Biracial, Bicultural Roundtable: Think Who, Not What – Part 1

Introduction by Cynthia Leitich Smith

The question isn’t “what” we are. It’s “who” we are.

I’m a mixed blood, tribally enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Nation. I’m also a children’s-YA author and MFA faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Cynthia Leitich Smith
Cynthia Leitich Smith

My first book, Jingle Dancer, was published in 2000, and I’ve been active in the national “diversity” conversation since it was more narrowly defined as “multicultural.” One of my personal priorities, with regard to my own Native-themed fiction, is reflecting the diversity within Indian Country, for example, by including Black Indian characters in my fictional casts.

By and large, I’d always thought of myself as open to varying viewpoints among my fellow advocates for inclusion. I’m genuinely thrilled that ever-more voices are rising up to demand more representation, quality representation. I pay close attention to insights shared, advice offered, cautions expressed. To the extent practical, I carefully follow and participate in related conversations on social media, at conferences, in critical review journals and beyond.

Of late, though, I’ve begun to ache in response to a certain dismissiveness toward multi-racial (usually biracial) characters.

Some fret that they’re little more than an easy default for writers unwilling to do the homework necessary to write to outside their own experience. A few suggest that mixed-race characters are per se illegitimate. They aren’t only Other. They’re OTHER. Or worse, nothing.

According to a 2015 Pew study, 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is biracial. According to the 2010 Census, between 2000 and 2010, the number of people identifying themselves with more than one race rose from 6.8 million to 9 million.

Every indicator suggests that the number of multiracial people is on a sharp rise. This diversity element does exist in youth publishing today–in the industry, in the pages of books–but not nearly to the extent it’s reflected in our young audience.

Multiracial children and teens need to see characters like themselves in books and the people around them should, too. Whether those kids flow with ease from one culture to the other(s) or find themselves struggling, children’s-YA literature should always be a place they belong.

How do children’s-YA writers navigate such complexities of identity? How is this manifested in their work for young readers?

We asked Will Alexander, Crystal Chan, Kekla Magoon, Jo Whittemore, and Yvonne Wakim Dennis to share their thoughts.

Will Alexander

Question 1: Growing up, how did your identity evolve (in its nuances and complexity)? To what extent and in what ways (for worse and/or better) was it guided by your families of origin and immediate communities, by the larger society?

I dimly remember living in a bilingual household. My father is Cuban. As a teenager he served as ambassador between the rest of his family and English-speaking Miami. (Miami still spoke English in those days.) My mother is from southern California. She’s Anglo, but fully fluent.

Will Alexander
Will Alexander

By the time we moved to the suburbs outside Philadelphia my household had switched to English-only. Both of my parents were far from home. Both wanted to fit in. We fell under the sway of assimilationist slanders about language–especially the lie that kids who grow up hearing two will learn proficiency in neither. That’s nonsense. The opposite is true. But we listened, so I stopped listening to Spanish at home.

Cuba was a lost paradise in the family mythos, a place of castles and betrayals that we could never return to. I thought of it as Númenor, the doomed island of exiled kings that Tolkien made up. (Aragorn’s people were from Númenor.) Spanish became my High Elvish, used for formal greetings rather than actual conversation.

I was a geek. Obviously. But somehow I couldn’t fully grasp the fact that one could be a Latino geek. We were supposed to like baseball bats more than lightsabers. Oscar Isaac was not yet the best pilot in the Resistance. Gina Rodriguez hadn’t yet played Jane the aspiring novelist. Lin-Manuel Miranda had yet to equate young Hamilton’s reading and writing with Harry Potter’s discovery of magic. So despite having a scientist dad named Guillermo who introduced me to Tolkien and watched Star Trek weekly, I understood the various elements of my identity–and my cross-cultural sense of masculinity–as fragmentary, compartmentalized, and incompatible with itself.

It took a bit of time to notice common threads of second-gen immigration experience, and to recognize them as mine.

Question 2: How did all of this impact the writer you are today, or did it? Does your writing reflect lived experience in terms of race, culture and/or ethnicity, and if so, how? In either case, how does your heritage inform your voice in the big-picture conversation of children’s/YA literature and diversity?

Writers often find themselves stuck between worlds and trying to understand the overlap. My science fiction explicitly reflects that lived experience. Ambassador and Nomad both star Gabe Sandro Fuentes, an eleven-year-old who becomes the secret ambassador of our planet. Meanwhile his dad gets deported from the country. I needed to explore both the dangers and the strengths of belonging to more than one world at once. So I told an immigration story. My protagonist has all of the cognitive, code-switching benefits of a fully bilingual brain. Gabe can move smoothly between cultural expectations. That’s one of his survival traits. And the word “alien” throws off a few different kinds of sparks inside his head.

My fantasy novels are less directly influenced by my cultural background. But I have heard this several times: “You’re Latino! That’s why your books are so weird!”

Polite smile.

Junot Díaz helped crystalize my thinking about why we need diverse books, and this talk still serves as a signpost on the road to a better literary ecosystem. We need mirrors. “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” We also need windows. Those of us accustomed to the toxic narcissism of recognizing ourselves in every industry-standard protagonist need clear-eyed views of the outside world–other lives, other possibilities, and heroes with other faces.

About the Author:

William Alexander writes science fiction and fantasy for Middle Grade audiences. His novels include the National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets and the Eleanor Cameron Award-winning, International Latino Book Award finalist Ambassador. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at Clarion. He teaches for the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Visit him at goblinsecrets.com and on Twitter via @williealex.

Crystal Chan

Question 1: Growing up, how did your identity evolve (in its nuances and complexity)? To what extent and in what ways (for worse and/or better) was it guided by your families of origin and immediate communities, by the larger society?

Crystal Chan
Crystal Chan

I grew up in small-town Wisconsin in the ’80s where there were very few minorities, and we were literally the only mixed-race family in town. My Chinese father spoke flawless English and tried his best to assimilate – and did a good job at it. He was on the tennis team, bowling league along with my (white) mother. We never talked about race, and since family was on the other side of the world, and I didn’t speak Chinese, they were inaccessible to me. Growing up, I thought I was white – but then I would get the racist teasings: “Ching chong! Wing wong!”, pulled slanted eyes, and of course, the dog-eating questions.

More often than this, though, I would get the question: “What are you?” all the time. Let me repeat: all. the. time. And I would say, “My dad’s from China and my mom is white, so I am half and half.” As I grew older and the question just never went away, I started to resent the question. Why am I a “what”? Why am I not a “who”? And when I asked my parents about this What are you question, my father refused to engage in conversation and my mother responded, “Just tell them you’re my daughter.” Which is not best response to help a child navigate race relations. So, with it being a complicated and confusing issue, I tried to avoid the conversation as much as possible – with family, friends, and certainly within myself.

That changed when I was studying in France and met, for the first time in my life, a biracial woman of my age who looked like me. My world fell apart: she looked like me. I’d never met anyone who looked like me. We talked for only a couple minutes, but that conversation changed my life. She had said, “Yeah, you’re biracial and so am I. I could tell the moment I saw you from across the room.” Before that moment, I had never even heard the word “biracial” before. But that put me on a very deep identity search, which I’m still journeying on.

In a sad/frustrating way, my experiences with race certainly played out with the publication of my debut novel, Bird. Bird is about a girl named Jewel who is Mexican/Jamaican/White, lives in Iowa, and who was born on the same day that her brother died. The story, at heart, is about identity, belonging, grieving, starting over, friendship, and connections. I did so much research for the book, trying to be as representational about Jewel’s racial mix as possible (while I’m mixed race, I’m not the protagonist’s mix), and I was overjoyed when it started to sell overseas – nine countries around the world lined up to publish Bird. However, imagine my heartbreak and fury when when I saw the Netherlands’ cover: they completely neglected to put on the cover a girl that racially represented Jewel, who in the first chapter is described as having darker skin and “thick, kinky locks of hair”. The cover of my book was whitewashed. And by the time that I saw the cover, they had already gone to press. It was too late.

This experience devastating for me as a mixed-race woman, as I am constantly misrepresented (people see me as white when they want to, Chinese when they want to, or Japanese or Greek or Latina if they choose not to ask me) – and here my story about identity is, itself, misrepresented. It took quite some time for me to find my artistic spirit again, as that experience was truly soul-crushing. It was a reminder that writing about diversity is a risk: there are risks involved to putting your minority experiences out there in a (mainly) white industry. Usually everything turns out just fine (my US publisher was amazingly wonderful), but not everyone’s going to get it. So you really, really need to protect your heart (and sign strong contracts). Hopefully as our country and world continues to diversify, these instances will diminish. But until then, this is the world we live in, and these are the stories we want to put out into this world. Both are important to keep in mind.

Question 2: How did all of this impact the writer you are today, or did it? Does your writing reflect lived experience in terms of race, culture and/or ethnicity, and if so, how? In either case, how does your heritage inform your voice in the big-picture conversation of children’s/YA literature and diversity?

All of this very deeply influences my writing. Growing up, I had never read a book about me – about someone who falls through the cracks of race or has culture clashes within the family or identity questions because of conflicting expectations. And since they tell you, oftentimes, to write the book you would have wanted to read as a child, I did. I wrote Bird, my debut novel about a girl who’s Jamaican/Mexican/White living in rural Iowa. All of the stories I’ve written have mixed-race protagonists and/or characters who don’t quite fit into the “boxes” of race or culture: transracial adoptees as well as mixed-race characters, for instance. For so much of my life, I felt like I never really had a “home” racially, never had a group to which I truly belonged, and a lot of this search for belonging comes out in my writing. The great thing is, though, that this theme of searching for belonging is wonderfully universal – Bird has been published in nine countries, for instance. It’s not just limited to race.

Finally, I post quite a bit about race on my author Facebook page. I think it’s a natural way for me to continue the race conversation – that the conversation doesn’t just stop at books; that rather, books are the launching point for the conversation. So I often post on race and racism and inequities – and where they intersect with compassion, how we can address these issues without becoming pessimistic or burned out. That is a very important balance for me to strike: if we’re going to make progress, we’re going to need people who are in it for the long run.

About the Author:

Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in writing, performing, and public speaking about diversity and claiming your path. She has given talks for groups of 7-700 people; facilitated discussion groups at national conferences; is a professional storyteller for children and adults alike; and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio. Bird is Crystal’s first novel and has been published in ten countries around the world. Bird’s audiobook is narrated by Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games.

This roundtable will continue tomorrow with Part 2.