Since I've started my blog I've been spending some time on Twitter. It's a strange experience for me because I have a tendency to be verbose and write rambling thoughts that stretch on for ages. To be succinct takes a lot of work, and the constant stream of these soundbites is at times overwhelming to me.
I'm encouraged though by the conversations revolving around the need for diversity in KidLit. Growing up I remember great stories like the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor or the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce. Stories featuring girls who run around carrying swords or navigate every day life. Girls leading complicated and fascinating and wonderful lives. But I remember wondering - where are stories about people who look like me?
I was lucky in that when I was still able to read Chinese even after we moved to Canada and when I had access to the internet I was able to read stories published online from Taiwan. Stories written about people like me for people like me, even if the setting and the experiences are not the same, the culture and rituals are familiar. Strolling down the street to buy some bubble tea, celebrating Chinese New Years with parents and grandparents, families who have heavy expectations for your future. But I feel for people like me who do not have access to these types of stories because it's simply not out there on the shelves.
When we read stories about Chinese people, we are the Asian kids who like math, who have strict parents, who never have any fun. We are the sidekicks always reminding the main characters about the rules and about being careful. If we do have stories it's usually about the struggles of settling into a new place, forging a completely different identity as an immigrant. But what about those of us who have already come through that? Who have either already settled in Canada or who were born here. We feel as if we belong, but then occasionally, something or someone comes along and nudges us, reminds us that maybe after all this time, we still remain the Other.
This came up during some of my interactions on twitter with the #ownvoices hashtag. You can read about the origins of the hashtag here. When I first read about this idea: diverse characters written by diverse authors who are from the same group. At first I wasn't sure how to feel about that. Isn't diversity meaningful no matter who writes about it? Shouldn't I be happy if my culture is featured in books? Isn't that what diversity is all about?
And then upon further reflections, I don't think that #ownvoices is about discouraging other authors from writing about cultures or people that interest them, but it's the continuations of the stories and the mythologies told by the people who lived it. It's about providing role models for my daughter's generation so that they grow up saying - hey, this author looks like ME and writes stories about people like ME. This means that I can do the same. How powerful is THAT?
Upon dialogue with some of the others who use the hashtag and who appear to be angry with the concept of #ownvoices, I wonder why they are so threatened or challenged by the concept. But then when I tried to dive deeper (or as deep of a discussion as you can on twitter), I find that I am met with the equivalent of an internet blank stare.
I mentioned some of the issues that came up in my background. That in the community I grew up in (overseas Chinese/Taiwanese/Cantonese), being an artist of any sort puts you subject to ridicule and shame, most often times by our own families. We are told that there are only a handful of professions to aspire to because they offer the biggest guaranteed monetary payoffs (lawyer, doctor, engineer). Failing that, we should work in other stable jobs (usually health care, finance), and forget about anything related to risk taking or dreams.
I did exactly that and went the safe route. I forgot about writing as a career and chose a job in health care that's steady. I love my job, but I never forgot about what writing made me feel. But I always struggle and worry - is this a waste of time? Will people find that my stories are worth reading? It's a voice that doesn't go away because it's been drilled into my head, again and again, from since I could understand the question - what do you want to be when you grow up?
The response when I tried to have this conversation: Huh? I don't understand. No, you don't. Because you have never lived my existence. You don't know what it's like to grow up in a culture that teaches you to respect your elders and that they take care of you, but it comes with a price. You have to listen to what they say or you risk being pushed out of the family or financially cut off. We do not support our writers, our artists, our musicians. You don't know what it's like to be told that you're wasting your time by your own community and then to find that your stories are not common on the shelves, and you assume that it's because nobody wants to hear your story.
But I want to hear those stories and I want to write them. I'm sure there are many others who also feel the same. People who write #ownstories are not taking the easy road by "writing what you know". It's not as simple as that. You don't know what sort of background they come from and you don't know how hard of a struggle they've had to get those words out there.
It's a scary thing, putting words out into the void, to let people know that we exist.
We exist. And I see you.