Marieke Nijkamp: Mirrors and monsters

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The bestselling YA author writes about why inclusive representation in literature is essential

The importance of good and inclusive representation in literature isn’t up for discussion. In 1990, Professor Rudine Sims Bishop wrote:

'Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.'

Her words (in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, no. 3 (1990)) form a seminal text for anyone who has ever talked about diversity in literature. This is why representation matters.
It’s supported by decades of research. Books broaden the mind and the imagination. Reading fosters empathy. Seeing our own experiences and lives reflected strengthens our sense of self. It informs how we see ourselves, how we see the other, how we see the world.

For those of us who are part of marginalized communities, it also informs how others see us. Are we allowed to be complex persons, or mere stereotypes? Do our narratives centre around pain, or are we allowed to live full lives? If you know what that feels like, this isn’t for you. I’ll just tell you: write your stories. I want to read them.

If you don’t know what it feels like, let me explain.

As a reader, I experience both sides of the equation. I’m white. I don’t have to look far to find a whole canon of children’s and teen literature with characters who look like me. I’ve always been surrounded by media that has white characters with endless levels of nuance.

I’m nonbinary and disabled. In many ways, I’m still looking for characters whose lived experience reflect mine.
As a young reader, that shaped my worldview:

I found disabled characters in books. They were villains, often. Monsters, too. If they existed in the main character’s circle, they existed to inspire them. Sometimes in life, often by dying. Books taught me disability is a fate worse than death, and I didn’t know where that left me. I still feel monstrous, sometimes.

Other disabled characters were cured. By magic, or by the power of kindness, irrevocably linking disability to spitefulness and bad character. Only then, as fully nondisabled and 'better' did they deserve their happily ever after. I wanted my own Secret Garden without having to change who I was.

Here’s my caveat: there were a few books that did do better. I know that now. But they weren’t in my library or on my radar. They were few and far between. And finding ourselves in fiction shouldn’t be a specialized field of study.

Meanwhile, when it comes to gender, I didn’t even have a word for nonbinary until my late twenties. Which is bizarre, when you consider that trans and nonbinary people have existed all throughout history.

I had characters like George, from The Famous Five, who I desperately wanted to be as a kid. Alanna, too. I understood that they felt different, wanted to be different. But it wasn’t the same.

I knew I was queer before I knew I was nonbinary, because I had mirrors to reflect myself in. I would have loved a key to understanding myself without worry. Maybe it still would’ve taken me time to embrace my understanding of gender, but at least I would’ve had the option. I would’ve had the language.

And still, I get to look at books and media and see my image reflected. Being trans, disabled, and white isn’t the same as being trans, disabled and a person of colour. Intersectionality matters.

But I didn’t believe people like me could be the hero of the story, and it took me years to unlearn that. Because the truth is: what we read as children and teens lingers. If we read the same story over and over again, it narrows the imagination instead of broadening it. It denies us empathy. And it teaches young readers that they’re monsters, not that they matter.

Even If We Break is my first book with a trans disabled main character. It won’t be my last.

Even If We Break is published by Sourcebooks Fire. Find out more about Marieke and her books here.

 

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