race & representation in Asian American kid lit

16 Jul 2015 news 19 Comments
Most people in the kid lit world are familiar with Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay on the ways books function as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Those of us invested in kid lit diversity and equity are also familiar with the disturbing statistics compiled annually by the CCBC. When the 2014 stats came out earlier this year, I was quite surprised to see that many books published by Asian American authors here in the US are not *about* Asian Americans (look at the grey bar):
Multicultural_Stats_Bar_ Graph_2014
I talked to a couple of people about it but felt it wasn’t my place to raise the issue. I support an artist’s right to write about whatever s/he likes, but if this was happening to this extent within the small community of Black authors and illustrators, I’d be taking names! Seriously. Kids of color are desperate to see themselves in books and I feel most artists in my community feel an obligation to provide those “mirrors.” It’s also a matter of self-determination/self-definition; we want to control the narratives and images our children consume. This is especially important when there are so many books about but not by Blacks, and popular culture is rife with racist stereotypes. In the Black community, we know the toll this takes on our kids; the misrepresentation of Black people fuels misperceptions that diminish self-esteem and can even cost a Black child her or his life.
But let me be honest—my interest in the comparative CCBC stats is not unrelated to my investment and participation in the kid lit diversity debate. I’ve had several conversations with Black women who feel excluded from the We Need Diverse Books movement, and Jessica Williams’ recent “helper whitey” skit perfectly illustrates how Black women routinely have their ideas dismissed by those who perceive them as “too angry.” At times, coalition building between Blacks and Asians here in the US has been hindered by the “model minority” myth coupled with anti-Black racism (though there are notable exceptions and the UK has a very different history). I’ve written about my own need to “decolonize my imagination” after growing up Black in a “former” British colony, and Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton have developed a theory about “cultural Stockholm syndrome.” All in all, this seems like a good moment to explore the challenges different marginalized groups face when representing race for young readers. To better understand the particular perspective of Asian American kid lit creators, I invited several people to join this virtual roundtable: Sarah Park Dahlen, Shveta Thakrar, Sona Charaipotra, Mike Jung, and Katie Yamasaki. I am hoping that this will be the first in a series of conversations about race and representation in children’s literature.
Me: What is your response to the CCBC stats on books by, about, by but not about Asian/Pacific Americans? Is the need for “mirror books” perceived as less urgent in the Asian American community? Do commercial considerations take priority or are authors/illustrators pressured to write outside their race?

SarahSarah: I was surprised and not surprised to see the rate at which we write outside our race. From my personal experience, I was raised to be proud of being Korean American, but my culture (and its absence in the media, popular culture, etc.) was not something I was encouraged to think about critically. When I decided to major in Asian American Studies, my parents wondered why I was doing something no one would be interested in, something that wasn’t attractive to a future employer. It didn’t fit with their idea of American Dream = lawyer/doctor/professor/engineer. So I don’t think we’re necessarily pressured to write outside our race, but we’re not often encouraged to write inside our race.

No author wants to be labeled solely as an “Asian American author” or an “African American author.” And truly, Asian Americans and people of all identities should tell whatever story they want to tell, but should consider what stories are left untold if we don’t tell our own stories, and what the stakes are if others tell our stories. An example of someone who writes well across experiences is Linda Sue Park – When My Name was Keoko (Japanese colonialism in Korea), Project Mulberry (contemporary novel that addresses race issues), and A Long Walk to Water (about a Sudanese Lost Boy and access to clean water). And often it’s complicated – in Half a World Away Cynthia Kadohata tells the story of a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania, and then accompanies his American parents to Kazakhstan to adopt another child. She herself is an adoptive mother to a child born in Kazakhstan, and the story is told from the perspective of the child adopted from Romania, so she is writing inside or outside her experience?

51jhldJxilL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Similarly, outsiders who write Asian American stories should consider what stake they have in telling our stories, whose voices they might be silencing in that telling, and whether or not they are the best person to tell that story. Gene Luen Yang, Allen Say, and Laurence Yep have made tremendous contributions to Asian American children’s and YA literature as insider authors, and in some sense they tell stories as outsiders when we consider their historical works (Boxers & Saints, the Golden Mountain Chronicles, etc), yet by and large we consider them insiders telling our stories. And there remain many stories that are untold, that should be told, if someone can do right by the story. A great example here is Joanne Oppenheim’s Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference.

Asian American authors writing about more non-Asian American topics may also be a function of the “don’t make waves” perspective that haunts our communities. After 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, upon their release few Japanese Americans spoke out against the injustices they suffered and appeared to quietly assimilate, which led one reporter to call them the “model minority” (which is a hugely problematic myth). Decades later, people began to share their internment stories so we could learn about this ugly part of American history. Similarly, Koreans didn’t talk about the shame and trauma of Japanese colonialism, especially to their American children, until decades later. Despite growing up surrounded by Koreans, I didn’t learn about colonialism until college.The good news is that today we have multiple books depicting the Internment and Japanese colonialism, but are they enough? Every time I teach a children’s literature course, many of my students – mostly white – say they’ve never heard of the Internment, or colonialism, or anti-Chinese immigration history. Clearly, we need more books on these subjects.

Also, the phrase “diverse books don’t sell” has been floating around the industry, so why would an Asian American author or illustrator want to go up against that? And when diversity is included, what kind of diversity is valued? For example, APALA Literature Awards aren’t announced at the ALSC Youth Media Awards ceremony. It’s about survival in an industry that is not wholly inclusive of diverse voices.

There are many different Asian diasporic cultures and experiences, and we need more stories for all reading levels and in different genres. In particular, we need to hear more stories of Filipinos, Hmong, South Asian Indians, Pacific Islanders, and mixed-race Asians. I hope more Asian American authors will feel compelled to write mirror stories for our young people. I hope agents and editors will solicit our stories from our talented writers and illustrators. And I hope librarians, educators, and parents will work hard to connect young people with our stories.

Sarah Park Dahlen is an assistant professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University.

5097748Shveta: I have to say, this does not surprise me. I think it stems from a number of factors: even as we talk about the need for diversity, America is still steeping in a stew of whiteness. I didn’t think about writing characters of color until I was in my mid-twenties, and I’ve heard similar things from many other authors. And there’s still the idea that white is normal, so you’ll sell more if you write a white character, while you’ll be pigeonholed as a niche author if you don’t. (Which is nonsense, but . . .)

So it doesn’t shock me. That said, I don’t think every author feels that way. I know I don’t–I’ve made a conscious decision to have my stories always star desi characters and often use Hindu/Buddhist mythology and folklore–and I’ve seen other authors say they are trying to do similar things–but they also don’t want to be boxed in. Why shouldn’t they be able to write whatever characters they want?

And that’s a valid point, except that we do have this awful power imbalance and this internalized assumption that everyone can relate to white people, that when you “don’t see color,” what you’re really saying is that you have no problem reading all white characters written by white people.

When things come down to money, I do think a lot of people will (reasonably enough) bend and do what is more likely to put bread and butter (or whatever food they eat) on the table. Of course, that keeps the extremely problematic status quo intact. So what’s the right answer?

I don’t know what the right answer is. I can’t tell anyone how to write. But I can encourage us to keep telling our own stories and be the ones to represent us. I can ask white authors to shine the spotlight on us, and I do. I definitely can keep my promise to keep writing about people who look like me, and I always will.

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini.

mike-jung-author-writerMike: When I was in sixth or seventh grade I was enrolled in a summer enrichment program where I took a writing class. I remember writing a short story about an astronaut named Bill Starr, who was as white as white can be. He was definitively not Korean. Back then it would have been impossible for me to articulate why I created a character that looked like the people I was surrounded by and not like me, and it’s no walk in the park to articulate it now, although I do have more insight. Things might have been different if my family had stayed in Los Angeles for my entire childhood – we had family there, and a church whose routines I disliked but whose people I’d grown up with – but we moved to a neighborhood in northern New Jersey that was devoid of people of color, and the impact was lasting. I was a deeply insecure and probably neurodivergent boy, one who lacked the easy facility with people that my father and brothers possessed, and in retrospect, the lengths I went to in an effort to avoid feelings of persecution and derision were lamentable. 

I made racist jokes about myself and about others. I renounced my heritage. I distanced myself from my family. I started and continued hearing comments about being a banana Asian or an imitation white boy, and instead of using those comments as motivation to engage in critical self-analysis, I used them as rationale to distance myself further from my own ancestry. I feel the effects of those wretchedly misguided choices to this day; I imagine I’ll feel them until my bones are in the ground. I’m not suggesting those choices were made by every Korean-American child who grew up in a predominantly white community, because there’s no single, universal narrative that applies to all of us. My brothers grew up in the same environment, but seemed to emerge more whole than I did—they certainly evinced less obvious self-loathing in following years, and had fewer obvious struggles than I did, although of course not all struggles are obvious. 

What I think IS universal about my experiences is the way they were massively influenced by the society around me. The all-pervasive norms of white America really are pressed into our psyches with the percussive force of a jackhammer, especially through pop culture, and I was a greedy consumer of escapist entertainments. I also lacked the psychological and intellectual sophistication required to dismantle the model minority myth, and there were ways in which I swallowed the whole damn fishing rod in that way. I didn’t question talk of the innately disciplined and gifted nature of Asian-Americans, and I didn’t perceive the subtle dynamics of dominance and condescension that accompanied such talk. Compliance; obedience; acceptance of authority; I was the poster boy for those qualities. 

Unlike so many who have spoken and continue to speak up, I have no history of meaningful activism, scholarly inquiry, or professional accomplishment in the realm of anti-racism work. I’m making an effort now, but making that effort has me feeling exposed in a way that’s entirely new to me. My perspective, which has always been thickly laden with uncertainty, has taken another yet another layer of uncertainty. That perspective is mine and mine alone, of course; it would be inappropriate to say that my emotionally complex life experiences or self-perceived limitations apply to any other Korean-American writer’s choice to create characters of (for example) white European descent. I also refuse to believe that writing characters whose racial and ethnic identities don’t align cleanly with our own is an invalid choice; as an author who I deeply respect said to me at a recent conference, we are not and shouldn’t be restricted to writing the racial and ethnic equivalent of memoir.

That said, I suppose I’ve been presenting one possible reason for the noticeably high percentage of Asian authors who write about non-Asian characters throughout this post. For me, fueling my work with my own experiences of racial identity is deeply uncomfortable; painful, even. It hurts to write a story that forces me to confront the places of disconnection within my heart and mind, and I’ve only recently committed myself to engaging in that process indefinitely, so there’s a long, snaking road of discomfort ahead of me.

That’s not the only potential reason, of course. I do believe the choice to write outside of our own experience does always involve an element of creative ambition. We have the desire and the right to push against our own creative boundaries; exploration is an essential part of the creative life. However, I suspect I’m not the only one contending with my particular brand of discomfort, and while I’m not exactly happy to contemplate that probability, it helps me to push onward. I want and need the help, because grappling with the discomfort is a necessary part of the process. It’s terribly, distressingly necessary. 

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. 

katie-yamasakiKatie: Of course, everyone should be able to write about whatever they want. I think another question is what motivates some artists to reflect their experience and feel driven to tell their stories when other artists do not.

From my own perspective, I was motivated to become a children’s book author/illustrator for the primary purpose of making a children’s book about the Japanese American internment camps. I had enough generations behind me where older generations of my family, unlike other Asian-American families I knew, told stories openly about this time. I was fortunate to grow up in a family that valued their own stories and our own history in the context of this country’s history (also it’s true what they say about Japanese people and cameras and we have family photos dating back to Okinawa in the late 1800s if that’s possible, so we had insane family records).

The second primary motivating factor for me was that I grew up just north of Detroit in a small town that was built around a GM auto plant. The entire culture of my town was based on the auto industry and was extremely conservative, white, working-class and during the recession of the 1980s, highly anti-Japanese. Vincent Chin was killed when I was 6 years old not too far from our home and the racism that inspired his murder was pervasive in mainstream Detroit culture throughout that decade. For me, as an artist and activist, it was formative. My idea to make a book about the internment came no more from poignant family stories than it did from racist U.S. history teachers asking me to address the class on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. “You’re Japanese, Katie. Why don’t you tell the class what happened on that day in history.” That was always my opportunity to teach the internment, which I did, but you get the point.  There were absolutely no books or teaching materials that I was aware of at that time that I could throw in my teacher’s face.

Last fall I spent a month at the Japanese American National Museum in LA doing a mural [Moon Beholders, below]. It was a wonderful experience, and full of interesting encounters with other JAs of my same (4th) generation. They found me to be “much less Japanese,” and I found them to be way less political. They grew up in a community of people with whom they identified racially and culturally. They grew up, in a community of people who had shared stories and a common past. They didn’t need to tell the story in order for it to be told. This geographic difference profoundly impacted the people we became and the type of work we were motivated to do and I found that to be really fascinating.

Moon-BeholdersWhen I look at Asian and Asian-American author/illustrators in my children’s book class in SVA, and even my younger students (NYC public middle schoolers), it is extremely rare that students want to create stories that have elements of personal or cultural narrative. They are also, almost never, in the minority. Art schools these days are full of illustrators, especially from China and Korea. And although the stories that they often tell do not focus on an Asian main character (until we talk- or Zetta comes for a visit to the class and then they do), the aesthetic and feeling of the book is, in most cases, recognizably Asian. It’s hard to explain what this means, but if you were to give me a pile of student work with no names, I could 99% of the time identify the books created by the Asian author/illustrators.

I’m not sure what the point of that is, but it just leads me to wonder more about the intention of these artists. I can only guess that their intention varies from someone like me, because they grew up in cultures that were much more homogenous or in the case of first generation Japanese, perhaps the intention is different racially because they come from a place that values conformity over personal expression. Perhaps because racial diversity is not part of the cultural conversation in some of these cultures, the way to distinguish ones own story from someone else’s would be purely content based.

This is becoming a bit of a ramble, and I realize I’m writing to a bunch of authors so . . . sorry! But I guess my main point is that the motivation of any artist will likely be derived from many sources, including where, when and how they grew up- and what race (and power and economic class) meant to them in that context. Who got to tell the stories they heard growing up and why?

Katie Yamasaki is a muralist, community artist, and children’s book author/illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY.

SonaSona: I do see this as double-edged. Personally, I rarely saw myself in books as a kid or teen, and my kids still won’t if we keep going at the rate we’re going. So I strive to be diverse and inclusive in my work, and certainly plan to create representations of my own experience and culture.

That said, as a writer, I believe I have to do what best serves the story. In the case of Tiny Pretty Things, for example, there is an Asian character (several, in fact), but not a South Asian one. My co-author Dhonielle Clayton and I made a strategic decision to stay true to the diversity that actually exists in the dance world, rather than force a character of a certain ethnicity or experience because it was familiar/comfortable. We were writing a contemporary YA set in a particular place and time, and we wanted to stay authentic to that world. It’s fiction, but I’ve found that oftentimes fiction needs to feel more realistic and logical than non-fiction.

In many of my other projects, though, even if it doesn’t make sense for the main character to be from a background similar to my own — which, by the way, is South Asian/Indian/Punjabi by way of Central Jersey — I do frequently try to people the story’s additional characters with diversity, including representations of those of South Asian descent, dismantling the tropes and stereotypes, rather than reinforce them. And of course, I have many projects in progress and in mind that will center on South Asian American characters from a variety of experiences. This has been the case for me as a writer for a long time, but like many, when I first started writing, I was writing the “mainstream” experience — meaning no diversity at all.

a80397cd802aacfaf632fe6a5e8ea377I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to write about any particular thing. However, the lack of representation of people of color — and especially my own community — obviously affected me in profound ways, and no doubt will continue to affect young readers for generations to come if we don’t do anything about it. That is something that weighs heavily on me — and it’s the reason Dhonielle and I co-founded CAKE. That’s why I’m committed to creating diverse characters and representations. That’s why I will always strive to include organic, integral diversity in my work, no matter what the content or form.

Will this hinder sales? Will this prevent some works from making it to the traditionally pubbed market all together? While things are changing slowly but surely, I do think that publishers still fear this — and I do think that the whole idea of “one book per list” is not gone by a long shot. Will that prevent me from writing what I want to write or creating the representations I think are necessary? Hell no.

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.