Today for Diversity Month, I’d like to welcome Rena Bunder Rossner to the blog! Rena is a literary agent working for the Deborah Harris Literary Agency in Jerusalem, Israel. She’s also an accomplished author of two fiction novels and a cookbook, Eating the Bible, which is an unusual exploration of how faith and food often go hand in hand. Rena also writes short stories and poetry, but her creativity doesn’t end there. She also produces ceramics and raises five children. Her super power is caffeinated drinks and she’s worth following on Twitter just for the recipes!
I caught up with her to ask a few questions about diverse books…
1. What does the term “Diverse books” mean to you?
Well, I live in a place that is the epitome of “diverse” – Jerusalem – and that’s one of the things I am always looking for, books that give over the experience of a culture and/or religion that might be really familiar to the person writing about it, but might seem completely alien to many readers. Readers look for many things in fiction, but one common denominator is that I think we all look to identify with the characters we read about, and a good writer helps us do so by finding that common denominator – no matter our background or faith. I want to represent books that give over the experiences of characters from diverse backgrounds that find a way to burrow into the hearts of every reader with the common threads they share.
2. Your cook book, Eating the Bible, incorporates discussion on faith and Biblical commentary in between recipes. Do you think there’s a place for faith in fiction as well as non-fiction to enrich the reader?
I am always looking for books about the Middle East and books by Jewish and Muslim authors, because I think that I understand those cultures and as an agent, I am best able to help nurture those kinds of books into fruition. There is always a place for faith in fiction, because no matter what we believe, we all encounter faith in our daily lives (faith of our own or the faith of others,) and it is something that we all need to understand and empathize with. It is certainly something I am always looking for in fiction and nonfiction.
3. Would you share with us some of your favourite diverse books and/or authors?
Oh wow. Hard question. There are so many. I most recently read THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh and was blown away by at. One of my perennial favorites is DANTE AND ARISTOTLE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I also adored LIKE NO OTHER by Una Lamarche. But I also already represent some incredible authors whose books are forthcoming who also qualify – Dalia Betolin Sherman is an Ethiopian Israeli writer and her book, WHEN THE WORLD BECAME WHITE is going to be published by Penguin, my author Nic Stone has written a book called DEAR MARTIN, which is coming from Crown, it’s about race relations in the USA and the book is going to break your heart…then there’s DARKNESS BRUTAL by Rachel Marks, published by Amazon/Skyscape whose main character Aidan is Middle Eastern and half-Jewish, and my author Leah Scheier’s book YOUR VOICE IS ALL I HEAR (coming in September from Sourcebooks) is also about two characters who are marginally Jewish, but it would have been really exciting to me as a teen to read a book about characters who go shopping for Chanukah presents instead of Christmas Presents. Actually…the more I think about it, almost all of my authors could be considered “diverse” in one way or another. To me that’s just reality.
4. The hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been doing the rounds on social media for a while now, indicating a clear movement to encourage diverse writing and reading. Where do you see diverse fiction now and ten years in the future?
I think that diversity is certainly a buzz word right now, but as I described above, I didn’t start out seeking books that were diverse necessarily. I take on projects that I love, which, now that I think about it, also happen to be diverse. But I definitely think that it’s what a lot of agents and editors are looking for right now. Ten years down the road? I hope we aren’t having this discussion anymore. That “diversity” will just become “reality” – which is kind of what it should be.
5. Do you have any advice for authors wishing to write diverse books?
I don’t think anyone should try to write diverse books. I think people should write their own experiences. I think people should write what they know. I’m not sure that we need more authors writing diverse books as much as more authors from diverse backgrounds and faiths being given the opportunity to tell their stories. That doesn’t mean that you can’t write a book about someone from a different culture than your own, but if you do so, do your research. Don’t be afraid to interview people, and to ask someone from the faith or culture you are writing about to read and comment and correct you.
6. (Can I add my own question?) What am I most looking to represent right now?
Besides diverse books and books by diverse authors writing across the spectrum of kids literature (Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult) fiction and nonfiction, I am also actively seeking adult projects – literary and upmarket women’s fiction, scifi and fantasy, thrillers, horror, commercial and historical romance, historical fiction – these are all genres I love and genres I think need more diverse characters as well. Sometimes I think that our conversations about “diversity” tend to center around kids literature, when I think we should be having these conversations about all genres.
It’s so fascinating to see it from the perspective of an agent rather than an author. Thank you so much, Rena!