*While the main focus will be on the YA genre in this post, these tropes do apply to other literature genres as well*
This is a truly thorough and excellent run down of why writing Asian characters can be troubling. Hey, I’m Asian American and I’ve still made my own set of blunders! And I totally agree that we can be fans of things that are problematic. But the beautiful thing is we learn and we become more aware and we keep writing.
Generally a pretty good life philosophy.
Not long ago, the lovely Tay tweeted me asking for my thoughts on dreamcasting for Dualed if it were to be made into a movie. More specifically, what I thought about Amandla Stenberg being cast as West Grayer.
Amandla is such a talented actress who was fantastic as Rue in The Hunger Games, so I tweeted back that she’d be great as West. How could she be anything but?
Tay then followed up with a link to an awesome fanmade Amandla-as-West edit that I happily reblogged on my author tumblr. And when I noted that the name of the tumblr that created the edit was actressesofcolor, I thanked Tay for reminding me about the importance of diversity in YA, a facet of the industry I was only becoming more and more aware of at the time.
And because despite all the articles I read about the dearth of many things POC in YA—writers, characters, proper character treatment on book covers, its lack of presence when it comes to the more mainstream awards, notables, lists, etc.—and despite being a POC writer myself, I don’t even always remember that all my characters in Dualed are, in fact, POC. Mixed, Asian—non-white.
My forgetfulness is because 1) like a lot of writers, once I’m done working on a book (in this case a duology, and I was already finishing up with Divided when Tay tweeted me), my thoughts move on to new projects with new characters; and 2) I wrote Dualed’s characters to be POC, but other than creating the setting so that the characters couldn’t be anything but mixed, race—and racism—are nonfactors in Dualed and its plot.
I wish I could say the reason why I wrote them to be POC was simply Why not? Because it’s true that my characters could have easily been all white as all colour. So there is that.
But most of my answer comes down to something more personal. It comes down to my being a kid and struggling through a childhood where racism was huge and being ostracized for the sound of your last name and language were routine. Where not being able to identify with anyone around you was a constant reminder of being different. Only after I moved to Vancouver—with its large Asian population—for school did my being Chinese become less of a thing. And I did feel safer there. Less noticeable. Acceptable.
It’s a shame that as a kid, I was embarrassed to be non-white.
My main escape came—of course—through books. Science fiction, contemporary, fantasy, horror…I loved it all. I loved the characters and the worlds and how everything evolved and resolved. It was a break to live in someone else’s head for a while, to enjoy their victories vicariously. I also realized how few of those books featured prominent POC characters, or were written by POC authors. Within millions of pages, I was a kid who experienced thousands of emotions and survived thousands of disasters and achieved thousands of goals. And not to diminish any of that, but much too little of it came about through characters whose eyes looked nothing like mine.
That’s a shame, too.
There are more YA books with POC characters now, and more POC YA authors, too. Still, both remain vastly underrepresented within the industry, and somehow that needs to change. Buying, reading, and talking about books with diverse characters are great starts, as is supporting POC authors.
My creating Dualed’s characters to all be POC was as much a conscious decision as a natural one, and it wasn’t simply to make up for the Chinese characters I couldn’t read about as a kid; I’m no longer one, and I no longer need them to look like me. I wrote my characters to be all shades and colours because I wanted them to look more like my kids. They are mixed, and of YA reading age, and I want them to be able to see themselves in characters much more than I ever did.
Elsie Chapman grew up in Prince George, BC, before graduating from the University of British Columbia with a BA in English Literature. She currently lives in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and two kids, where she writes to either movies on a loop or music turned up way too loud (and sometimes both at the same time). Her debut novel, DUALED, is available now. DIVIDED, the sequel to DUALED, will be published May 27th, 2014.