Last month, I attended my 5th Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was an inspiring and uplifting weekend. I look forward to these each year. I get to learn from the most creative, hardworking people and be encouraged by their amazing stories. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to catch up with fellow writers that I haven’t seen in a while and exchange stories of where we are in our writing process.
On the first day, I attended an intensive on writing dialog in fiction, taught by the wonderful writer and teacher Matt De La Pena. What he taught was what I needed to hear and put into practice. So thank you, Matt. More about his class another time, perhaps. Matt’s books, on the other hand, caught my attention because his protagonists were mixed race, something I could identify with. The characters I write about are mixed race too. It isn’t something I do consciously, they’re just ‘born’ that way. It’s the world I live in.
As an introductory exercise, Matt asked us to look at ourselves in the past and choose two words to describe what we saw. There were a lot of wonderful answers, moving and funny. It took me a long time to decide on my 2 words. I tried to think of what defined my childhood, what came to mind when I looked at myself as a child or teen.
Growing up in Southeast Asia, I lived and went to school with people of every color. As is common with children, I never really noticed, until curious and well meaning adults started asking me the question I’ve never forgotten – “What are you?”
I’d tell them I’m half Chinese and half English. That’s the truth, after all.
“Ah,” they’d say. “That explains it.”
It explains why the bridge of my nose was higher than theirs, why I had ‘double eyelids’, why my cheeks were pinker, or why I spoke with an accent. Did I?
My being ‘half white’ became the reason I didn’t eat certain foods, didn’t understand certain customs, didn’t get the colloquialisms, behaved in ways considered more ‘Western”. The strangest comment I’d ever received was “That’s why you eat so much candy.” Go figure. It was the 70’s.
Finally, I decided the fastest way to end the conversation was to answer, “I’m human, what are you?” The stunned silence that followed was exactly the effect that that ten year old smarty-pants was going for.
The questioning didn’t end. You’d be surprised what people thought being mixed race implied in my teenage years – a story for another time.
So what two words come to mind when you think of your childhood? Then, if you’re a writer, what two words come to mind when you think of your protagonist?
I’m human. Funnily enough, these words work for me and my protagonist.