Monday, September 11, 2006

a multicultural author

My first published book was, The Ugly Vegetables, a story about my mother and I and the Chinese vegetables we grew when I was a child. One look at the cover and you can see it’s chock full of the multicultural label.

And that label, as anyone who has experienced it knows, is quite a double-ended sword. However, when it was published I was still a bit green about the genre. So it was with a little surprise when a fellow striving author/illustrator (not a blue rose girl, btw) said to me, “It’s a good that you’re using your culture, that’s what’s getting you published.”

Was it? Suddenly, the validation that I had broken through the publishing wall was marred by the idea that I had somehow squeezed through a back window. Was I only getting published because of my heritage and subject matter? Was I cheating? Was I selling out my culture for a career?

And this fear was something that haunted me. During that first year of publication, I constantly felt ill at ease, as if I was a chicken floating with swimming swans. I hadn’t intended on getting on a platform for diversity in children’s literature—I had just wanted to get a story I loved published. But, without meaning to, my book was seen (by those who read it, the numbers of that is another story) as representative of the underserved Asian-American experience. And who was I to represent that? I felt, in my desperation to get published, I had faked my way in.

So soon after (during the discussions for another project) when an editor asked me to consider changing my Asian girl character to a Caucasian boy, I should’ve felt a sense of satisfaction and relief. The reasons were good— changing the character would make it so that the book wouldn’t be considered multicultural, its sales wouldn’t be limited and I, as an author, wouldn’t be pigeon-holed. But, instead, I was uneasy.

Suddenly, I found myself not caring if I was getting published for the wrong reasons or I wasn’t selling enough books for the right ones. Somehow, given the opportunity to prove I was publishable without my heritage seemed a pale consolation prize when compared to creating a book that was true to my vision, the readers who loved my books and the child I was many years ago.

And it’s not that I’ll never do a book with a Caucasian boy (I would do a book on anything if I felt it was right) or that my books are meant to preach (horrors!). But, I realized that being able to publish my work was a gift not to be squandered on something soulless. And my soul is Asian-American.

So, strangely, it was the unsettling nature of this editor’s request that made me find my balance. It sifted away my fears, the practical reasoning and the backhanded compliments and left me proud of what I am, a multicultural author.


artmarcia said...

One of the things I love the most about your books is that they give me real, authentic representations of a culture different from mine. I'm especially referring to "The Year of the Dog" and "The Year of the Rat" but also to a large extent the use of the Chinese fairy tales in "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon."

I am a teacher and I look for books that authentically represent different cultures. A book I used last January was "The Day the Dragon Danced" by Kay Haugaard and Carolyn Reed Barritt which is told from the perspective of an African-American girl and her grandmother about their community's Chinese New Year Parade. The grandmother is resistant to the different culture, but the child, whose teacher is Asian, shares her thoughts and feelings (and her teacher's words) with her grandmother.

On the other side of the coin, as an elementary art teacher, I love the theme of The Year of the Dog when Pacy discovers her talent, which is universal to all cultures, yet also very specific to the year of the dog. The theme of gratitude is central to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and also the Wizard of OZ. Both Minli and Dorothy have to leave home to discover the value of home.

I live in Kansas and the Wizard of Oz is a big part of Kansas culture so sharing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon with my students will be a great fit. About 20% of the students at my school are of Asian descent, mostly Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian.

When we have inservice training sessions at my school, I've heard some Caucasian teachers say (somewhat wistfully) they "don't have a culture" which I think is false. Everyone has a culture.

My son and his wife just had a baby boy. His wife's family are Afrikaners--South Africans who originated in Holland. There is nothing like a birth to uncover aspects of culture and beliefs that you didn't know even existed. Breastfed or bottle-fed? Circumsized or not circumsized? Cloth diapers or disposables? Different family members think they know "The Way." For example, I am a dyed-in-the-wool La Leche League member. In my personal opinion, breastfeeding is the ONLY way to feed a baby, but not all family members agree. The new family has to discover what is "The Way" for them.

Alice said...

Hi Grace,

Where have you been all my life?!? :) As a teacher but perhaps more as a Chinese American, I found a voice in your books and am looking forward to sharing ALL your book with my students.