T A Knox-Collins

I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, am a graduate of Hamline University's MFAC program. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

We Need Biracial Books -What I Didn’t Say

There were some things left unsaid. Important things.

This week I gave a presentation on the extended critical essay I wrote that is required to complete my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. (One more semester to go). I had twenty five minutes in which to explain the one underlying message that has been a part of me ever since I can remember.

But anyone who knows me knows that 25 minutes isn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Plus there were nerves and jitters, etc…

I came away feeling unfinished, like I’d left the most important part out. I haven’t been able to stop the feeling that I let myself (and possibly others) down.

So I’ll put those thoughts here. Mainly so I know I’ve put these ideas out into the universe and maybe it’ll make sense to someone.

I talked about why we need children’s books that feature biracial characters. Statistically speaking, biracial and multiracial people are the fastest growing population in the US. More importantly, biracial children should be given the gift of seeing themselves reflected in stories. And reflected authentically.

I talked about how some books will have the biracial child’s identity issue as the main theme, and the story is about the character working out where they belong. (The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods,  and Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen, for example) On the other side of my story continuum, I see books that have universal themes, but seen through the eyes of the biracial child — remembering that who a character is, influences how she sees and tackles the world, and these universal issues. (Examples include The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W Durrow, We Were Here by Matt de la Pena, and Living Violet by Jaime Reed)

I believe that at the heart of every biracial/multiracial person is this push pull question of ‘what am I?’ Growing up belonging to more than one race, yet most often resembling one side or neither side of the family, creates a feeling of being ‘not quite enough’. Other people also tend to try to categorize us, sometimes telling us (and not always in words) what we are by how they think we look. (See the Twitter discussion #BiracialLooksLike)

From my experience, most white people can’t look at a biracial person and see their white side. They only see the Asian, African, Latino, Native American side. I can’t tell you the number of times people think my ‘white’ surname is from my spouse. At the same time, our ‘other side’ people will see that we’re not quite all there. So the ‘where do I belong’ question is always there at the back of a biracial person’s mind. That is the contention I make in my paper.

But what I needed to finish saying is this, when we choose to write a biracial character into our stories, there are questions we must ask:

  1. why does he or she or they need to be biracial? What does their ‘biracialness’ bring to the story that is unique compared to a single race character? Because remember, the identity issue is always going to play a role in their life, even if it isn’t the main or even sub plot of the book.
  2. Why am I the right person to write this story? Be careful not to use a biracial character because it’s killing two birds with one stone. A mixed race (with white) character isn’t a white character who conveniently looks like a Person of Color. She isn’t any easier to write about simply because she is half white and often tends to appear culturally white on the outside. In her innermost circles, her heritage plays a HUGE role.

A writer who isn’t biracial who wants to include a biracial character needs to understand that there are just as many, if not more, cultural (for want of a better word) issues faced by a biracial person than a single race person. She will often face all the racism, all the prejudice that comes with being a Person of Color, and still not quite fit in with either side of her heritages. This may appear, on the outside, to be less true when a character has other privileges such as wealth and education. But, it’s there.

So, the biracial character is not the ‘simple’ solution to adding diversity to a story. There isn’t a simple solution. And as I said in my presentation, our concern for bringing diversity to children’s literature isn’t about peppering our fictional worlds with color. It’s about authenticity.  Sometimes, it’s about decolonizing our stories — stepping aside for the right person to tell the story (consider the OwnVoices stand). I’m not saying you can’t write a biracial character if you aren’t biracial yourself. I’m saying that if you do, tread carefully, with great respect, lots and lots of research, and intentionality. (The same goes for any character different from ourselves). Consider hiring sensitivity readers for your manuscript.

But Always, it’s about understanding your characters inside and out, so that your telling of their story is authentic. Because the kids reading it will know when something smells off. They will chuck the book across the room before finishing it. Or worse, they will think there’s something wrong with themselves if they’re essentially told that what they feel deeply isn’t important enough to talk about.

So there’s my soapbox. You might not like it, and that’s okay. I just needed to say it.


An American Superhero…who’s Chinese.

I recently finished reading and re-reading a superhero comic (really, a graphic novel, because it was nice and long). When I was done, I can’t tell you how excited I was.

I grew up reading comics, especially because I was told not to. Comics, in the olden days, were considered unacceptable reading material. They were written in all CAPS, had half sentences (gasp!), and contained unacceptable language (I don’t remember any). So, of course, whenever I went over to my cousins’ houses, I would raid their enormous collection and read, and read, and read. When I had my own kids, I encouraged them to read comics. So guess what they did? They didn’t read comics. Sigh. This was one time I wish I had gone the ‘reverse psychology’ way. What mom was enthusiastic about couldn’t ever be cool enough for my three girls.

But I’m going to be sending each of them a copy of The Shadow Hero by Gene Yang and Sonny Liew. shadow hero

Why, mom? We’re all adults now.

Well, girls, because this is the first time I’ve read a superhero comic where the hero is Chinese, and he isn’t living in China, or anywhere in Asia. He’s American, and he’s Chinese. I want to squeal in excitement. Think of how that will change the way Asian American kids see themselves, see the possibilities. If you don’t read it, keep it for your kids. This is a momentous occasion. This may sprout more Asian American heroes. And you can then say you own one of the very first books that paved the way.

When I was growing up, there was a TV show called The Greatest American Hero. GAHHe wore a red suit with a giant symbol on his chest. We used to call him the ‘hong zhong’ man, because the symbol looked like the Chinese word for ‘middle’. (Funny that I think of that now, because it’s also the first word for ‘China’ – the Middle Kingdom).2014-02-04-EricXLiEastChinaSea The ‘hong zhong’ man was the closest I had, growing up, to a superhero with a albeit fake connection to who I was. Of course, he was as white as could be. Still, it was an amusing series.

I digress.

Reading The Shadow Hero, I laughed at the overenthusiastic mom who literally pushes her son into situations, to try to turn him into a superhero. I felt her frustration with her lot in life, with having to serve a white family that barely saw her, with the feeling that her life might amount to nothing. That’s why she wanted this greatness for her son. Her ambition for her son was impossible, but oh so typical of what we seem to call the ‘tiger mom’, (maybe every mom?)  Her non-existent relationship with her husband who loved her anyway, tugged at my heartstrings. I appreciated the main character, Hank’s loyalty to his family. He was a good son, and a good man. He worked hard, looked up to his dad, and funnily enough, obeyed his mom, even when she made him wear a ridiculous looking superhero suit. Their plight as a struggling family in the 1940’s reflected the same path many families walked, and gave me a glimpse of the Chinese family’s life in our country in those days.

And the story is good too! As with all superheroes who are starting out, there are the failures, the funny mishaps, the mentor/trainer, and of course, the girl. As Hank grows through the story to eventually become the Green Turtle, there are lots of insights into the world of the 40’s in Chinatown. Also, Hank doesn’t really have supernatural powers (hope that’s not a spoiler). He is granted a wish (okay, so maybe there’s a little bit of the supernatural here) but the rest of his adventures are based on his determination, his good heart and his training. And can I say, it’s great to see that even a young Chinese man can be portrayed as muscular and buff. And attractive! How sad is it that these characteristics are rarely bestowed on the Asian character or actor today?

At the end of the novel, there’s a wonderful piece of history added on. The creators explain the origin of The Green Turtle, how as a comic book published back in the day, readers never actually saw this superhero completely. In order to get more readers to accept this hero, he never showed his face. He never showed the reading world back then that he was Asian.

So, girls, I hope you can see why I’m sending you your own copy of this graphic novel. First and foremost, it’s a fun read. Then, I hope you’ll appreciate its significance. Even dad is reading it, and that’s a miracle!

Dream-Like Autumn Forests

Fall is here. Halloween is just around the bend. Time for some arboreal inspiration from artist Janek Sedlář, and the mad geniuses at Bored Panda.

Janek Sedlar is a young self-taught photographer from the Czech Republic whose speciality is landscape photography with a surreal twist. He became a “serious” photographer only in 2011, and most of his captivating images were captured in his home region of Moravia and around the White Carpathians nature reserve.

“Inspiration I find in daily life, in NATURE, in my feelings and thoughts,” said for an interview with Interesting Photographers. “Being in these woods and meadows is a return to childhood, it regains my life energy and I am trying to share these moments with my camera, the process itself is like a meditation for me.”

Call of wandering

Kingdom of silence

Lane of elders

Fog in the red forest

Dream inside a dream

Autumn prayers

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Renegades of Diversity

My lovely Hamline MFAC classmates have started a website called Renegades of Diversity. In it, we will be reviewing children’s books that are diverse, and we mean diverse in every sense of the word. You should check out the reviews on the site.

Every Monday, one of us will post a review of a diverse book we’ve read recently. I’m excited because in my pledge to read more diversely, I have come across a lot of great books. The one I post here below is also posted on Renegades of Diversity. I loved The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, for all the reasons I wrote about in the review. Mostly I love that it is a story of an identity struggle, where the protagonist is biracial and is torn by both worlds, yet  trying to fit into both.

Here’s my review:

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W Durrow (2011)

I was pulled in by this story right away. It is told from four different points of view, and is at the same time tragic and optimistic. The motif of birds, of falling versus soaring, runs through the entire story. I was most drawn to the identity struggle of the young biracial protagonist.

Preteen Rachel Morse is half Danish, half African American, growing up in the 1980’s. Her parents met and married in Europe. Tragedy followed the family, and the marriage eventually broke up, leaving the mom, Nella to raise her three young children in Chicago, with her alcoholic, white boyfriend. The way her biracial family is treated, both shocks and saddens Nella, and this leads to the tragedy that forms the basis of the whole story.

Rachel is sent to live with her dad’s mother in Portland, OR. Before this time, she barely thought about the fact that her dark hair, brown skin and blue eyes created an unusual picture. But in this new life, she is seen as strange, and subjected to many questions about her racial makeup. Through living with Grandma, her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, Rachel learns what it means to be African American. In school, she struggles with being both black and white, faces taunts and bullying. At first she’s reluctant to let go of her Danish-ness, but over time, she begins to identify as being black. Every character she comes to know in this new world, shows her a different side of what it means to be a part of her dad’s family and culture. Even down to the music – Rachel loves jazz, and she gets introduced to the blues, which she loves too. In the same way, she grapples with learning to embrace all sides of her identity. Hers is the journey of working out how to accept being both black and white.

Through the eyes of the other point of view characters, we learn the whole story of how Rachel came to live with Grandma. We discover the secret Rachel is keeping from the world, and the hurt she is holding onto inside. These burdens are part of what keep Rachel from accepting her identity, from embracing both sides of her makeup.

The tragedies faced by Rachel and her family are heart-wrenching. Yet, they carry on. This book was an emotional roller coaster for me, but I couldn’t put it down. What I loved most were the characters that this writer created. They made me love them, root for them, and cry out loud for their struggles. Each one was genuine and their struggles rang all too true in this day and age.

Seriously, read this book.


Change is Our Evolution

Do you watch the TV series Extant? I do. I watch most any sci-fi on TV. Plus Halle Berry stars in it. So, I’m a fan.


Without giving away too much, Halle Berry’s character, Molly Woods is an astronaut who ends up giving birth to a hybrid baby — half alien and half human. This hybrid runs off and impregnates more human women, creating more hybrids. These aliens can read minds and control humans with their bright yellow eyes. They can make us do what they want.

Molly discovers that the reason they’re here on Earth.Their planet is dead and they need a new place to live. As they evolve, they learn not to kill people (that’s nice) and seek to live peacefully with us. When the government guy who wants to kill all the aliens with a virus asks Molly what the aliens really want, she says, “To coexist.” What do you think the government guy did? (Spoilers – he kills them).

I recently wrote a story that implies (kind of like Extant) that in order for humanity to survive, we need to evolve. (And not necessarily in the biological sense of the word). We need to let go of the status quo and accept change.

But change is scary. Hellishly scary. People will fight change with their lives. And their words.

Lately, I’ve been involved (and also watched on the sidelines) in a conversation about privilege and how it feels to be on the other end of it. Here’s what I hear –

  • Political correctness is tiring. It takes too much effort. My quick reply is this picture. Thank you, Mr. Gaiman —Neil gaiman quote
A long time ago, a professor in law school introduced the Law of Torts using the following analogy. He said, and I paraphrase because it was a long, long time ago, that when I walk down the street, I have the right to swing my arms as high as I want, but once my hands hit the nose of the person walking across from me, that’s where my right ends. This may not be the most accurate memory of his talk but the picture stayed with me.
This is how I see freedom. Freedom must be tempered with compassion (or respect or consideration, whichever word works best). As a human, I don’t live in the world all by myself, so to be human is to consider the person beside me. My personal freedom ends when I stop caring about my fellow human. Being ‘politically correct’ has become a nasty phrase. I like what Neil Gaiman says, that it’s about treating others with respect. And yes it takes effort, but if we think about it, we do it every day anyway, to people we care about. Now we just need to extend it a little farther. It’s not as hard as it sounds. And it’s worth the energy spent.
To me, that’s what being human is. So why are there so many non-humans occupying our planet?
  • Next, I came across this –This is the title of an actual book – “End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).” The authors are Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson. You can read a discussion of their take on free speech in this article. Yes, because freedom is about you having fun. That’s intelligent. Won’t be reading this book.
  • And this article, which made me think. The real reason Americans fight about identity politics 

    I quote from the article —  “Law professor Nancy Leong studies what she calls “identity capitalism” — the ways in which particular identities like one’s race, gender, or sexual orientation have traditionally constituted positive or negative social “capital,” and how the value of that capital is changing. She believes much of the backlash against so-called identity politics is really about a sense that the status quo is under attack, and fear that something worse might replace it.

    She explained to me that it’s really easy for people from dominant groups to assume that the status quo isn’t biased, because they’ve never had to confront that bias themselves. And so when they see that an existing system is being changed to include minority groups or accommodate other interests, there’s a tendency to assume that the natural order of things is being disrupted in some illegitimate way.”

    And that creates fear.

So back to my story and Extant – Okay, barring the fact that we really don’t want to be invaded by a superior alien species, the message underneath still stands. It’s scary to let go of the status quo, to let others rise and share the space that’s been held for so long by one group. But just because one group rises, doesn’t mean the other must step down. This isn’t a pyramid. If anything, it’s a plateau. There’s plenty of space for us all.

And here’s the application of this in my context — Putting someone else down doesn’t raise another up. It just causes conflict. And these beliefs we carry as adults bring nothing but misery to our children who then go on to face the horror of bullying or become bullies themselves. This is why I write for children. I want to be a part of the movement that shows every child that they are special, important, valued. We are all equal, accepted, loved, and deserve to be heard. There is room here for everyone. Look! It says so in all our books. (that’s the dream).

Changing the status quo is our evolution, at this moment in time. It can only make our species better, smarter, more peaceful. Yes, the alien storyline is a limited analogy, but I choose to see this message. It’s why I love sci-fi.

What a book should do

This week, I started looking up books for a topic I’m researching and I came across this book. It’s called Part Asian 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck. I turned to the first page and found myself sitting down to read through the entire book.


What the writer wrote in the introduction could have been about me. I was sucked in as soon as I read the first line — “You don’t look Chinese.” Further down on the page, he says, “What are you? I answer the question every day of my life.”

Hey! Me too. (well, I used to).

I’ve blogged about this before — that growing up, I was asked this question a lot. “What are you?” To the Chinese, I wasn’t Chinese enough. To the English, I definitely wasn’t one of them. To others, I was a curiosity. But I am, really, both – although the English side probably has some Irish and some other European additions.

After all this time, though, I’ve grown to be okay with the question, mostly. I understand now that people are curious. I get curious about others too. In fact I recently asked a friend of mine that question, just maybe not quite that bluntly. I hope he was okay with it. I think I ask the question to find common ground with others, to find a point of connection. To know that I’m not the only mixed race person on the scene.

I understand that the older I get, the more I look like my mom and she’s Chinese. In fact over the years, it just became easier to allow others to assume I am Chinese (or some version of ‘Asian’). Except for my name – that’s the most English thing about me (and yes, it’s mine, not my husband’s. He’s Chinese. You’d be surprised how often I get asked if I’m married to a white man).

But as an aside, I also feel compelled to say, not Chinese from China. From South East Asia. Today, I read an article that mentions how Asia is far too big a continent to lump us all together in the all encompassing word “Asian”. Specifically, the article in Education Week said this —

“The diversity of nearly 50 ethnic subgroups speaking more than 300 languages cannot be accurately captured in the use of the broad and single panethnic label “Asian.” ”


Yay, to Peter T Keo (the article’s writer) for saying so.

So please don’t feel like you have to tell me you’ve been to China. While interesting as a general topic of conversation, it doesn’t connect me to you. I’ve never been.

But, what is new to me, is the word “Hapa”. I’d never heard it before. It’s kind of nice to know there’s a word that describes what I am. I think it’s a word borrowed from Pacific Islanders, so thank you for sharing it. It’s certainly better than some of the names I’ve been called in the past.

This book, Part Asian 100% Hapa, is a photographic book. The writer brought together a lot of Hapa people and photographed them, portrait style. Next to their pictures, each person wrote a short note answering the question “What are you?” It was a lovely read. The people were from every age and walk of life, and every one was beautiful.  It made me feel happy, and reminded me that I wasn’t alone in the world.

And that’s what a book should do.

Committing to Diversity

Diversity in children’s literature is vital. It’s necessary. It’s long overdue. It should be there in adult literature and all media too. (Don’t get me started on casting issues in Hollywood). But it is most important when the consumers are children. And I’m glad we’re doing something about it.

This topic of diversity in kidlit has been growing for many years. Brave people and organizations have been fighting to make their voices heard, so that all children will be represented in the books they read. Maybe it’s because I attend a school that is dedicated to diversity that it feels as if the conversation is gaining traction. But everyday, I am seeing posts on social media and hearing that it’s being discussed at conferences, ones that could affect the future of books. Just yesterday, in my email inbox, there was a newsletter from the SCBWI. The first article, listed under Hot Topic, was written by Lin Oliver, the Executive Director of SCBWI. The title was “Diversity: What Can We Do About It?” It was encouraging to read.

As a student at Hamline’s MFAC (Writing for Children and Young Adults) program, I joined with others to commit to reading and writing diverse literature for children. I desperately want children to be able to see themselves in books. It makes me so happy to hear a child say, “Hey, he looks like me!” or “We do that at home too.” when I read a book aloud. (I teach tiny ones, and medium sized ones). During this last Hamline residency in July, our MFAC Pride group asked us to commit to buying, reading, and reviewing or blogging about diverse books for kids — at least 12 in the next year.

I’m really excited to do this. And by putting it out here, I’m holding myself accountable. I’ve already bought several books by diverse writers, and I can’t wait to start reading. Of course, some of these books I’ll have to read in between completing my MFAC homework (we call them packets). Some books are already on our required reading list, (Monster by Walter Dean Myers is my favorite so far) so I’ll get to ‘kill two birds’ as they say. (The faculty at Hamline is revising the required reading list to include more diverse books too. Yay!). Mostly, I’ll be able to escape into the wonderful worlds created by people I have only recently been introduced to.

Not that I haven’t read books by diverse authors or books with diverse characters up till now. The ones I’ve read recently include:

  • Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  • The Firekeeper’s Son, and A Single Shard, both by Linda Sue Park
  • The Living by Matt De La Pena
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth
  • Legend (The Trilogy) by Marie Lu
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
  • American Born Chinese, and Boxers and Saints, all by Gene Luen Yang
  • This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Talon by Julie Kagawa

See, it’s not that hard to find 12, or 13. I like that, if I deliberately look for diverse books, I can find a good number of great ones, from picture books to young adult books. Imagine a world where diverse books are everywhere, and we wouldn’t have to go looking for them. That makes me smile.

I found several great resources too – We Need Diverse Books, Bookriot, and LibraryThing are perfect starting platforms for finding diverse books to read. And from the new and emerging writers I’ve met along the way in my writing journey, I know a lot more wonderful, relevant books are coming. This is an exciting time.

More and more, we are becoming aware of this need for books that reflect all kinds of children in all kinds of families, doing things all of us can identify with. And books with diverse characters don’t have to have characters doing things that are stereotypical of their culture. Also, there’s an interesting emergence of subcultures brought about by kids who are growing up in a different country from where their parents were raised. And there are the biracial and multiracial kids too. How great would it be to see books about their journeys?

So, as we continue the discussion, here’s my little wishlist for readers and writers of children’s books —

  • Diversity is not a trend, like vampires and angels once were. It is the truth about our world. Don’t treat it like a trend.
  • Don’t write a diverse book for the sake of it. This shouldn’t be a band-wagon to hop onto. Write one because when you look around your own world (or dig a little deeper to discover the truth), you’ll see that the world is already diverse, and you have no choice but to reflect it.
  • Reflect the diversity well, consistent with reality. Do research, if you need to, and it’s always good even if you don’t.
  • Show us diverse people doing regular day to day things, but make it interesting because it’s in a book and readers need to turn the page.
  • Read diversely. Do the work to find them. They’re easier to find than you think.
  • Pass along good books to everyone you know.

Maya Angelou once said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

There truly is. So let’s share it. And one day, diverse books will be mainstream, and the world of children’s books will match the world in real life.

A Moment to Geek Out

Last week, this happened.

Photo credit:  This artist's impression of Kepler 452b shows how its surface might look, complete with water and active volcanoes. SETI Institute/Danielle Futselaar.
Photo credit: This artist’s impression of Kepler 452b shows how its surface might look, complete with water and active volcanoes. SETI Institute/Danielle Futselaar.

Kepler 452b, found by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, is located 1,400 light-years from us. It orbits a star that is 4% more massive and 10% brighter than our Sun. The planet itself is 1.6 times the size of Earth – making it a super-Earth – but the scientists are fairly sure that it is a rocky world, owing to its size and the type of star it orbits.”

I love to read and write about space. I’m working on a story now about us finding a new home somewhere out there. I worry about us ruining another perfectly good planet, but I get excited by the prospect of being given a second chance, to start again, to do better this time. Can we, though? I hope we can.

So this is a brief ‘geek out’ moment for me – having read several articles about this planet and dreamt of the possibilities, and laughed at how science fact is catching up so quickly to science fiction these days. I surprise myself at how excited I am. Maybe I cope with life here by dreaming about life out there. Hey, it helps to have something to look forward to. Okay, maybe not in my lifetime, but still, it’s there.

I know 1400 light-years away is still too far for us to get to within a reasonable time — generational ship, anybody? — but it’s something to think about.

The other question is if it’s such a perfect match for Earth, wouldn’t it already have some kind of life on its surface? So, a possible first contact situation?

Star Trek, here we come.

Writing the Asian character

My friend and author, Justina Ireland, (look her up, she’s as awesome as her Twitter handle – @tehawesomersace, requested information about microagressions against Asians from the Twittersphere. I could give you plenty from personal experience, but her search to understand this issue got me thinking elsewhere. Microaggressions are definitely a topic to talk about, and I will, someday soon. There are many other people that lay it out so much more clearly than I ever could, so I will let them.

But in reading about Justina’s quest for authentic answers, my mind goes to my craft of writing authentic characters. How do I write Asian characters, make them as real as any other character, and yet true to their heritage? I’ve seen it done badly enough times to need to lay it out for myself. If you’d like to come on this journey with me, you’re most welcome. Otherwise, thanks for dropping by.

I am biracial, and one half of that is Asian. But the term “Asian” alone means little to me. Being part Asian places my ancestry geographically somewhere in the largest continent on the planet. How does that define who I am and what values I carry with me? How does that influence my behavior, my parenting style, my worldview?

When I write an Asian character (even as a part Asian writer), do I have the right to simply imply their ‘Asian-ness’ without truly understanding that term in a much deeper way? Without understanding that character personally? Especially in the context that my characters often live away from their ancestors’ countries of origin.

I start with a few simple questions: (there’s rarely a simple answer though)

  • Where does my character live now or in the time frame of my story?
  • Which part of Asia do their ancestors come from?
  • If the character doesn’t live in the country of origin, is she two, three or just one generation away from that original culture?
  • What values from that original culture still form the foundation of her identity and belief system?

I’m half Chinese. I’ve been asked what China is like, but I’ve never been, so I couldn’t tell you. I have friends from China, friends whose grandparents are from China, and they are different from my friends from Taiwan. I have Chinese friends from Thailand, from the Phillipines, from Indonesia, and of course, from Singapore. (And not just Chinese, for these countries have descendants from the indigenous culture as well as those from everywhere else in the region).

I identify most with the culture that formed in the multicultural city of Singapore, while acknowledging the influence of China’s pre-revolution culture from my grandparents. (That’s a mouthful, and a lot of repetition of the word ‘culture’.) An entire book could be written about the infused culture that is unique to this island nation. (I’m sure it already has been.) This is where my mother was born and where I spent 25 years of my life. The “Asian” culture that I have absorbed into my system is Singaporean. Yes, there are similarities with my friends from China or Taiwan, but there are just as many differences. Don’t even get me started on the number of different languages that exist in these regions. I understand three of them, and that’s barely anything.

So, when I write a character who comes from or has roots in Asia, I need to know precisely where she hail from. I need to understand the values that her grandparents brought to her family. And learn which of those her parents chose to keep, and those that were modified.

And then there’s the character herself. What values exist in her thinking without her consciously thinking about them? What aspects of her culture has she chosen to drop or adopt, and why? This applies especially to Asians who now live in a different part of the world from their ancestors. (Which funnily, could be most of us in the US, don’t you think?)

If the character’s ancestry hails from more than one culture, that’s a whole other research journey.

My own children, now American, have to work out what values and traditions they would like to keep and which to adapt, and which to discard. That is their right. I suspect though, that the older they get, the more they may return to some of the traditions we’ve tried to pass down.

Just as these decisions exist for my real kids, they exist for the children that come from my imagination, the ones that populate the fictional worlds.

Being Asian, like being African or European, is a convenient term, but it’s really only geographical and just the start of the journey to understanding my characters. I get excited about the expedition I need to take in order to get to know my characters, to understand who they are, based on their own and their families’ journeys through time and place. I am interested to get to know real people who live these lives, to talk to them about how their ancestry has affected who they are, as they find their place to belong, here in the multicultural, mixed up world we have today.

I don’t think I get it right every time, but after this summer residency at Hamline University’s MFAC program, I will work harder to get it ‘more right’, thanks to the insights and wisdom of my classmates and my teachers. I will seek to get it right for the sake of children who may someday read my work, and see themselves reflected back in the characters.

So thank you, Justina, for making me think about this.

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