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A New Chapter for BIPOC Representation

BYU Honors student publishes thesis on diversity in publishing.

Elisha Fernandez presenting her TEDx Talk.
Photo by Elisha Fernandez

Think of your favorite characters in fiction. How many of them represent your culture? Growing up, Elisha Fernandez’s (Editing and Publishing ’23) favorite book characters usually didn’t share her culture or ethnicities. While readers can connect with characters who are different from them—this is one of the main reasons we read literature—it can be isolating when so many authors write characters who come from only one culture or race, incorporating little diversity into the story. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) readers can have a difficult time seeing themselves in the story or characters when their own cultures are so consistently neglected by the publishing industry.

Fernandez saw this lack of BIPOC representation in the Young Adult literature she read in her personal reading and in her studies at BYU. Recently, she published her undergraduate honors thesis Off the Books: Making A Space for BIPOC Representation in Young Adult Publishing, which addresses the lack of and need for diversity in the modern publishing industry. In addition to publishing her thesis, Fernandez also gave a TEDx talk about making changes in the publishing industry and the need for diversity in literature.

Fernandez has been interested in representation in publishing ever since she was a young, avid reader. Her goal then, as it is today, was to run her own publishing house where she could publish more works from underrepresented groups, as well as write books herself. When she received the opportunity to conduct her own research and publish a thesis in the Honors program, she jumped at the chance to learn more about representation in the publishing industry.

Fernandez conducted a survey through social media asking BIPOC young adults from across the US questions to gauge their perspectives on representation in literature. Young adults of color from 48 US states responded with their opinions on the publishing industry and how well they felt that their cultures were being portrayed, generally saying that they felt underrepresented in literature.

Many survey respondents expressed that when they read about people of color in books, these characters were often side characters, rather than main characters. Likewise, respondents felt that writers often use stereotypes to identify their BIPOC characters (for instance, portraying Asian people as highly intelligent or bookworms) instead of developing them as well-rounded characters. Fernandez says, “These side characters don't really have a personality or anything that really draws people of color to them.” This may explain her other survey finding that “young adults of color are more likely to read a book that features a main character of color, rather than a side character of color.”

How can we change the narrative? According to those who responded to the survey, the most important step is for BIPOC and non-BIPOC readers to seek out and support authors of color. Fernandez says, “Supporting and buying their work directly goes back to these publishing companies. Then they know that there's a need and there's a demand for these types of stories.”

Another way to highlight BIPOC works is to talk about them more frequently. We can use social media, the web, and even word of mouth to share our favorite books written by BIPOC authors or about BIPOC characters. Fernandez herself shares her views on representation in literature in her personal life, through her research, and even in a TEDx talk, where she had the chance to highlight her thesis and implore viewers to rewrite the narrative on representation. Fernandez says, “It was wonderful because this video will live forever as a testament to both my personal story when it comes to publishing and reading books, but also of my research. It's definitely a great way to make an impact beyond the BYU community.”

Watch Elisha Fernandez's TEDx talk here.