The highlight of BEA / BookCon 2014 for me was the We Need Diverse Books panel that happened this morning. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
A few years ago I was talking to my mentor about Junot Diaz and I said that I’d found his books to be liberating. My mentor asked me to expand on what I meant. But when I tried to explain why, I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t just the voice, or the geek culture references, or the types of characters he focused on. It was all the elements present in his writing. It was a thing I couldn’t articulate back then because it was somehow so nebulous.
Today on the panel Matt de la Peña talked about how Junot Diaz’s writing was life-changing for him. How he read Drown and his first thought was, “You can publish this shit?”
I heard those words and I sat there thinking: That. That’s exactly why it had been so liberating to read Junot Diaz. Three years ago when I brought up about Drown I’d been trying so hard to talk shop, to have an intelligent literary conversation with my mentor, to pin down the craft elements that I thought made the writing strong. The reasons why the stories worked in terms of structure, in terms of prose. The reasons why I was assigning the entirety of Drown to my undergraduate creative writing students.
Sometimes it’s not about how well something is crafted. Sometimes it’s just about an instinct, a need for something that’s so bright and glaring we don’t know how to look at it head on.
Matt de la Peña also referenced one of my favorite things Junot Diaz has ever said:
“You guys know about vampires? . . . You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
When it was her turn to answer about the first diverse book she remembered reading, Grace Lin talked about how as a kid a friend had suggested that she read a book about cheerleaders. It would normally never have appealed to her, but she ended up going through the entire series just because there was one cheerleader who was Asian, and it was the first time she’d seen anyone in a book who was anything like herself. But the Asian character didn’t get the same treatment as the other cheerleading characters, who dated the football captain or the basketball captain — the Asian character was worried about her grades and her violin competitions, things that were so painfully stereotypical.
Grace Lin said: It’s dangerous for kids to grow up without reading diverse books, because it causes them to grow up perpetuating these stereotypes.
The Asian stereotype is definitely something I struggle with. It’s so easy for people to look at me on paper and check off all the boxes, to think they know who I am. Grew up playing piano and violin. Pretty type A, strives to be high achieving. Has intense parents.
But what people don’t see: I begged my parents to let me take piano and violin lessons. I lived in the middle of Wisconsin then, and very few people around me were taking any kind of music lessons. (Later I moved to New Jersey where, when I got in line for orchestra auditions, I often found myself defending the fact that it was my choice to be there auditioning and not something my parents had forced upon me.) I’m type A and ambitious because of my creative goals, but you’d never have called me either of those things by looking at my business school grades. And I’ve come to resent the term “tiger parents” — my parents were intense in their own way, and they encouraged me to shoot high but only in things that they saw I was naturally passionate about.
I have lots of other random interests too that you’d only hear about if you talked to me long enough. Beekeeping. Ashtanga yoga. Collecting fantasy action figures. Watercolors. Vegetarian and vegan cooking. Collecting knives. Dressing up to go to Renaissance fairs. I’ll happily talk about those things, when given the chance to peel away that veil that keeps people identifying me as Stereotypical Asian American #7839752.
But back to the panel. Mike Jung said how when he was working on his book he’d wanted to present a world that reflected the place where he and his kids lived. He wasn’t intentionally trying to write something to fit any kind of trend. He didn’t have a specific diversity agenda. He just wanted to present what was real. There was simply no reason for him not to have diversity in his book. It’s an important thing that every writer should be thinking about.
And on the bookselling side of things, Grace Lin made the point that we need to change the way we talk about books. Instead of describing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as “a book about a Chinese girl and Ancient China with traditional Chinese folklore woven in,” it could instead be pitched to readers as a fantasy, an adventure novel. She said, “We all have boxes of categories in our minds, and we need to stop people from automatically sorting these books into the multicultural box. We need to get them to put these books in something like the adventure box, a category they know they want to read.”
Another moment that really stuck out for me was when Jacqueline Woodson talked about going to visit a school where there was maybe just one black kid and he didn’t like that she was there, that she was bringing up these conversations about race. It made me think of my childhood, how perfectly I believed I’d assimilated into the white American culture around me. That kid’s behavior could easily have been a gut reaction I would’ve had at his age. A territorial thing. I was lucky to have grown up very proud to be Asian, proud to be different — but like any other kid I still wanted to be “the same” enough that people would want to be friends with me.
A few years ago Loren and I drove upstate for the Capital District Scottish Games. Loren was there for the athleticism. I was there because I’m obsessed with anything Celtic. I was one of maybe three people of color in attendance, and I remember feeling so uncomfortable. I thought about how I’d gone through most of my life being one of just a few people of color. In elementary school. In middle school. In high school. Why should it suddenly feel so strange to be back in that homogeneity?
When I went to NYU Stern, the joke was suddenly that the white students were the minority. More of my classmates were Asian than not. I wasn’t sure (and still haven’t figured out) how I felt about going from one majority to another. But at the very least I was lucky to be in a diverse group for the first time in my life. And by the time we went to the Scottish Games, after having lived in Manhattan for so many years, I had come to expect diversity around me. My discomfort there in upstate New York was in response to something I’d never realized I was lacking until I had it, and then had it taken away.
Today it was insane to look around the room and see people of so many different ethnic and racial backgrounds represented. I can’t remember ever being part of such a diverse audience in my life. It was awe-inducing. It was inspiring.
Why do we need diverse books?
Because I’m still trying to understand what it means to be Asian American.
Because even though fantasy novels offer worlds in which anything can happen, in which elves and dwarves and unicorns and dragons can have convincing lives and adventures, as a young reader I never found a fantasy novel in which there was a character like me.
Because I feel like I’m going to be spend the rest of my life trying to understand all the things I felt growing up Chinese American in predominantly white places.
Because in this digital age, we are more connected to each other than ever. That means more information. More conversations. More opportunities to spread our stories. It means that our voices can be louder. And that kind of power comes with responsibility. The onus is on us. And “us” doesn’t mean only people of color. “Us” means anybody who cares at all about reading and culture and friendship. Anyone who cares about people in general.
Today on the panel Lamar Giles said, “If the reality is that diverse books don’t do well, it’s a reality someone created. The people in this room have the power to change that.”