generation is making progress when it comes to race relations. As someone who works with young people I see a lot of behavior, online and elsewhere, that indicates the exact opposite. When some white readers saw Rue on screen they were outraged and said some pretty horrific things on Twitter. And the same thing happened with Beetee in Catching Fire, where at least the geeky technology guy was Black. The only other Black man hauls off and kisses Katniss without warning, and I thought, “There’s another stereotype of the hypersexual Black male!” Or Thresh killing that white girl in the first film—that’s the black savage. Obviously we’re sensitive to stereotypes because we teach and write about race and representation. But it did make me wonder if white artists are able to imagine a future where they don’t reproduce the same hierarchies and stereotypes.

IBI; I think white people have the luxury of living in a white envelope. They don’t have to think about the Other. They may see them on the periphery, but they have the luxury of not thinking about anything that exists outside of their own bubble. 

ZETTA: That brings me back to Rudine Sims Bishop and how she said the lack of diversity in children’s literature is also harmful to white children because they grow up thinking they’re the center of the universe. And that then makes it very hard for them to communicate cross-culturally because they haven’t had to learn how. So what are your fears and your hopes for your daughters specifically in terms of finding heroes in literature and film? 

IBI: I have more hope than fear at this point. I’m teaching my daughters in an indirect way to think critically about everything they’re consuming. If they’re watching TV, I ask, “Where are the brown girls?” To them it seems like there’s more diversity because of what I intentionally put in place around them. They don’t see a dearth because on our bookshelf there is abundance of books that feature girls and boys of color. In terms of what we can do, I think it has to start at the ground level. I see it in the classroom. The teachers don’t know what books are out there. And if the teachers don’t know, the kids don’t know, and their parents don’t know. It’s choice fatigue if they walk into a bookstore. 

ZETTA: Sarah Park Dahlen just wrote an article about this in Gazillion Voices. She teaches Social Justice and Children’s Literature in the at St. Catherine’s University and she’ll give her students—who are about to become librarians—a list of multicultural books. She sends them into bookstores across the Twin Cities and they consistently cannot find those books. That was the motivation for my friends and I to start The Birthday Party Pledge website. We wanted people to commit to buying multicultural books as gifts for kids for one year, but it was really about putting a description and images of multicultural books from all genres online so that parents know what’s available. There may not be many books by and about people of color being published annually, but cumulatively we have something on our site for almost everyone. 

That goes for speculative fiction, too. African American kids love fantasy, but there aren’t that many books out there.

chart from Sarah Park Dahlen's article showing that only 10% of books contain multiculturalcontent

Chart from The Diversity Gap in Children's Books

ZETTA: There aren’t! We made a list and I think we only found 55 or 56 titles over a thirty-year period. And think of how many sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal titles will be published just this year featuring white protagonists. I feel like publishing is part of the same system that allows us to have a black president, which seems to increase diversity but doesn’t increase equity. I want people to have equal opportunities but the way the publishing industry is structured right now, that’s not going to happen.

IBI: I’m way more optimistic than you are. I think the industry has reached its tipping point.

ZETTA: Well, the demographics are changing. The majority of children under the age of five are now of color. And by 2050, is it? The country will be majority people of color. We have a lot of work to do.

Related Reading: A short list of great resources for racial diversity in young adult sci-fi.


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Comments

27 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Daja from Tamora Pierce's

Daja from Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series (also in the follow up series and stand alone books)

Also, "Roll of Thunder, Hear

Also, "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry" (and the follow up books) by Mildred D. Taylor, and "A Girl Named Disaster" by Nancy Farmer, also anything by Beverley Naidoo

black girls in fantasy fiction

We have a list of African American speculative fiction (middle grade & young adult) and most feature black girls: http://zettaelliott.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/african-american-speculativ...

African Americans appear in LOTS of historical fiction; editors show a clear preference for narratives about slavery and the civil rights era.

I know this is late, but The

I know this is late, but The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm is almost 100% populated by characters of color in futuristic Zimbabwe. However, there are really only two important female characters (Rita and Sekai), Sekai is a baby, and neither has as much agency as the Arm or Tendai.

Also, from her Tortall

Also, from her Tortall books:
Thayet
Buri
Shinkokami
Numair
Saraiyu
Dovasary
Nawat Crow
(lots of other minor characters)

There's sometimes some cringe-worthy elements (like Jonathan getting a coveted role in an Arab-based tribe, or the baffling cover art on the first editions of Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen.)

Katniss

Jennifer Lawrence may be white, but Katniss in the book was racially indistinct, possibly multiracial.

I imagined her multiracial.

I imagined her multiracial. She's definitely not described as white. I was mad when she was cast as white.

same here.

same here.

Thanks for this. Does anyone

Thanks for this. Does anyone know of any similar data on racial diversity adult literary fiction?

diversity in adult literature

Roxane Gay has been doing some research on this: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-roxane-gay-diversify-li...

Thresh

While I see the note of savageness when Thresh kills the one white tribute, I wasn't shocked by this because I felt like the movie was about all these children being forced to be savage. In fact, I thought Thresh was much less savage than the blood-hungry tributes from districts one and two, which you see in Thresh's decision to spare Katniss knowing it could cost him his own life. Thoughts?

Thresh

I agree, but the difference lies in the history of representation of black males. One representation of white teens acting vicious doesn't resonate (with me and, I suspect, most US filmgoers) in the same way as a young black man exhibiting the same behavior. They're going *against* our expectations whereas Thresh fulfills our (subconscious) expectations. Within the film there may seem to be parity, but within the longer history of representation, Thresh becomes yet another stereotype and extends a problematic tradition within Hollywood.

Thresh

I totally did not pick up on these stereotypes (most likely because I'm not "tuned in" to recognize them), and I thank you for pointing them out.

Does the fact that Thresh is a sympathetic character and Clove (the girl he kills) is not change anything? I was wondering if part of the reason why I didn't pick up on the stereotype of "the savage" is because I was totally rooting for him. Clove was awful, and Thresh killed her (and let Katniss live) because of Rue.

Thresh

Ibi read the books so I'll let her chime in about the representation of Thresh in the novel. For me, the film might have tried to "recode" the stereotype of the Black savage but you can only do that by invoking the original stereotype. So the black male used his brute strength to kill "the bad white girl" instead of "the good white girl" (see Birth of a Nation). For me, against the long, ongoing history of that particular stereotype, such an attempt at recoding didn't succeed. We get no other glimpse of Thresh in the film other than his savagery and moment of mercy--seeing him with Rue, showing tenderness or solidarity, might have done more for me. If filmgoers left the film liking Thresh, that (for me) doesn't undo the larger pattern of black male misrepresentation in Hollywood.

We didn't get much with

We didn't get much with Thresh, it's true, but we did get glimpses of his tenderness and solidarity with Rue. Here's a pair of gifs on tumblr, taken from the training sequence in the first movie: http://veranke.tumblr.com/post/28752208828

I'm not arguing that it undoes the larger pattern, but it's simply not true that the only time we saw Thresh was when he killed Clove.

important correction

Ibi and I would like to thank Debbie Reese for pointing out our incorrect comparison of girls of color to "the bottom of the totem pole" (now changed to "bottom of the pile"). Totem poles, according to Alaska Native carver Tommy Joseph of the Eagle Moiety, Kaagwaantaan Clan, is "a visual tool for telling a story." There is no hierarchical quality to placement of figures on the pole. The phrase "low man on the totem pole" is a non-Native construction that reflects an outsider's perspective on Indigenous peoples. We are grateful to Debbie Reese for this information and invite readers to join us as we stop using the phrase ourselves and inform others why it is wrong to use that phrase. http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Totem-pole-for-Carnegie-Museum-of-...

Nnedi Okorafor's novel, Akata

Nnedi Okorafor's novel, Akata Witch, is another great one to add to the list of fantasy featuring an all-PoC cast (it's set in modern day Nigeria). It's also a fantastic, fun story, and there's going to be a sequel.

I agree with the vast

I agree with the vast majority of the points made in this article, but you lose me on the point about Thresh playing into the "black savage" stereotype. The girl he killed was one of the careers, who were essentially portrayed as sub-human sociopaths throughout the story. All in all, it came out looking like a totally justified killing. Clove was sadistic; she was in the process of killing the protagonist while taunting her and bragging about her "team" killing Rue. Thresh actually came out of that looking pretty golden, imho.

I just want to point out that

I just want to point out that in district 11 its agriculture, not * picking cotton* , also its gale from district 12, a white boy who is being whipped publicly in catching fire. In my mind, race was never an issue in the books, if you weren't in the capital you were beneath them..no matter your race.

Agreed!

^^^ Yes. This. I'm gonna be a Hunger Games stan and point out that District 11 was NOT the only district where people got whipped. In Catching Fire (the book) Katniss' mom mentions that before Katniss was born, people got whipped in District 12 all the time. That's how she knew what to do for Gale. 11 is supposedly the traditional deep south. 12 is Appalachia. So it makes sense to me that it'd be mostly poor black people in 11 opposite poor white people in the mountains in 12. So I don't think the black people getting beaten in 12 is really a race thing, but rather a dystopia thing. And by the time we get to Mockingjay people in all the districts are being whipped cause race or location does not trump class.

BUT THAT IS NEITHER HERE NOR THERE lol. Very thought provoking discussion. I've thought a lot about how the story would be different too if Rue had survived somehow (because I loved her in the book and on film and it broke my heart when she died). On the other hand, I love the idea of Rue being the sensitive, innocent one. A black girl in a major Hollywood film depicted as gentle and innocent, a worthy cause to fight for, the death that triggered the revolution, it's kind of powerful when you think of it that way.

I'd say it was sort of an

I'd say it was sort of an issue. There seemed to be differences within district 12 between people from the Seam and people in the merchant class. Katniss' family was a mixture of the two. The way Katniss describes herself, Gale, and others with the "Seam look" made it seem as though Collins was emphasizing their ethnic differences, which also led to the emphases on their economic differences (Katniss' mother grew up wealthier than her father, Peeta's father wanted to marry her but was surprised when she married a coal miner, followed up by the thought that a coal miner'd've had to've been special to get her). The Seam/merchant divide also defines Katniss' initial interactions with Peeta.

the conversation continues

If anyone's interested in the rest of the conversation, we've posted it on my blog:

http://zettaelliott.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/black-girls-hunger-for-hero...

Black people downgrade themselves

This was a very enlightening post, mainly because it took a story about universal oppression and turned it into an issue of race.

1. The writer of the Hunger Games series is white. Therefore, if her protagonist is white, it makes sense. We as writers tend to create relatable characters.

2. The story is told in 1st person point of view, meaning, what ever Katniss saw, heard, did, is what we as readers were privy too. So if the only time she see's Thresh is when he's saving her life then that is what we get. In my mind he's a hero. Nothing savage about it at all. The savage thought never crossed my mind. If anything, I'm thinking the black boy saved the day.

3. A writer, writes a story from the culmination of their experiences and imagination. When a reader reads a book they are essentially stepping into the writer's mind and looking at the world through their eyes. Therefore, the way a book is constructed has nothing to do with misrepresentation, but everything to do with the personal representation of the author's world experience and view.

4. We as black people have an addiction with putting ourselves down. We love to remain in the chains of the past. For some reason, I believe we feel safe there; like if we actually become aware of our power, our freedom, then we'll truly be lost. So we take stories like the hunger games and dissect them until we can create some racial distinction, that in turn reinforces the lock on the chains. Our thoughts remain in the cell.

5. If you say you are a savage, then you are a savage. If you say they're holding you down, then they are holding you down. If you say they are against you, then they are against you. But if you say I am somebody, then you most definitely are somebody.

6. Instead of focusing on what isn't there, focus on what you want to see. If our children need more relatable representation in their lives, create it; at all cost. It's not about they won't let me, it's about no one can stop me. Become the next Shonda Rhymes, or any prominent person you admire, and learn how to be seen.

7. The only racial barriers that still exist in this world are the ones we create for ourselves. Ask yourself what you want to see and do it. No excuses, no doubts, no hesitations just do it.

You can check out my Urban Science and Fantasy Flash Fiction Webseries called: Future Body: The Body of life, at http://www.futurebodystory.com. Zatine is a biracial girl from Chicago who grew up in a household that fights the supernatural beings of the world with crystal technology, the only problem is Zatine becomes the enemy of her family. It's a story about an 18 yr old girl trying to find out who she really is and how to live in a world that doesn't quite accept her.

I feel like you are vastly

I feel like you are vastly undervaluing the necessity of pointing out what can be improved in representation of minorities in popular media.

1. Avid fans of Suzanne Collins can tell you that nowhere in her novels did she specify Katniss is white. In fact, her physical features describing dark hair and olive skin suggest a racially mixed or pointedly racially ambiguous character. Your assumption that she must be white speaks to the excessive dominance of white protagonists in YA fiction creating the false and problematic assumption that white is the default.

2. It is true that first-person narrative is designed to allow the reader to become more intimate with the POV of the protagonist. However, this does not excuse a skewed perception of the representation of Thresh on a grander scale.

3 and 4. The way a book is constructed has everything to do with representation. The Hunger Games series had immense popularity, critical acclaim, and commercial success worldwide. This means millions of children and adults worldwide are consuming this. When a black child sees the same stereotypes about her race perpetuated over and over again,--especially in such a popular book series--she's going to believe that's all she is meant to aspire to. Appropriate and accurate portrayals of marginalized and oppressed minorities are essential for the empowerment of those communities.

Failing to understand the importance/impact of art forms such as literature on a larger, societal/cultural level is ignorant at best. This isn't about attacking Collins per se, it is about speaking up against harmful misrepresentation. 

Black people do NOT downgrade themselves and do NOT have an addiction with putting themselves down. NO minority does this. No one wants to feel or be represented as unimportant or unempowered.

5. If you refuse to speak out or join others in speaking out against the injustice of misrepresentation or underrepresentation, it is clear that you are a victim of your own internalized racism. You are blinded by your own ignorance, and you place the blindfold on yourself.

6. This is a severely ignorant perspective of how race relations coupled with the politics of publishing and media sectors work. There are black female directors and there are black female writers. There are directors and writers of all colors. Whites get the most publicity because distributing companies are more concerned with maintaining the white default than with promoting diversity. They would much rather pursue tried-and-true dystopian tales than a coming of age story of a person of color. Why? The majority has privilege, and the majority has power. It's not so simple as "why don't you make your own media to enjoy" All artists are responsible for upholding fair representation and portrayal of the diversity that permeates our everyday lives.

7. Racial barriers remain not only because of the ways that social and political systems reward privilege to the majority, but also because of voices like yours that call for everyone to acquiesce to the status quo and settle for injustice in media. Change is not brought about by the moderates whose idea of progress is keeping quiet. People who will be making a difference will be creating their art and tastefully critique the art that's already garnered publicity and fighting for their rights to be worthy of being the lead protagonist.

Race in THGT

When I was reading The Hunger Games Trilogy, I (a young half-Black American) hardly ever recalled considering race while I was reading. From the start I recognized that Katniss was the same color as me, because I explicitly remember Collins stating as such. I was slightly outraged when they announced Jennifer Lawrence's casting as Katniss, but wasn't surprised. I'd always assumed that Katniss and Gale's fathers were black, because Katniss's mom was white, and that it is how it was for me. I didn't think Cinna would be black, I didn't think Beetee would be black, but I was positive Katniss would be. And then it turned out like that. I would have been pissed if Rue wasn't black—what's up with that? I loved that Katniss didn't see Rue or District 11's color in any judgmental way. The movie totally skewed things.
Anyway, I'm off to write my uber-diverse novel. You know..when I don't have homework..

Don't miss Octavia Butler's books!

I strongly recommend two books by Octavia Butler: Parable of the Sowers and Parable of the Talents, both of which feature a young black woman as the protagonist. Written almost 15 years ago, they're set in the now-near future beginning in the mid-2020s. Very good reading, and the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, provides some very provocative ideas for a dystopian future.

If they’re watching TV, I ask, “Where are the brown girls?”

They're on Sleepy Hollow!

Abby and Jenny Mills