“Asian Pride” in Kid Lit
A confluence of events led me to write the prompt for Part 2. First, I had a frustrating and confusing experience with a very talented freelance illustrator in Hong Kong whom I hired for a picture book about winter in NYC. I specified in my job posting that I wanted illustrations of diverse kids done in the style of Ezra Jack Keats, and she did not disappoint. But when all the illustrations were completed, I pointed out that none of the children were Asian. I asked her to replace some of the white children but the revised illustrations showed no change. So I sent a few samples of US artists’ illustrations of Asian children but when the revised images arrived, there was still no change. I finally had to give her an ultimatum and she added three children to the book who were clearly Asian. When I went back through this artist’s portfolio, I realized that the children I had assumed were white might actually have been Asian according to her particular (or regional? cultural?) aesthetic.
“The hardest thing is, I am so down with all of the protests against police violence and police brutality — it’s something we’ve been dealing with,” she then explained. “It’s not just Eric Garner, it’s not just Baltimore; for me, it goes back to Amadou Diallo and Rodney King. But whenever white and black people fight, Asians and Mexicans don’t know what to do. Because we’re like, ‘Umm, are we white?’ We just want to be on the winning side.”
When Asians immigrate to the United States they are given a choice: assimilate into American culture or continue doing things the traditional Asian way. One option will help you make friends while the other lands you in a pot of nasty Asian stereotypes.
“LOL! Ewww, what the hell are you eating for lunch? Is that dog? Why do you talk funny? CHING CHONG CHING CHONG! LOL CAN YOU EVEN SEE ME?!”
Get picked on or get along with the kids at school? OBVIOUSLY you’re gonna assimilate! The choice is clear but the next one isn’t. The next decision you have to make as an assimilating Asian is, “Should I assimilate with white communities or Black ones?” This decision is influenced by who you live near and what type of media you consume. Since most Asians immigrate to New York or California — areas with large Black communities — they inevitably side with Black folks.
It took a very long time for me to think of myself as beautiful or attractive; something I think about every single day as the mother of a 6 year old who is growing up in a drastically different, multicultural world. Brown is beautiful, I can say to her millions of times, but I realize that it’s not words that matter as much as my making sure that she regularly gets to encounter representations of herself in books, apps, movies, and TV shows.
Exactly ten years ago, I received a fellowship from the Asian American Writers Workshop to work on a literature research project. My task was to sift through—over a period of six months—middle grade and YA literature by and about Asian Americans and to make recommendations for pieces that could be included in the Elements of Literature textbooks anthologies that were being published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston (now, Holt McDougal). This was 2005, a time when Asian American was typically synonymous with East Asian and where published kid lit South Asian characters and writers were few and far between. I remember ordering chapbooks, scouring the Internet, and sifting through anthologies for adults in search of pieces that would be appropriate for young audiences. It was quite the challenge.
The landscape—and I am limiting myself to discussing characters of South Asian descent (Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, etc.)—is drastically different now, I am happy to report. Enormous strides were made in the last decade. The now defunct Parent’s Choice award-winning Kahani magazine launched many rising children’s authors and illustrators of South Asian descent. A wave of middle grade and young adult historical fiction set in India or the Indian disaspora brought strong female protagonists to life, and as the recent South Asian Book Award winners shows, kid lit has expanded to include non-historical characters as well. Another interesting trend is the number of independent publishing companies both here in the US and in South Asia such as Gnaana, Tara Books, Tullika, Little GuruSkool, and Bharat Babies formed to create books, apps, and games that speak to and represent the South Asian child and his or her cultural experience. I’ll be damned, but there is even a Kickstarter that recently funded the South Asian American Digital Archive’s (SAADA) Our Stories, a history textbook that will capture and share the stories of important South Asian Americans, many of whom exerted incredible influence over 130 years of American history, but who often went unnoticed and unrecorded in history books.
I am heartened.
And yet, I know that despite the fact that though there are more mirrors for South Asian children today, they remain mirrors that have to be sought after, are primarily created by independents and, at the end of the day, are subject to the BIG challenge of discoverability.
This is especially true for the world of children’s digital content where Jamie Naidoo and Sarah Park in their book Diversity Programming for Digital Youth point out that “a glance through the iTunes store reveals that most apps are created with a monocultural child in mind — the white, middle-‐class child. Essentially the “All-‐White World of Children’s Books” with the aid of digital enhancements has now morphed into the “All-‐White World of Children’s Apps.”
I think about this every single day and it is what has driven me to help co-found Diversity with Apps, an interdisciplinary coalition inspired by We Need Diverse Books. Our goal is to support the creation of diverse and inclusive children’s digital media products through research, best practices, and collaboration.
As someone rooted in the world of creating children’s content, I have the access and tools to find new and interesting things like Peter Gould’s series of apps for Muslim kids or Storied Myth’s diverse cast of characters that include Luv and Kush, clearly South Asian kids. But what about the parent who is so busy with work and school paperwork and for whom downloading an app or picking up a library book is just about selecting from what’s on display or featured? What happens to those children? They fall into the valley of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, peach-color crayons—and it is up to us as creators, editors, distributors, and reviewers of children’s content to make sure that they have a way out.
Sandhya Nankani is founder of Literary Safari, a literacy company committed to creating inclusive children’s content apps that celebrate storytelling while supporting 21st century skills such as problem solving, creativity, and social-‐emotional learning.
Sarah: If the Clarks’ doll test was recreated with Asian Americans, I believe the results would be similar – we would choose dolls with bigger eyes and lighter skin. We don’t need to replicate the test; the amount of money Koreans and Korean Americans pour into cosmetic surgery, skin lightening creams, etc., speaks for itself.
We are told through media that we are not beautiful, and that our value and usefulness are determined by our sexual attractiveness to those who wish to consume our bodies (see “Problematic Representations of Asian American Gender and Sexuality,” chapter 04, in Kent Ono and Vincent Pham’s Asian Americans and the Media). When I was in graduate school, The Last Samurai movie was about to premiere near campus, so someone from the studios sent out a request to UCLA students for “beautiful Asian women” who would dress in ancient Japanese garb and mingle at the premiere’s after party. This is what Hollywood wants us to do: be beautiful, be a prop, be the quiet, submissive subject of the white man’s gaze. So if Hollywood has an ambivalent and controlling relationship with Asian American beauty, it is no wonder that young adult literature is beginning to address Asian American body image issues. The double eyelid surgery – a popular surgery where a cut in the skin creates a fold in the double eyelid – is a major plot point in both An Na’s The Fold and Laura Williams’ Slant (though Slant uses problematic language and I found it to be a less satisfying read). Through these books, young readers can learn about the surgery.
But readers learn about it, and then what? Do they conclude that Korean women are shallow? Korean women’s obsession with western beauty did not emerge in a vacuum, nor does it thrive in one. In her dissertation, Sharon Heijin Lee ‘[locates] the Korean beauty aesthetics within a genealogy of imperial racial formation,” mapping how the seemingly discrete spheres of “popular and consumer culture, medicine, tourism, the military and other governmental institutions” actually work together in a racial project (see Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formations in the United States) to convince Korean women – and men, in their policing of the female body – that western features are more desirable (“The (Geo)Politics of Beauty: Race, Transnationalism, and Neoliberalism in South Korean Beauty Culture,” 2012). And while books such as The Fold and Slant can combat the barrage of messages that rounder eyes are more beautiful, are two books on a single topic enough? No, of course not. Asian Americans – and all readers – need a variety of stories in order for the diversity of our experiences to be better understood. As well, at least in terms of body image, there is more than just the issue of double eyelids. Asian Americans – both male and female and other – struggle with weight, with skin, and with other features, similar to many other youth. We need more books that celebrate and affirm Asian beauty, as well as more books that depict the range of image issues we continue to struggle with. Asian American authors and illustrators – people who experience these struggles themselves – are well poised to address these issues.
I’m not looking forward to the time when my daughter will start worrying that she is not as beautiful as her white friends or the white children she sees in the media. My husband and I are working hard to proactively counteract negative messages by emphasizing Korean culture and aesthetics, buying Asian-looking dolls, and reading Korean and Asian American picture books at home, but we have limited options compared to white parents seeking mirrors for their children. And my daughter has an advantage because her mother is an Asian American children’s literature scholar, but what about the Asian American youth whose parents don’t know of Asian American children’s books, or why it’s so important for Asian Americans to see healthy and accurate images of themselves in the world around them? When I give gifts to my friends’ children, I usually gift Asian American children’s literature, but I have to plan ahead because I can’t walk into any Barnes & Noble and find, for example, New Clothes for New Year’s Day (Hyun-Joo Bae). So there’s an additional barrier to accessing Asian American stories and images.
And the thing is, so much of this is internalized that I still have to check myself. When my daughter was born, people commented that it was likely that she’d have double eyelids, like her father (who is also Korean), and I was so pleased. But she is beautiful whether her eyes are big or small, whether they are like mine or her father’s. When she grows up and reads this, she’s going to know that her mother wanted her to inherit her father’s eyes, and she’s going to learn that even her mother suffers from body image issues, but she will also learn that her mother is trying to be conscious and proactive and affirming.
We need more diverse books depicting Asian Americans of all body types and experiences so that our children – both Asian American and non-Asian American – can learn about authentic and beautiful Asian American aesthetics. Personally, I think there is much beauty in Korean culture and aesthetics. I was excited to wear my Korean hanbok (traditional dress) with my baby girl for her first birthday party (see photo), and I hope that when she grows up, she’ll see the Korean culture around her and find it as beautiful as I do. I hope that more people will be exposed to Korean culture so that they too will appreciate and respect – and not exploit – our bodies and our stories. I hope Asian American writers and artists will take the lead in this very important and transformational racial project.
Sarah Park Dahlen is an assistant professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University.
Mike: When I was a teenager I didn’t give any thought to having a future in writing – my dream was to become a comic book illustrator. That dream went by the wayside for a number of reasons, not the least of which was my family’s generation-spanning opposition to anyone in MY generation becoming an artist of any kind, but in high school I still spent a lot of time drawing, either characters of my own making, or classic Marvel and DC Comics characters. One of my favorites was a character that’ll soon have his own show on Netflix: Iron Fist, who is, of course, very much a white savior character. And as usual, I didn’t give that aspect of the character any thought at all until a year and a half ago, when I started engaging in public dialogue about diversity. I uncritically mentioned Iron Fist in blog interviews when my first book came out, in fact.
It was therefore revelatory to read Gene Luen Yang’s masterpiece American Born Chinese. It was like nothing I’d ever read before, and the illustrations brought the story’s psychological impact home in a way I didn’t expect. The final panels of the book…I recognized what was happening in those panels, through personal experience, because I am still white-identified. I can’t dispute that fact. The phrase that’s often used in that context is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside,” and that certainly is apt on physiological and psychological terms, but I tend to picture the opposite, in more metaphorical terms: yellow on the inside – an increasingly pale, atrophied, alienated identity as an Asian-American – and white on the outside. Painted white, perhaps; whitewashed; coated in layers upon layers of whiteness.
Part of the brilliance of American Born Chinese is how it portrays that layering of whiteness, a process that I engaged in, and am only now trying to reverse. I’m not doing it well; I’m not doing it effectively; I’m still called a banana Asian now and again, and I’m unable to counter such comments. My involvement in diversity work, which still feels brand new to me, has agitated my biggest, loudest, harshest inner demons, and they are reopening old gashes in my psyche with a vengeance.
I often wonder what it would have been like to read American Born Chinese when I was in my teens, instead of in my thirties. Would I have been more conscious about the ways in which my identity was being warped, and the ways in which I allowed it to happen? Would it have helped me become less white-identified than I am today? Maybe my lifetime tally of self-hatred would be lower than it’s been over the years. Maybe not; I was not the most emotionally evolved teenager the world has ever seen. But maybe.
Then there’s my daughter. She and I are eerily alike in some ways. She’s going to face some of the same challenges I faced in my youth, and I struggle to keep from infecting her with my own fears of those challenges. She’s very different from me in other ways, however. She’s stronger in some ways, and more self-aware. She’s read both of my books, the published one and the soon-to-be-published one, and she strongly identifies with them both. Recently her summer camp had a so-called “Superhero Friday,” and my daughter chose to go as Polly Winnicott-Lee, one of the two most important characters in Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities, and she made that choice because in her words she both is like Polly and looks like Polly. I was powerfully struck by that, because Geeks is an illustrated novel.
Maybe the illustrations weren’t a deciding factor, but I think they were. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that I’ve already visited my own issues with cultural alienation upon my daughter; perhaps my ongoing identity disentanglement is one of the more dismal ways in which she and I will turn out to be alike. I feel hopeful, though, and it means something that this particular feeling of hope is rooted in my daughter’s interaction with a book that I wrote and includes pictures of explicitly mixed-race characters. I can describe that feeling of hope in another way, too: I hope present and future readers of Asian descent will have experiences less like mine, and more like my daughter’s, at least in this one instance. We can hope. Right?
Mike Jung is the author of the middle-grade novels Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2012) and Unidentified Suburban Object (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2016). He’s also contributed essays to the anthologies Dear Teen Me (Zest, 2012), Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press, 2013), and 59 Reasons to Write (Stenhouse, 2015). Mike is a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books team, and serves as a grant officer for the WNDB Internship Program.
Sona: The first time I saw someone who looked like me in a book, I was 19 and in college. I had this vague idea in my head by then of wanting to be a writer, but it was sort of like a fantasy — brown girls don’t write books. Or they didn’t, until then. The book was Ameena Meer’s Bombay Talkie, about a knee-high generation Muslim teen. Her experience was like mine in many ways, but also so completely different. Still, I latched onto her wholeheartedly. And when the author came to Rutgers for a signing, I was the first in line. I shyly told her about my writerly ambitions, and she told me that if she could do it, so could I.
Sona Charaipotra is co-founder of CAKE Literary and co-author of Tiny Pretty Things (HarperTeen, 2015). She is also a full-time freelance writer focusing on entertainment, lifestyle and parenting.