Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Stacy Whitman of Tu Books, a Lee and Low Imprint

In 2010 Lee and Low acquired a spunky little startup called Tu Publishing, which had just launched itself on Kickstarter with a focus on diverse fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for middle grade and young adult readers and, it seemed, reader interest and support to match. "This is a natural fit for us," says publisher Jason Low. "Our customers have been asking us for years to publish stories for older readers. Tu represents an excellent way for us to bring diversity to a whole new audience."

Tu Books launches in September 2011. Individual title pages will be up shortly. You can also follow Tu Books on Twitter.

As a longtime fan of the work and mission of Lee & Low, I've been intrigued by the whole story of Tu's founding and acquisition. I was pleased to be invited to consult with editor Stacy Whitman on their forthcoming dystopic fantasy title, Tankborn. The experience got me thinking about the use of cultural consultants as a way to bridge gaps between outsider authors (culturally speaking) and insider readers, so I asked Stacy for her thoughts.

[Uma] Why use cultural consultants for the books you publish at Tu?

[Stacy] It's something that Lee and Low has done for years, and it seemed a natural extension for our books, particularly for writers who are writing cross-culturally. While fantasy and science fiction draws upon folklore and culture for its inspiration, sometimes those roots are obscured, so it might not immediately seem like there's a need, but if the conclusions we draw in a futuristic dystopia, for example, are rooted in incorrect assumptions, or if the language we use is based upon incorrect translations, readers familiar with the culture would be pulled out of the world and find it insincere at best, and appropriative or offensive at worst. The best way to avoid misrepresenting a culture (even if it's a twisted version of that culture, as in a dystopia) is to make sure to consult an expert--if the writer him or herself isn't an expert. The author of Wolf Mark, Joseph Bruchac, is the expert we'd go to for books about Abenaki main characters, so of course we trust his expertise for his own books.

[Uma] Under what circumstances would you ask a cultural consultant to weigh in on a book?

[Stacy] Particularly when a writer is writing cross-culturally, we'd want to ask a cultural consultant to make sure that we got it right. A writer can do all the research right, live in the country they're writing about, and be fluent in the language, and still get a few small details wrong. Galaxy Games author Greg Fishbone lived in Japan for a while and can speak the language, but our Japanese expert felt as if sometimes the kid characters were a little too formal with their close friends. Greg didn't go to elementary school in Japan (he was a law student), so that expert perspective helped us to know where to improve.

We might also seek an expert (or two or three) when we're dealing with a historical subject (to double-check the writer's research where necessary) or a controversial one that might bring out inflamed opinions. And as far as writing cross-culturally goes, worldbuilding for a high fantasy setting in ancient China or Korea will require a lot of research even for an author who is Chinese or Korean--while they know their own culture, they might not know specific ways that people lived or what their bows were made out of or how peoples' beliefs changed over a couple millennia. (This should also be true for writers who write medieval Europe-inspired fantasy, though sometimes that doesn't happen as often as I'd like; hence some books are more derivative of another author's view of the Middle Ages rather than reflective of how people actually lived.)

[Uma] H.G.Wells is supposed to have said, "No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft." How do you even begin to look for readers who will read for specific aspects of content and yet refrain from leaving their own footprint upon it?

[Stacy] It's a challenge sometimes! We reach out first to people who we know in the children's book industry, such as yourself, who know how things work in this industry who are also members of the culture we're seeking an expert in. Generally these people are also well-read and informed about diversity issues, so they know the kinds of mistakes we hope to avoid making. We also reach out to children's and young adult librarians through their listservs--though most librarians aren't writers, they're often involved with diversity discussions in their professional circles, and we might find a cultural expert among them. I've also approached university librarians, public librarians who are subject experts, and university professors with varying degrees of success. For those not familiar with children's literature, we often just need to explain who the intended audience is and exactly what our intent is (to entertain first, to educate incidentally, worldbuilding through specific detail rather than infodumps, etc.). In theory--though this hasn't happened to me yet--we might get detailed feedback that misses the mark, but even then hopefully that feedback would give us the information we need to address the core problem the reader sees with a particular mistake, even if the expert didn't understand the writer's reasoning in a particular spot.

[Uma] Reading Tankborn as a consultant, for a particular extrapolation of cultural context, was an interesting experience for me. It left me with a renewed understanding of just how deeply such content runs through a book, from linguistic factors and the names of things to the beliefs of people and their resulting actions. Talk about the vision of Tu in regard to the representation of diversity, relative to the kinds of fiction you publish.

[Stacy] Fantasy is often inspired by folklore and myth, both from living beliefs and ancient ones. So often, though, fantasy has a distinctly Western European flavor, mostly because the fantasy that we know here in the US is mostly inspired by the fantasy of the British Isles--Tolkien, inspired by Norse mythology and folklore of the British Isles; Lewis, inspired by Victorian fantasists and Christian theology. Tolkien created a whole language for his elves. Worldbuilding in fantasy can go quite deep, though few contemporary authors spend decades worldbuilding as Tolkien did. Whether the inspiration for that world is a historical one, such as an agrarian society in a land that resembles the British Isles, with social hierarchies that resemble historical British hierarchies, or modern urban fantasy, such as fairy-tale creatures entering the real world, we tend not to venture much beyond Western European folklore, with perhaps a caveat that vampires and werewolves might have Eastern European roots in some tales.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is an extrapolative sort of fiction. Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek universe was an inclusive one for its time, as were Heinlein's science fiction "juvenile" stories that often featured characters of color because these visionary authors pictured the future as one in which equality had already occurred. Science fiction isn't always as hopeful these days--dystopias aren't always science fiction by definition, but they're usually extrapolation of current social situations. But whether it's a hopeful or dismal picture of the future, it just makes sense that the people who are currently nearly 50% of the elementary and high school student population in this country would also have a strong presence in our future.

Tu is dedicated to diversity in fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. That might be expressed by a contemporary main character of color in a modern American world--which would require knowing the character's similarities and differences compared with their white peers, what their family culture was like, how much "old country" culture the family retained and how much they'd assimilated into American culture if they're immigrants or descendants of immigrants, what kind of neighborhood they lived in and what their socioeconomic status is. There's much there that could be quite individual to the character. So a cultural inspiration might be as (seemingly) simple as a story starring a modern-day Japanese American boy meeting squid-like aliens and heading off for adventure in space--and learning that his family takes their shoes off at the front door and that they're vegetarians, one thing being a very traditional Japanese practice and another being a practice that may or may not be Japanese, but is a detail of that particular character's life.

Or it might involve deep worldbuilding in which a whole new world has to be created, and the inspirations for that world are complex. The more different from our present-day world a fantastic or speculative world is, the deeper the worldbuilding has to go, such as Karen Sandler's Tankborn, a dystopian world that bases its culture on the Indian caste system but in a very twisted way; every layer of life from language to socioeconomics to family groups is inspired by that culture, though there are complications because it's an extrapolation of our world, just one in which the most powerful people in a particular group happened to be Indian (and not just some generic "Indian" but of a particular region of India).

[Uma] When is a book ready for a consultant's reading and comment? How do you broker the feedback with the author and come to decisions that will work for everyone without sacrificing the intent and integrity of the work?

[Stacy] Occasionally I might ask an expert to look at a book before I acquire it to be sure that my impression of it "feeling authentic" is actually a good one. But generally I ask for a consultant's feedback shortly before the book is ready for copyediting--late enough in the process that the author and I have gone over the book a couple of times at least. That way, we've been able to fix most of the pressing problems a book might have, and the consultant would be able to avoid stumbling over problems that would get in the way of focusing on culture issues. By then the author would have done basic and deep research, and I would have investigated a few things that I had questions about.

Generally I go over the feedback from the consultant before sharing it with the author so as to add my own comments and suggestions on how that feedback might be implemented. Usually the feedback isn't pointing out problems that are so huge that we should go back to the drawing board, and authors are happy to implement changes that would make their book better.

For example, in Tankborn, the linguistic inspiration for most of the language came from Sanskrit, and you caught a term that didn't sound quite right to you. While changing that term was a little painful because the author had been using it for a long while, she was also glad for the suggestion of a new word that would fit the linguistic pattern better.

Sometimes the author might have a reason for a particular decision based on a culturally-appropriate situation that the consultant hadn't been aware of, so sometimes it just takes some discussion for us all to realize that both points of view are valid--and then the author might revise to make sure that the situation he or she was referencing became more clear.

Sometimes, though, you can't please everyone. Sometimes you might need to consult experts from opposing viewpoints within the same culture (or two clashing cultures within the same country). Then it can get difficult! Sometimes experts will insist that their point of view is the only right point of view while their opponents will argue that no, *theirs* is the valid point of view. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes not. Then you and the author have to make educated decisions, doing your best to use the feedback you can but also allowing that in fiction, a character has a certain point of view and sometimes you can't always reflect ALL points of view. This is where the unreliable narrator might come in, leaving questions in the reader's mind that *should* be there. I haven't worked on a book that dealt with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, for example, but there are strong feelings on both sides that I imagine couldn't *all* be appeased in a work of fiction about it.

[Uma] Any other thoughts on the process?

[Stacy] I love getting feedback from cultural experts because not only do I learn more about the culture that has already fascinated me for upwards of a year by the time we get expert feedback, I get a check on my editing and research skills--it's another pair of eyes to catch anything I didn't. I am a Swedish-Irish-Scottish-English-Prussian-German-tiny-bit-Cherokee-maybe woman from the rural Midwest. I may be able to give feedback on growing up poor or on a farm--and in fantasy, my experience raising horses has often been useful!--but my experience with many cultures is limited to the friends I've made from those cultures and any reading or travel I might have done. But even if I was a Latina or Asian woman, I'd have a particular cultural and socioeconomic point of view that wouldn't necessarily mean I had any understanding of cultures outside of my own experiences, and that is where cultural experts come in, helping the editor to ask questions from a different point of view, so that the writer to consider can make their book better.

Also, I want to add that even an expert has a particular point of view that might not be shared with everyone in their culture. No culture is monolithic. There may be a Japanese American--or several, even--who reads about Tyler Sato's life in Galaxy Games and says, "That's not MY experience as a Japanese American." (Well, NO Japanese American, that I know of, has met aliens yet, but hopefully you know I mean the realistic parts of his experience.) But I feel it's better to consult someone who can give us their point of view than have no point of view from that culture at all, and there are of course some things--like language--that can be quantified and universalized more than others.

[Uma]  Thank you Stacy. I look forward to the launch this fall.

[Stacy] Thanks so much for having me!

More from Stacy Whitman's Grimoire: Thoughts on post-apocalyptic world-building and three posts on diversity in science fiction and fantasy for young readers.


  1. Uma, This is a wonderful interview. TU Books approach is very thoughtful to both the cultures their authors' stories are meant to represent as well as their authors' artistic style and sensibilities. I often wonder if Gene Roddenberry had cultural consultants to help develop the worlds that he created. But I think the best part of the characters that he developed, even the most alien among them had human qualities and flaws. In a we're-not-so-different-after-all kind of way, especially when it came to matters of the heart. Some things are universal.

  2. Oh yes, GR was so far ahead of his time! Cheesy though they are, those old Star Trek episodes nailed a kind of idealized pluralism.

  3. True, the old TV episodes were very cheesy but the series evolved over decades and G.R. had his hand in creating complex worlds: Star Trek Voyager, New Generation, etc.. and characters. Especially exploring issues of equality and freedom. And still it was what the diverse cultures had in common that usually resonated with me. Great post!

  4. Fantastic interview, Uma. We are all really excited about Tu Books and this interview tells you why. Thanks for your support.

  5. Delighted, Jason. I'll be talking to Ksren Sandler as well, closer to the publication date. Looking forward to that.

  6. Fascinating interview. I'm really excited about Tu books and looking forward to reading the books.