Viking Penguin signs unchanged version of novel which ignited a row after a literary agent advised authors to 'straightwash'
by: Alison Flood
Yuki, the gay protagonist of a young adult novel whose authors were told to make him straight if they wished to find a publisher, has found a happy ending after Viking Penguin acquired the book he stars in – and allowed him to remain gay.
Last year the American novelists Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown unleashed a wave of support after they revealed that a major literary agent had agreed to take on their post-apocalyptic young adult novel Stranger – provided they make Yuki, a gay teen with a boyfriend, straight. "When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can't even be allowed to exist in fiction," they said at the time.
But despite the unnamed agent's belief that a gay main character would put publishers off the novel, Viking, an imprint of Penguin, has just signed up Stranger and will publish in winter 2014. And Yuki, one of five main characters, is still gay. So are the supporting characters Brisa and Becky, a lesbian couple.
Brown said she was never tempted to "straightwash" Yuki to find a publisher because she and her co-author wanted the novel "to be about the people who are so often left out … Latinos and African-Americans, Jews and Asian-Americans, gay boys and lesbian girls, multiracial teenagers and teenagers with physical and mental disabilities".
"We noticed that while there are lots of excellent realistic books about the troubles and difficulties of being a minority, there was very little fun, escapist fiction about teenage wizards or vampires or mutants who aren't white and straight. And of what little there was, most had those characters as sidekicks to the straight white protagonist. So the many teens we knew who preferred fantasy almost never got to read about heroes like themselves," she said. "We didn't do this to fulfil some imaginary quota, but because we wanted to write about teenagers like the real ones we know, [and] making gay characters straight would have gone against the entire reason why we wrote the book in the first place."
Brown said that a number of her writer friends had revealed similar experiences, "with agents and editors, over non-white characters and over gay and lesbian characters and even disabled characters", and pointed to the author Malinda Lo's statistical analysis of all YA novels published in America over the last 40 years. "She found that less than 1% had any LGBTQ characters whatsoever, even in minor supporting roles," said Brown. "That confirmed our decision to go public. Whatever people believed about our own story, there was clearly a genuine issue at hand."
The author hopes that being honest about their experiences will have made a difference. "We are only two of a great many people trying to make a better, more just and inclusive world. I hope that we've contributed one small piece to a much larger movement... and that in the future, some bestseller about mutant or alien or gladiator teenagers will have its inevitable love triangle consist of a girl who must decide between the two girls who love her," she said.