I don’t know if what I’m about to rattle on about actually does involve cognitive dissonance, because I think the “contradictions” I have in mind may not be contradictory in a true sense.
I’ve been actively, genuinely participating in the ongoing diversity dialogue for the first time, and this morning my attention was captured by a Twitter exchange between Kelly Jensen, Elizabeth Burns, Justina Ireland, and a number of other people. That exchange appeared to be sparked by Kelly’s Book Riot post about the need for bigger megaphones in kidlit diversity, and both the post and the ensuing Twitter conversation touched on the idea of being able to hold two very different, conflicting feelings about a book in one’s heart and mind.
I love Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. It moved me tremendously, and there were moments when I was flabbergasted by the existence of a character whose inner life so closely resembled mine, in ways I’d never found in a book before. I’m not mixed-race (although both my children are), but I spent my middle school and high school years as one of the very few Asian kids in an overwhelmingly white community. I was, and in many ways remain, deeply alienated from my Korean ancestry, and I became as thoroughly assimilated into the privileged culture of white suburban America as I probably could have been.I was confused, and I grew more psychologically distanced from my extended family by the day.
My feelings of self-loathing weren’t rooted solely in my disengagement from my racial and ethnic heritage, but they weren’t separate from it either. I think Park is a character with more than a little self-hatred, a deep sense of alienation from his own racial and ethnic roots, and a very compartmentalized, incomplete understanding of himself. And some part of me fell back and sang out in relief that a book had captured those old feelings of mine so truly and so well.
Then I started seeing the critical response to the book’s depiction of Korean characters, starting with Wendy Xu’s blazingly smart assertion that Eleanor & Park is a racist work (I won’t link to the other posts I’ve read since Kelly did a very thorough job of doing so in the Book Riot post). I read more, I opened a halting dialogue among my Facebook friends, and I realized with more than a little dismay that my perception of the book was becoming a much more complicated and difficult thing.
The aforementioned Twitter conversation really made me think about the issue of loving a book, really loving it, while also feeling genuinely troubled by it. It’s always deflating to realize that I’m simply not any more human than anyone else when it comes to such things, but there you have it - a very large part of me simply wanted to dismiss the objections to E&P so I could just go on loving it in the relatively uncomplicated way I did after first reading it.
I’ve expended some time and energy learning how to unpack my feelings about such things, so I made that effort, and was both unsurprised and unhappy to realize that once again, my difficulty in really absorbing the criticisms of this book I love were rooted in defending my self-defined identity. Acknowledging the troubling aspects of Rowell’s Korean characters couldn’t be done without acknowledging the fact that I simply hadn’t perceived those aspects on my own, which made me feel:
- All of the above
- All of the above plus a bunch of stuff I don’t even really understand
It was (and remains) painful and exposing to realize that I completely whiffed on perceiving racially problematic aspects of a book that had become so important to me. It’d be easy to go spiraling down the emotional rabbit hole in a self-destructive way - believe me, I’ve done it before - but there’s no denying that seeing, hearing, and reading a viewpoint that so powerfully disrupted my psyche forced me to engage in a heavy round of self-examination.
I still love Eleanor & Park. I’m also increasingly troubled by it. Can those two feelings coexist inside of me? I think it’s possible, although the evidence thus far clearly shows that it’ll be an uneasy coexistence, at least for a while. And I’ve started thinking it’s not only possible for those two feelings to coexist - it might actually be vitally, desperately necessary.
I intend to keep engaging in the diversity dialogue, because I believe in its importance. We live in a world that’s bafflingly, messily, gloriously complex. The ongoing process of simply being alive in this world is endlessly multifaceted, and how can authors and publishers truly serve the needs and desires of all our readers without creating books that are equally complex? The fullness of that complexity can’t be addressed by each individual author or in each individual book, of course - that’s just not possible - but on a global scale, is there any other way?
But if I’m going to keep my commitment to being a part of that effort (and I intend to), I’ll have to contain a seemingly endless supply of contradictory feelings inside my harried brain. That includes respecting the intent of authors who confront matters of diversity in their work, but honestly addressing their shortcomings, if only in the recesses of my mind; supporting dissent, critical analysis, and necessary confrontation by people who are my allies, but also safeguarding and expressing my own feelings and opinions that might differ from theirs; honoring and valuing my own life experiences, creative intentions, and finished work, but accepting the reality that I will learn things that force me to examine my own biases and blind spots; and on and on and on.
I’m worried about being attacked by racist trolls who’ll hammer at me with all the same vile garbage I’ve heard all my life. I’m actually even more worried about being attacked by people who might perceive me as oblivious, witless, or actively complicit in acts of disrespect and disenfranchisement. I don’t know if I can continue engaging in this dialogue without feeling terrible about myself on a regular basis. I don’t know if I can refrain from engaging in this dialogue without feeling terrible about myself on a regular basis. So I guess I’ll do the latter, because despite my lack of a really colossal megaphone to speak through, I feel a spicule of hope that I can contribute to shoving our industry further along a more inclusive, equitable, reality-embracing track.
hi! I just discovered your blog - what a great resource!! I'm wondering if you now of any sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian books in which the protagonist is a person of color?
Great question and thank you!
Sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopia are not my strengths, so let me lead you to some great resources that could better answer your question.
Lee and Low has an amazing pinterest account, complete with booklists featuring stories about characters of color. They have boards for YA sci fi and fantasy featuring poc. This is invaluable.
If you don’t follow Diversity in YA on tumblr, you should. They keep excellent diverse book lists as well. I’d also recommend checking out their resource list for other blogs and websites that look specifically at diverse books over here (scroll down and it’s on the right-hand side bar).
Hope that helps!
I rounded up and talked about some of the pieces written recently on diversity and representation in the kid lit world and asked why those who have huge megaphones in the community aren’t helping to amplify those voices.