Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Josh Martin #DiversityMonth


Josh Martin was born in Somerset in 1989.

His particular interest in heroines, fantasy, environment, gender studies and wisdom led him to write his first book, Ariadnis, which will be published February 9th, 2017.


There’s a famous checklist called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by an important anti-racism activist called Peggy McIntosh. In it, McIntosh compiles fifty invisible (and often, not so invisible) privileges that are afforded to white people purely because of their whiteness.

I don’t remember when I found it for the first time, but I remember the slow-dawning horror of reading it; the hot, creeping feeling of shame. I remember the angry, defensive voice that rose in my head to defend how ignorant I’d been five minutes before. I remember trying to deny some of the points that stung me particularly.

There are fifty points in all. If you are white, you should read them all. Then go back and read them again.

After I’d stamped on my knee-jerk defensiveness I looked at the checklist again.

And I realised something.

I could ignore this checklist. Because I was white (and particularly, because I was a white, cis-gendered male), I could ignore it; disregard it and forget about it. Almost all of those privilege points applied to me and the majority of the people around me.

Which also meant that every word Peggy McIntosh had written here was true.

Here’s one of the points that I kept coming back to:

  1. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

Of course, being a writer, and budding YA author at the time, my thoughts immediately went beyond newspapers to books. How many of the books I’d grown up with had taught me more about someone else’s culture? How many books had given me anything other than a mirror?

I had Malorie Blackman’s peerless cast of diverse characters in every novel I’d devoured by her. I had Cassie from K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs, my favourite pacifist morphing queen. I had Addy Walker from the Pleasant Company’s American Girl historical book series. I’d loved Meera Syal’s Meena from her novel Anita and Me. Mulan was still my absolute favourite Disney character.

Was that it though? Was that all kids that weren’t white had to go on?

I could think of a few more, but the overwhelming whiteness of most of the stories I’d ever consumed was quickly becoming more and more apparent. And of the stories that did manage to get in a few diverse characters, so few of them were actually written by people of colour.

A few years later I went to work in a school in North London whose student body was mainly comprised of kids from a variety of ethnic backgrounds: Jamaica, Pakistan, Somalia, Vietnam being only a few. There were a handful of books in their library that contained characters they could identify with – and even then sometimes only partially.

When I asked them about it, the kids very often shrugged and said they knew there weren’t books like that out there for them. They said it quite calmly, as if it were just the way of things. It broke my heart, because it was true.

I decided then to educate myself as much as possible – not just as a writer, but as a person. I asked people, and when I couldn’t ask people, I asked the internet. Tumblr has honestly been one of the best teachers. Blogs like Writing with Color and Everyday Racism have been immeasurably helpful in tilting my perspective beyond the rose-tinted. Nevertheless, I still have plenty to learn.

During all of this, I’d been writing my first book, Ariadnis.

It had already gone through years of different versions and drafts and here I was, complaining about lack of diversity, trying to write yet another homage to Lord of the Rings that no one wanted or needed.

I’d been doing what I think many fantasy writers are guilty of in simulating Tolkien’s pattern of mainly white, mainly male characters, built around western philosophy. I’d forgotten the key thing about fantasy worlds, and that is the freedom to invent whatever the hell you want.

So what did I want?

The story had always had two female leads, but there was no reason it shouldn’t have a predominantly female cast. The story reflected our heteronormative society. Why wouldn’t this futuristic society observe the wide spectrum of genders and sexualities?

The story had had a predominantly white cast. Why wouldn’t it be filled with people of colour? Why wouldn’t there be a mix of races? I had no excuses. The only thing making me hesitate was fear of cultural appropriation, and though it was my responsibility to do my research and be as sensitive as possible, ultimately I knew I would never be able to accurately judge how successfully I’d done that.

That was for readers to decide. All I could do was try.

So, I did.

Back then I thought that if it weren’t for that cliff, our cities would be one and there would be no need for all this fierceness toward each other. But then I learned about pride and tradition and prophecy, and those things are harder than rock. 

Joomia and Aula are Chosen. They will never be normal. They can never be free.

On the last island on Erthe, Chosen Ones are destined to enter Ariadnis on the day they turn eighteen. There, they must undertake a mysterious and deadly challenge. For Joomia and Aula, this means competing against each other, to end the war that has seethed between their cities for nine generations.

As the day draws nearer, all thoughts are on the trial ahead. There’s no space for friendship. No time for love. However much the girls might crave them.

But how you prepare for a task you know nothing certain about? Nothing, except that you must win, at whatever cost, or lose everything.

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