May was Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month (sidebar: why is it Asian American and Pacific Islander rather than Asian and Pacific Islander American? I know I’ve seen APIA before, but suddenly AAPI seems to have become dominant), and the Asian Author Alliance organized a month of virtual author panels featuring many kidlit authors speaking on a variety of topics. Thanks to Twitter, I did not miss one of the panels that had caught my eye: Beyond Fractions: Writing and Living the Mixed Race AAPI Experience. Heidi Heilig moderated a conversation among Keala Kendall, Sarah Kuhn, Karuna Riazi, Pearl Low, and Rebecca Kuss.
To kick off the panel, Heidi said that when people who aren’t mixed race talk about the mixed race experience, they focus so much on pain. She wanted to know what joyful experiences the participants had had. Sarah agreed that people were always focused on, Oh, how sad you must be! She said joy comes from community, including community with other creatives like her fellow panelists. She and her brother grew up in a pretty white town, but there was one other mixed Asian family with two daughters, so of course they became best friends. She said it’s beautiful how mixed race people can embrace each other as whole people. For Pearl, being mixed has created so much abundance, with layers of experience on top of each other. She’s been able to connect with so many people, including people from the Chinese community, the Black community, and the general mixed community. Keala agreed, saying that you stand to inherit culture from all sides, and there’s a lot of pride there. She noted that in mixed race stories told by people who aren’t mixed, there’s a lot of focus on the mixed race character’s whiteness or their proximity to it. She also said she had a lot of great food in her family.
Sarah jumped in to talk about the creation of dishes, giving the example of her Japanese American mother’s teriyaki hot dogs. She said she hadn’t yet been able to replicate them; this is her tragic biracial quest. Rebecca said that her mother made hot dogs with water chestnuts and kimchi and that food was very tied to the mixed race experience for her. Here, Heidi said that, of her two sons, the one who looks more white likes a wider variety of foods and more Asian food than the other, and she feels like she’s colonizing (or decolonizing? I may not have caught this exactly) her husband’s white family.
Karuna, being South Asian and Black, saw two sides of resistance against colonization having come together to make her. She’s proud to be able to say she’s mixed race because two families came together and shared their backgrounds, resulting in a new generation that has a different experience. She mentioned a family photograph of her Bangladeshi grandmother and African-American grandmother hugging and crying the first time they met. Sarah said this was really beautiful because the stereotype about mixed race families is that they hate each other. As she gets older, Pearl sees more and more parallels between her Chinese and Black cultures. Noting that her mother is Chinese, she said that there’s a Jamaican fruit that’s kind of like a longan.
Next, Heidi asked whether anyone had anything special to share about the moment when they started to find community. Sarah always feels heartbroken when she hears about mixed race people who’ve faced racism within their families. She’s glad her mother made her realize she should appreciate all of herself and was so invested in making sure she was proud of who she was. Sarah learned about Japanese American incarceration and anti-miscegenation laws from her mother. Her mother also ensured she had a connection to Japanese culture, taking her up to Portland sometimes, where there was a little bit more of a Japanese American community. It made it more natural for Sarah to seek that out when she moved to more diverse areas.
Heidi explained that her mother is white and her father is Chinese, but her father didn’t connect very well with her and her siblings when they reached adolescence, so her mother encouraged her to talk to her Chinese grandmother, to learn her recipes, go over to her house after school every day, etc. So even though her mother didn’t embody that heritage, she encouraged Heidi to engage with it.
Pearl grew up with a single Chinese mother who made an effort to make Jamaican food for her so Pearl would know that part of her identity. Food is the strongest tether she has to her heritage, and she wants to know how to cook these recipes and share the food with others. She related to Heidi’s experience of having the parent from the other culture instilling a culture in you.
Rebecca said she’d had a similar experience, but perhaps not a positive one. She and her sibling(s?) were the only mixed race kids in their Jewish community and went to Jewish school. She believes her mother saw her children’s proximity to whiteness as being the best path for them, so she converted to Judaism, learned all the prayers, and cooks Jewish food better than people on Rebecca’s father’s side of the family. It was in college that Rebecca started to embrace her Korean side. She added that what Pearl had said about noticing the similarities between cultures resonated with her; in her case, it was Korean culture and Jewish culture.
Karuna also cited a similar experience. Her Bangladeshi grandmother only came to visit the U.S. once, but she taught Karuna’s mother how to make all her dishes, and now her dishes are considered to taste the closest to the originals, even though she’s the only non-Bangladeshi daughter-in-law. While Karuna spent every summer with her Black grandparents, her Muslim community is almost all Desi, so she experiences a pressure to present Desi, although that’s not fully who she is. She used to speak Bengali but no longer can (though she still understands it) because her father encouraged her to speak English. This language loss makes her “not Desi enough.” And then there’s the anti-Blackness, not within her family but within the community. Recently, she’s come to own that it’s both sides of her that make her strong and make her who she is. She’s decolonizing herself by refusing to choose a side.
Pearl shared that her mother was disowned for marrying her father. The first person in her mother’s family who reached out again was her great-grandmother, who Pearl thought would be the most stubborn. So this proves that people can change. Pearl said the whole battle to try to prove you belong to a culture you belong to is exhausting. Eventually you reach a point where you decide you don’t have to prove it, but it is really helpful when a family decides to open up and take in both cultures.
Heidi said she wanted to come back to anti-Blackness, but first she asked the panelists what the biggest misconceptions about the mixed race experience were and how they were reflected in fiction and other media. Keala named the misconception that mixed race equates to biracial with whiteness on one side. Consequently, a lot of stories emphasize biraciality from a white viewpoint. When Keala tells people she’s mixed race, their reaction is often, Oh, yeah, you look white, but in fact she’s a lot more “other stuff” than white. Mentioning that she has five siblings she loves to death, she said she rarely sees stories focused on mixed race families as a whole. Another misconception is that mixed race people are pulled toward one side or the other rather than experiencing abundance.
Sarah agreed that always centering whiteness was a problem. As Keala said, there’s a misconception that if you’re mixed race, you must be at least part white, and then the story revolves around how white you are, how colonized you are. She would love it if we could deconstruct that and get away from the idea that whiteness is what must always be centered. Being mixed is kind of like being a writer: people who aren’t that think they know what it’s like and tell you to your face. People make assumptions and express weird microaggressions that are supposed to be compliments. Sarah said mixed race people are always reduced to concepts instead of people, but she is still a person, with a totality of experience that others are perhaps not seeing. These assumptions and reductive conceptualizations are then reflected in stories, which is how we wind up with a lot of stories where mixed race people are just sad or there to teach someone a lesson.
Pearl feels it comes down to writing multidimensional characters. The mixed race experience is a human experience. There are so many assumptions out there: that a white/Asian mixed person has a white father and an Asian mother, that a Blasian person has a Black father… Another one Pearl has heard from Blasian friends, especially in Japan, is that mixed people like them are always supermodels. They just want to be regular people! So it comes down to actually having mixed race people in the writers’ room. Perhaps when you don’t, there’s a weird fetishizing of the mixed experience that happens. People think it’s fun to write about because of The Turmoil.
Karuna observed that the mixed race experience is really daunting for an industry like publishing that really likes to shoehorn people. It would be nice to not be seen as a trope and to see biracial kids who have a good connection to both sides of their family. While mixed race people with a white parent need representation too, not all mixed race people are part white!
Keala suggested that the commodification of the mixed race experience functions as a way to insert white writers in the writers’ room. For instance, you can have a mixed race character raised by their white parent while their parent of color is dead. Sarah agreed that having mixed race characters was seen as a way to “insert diversity,” say by having a mixed race character who’s “basically white with a bit of soy sauce.” She’s also frustrated with people who say, Isn’t it more diverse if this character is full [X race]? Heidi noted that so often everything is measured with respect to whiteness, so some white people can’t even handle the idea of mixed race characters who aren’t white at all.
I may have missed the last question, but next Sarah talked about how her latest novel, From Little Tokyo With Love, was her first time writing about the mixed race experience in a direct way. It was difficult for her to write about the Asian American community she loves in a way that might portray it in a negative light, but things do happen that can make people feel unwelcome. While she’d centered mixed race characters before, this was the first time she tried to delve into things that are not so great within the community that could be worked on. She would like to see more stories that engage with that complexity, specificity, and messiness. Finally, Pearl said that if we want to talk about these issues, we need to create space for it, space in which to express our different experiences.
The second part of the panel consisted of an audience Q & A. The first question was: for those of you who have incorporated your mixed race identity into your stories, what aspects of that experience did you choose to include (or actively not include) and why?
Sarah circled back to what she’d just said about how it had taken her a while to take on the complexity of the full experience. In her earlier novels, the focus was on being Asian American, but this time around, her editor, Jenny Bak, pushed her, if she was comfortable, to explore the feeling of not being enough in the Asian American community. It was scary for Sarah because she didn’t want people to think that it’s really the Asians who are the problem; “it’s still the white people who are the problem.” In the book, her main character is almost trying to flatten herself and take the nuance out of her experience so she can just uplift the greater idea of community. She feels bad about any negative feelings she has. With YA, Sarah feels like she’s writing a letter to herself and doesn’t realize it till later. She said that it’s okay to bring up discomfort and that you’re hurting yourself by not expressing it.
Heidi talked about her latest YA series, with its bipolar main character, and how the two sides of her family take different approaches to mental illness. She sort of brought in stuff from her white side and gave it to her main character in a pan-Asian fantasy.
Pearl, who primarily works in animation, TV, and film, tries to bring her mixed experience to whatever she works on. She can try to insert representation on a visual level where she can, and she felt like she put a lot of herself into Hair Love because even though the character isn’t mixed race, she has a single parent who doesn’t know what to do with her hair.
The next question was: would you ever write write a mixed-race character with ethnicities that are not your own? How far do you “cross the line” into another culture that isn’t your own?
Karuna said this would need to be done as respectfully as when writing cross-culturally in general. Being mixed race is often treated as POC Lite, which is really not the case; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Being invited into such a space (she said “crossing the line” sounded negative) takes research, getting sensitivity readers, and listening respectfully. She pointed out that your mixed race experience may not be like someone else’s. She does have a WIP with a mixed race character whose ethnicities are kind of like her own but not exactly.
Keala said that she’ll never say never, but there are some experiences she knows she’s not equipped to write. She lives in Hawai’i, so she might be able to write certain characters, even if not as perspective characters. But she’s not sure she could write a Jewish character because she didn’t grow up adjacent to any Jewish communities, and she doesn’t think she could write a Blasian experience. She noted that if you want to write a Hawaiian Japanese character, you have to know about Hawaiian-Japanese relations.
The third audience question was: in the Asian diaspora, we still struggle with discussing intracommunity issues–colorism, intersectionality, purity policing, etc. How might we move forward in a genuine way to have these discussions?
Pearl said this was a hard one. A lot of it has to start with labeling things as a problem. As a Chinese Black person, she sees the Model Minority myth as very pervasive. There can be a Chinese attitude of you just have to work harder, our oppression is the same, so if we can do it, you can do it. We need to have honest conversations about what we face and not pit communities against each other, because they live different experiences. There should be discussions that don’t take the white gaze or white approval into account.
Karuna echoed Pearl and said she sees a lot of defensiveness when the word anti-Blackness comes up. She shared a story about an auntie at the masjid who suggested she might have better luck meeting someone if she didn’t bring up how she’s Black so often. As hate crimes against Asians were rising, she saw people in the Asian author community calling out Black people for not supporting Asians while not going after white people, even as Black people were posting. She wondered if others (on the panel…?) were raised with the attitude that we shouldn’t criticize within the community because there’s so much external criticism. She sees a frequent impulse to save face, but Asian (American) communities just need to start being comfortable with being uncomfortable. If the anti-Blackness conversation had already happened, it wouldn’t have derailed the conversation about how to support Asian elders. Keala added that coming from a marginalized group doesn’t exempt anyone from marginalizing others and causing harm.
Sarah said that she’s had to overcome her upbringing in order to say things that might make others uncomfortable. She recalled an Asian reaction to Black Panther she’d observed, which boiled down to, How do we get our own? She also sees a wallpaper of comments about mixed race people in the community that goes unchallenged, but making people uncomfortable is one of the only ways to move forward.
Finally, someone asked whther the panelists could share some media or stories that they thought encompassed the mixed race identity in an authentic and/or positive/uplifting way. Rebecca cited To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was the first book she read (in her late 20s!) by a Korean author with a biracial Korean character. She told her now-husband they couldn’t get married till he’d read it (he ultimately read all three books in the series). Lara Jean, the heroine, is proud of being biracial, but that’s not what the books are about, it’s just the reality of her experience.
Sarah named Akemi Dawn Bowman (yay!). One of the first times she saw some of her own experiences on the page was in Starfish, a novel about a Japanese and white girl. The way Bowman incorporates the experience of being multiracial into fun, poignant narratives is something Sarah would’ve died for when she was younger (and still loves today).
Keala cited Heidi’s The Girl from Everywhere, which is partly set in Hawai’i. Heidi had never seen a biracial character in a book before her own book. She gave a shout out to Karuna’s The Gauntlet because there was no whiteness. Karuna named the Color Outside the Lines YA anthology of interracial love stories, in which she has a story.
Pearl said she’s had a hard time finding stories that speak to her experience, but she definitely cried when she read Sarah’s Shadow of the Batgirl because it had a Blasian character (Sarah confirmed that Erik, the character in question, had gotten a lot of love). Pearl also mentioned the TV show Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts.