The Diversity Conversation

I’ve watched the conversation around diversity change over the past few years when it comes to literature and YA/kidlit in particular. I took interest for obvious reasons, I am a writer of color who wants to write about my own experiences and heritage. However, even as a POC I was not prepared for some of the hard lessons I’ve learned over the past few years. And I came to realize that it’s because I didn’t have the foundation for it yet. I had to build that first before I could enter the harder conversations and really understand what they were about (let alone partake in them! Which, I still don’t do that often because I am still learning).

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I’m going to make an analogy for this post with the hopes that I can shed light on my own journey and perhaps help at least one person understand how much time it takes to even begin to understand this ongoing conversation we call “diversity.” So, I’m going to compare the conversation about diversity to school courses.

When I was a senior I took a class that beat the snot out of my brain, Biochemistry. I was so wrung dry after a semester of it that I dreamed about it (or, more accurately, I had nightmares about it). However, I still got a very respectable B+ in that course. I know that the only reason I got that grade was because I’d prepared myself for it. I took a year of intro biology, a year of intro chemistry, a year of organic chemistry, plus labs for all of these classes.

My coworker was talking about her classes the other day and said that she was required to take biochemistry but half of the class hadn’t taken intro biology yet. I was floored at how that’s even possible. How could you understand the very complex subjects of biochemistry without taking the intro class first? It just didn’t seem logical! (unsurprisingly most of those students dropped the class)

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The reason I’m telling these strange school anecdotes is to say that I think people should learn the basics before they can join the more advanced classes.

If you look at conversations about diversity in the same way, you should learn the basics in the 101 courses about inequality, systemic/institutional racism, systemic misogyny, internalized sexism, systemic ableism, and how cis/het/straight is presented as the “norm” in our society.

Then you need to take the 201 courses to understand how those concepts affect big picture defacto treatment of marginalized AND microaggressions that happen daily.

After all of those foundational courses, it’s possible to join the advanced courses which are the ongoing conversations about why X book is problematic or Y movie is appropriative or Z author’s Twitter feed is insensitive to the very audience they write for.

I see people jumping into conversations on social media or at a house party to explain why they don’t understand why such-and-such is a big deal. And I can completely understand why they don’t get it. It’s because they don’t have a foundation built up yet. They don’t know the long and hard history of how we got here as a diverse country/society. It’s because they haven’t learned the basics of why this all matters. The issue is that when you take biochemistry without taking biology 101, the only one that suffers is you. When you try to push your way into conversations about diversity without understanding, you’re hurting other people. This is where my analogy ends and the real talk begins.

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We need to stop being so naive to think we already have all the tools to talk about the problems with society just because we live in it. The world is not perfect, we know that much. However, why the world isn’t perfect is up for debate. The thing that isn’t up for debate: other people’s pain. If someone says they’re hurt, that’s it. You believe them.

For me personally, I joined the YA community when I was still learning about my own identity and coming to terms with the idea of writing myself onto the page. I still defaulted to what society told me was the “norm.” I made my MC’s white because I didn’t know if YA audiences would relate to POC MC’s. I also did not know enough about other marginalized communities to speak about their issues. I still have a lot to learn when it comes to communities I’m not a member of, so I still sit back and listen to those kind enough to speak out about it (for free! Seriously, emotional labor is labor and many people do it for free).

On top of that, POC/marginalized can be biased too. Being a racial minority does not stop a person from being ableist or heteronormative, etc. I had to unlearn many off-hand statements I used in every day conversation because I didn’t realize that it was perpetuating an ableist norm. I also had to unlearn some phrases that were cruel to other POC and Native groups. I grew up in the United States, which means I was raised watching TV shows that told me white was normal; and men married women; and boys played with cars and girls played with dolls. My parents NEVER told me that was normal, but society did. And I had to decide for myself if that’s what I would believe or not.

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video source: Unboxing Ableism

We all have to unpack our biases. And we all need to understand the basic foundation of why these conversations are important. Until then, it’s fine to be quiet and listen. There is no need to be active in the conversation all the time. Sometimes it’s enough to just learn. That’s actually why so many marginalized voices speak out, to help people understand.

I don’t mean to scare anyone away from joining an earnest conversation. But it is on you as the “learner” to understand that your need to learn does not supersede another person’s pain. So asking a marginalized person on Twitter to teach you about their life’s history of marginalization in a 15 minute conversation over 140 characters is probably not the place to start your learning. We are in the age of the amazing internet and google is an awesome thing. And once you’ve created your foundation then you can dip your toe into smaller conversations (perhaps start off in a closed community among friends who are willing to explain the harder things. That’s what I did)

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I’d be happy to answer questions if anyone has them and if I don’t have the answers I’ll say that too. After all, I’m still learning as well.

Here are resources to learn from before entering the diversity conversation:

We Need Diverse Books

Writing in the Margins

American Indians in Children’s Literature

Disability in kidlit

Gay YA

Reading While White

Writing With Color

Minorities in Publishing

Diversity in YA

I also have a Twitter list of Diverse writers (it is in NO way comprehensive, but feel free to follow any and all of them!)

Diverse Writers

#OwnYourOwn: How I found my #OwnVoice

This week is the start of #OwnYourOwn started by the lovely Kaye (@GildedSpine).

YA Interrobang wrote a wonderful intro article about it HERE. I’ll just blurb part of it to explain the gist of it:

We are going to #OwnYourOwn, with advice, with encouragement, with anecdotes so that you can know just how long we’ve been where you are, and how eagerly we’re waiting for you to take our hands and step forward to where we are. You are not alone on this path. You are not alone in your #ownvoices.

For my post, I wanted to write about how I finally accepted my voice as an #ownvoices in writing. Often times in writing (especially in the beginning) we have a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. This can occur not only with our style of writing but very very much with our voice.

To get to the meat of it, I have to tell you a bit about how I gained, lost, and regained my identity. (warning this gets a bit wordy, so if you just want to skip to the writer part of the journey, skip down a section)

Baby Kat hamming it up in good ol’ Central Florida

A little bit of my personal history
I mostly grew up in Orlando. That’s important to my story because it shaped a lot of my self-identity. It’s not a bad thing growing up in Central Florida. The weather is pretty decent, there are beaches, Disney World is close. However, my neighborhood was largely white. The main minority was hispanic/latinx. There were exactly 2.5 Asians in my class: Me, a Chinese boy, and a half-Malaysian girl (who was my best friend). That meant that to all of the non-Asian kids we were all “Chinese” weirdos. This was both upsetting and a fact of life for me.

My parents did what they thought was best for our family when they moved us to Orlando. However, my parents were raised in a time when they were told to just be American. A time of nationalism and when moving to America meant opportunity. Their Koreanness wasn’t something they spoke of a lot even though both had lived in Korea as children. My mother didn’t learn English until she was nine. My father was the first son of the first son and therefore the future head of our whole extended family still living in Seoul. However, that still wasn’t something that was spoken about and dissected a lot in our house, because we were American.

So, I didn’t get a good handle on my Korean heritage in an obvious way. There were subtle things. I thought that Korean words were just another way to say things and didn’t realize it was a different language until I went to school. There, I was bullied out of ever saying anything Korean. Kids also spoke to me in a mocking way where they would replace all of their L’s with R’s. People still talk to me that way now.

I didn’t realize that other kids didn’t eat kimchee and side-dishes (panchan) with all of their meals. I didn’t think that instant Ramen was a “junk food.” I just thought it was normal. I also didn’t think it was Korean. I just thought it was my family’s thing.

It wasn’t until I went to college, spent a semester in Seoul, and began writing that I fully embraced myself and embraced my heritage (but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Back to young-Kat…)

My Writing Journey Begins
This all matters because when I wrote my first full book (at the age of thirteen), I made the main character half Korean, half white. I did this, because I both wanted a character that looked like me and I knew the character *shouldn’t* look completely like me. Not based on the books I had read as a child. And to top it off, her Korean side was not acknowledged and played no part in developing her character. This was very telling. That at thirteen I couldn’t completely accept a full Korean main character, even though I was full Korean myself. I’m a bit sad for thirteen-year-old me because I know better now. (But what they say is true: hindsight is always 20/20).

Fast-forward a dozen years and I’m writing to actually publish. I wrote a space opera and I made the main characters (MC) white. However, this was just when We Need Diverse Books was gaining traction. It was inspiring and it made me really think about how I decided what story I wanted to tell.  It made me stop and think, “Why did I make my main character white?” The book was set in outer space. There were aliens with wolf-heads in my book. Why can’t my main characters be Korean? So I made my MC Korean. But I named him Eli. I did this because, even though I was trying to come around to the idea of embracing my identity within my writing, I still believed my culture in its entirety (e.g. Korean names) was not palatable for the current market.

That book didn’t gain me an agent. And I wonder if it’s because of my hesitation while writing that book. I didn’t put all of myself into that book both figuratively and literally. And I wonder if that made a difference.

The book that actually got me where I am now is based on Korean mythology, set in Seoul, with fully Korean characters with fully Korean lives and names. And that’s the book everyone was excited about. That was the book that got me an agent. That’s the book I want to sell to publishers.

Getting to that book was hard for me. What I mean by that is that I have not always been as comfortable with my “Koreanness” as I am today. No one actively tried to take my heritage away from me, but micro-aggressions and feeling like my culture was too “other” almost my whole childhood made me tuck it away so no one could see. I went to college and called myself a “twinkie” to appease the very Korean KA students that looked at me with suspicion when I didn’t speak fluently. And when I started to get into my culture more as an adult, some people who’d known me for 20+ years looked at me with doubt. Why now? Why suddenly have interest in my culture? Didn’t that make me “fake”? To be honest, the two main things that drove me forward was losing someone I loved and writing. I learned that I wanted to write about ME and what made me who I was. A huge part of that (whether I chose to acknowledge it before or not) was that I’m Korean. So, I wrote about it and I came up with the book that I eventually got my agent with.

It makes me deliriously happy that the book that’s my full self is the one that got me here. It’s almost like the universe waited until I could accept all of myself before it allowed me to take this momentous next step in my writing career.

So, any young writers reading this blog post, don’t wait over ten years before you write yourself into your stories. Be proud of who you are and who you could be. Write it onto the page. Create stories that are full of your personal journey and your personal heritage. Trust me when I say that there are so many people that want to hear it and support it and champion it.

And if you want to ask me any questions then feel free (you can write in the comments of this post or use the Contact Me tab on this blog).

Happy writing!