Rebecca Lim: I write to give my children a face in society

My family migrated from Singapore to rural Queensland in the early 1970s, a time when little vans full of battered, well-thumbed books would pull up outside the local shops in areas that didn't have a library. You would have to drive for more than 100 kilometres just to buy a bottle of soy sauce. When I was growing up – and this is not a writerly exaggeration – I never read any stories featuring anyone like me.

People like me were invisible: except when we copped it for our weird school lunches, our slanty eyes and our inability to pronounce words like hypotenuse. In every book in my primary school library or the children’s sections of the public libraries and bookshops I went to obsessively as a child, I never saw myself in the stories I was reading.

It's very hard to imagine someone being completely absent from public discourse these days, but people like me were — unless it was a news story about "boat people", which lumped Asian refugees and migrants together as an unsettling yellow wave that threatened to swamp everything in its path. In the absence of boat people stories, Asians formed part of the great, lumpy mass of unspoken "other".

Books for children and young adults in this country do not reflect the audiences back to themselves.Credit:Lee Besford

Which was why I started reading adult fantasy and sci-fi novels as a nine or 10-year-old. Despite their silly covers featuring booby, half-naked women holding snakes or birds or cups, and their highly problematic tropes, those books showed me that gender, ethnicity, religion, age and ability didn't stop you from having adventures.

I still didn’t see myself in those stories. But what I did see was possibility. And it has stayed with me — the idea that a story can empower, imbue hope, give the reader licence to dream of better worlds. It’s probably a huge part of why building empathy in my readers is my guiding principle, when I write, and why I still feel most comfortable writing fantasy novels.

Fast forward to 2019, however, and it's still the case that published books for children and young adults in this country do not reflect audiences back to themselves, and that more work needs to be done in this area. Characters and creators who are First Nations, people of colour, living with disability and/or LGBTIQA+ are still largely missing from Australian children's fiction. First Nations writers, on whose land we live and from whose dispossession we benefit daily, in particular, continue to face significant barriers to getting their voices heard.

My youngest daughter, whose primary school is comprised of roughly 80 per cent Asian, South Asian or Eurasian girls, still doesn't have access to books featuring protagonists like her: whip-smart, ballsy Asian girls who love public speaking, drama and dance, and are good at sport. All the things we never see about Asian boys, let alone Asian girls, in just about any English-speaking medium.

Mum's going to bloody fix this so that you and your friends can see yourselves accurately represented, for a change.

My 13-year-old was recently given a "tailored" list of recommended reading that included Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, Playing Beattie Bow and The Getting of Wisdom. Books that were also recommended reading for me as a 13-year-old, at the same school, more than 30 years ago. My most recent two children's books were literally a case of, "Mum's going to bloody fix this so that you and your friends can see yourselves accurately represented, for a change."

What the children’s publishing ecosystem doesn’t account for, is that there is a direct correlation between telling kids to aspire to a life that can never be theirs, with the drop in reading and the uptake of other forms of media that speak more directly to their concerns, their subcultures, and their conditions. Gogglebox Australia is a more accurate representation of who we are now than the books we recommend to our children.

I think something inside of me snapped when a UK books and publishing website asked me to write a brief survey of “diversity in Australian YA” while I was doing publicity for one of my  “multicultural” books. I worked out that there were only around sixteen published “Own Voices” ( an “Own Voices” creator is someone who comes from a marginalised community)  YA authors at the time. Sixteen for a population of more than 23 million people.

In 2016, I took my concern about the massive underrepresentation of diverse Australian voices in our publishing landscape out of the sphere of private ranting and put myself to work. I co-founded a voluntary initiative, Voices from the Intersection, with my Indigenous friend, academic and author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, to create more publishing opportunities for Own Voices and intersectional children's and YA creators.

With the help of our friends and contacts in publishing, Voices offered a 2017 face-to-face pitching day for emerging Own Voices YA and children's creators with a range of large and indie publishers, and a literary agent.

In 2018, Voices released a groundbreaking anthology of Own Voices and intersectional YA fiction, memoir and poetry with Fremantle Press, featuring predominantly emerging writers who live and work across more than one marginalisation.

This year, Voices is part of the formal push for a "First Nations and People of Colour" writers count, next year, Voices will work with Allen & Unwin to offer up to four personal mentorships to emerging Own Voices creators with a picture book, middle grade or YA project under way, with a view to publication.

YA and children’s literature have the potential to reflect audiences back to themselves and build empathy for others’ lived experiences if creators from across the actual human spectrum can get through the gatekeepers, and if readers can push themselves to not accept stereotypes or tropes, read more widely, and get well outside their comfort zone.

The Australian children's literary landscape is finally changing, but the pace of change still doesn't reflect that the stories we publish for, and recommend to, our children should be for all humans, of all kinds, intersections and lived experiences.

Rebecca Lim is a Melbourne writer, illustrator, editor and lawyer, and the author of more than 19 books, including The Race for the Red Dragon (out now with Allen & Unwin).

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