Tag Archive | hapa

hapa.me

Yesterday I went to the Japanese American National Museum to see Kip Fulbeck’s exhibit hapa.me: 15 years of the hapa project. I’ve blogged about what hapa means before and also about seeing Kip Fulbeck at the LA Times Festival of Books in 2017. For this exhibit, Fulbeck took new photographs of the participants in the original Hapa Project and again asked them to respond to the prompt, What are you? The result is about 40 double portraits separated in time by fifteen years, accompanied by the subjects’ original written statements and their new ones.

I wanted to see the exhibit because I’m always interested in explorations of mixed race Asian (American) identity, but I was also particularly looking to see how Fulbeck’s subjects engaged with their identity and the label hapa fifteen years later. I was curious whether some of the participants, like me, felt more ueasy claiming the word hapa than they used to in light of a growing sensitivity to the appropriation of a Hawaiian term. On this front, I was rather disappointed by the double portraits. There was basically no engagement with this specific question. I still enjoyed the photographs and the statements, though.

Only after I’d looked at all the portraits did I realize there was a panel on the wall on “The Etymology of Hapa.” Here, I thought Fulbeck might have wrestled with the question of who gets to call themselves hapa. I was again somewhat disappointed. The text recognized that different people think hapa means different things and some people argue that there is a right way (and thus implicitly a wrong way) for the term to be deployed. This appeared to be an oblique acknowledgment of the controversy over mainland multiracial Asian Pacific Americans identifying as hapa. But the text read as defensive to me, emphasizing as it did how language is constantly evolving. Sure, that’s true, but I don’t think that’s a shield we can step behind to avoid having to really question our claiming of hapa.

In the next gallery, there were eight albums of additional portraits with written statements. I believe these represented work from Fulbeck’s ongoing Hapa Project (I actually tried participating at the Japanese American National Museum a while ago, but they didn’t need any more people). The walls were also covered with miniature photographs of exhibit visitors, with accompanying answers to the What are you? question on half sheets of paper. (This interactive component only happens on Saturdays.) I read a bunch of these, and finally I found one that expressed what was on my mind: “I used to ID as ‘hapa’ but don’t feel like it’s my word to claim anymore as a mainland mixed kid.” I was honestly surprised not to see more of this. That said, in my experience, it’s younger (say, under 30?) multiracial Asian Americans who are more likely to choose not to call themselves hapa anymore. In any case, thank you, anonymous museum goer!

YALLWEST 2018

Spring in Los Angeles means the LA Times Festival of Books and the YA festival YALLWEST, both of which I have attended several years in a row. This year, the Festival of Books was the same weekend as the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, which my department was hosting and which I presented at, but I still managed to get to the festival on Sunday. The highlight of my afternoon was when Gayle Forman smiled at me. I was sitting on the grass pretty far back from the YA stage, writing in my journal as the Culture & Belonging panel was wrapping up, when two women approached from behind me. I glanced up, and one of them, wearing a straw hat, glanced down and smiled at me. And I thought, That’s Gayle Forman!

A few weeks later, Isabelle and I returned to Santa Monica High School for YALLWEST. Publisher’s Weekly has a photo essay on this year’s festival, and we’re in the first picture! I’ll bet you can’t find us.

Upon arriving, we visited the Mysterious Galaxy stand, where all the authors’ books were being sold. I’d brought my copy of Spinning so I could get it signed by Tillie Walden, but at the stand I discovered two other comic books by her, I love this part and The End of Summer. After going back and forth a bit, I bought both of them. After one panel, we came back to the booth area for Tillie Walden’s signing. It was lovely to meet her, and she drew illustrations in all my books! You should check out her gorgeous, poignant work.

Next we went to a panel that Tamora Pierce was on. I read tons of Tamora Pierce when I was younger, and I met her and asked her a question once at the Edina Barnes & Noble when I was in eighth grade or so. It was funny walking around the festival and spotting famous YA authors around every corner.

We headed to the choir room for a panel entitled Singularities. The funny thing about YALLWEST is the panel titles are all a bit obscure, and the panelists don’t always know themselves how to interpret them. This was one of those panels. It was moderated by John Corey Whaley. One of the authors, Hilary Reyl, had a novel, Kids Like Us, about a Californian boy on the autism spectrum who winds up in rural France because his mother makes films. He apparently speaks French and goes to French school (like me!) and adores and quotes Proust (not like me!). Another panelist was Ally Condie. She described her middle grade novel Summerlost, and I didn’t recognize it even though I’ve read it and it’s on my Hapa Book List! It didn’t click until she started talking about how she’s from this small town in Utah that has…a Shakespeare festival! Yes, she’s from Cedar City, where we roadtripped last summer. Emily X.R. Pan was also on this panel; she’d been on the YA panel at the LA Times Festival of Books too. More on her anon.

The next panel was the one I’d been most excited for: Friendships! It was in the student art gallery. One of the authors joked early on that “we write novels because we’re not succinct and concise.” Well, that was relatable. I learned that Libba Bray’s best friend is Gayle Forman. Arvin Ahmadi said he sometimes finds himself wondering of his closest friends, What if we had never met?! I found that relatable too. There was plenty of discussion of how friendships can be as close and intense as romantic relationships and how these particular authors for the most part didn’t much like writing toxic friendships. They’d rather write wonderful ones!

Our penultimate panel was the Fantasy/History panel. Emily X.R. Pan was on this one as well, and she finally spoke about something I’d been wondering about. Her debut novel is The Astonishing Color of After, which has been on my radar for a while and which I’m interested in reading. The protagonist, Leigh, is multiracial: her father is white, and her mother is from Taiwan. In the story, after her mother’s death, Leigh goes to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents. Emily X.R. Pan is not mixed race, and so I’d wondered why she made Leigh mixed race. On the Fantasy/History panel, she addressed this, saying that while she wasn’t mixed herself, she’d grown up in mostly white communities and felt out of place among Asian(-American?) peers. She’d wanted to write a character who experienced this sense of displacement, so she made Leigh multiracial. While I appreciate the potential similarities of these experiences, I didn’t see why Pan had to make Leigh mixed race to accomplish her goal. She said that she herself had felt out of place (perhaps conflicted about her sense of belonging) as a monoracial Taiwanese-American growing up in largely white communities, so if she wanted to convey that experience, why not write about a character like her? I’m not saying authors should only write characters like themselves. I’m just saying that Pan didn’t need to make Leigh multiracial to do what she wanted, and I also think the multiracial experience is distinct.

 

Meditation Workshop & Mixed Remixed 2017

A week ago today I happened to see a post about a meditation workshop Yumi Sakugawa was leading that very evening on campus. I looked closer and realized the workshop was happening in my building, literally just upstairs from the phonetics lab where I was sitting. As it happens, Asian American Studies and Linguistics are in the same building, so it’s not so surprising, but it felt providential. Isabelle and I decided we had to go, since Yumi Sakugawa was practically coming to us, and the stars aligned even further: our afternoon seminar ended early, allowing us to make it to the workshop on time.

The other attendees were mainly Asian American women, like at the panel with Yumi, MILCK, and Krista Suh back in May. There were a bunch of undergrads, including a film student who told us about a documentary she’s making about Yumi! I hope we’ll get to see it in the fall. There were also a couple of librarians, at least one professor, I think, and several Asian American Studies staff.

Yumi had us go around and introduce ourselves and say three words that described our current state of mind. Since it was the last week of classes, there was a lot of “stressed” and “overwhelmed.” She led us in a couple of guided meditations and read to us from some of her meditation-related comics, which I hadn’t seen before. She also talked about this taking tea and cake with your demons exercise. The idea is to face the things about yourself you’re ashamed of, or don’t like so much, or have a hard time accepting, to face them head-on and without judgment and to listen to them in personified form. While drinking tea and eating cake. So we all drew the kind of tea and cake we wanted to have with one of our demons on tissue paper. As a closing ritual, we went around the room again and said what three words we wanted to define the rest of our week and ripped up our tissue paper drawings and dropped the shreds into Yumi’s singing bowl. It was a perfect way to spend a Wednesday evening at the end of a long quarter.

On Saturday, I headed downtown for my third Mixed Remixed festival. I went in 2015 and in 2016, when I appeared on my first author panel. In the past, the festival has been at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, but this year it moved to the Los Angeles Theatre Center, a stone’s throw from The Last Bookstore. I arrived in time for the Featured Writers reading, which featured (haha) Tanaya Winder, May-lee Chai, Tara Betts, Julian Randall, and Julie Lythcott-Haims. They all read powerful work, but I particularly liked Tanaya Winder’s spoken word poems, some of which incorporated song. I was also interested in May-lee Chai’s personal story: she wrote a memoir, Hapa Girl, about growing up with a Chinese-American father and a white mother in rural South Dakota in the 1980s. It was…not a hospitable place for her family.

Next I went to the panel The Mixed-Race Conversation: Is It a Wrap?. It was moderated by Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR’s Code Switch and featured Kayla Briët, a musician and filmmaker who’s performed at every Mixed Remixed I’ve been at; Greg Kimura, former president of the Japanese American National Museum and an Episcopal priest; Tehran, a comedian whose performance at last year’s festival I did not particularly appreciate; and Caroline Streeter, a professor at UCLA. I once again did not appreciate Tehran, but setting him aside, the panel was great. The panel was intergenerational, which brought out a diversity of perspectives and was also just nice to see. The conversation ranged from the academic to the pop cultural to the personal and even to the religious, thanks to Greg Kimura. That was a voice I hadn’t heard before at the festival. I liked what Caroline Streeter had to say about our cultural amnesia, how there have been mixed race people and communities in the United States for hundreds of years and so many of those stories are forgotten. I also liked what Greg Kimura had to say about the essential role he thinks literature and the arts will play in shaping our society’s attitudes about mixed race people (among other things). And basically everything Kayla Briët said was eloquent and inspiring.

A young hapa woman in the audience asked Greg Kimura about his strong identification with the word hapa. I think she asked if he’d faced any backlash for using it, but–and maybe I was projecting onto her–I also sensed that she was asking whether he thought it was (still) appropriate for multiracial Asian Americans to call ourselves hapa. A question in this vein is what I would’ve liked to ask the panel at the LA Times Festival of Books this spring if I hadn’t had a raging headache at that session. I was thinking about the term hapa at last year’s festival too and have written about it at other times as well. Greg Kimura basically said it’s been shown that hapa isn’t a Native Hawaiian term so it’s not appropriation to use it, and he claims his identity with this word. This argument doesn’t suffice for me though. First of all, I know hapa is Hawaiian Pidgin; just because it’s not an indigenous Hawaiian word doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a meaning and history specific to Hawaii that’s been overwritten and changed by multiracial Asian Americans on the mainland. Being hapa means something to me, but I also can’t use this term without qualms.

At the end of the panel, talk turned to Trump and how optimistic (or not) the panelists were about the future. Both Caroline Streeter, the oldest panelist, and Kayla Briët, the youngest, found they could not truthfully say they thought things were getting better. They both expressed worry about the future. I was grateful for their honesty and also…saddened, I guess. We were all at a festival celebrating our mixed race identities, but we can’t forget that this is a dark time for our country.

During the longish break between the last session and the evening program, a young woman named Laura came up to me and handed me a postcard about her oral history project Mixed Feelings. Check it out on Facebook and Tumblr; there are interviews with mixed race people of many backgrounds about their identity and experiences. If you identify as mixed race, you can participate by filling out the survey! Laura and I ended up sitting together at the evening show, and she told me her project was born in the wake of last November’s election, out of her need to do something.

Kayla Briët opened the show again; I will never get tired of watching her play the guzheng and use her loop machine. There were a couple of other acts, and then actor and producer David Oyelowo accepted the Storyteller’s Prize with a moving speech about his own interracial marriage. After the show, I caught up with Maria Leonard Olsen, one of my co-panelists in the kidlit session last year. I also said hello to two other people I recognized from the mixed and queer writing workshop in years past. The workshop did not take place this year, sadly.

After leaving the festival, I walked to The Last Bookstore, since it was literally less than half a block away. While I was contemplating all the books I wanted in the SFF section, a woman with a stroller asked me if I worked there. I wish! I picked up Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and headed home.

Monday was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal throughout the United States. It also marked one year since the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, which I wrote about a little last year before I could write up last year’s Mixed Remixed festival. It seems a fitting time to reflect on how far our country has come and how far we have yet to go.

Science and Books and Madrigals, oh my!

I packed a lot into Earth Day weekend. Saturday morning was the March for Science. I bussed downtown with three other friends from the department. It was much less nuts getting to this protest than it was getting to the Women’s March. We actually made it into Pershing Square this time, where a button hawker greeted us with, “I’ve got you covered, nerds!” I did not buy a button. We hung out in the park reading signs as the morning speeches wrapped up. I spotted one that read: “I should be doing research right now #gradschool.” Too true.

I was glad to see this member of the clergy

We marched from Pershing Square to City Hall, just like in January. People chanted, “Science, not silence!” and when a little boy started chanting the slogan on his sign, “Science is better than Donald Trump!”, people joined in. When we reached City Hall, we stood around for a while watching the rest of the march arrive. One of our syntax professors found us, which seemed miraculous given the crowds. I later learned a bunch of other linguists from our department had been there, though we never saw them.

From the march, I headed to USC for my third LA Times Festival of Books. I wandered through the booths for a bit. I glimpsed Yumi Sakugawa at the Skylight Books booth and witnessed the eerie sight of red-clad, white-bonneted handmaids walking in pairs about campus. There had been a WriteGirl workshop at the festival earlier in the day (I finally started volunteering with them!), but I couldn’t make it because of the March for Science. I stopped by the stage where the girls were reading in the afternoon, though, and listened to some of their pieces. Then I made my way to the Big 5’s children’s book booths, and at the Penguin Young Readers booth I noticed that Julie Berry was signing. I had read The Passion of Dolssa recently and also enjoyed All the Truth That’s in Me, so when she had a free moment, I went up to talk to her. I told her I was a fellow Viking Children’s Books author, and then we chatted about grad school and Provençal.

After meeting Julie Berry, I met up with Isabelle at the Small World Books booth by the Poetry Stage, where she was about to get some poetry collections signed by Hélène Cardona. After that, we explored the festival a little more before heading to the first of the two panels I’d picked out for the afternoon. This one was a YA panel entitled Faith, Hope, and Charity: Strong Girls in Crisis, which struck me as a little dramatic, but okay. The panelists were Julie Berry, Sonya Sones (who…turns out to be someone I think I’ve contra danced with in Los Angeles–no wonder she looked so familiar!), and the person I’d been most eager to see, because I loved Cuckoo Song and The Lie Tree: Frances Hardinge. The moderator was Jonathan Hunt of SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog fame. The authors talked about the inspiration for their latest novels, mixing genres, and whether/why their protagonists are girls. Julie Berry said that since she has four sons she gets asked why she doesn’t write about boys, and she said, “I’m a girl! It’s like what you are doesn’t matter once you’ve reproduced!” Which elicited much laughter, but there’s something dismal underlying that if you think about it.

Next we went to the other panel I’d picked out: the hapa panel! I’d been excited for it because Kip Fulbeck–author of Part Asian, 100% Hapa and creator of the Hapa Project–was on it (the other two panelists were USC professors). He was indeed the highlight of the panel for me. I enjoyed his self-deprecating manner and his sort of “you do you” attitude. He’s not interested in policing hapa identity, and he told one young hapa woman in the audience that one doesn’t have to spend every minute of one’s life fighting. Taking care of oneself is important too.

On Sunday, I participated in Jouyssance’s fourth annual early music singalong. Jouyssance is a local early music ensemble whose concerts I’ve occasionally attended. I know one of the singers because she used to sing in our Georgian chorus. Anyway, I printed the scores to the nine songs on the singalong program a week in advance and made myself a Youtube playlist to sing along to. I can sightread vocal music to an extent, but I had a feeling I would be in over my head if I didn’t prepare a bit. My favorites were Orlando Gibbons’ “The Silver Swan,” Claudin de Sermisy’s “Tant que vivray,” Thomas Morley’s “April is in my mistress’s face,” and Heinrich Isaac’s “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” There was also Josquin des Prez’s “El Grillo,” which I find annoying.

I arrived in the sanctuary of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon, clutching my scores. A few singers from Jouyssance were there, but most of the participants weren’t in the ensemble. Everybody seemed to be a relatively experienced choral singer, though. The Jouyssance director complimented us on our reading of the first song and said she hoped we were all singing in choirs. The pace was relatively swift, and there wasn’t any hand holding, but everybody could handle it, and it was fun. Plus we weren’t exactly striving for perfection or speedy tempi.

My row of the alto section included our former Georgian chorister, a woman I know from shape note singing, and a French woman whom we told about shape note singing and who later told me she’d just started alto recorder. She showed me some of her music: “Pastime with good company”! “Belle, qui tiens ma vie”!

We didn’t do the Gibbons or the de Sermisy, to my chagrin. No French and too much Italian! I learned that Orlando di Lasso’s “Matona, mia cara” is not only quite vulgar but is also largely ungrammatical. After working on six of the nine songs for an hour and a half, we took a break for some treats and then sang everything in an informal “concert,” which Isabelle came to. (This concert was so informal that we occasionally started songs over again after a rocky start.) It was a lot of fun, and I hope I get to do it again next year!

Mixed Remixed 2016

As I mentioned last week, I went to my second Mixed Remixed Festival two weekends ago. Last year, I went for the first time and had a wonderful time. This year, I applied to be a presenter and was placed on a panel entitled “Excavating Family Mythology & Publishing Your First Children’s or YA Book.” (I was a little perplexed when I found out because as far as I’m aware I excavated zero family mythology for either of my books, but it turned out not to matter.)

mxdrmxd - web ad - 2016 - EXCAVATING - jpeg

Oh, my goodness! I’m on a panel flyer!

While last year’s festival was only one day, this year’s was two. My panel was on Friday, the first day. I took the bus to the Japanese American National Museum early in the afternoon in order to make it to the panel before mine, “Hapa Writers: Our Stories in Fiction.” On my way in, I met Heidi Durrow, the author who founded the festival, for the first time in person.

To me, the most interesting part of the hapa writers panel was when panelist Maria T. Allocco talked about her relationship to the very term hapa. I’ve alluded to the complexities of using this word before. Maria explained that she no longer liked to call herself hapa because it means “part” or “fragment,” and she is of course whole. She also said she found the word Eurocentric, I think because it’s sometimes understood as meaning someone of mixed Asian and European ancestry. But I don’t think this is the definition used in, say, Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian, 100% Hapa. I also have qualms about using the term hapa, but for entirely different reasons. My understanding is that hapa is a Hawaiian word that means “half” and that can be used in combination with many other modifiers to refer to people of all kinds of different multiracial identities. That is, hapa itself has nothing to do with Asian ancestry. It’s in the mainland U.S. that it came to mean an Asian mixed race person. I’m uncomfortable with the way a Hawaii-specific term has been appropriated, but I’m conflicted because, like several of the panelists, I like having this word to describe exactly what I am.

Next up was my panel! My fellow panelists were Katrina Goldsaito, author of the forthcoming picture book The Sound of Silence; Maria Leonard Olsen, author of, among other books, Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown?; and Veda Stamps, author of the middle grade contemporary novel Flexible Wings. Our moderator was Jamie Moore, the festival’s literary coordinator. The conversation ranged from our writing processes to why we write for children to what we read growing up to We Need Diverse Books to how to balance writing with a day job. I was the only writer on the panel who hadn’t actually written a book with a mixed race protagonist.

Speaking on my first author panel ever wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I’d anticipated. I didn’t get tongue-tied, and I think I managed not to say anything absurd. I had fun, and it was a great way to meet people. I was touched that Claire Ramsaran, the organizer of the mixed and queer writing workshop who interviewed me for the Mixed Remixed blog after last year’s festival, came to my panel even though children’s literature is not her specialty. Also, when the panel was over, N, one of the people scheduled to speak on Saturday’s millennials panel, came up to talk to me, and we had an interesting conversation about Asian-inspired fantasy.

On Saturday, I went back for a full Day 2 of the festival. The first panel I went to was “Is the Mixed Thing Just for Girls?” There were two men on the panel, so…no? One of the audience questions really brought home to me the fact that mixed race people are not a monolith (obviously) because it was about hair. I really can’t speak to this experience, but my impression is that hair is a big deal to white and black multiracial people (or I guess black and anything). There are always tons of reference to hair at the festival, and one of the main sponsors is Mixed Chicks, a company that makes hair products specifically for mixed people (where, as far as I can tell, mixed means part-black). Last year, festival attendees all got sample products in our goodie bags. I think those products are still stashed in my room somewhere. I don’t have curly hair, and my hair is far from being a major facet of my multiracial identity.

I took a break for lunch and got some onigiri in the Japanese Village Plaza. After lunch was the mixed and queer writing workshop I mentioned, which I also went to last year. It was a little smaller this time around, but some of the same people came, so it was fun to reconnect with them. I had a conversation with one of them about using or not using hapa to describe ourselves. She actually avoids it, precisely because of the appropriation issue. Then we started comparing notes about grad school experiences…

From the workshop, I went to the featured writers panel, mostly to hear Jamie Ford read. The other authors were poet F. Douglas Brown, memoirist and spoken word artist Willy Wilkinson (whom I saw perform last year in the live show), and novelists Sunil Yapa and Natashia Deón. Jamie Ford read a scene from his next novel, about a hapa boy who comes from China to the U.S. only to be sold at the Seattle World’s Fair (I think).

Next I went to “Mixed Millennials: Changing What Mixed-Race Means,” the panel N was on, since, well, I’m a millennial! N and one of the other panelists, Andrea, co-run a website called Mixed Race Politics, which publishes articles and essays related to the mixed race experience.

After a bit of a break, there was a reception in the building across from the museum. There I got to talk to the very kind Jamie Ford, who asked me what was next for me writing-wise. Then we piled into the Tateuchi Democracy Forum for the Storyteller’s Prize Presentation & Live Show. I sat with Andrea and Claire and a couple of other people from the writing workshop. Opening once again this year was singer and multi-instrumentalist Kayla Briët (I’m still envious of her guzheng). Then we got to see a sneak peek from the forthcoming film Loving, about Richard and Mildred Loving, of Loving vs. Virginia fame.

The other performers were:

  • Lichelli, who delivered a monologue about hair
  • Andrew J. Figueroa “Fig,” who went to Hampshire College and who performed amazing, amazing…Hip-Hop, I guess? (I’m going by his bio; I’m terrible with music genres). His piece on being harassed by a policeman in high school blew me away.
  • Maya Azucena, who’s singing and stage presence were also very impressive and stirring

The Storyteller’s Prize went to Taye Diggs and Shane W. Evans for their picture book Mixed Me! I belatedly realized that Taye Diggs was a way bigger deal than I knew (this seems to happen to me a lot, since I’m so out of it when it comes to pop culture and/or the entertainment industry).

Like last year, the live show was exciting, invigorating, and cathartic. Afterwards, there was another reception with cake. I chatted with Andrea and met a few more people before heading home. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!

AWP in Los Angeles

Last Saturday, I took the bus downtown to go to AWP at the LA Convention Center. AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it hosts an enormous annual conference. (Last year it was in Minneapolis! I didn’t go.)

I arrived early because a particular 9:00am panel had caught my eye: The Politics of Translation: Aimé Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe. La Tragédie du roi Christophe is a play I read as historical background for a college class on contemporary Haitian novels by women. I remembered almost nothing about it, but it started to come back to me at the panel. I also took literary translation in college, so I was curious to hear about the translation of the play. The panel turned out to be less of a discussion than three distinct presentations, with Aimé Césaire as the only unifying thread. One of the panelists, Paul Breslin, recently translated La tragédie du roi Christophe in collaboration with Rachel Ney, and he talked about how they chose to translate the word nègre (Negro) in different contexts. They also rendered French alexandrins with English heroic couplets (a term I did not know) and French creole with English creole. Anyway, the whole panel made me nostalgic for my days as a student of Francophone literature and made me want to reread Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

Next I wandered around the bookfair, where small presses, literary journals, and writing programs were tabling. I stopped at the booth for WriteGirl, a Los Angeles creative writing and mentoring organization that connects women writers with teen girls. I actually went back before my last panel of the day to learn more, at which point I was given a copy of an anthology they produced. Here’s hoping I can find some time to volunteer with them before I leave Los Angeles…

At noon, I headed to the We Need Diverse Books panel, entitled Shifting the Narrative Lens. Mike Jung was moderating, and I must say he was an immensely entertaining moderator. I’ve never heard so many hyperbolic descriptions of applause before. The applause was for the panelists: Audrey Coulthurst, Alicia Williams, Brandy Colbert, and Daniel José Older. I didn’t take a lot of notes, but it was a good panel. The panelists may have been preaching to the choir, but they still had thought-provoking things to say. One thing I did write down was Daniel José Older’s call for more white writers to write white characters who confront their own whiteness. White writers worry a lot about writing the Other, but it can be even harder to write the Self.

The next panel was pretty much the whole reason I decided to go to AWP, after thinking for weeks that I wouldn’t. It was Social Justice in Speculative and Fantastical Fiction for Young Readers. I didn’t really realize it till after publication, but that’s basically what Sparkers is. So is Wildings. Anne Ursu, the moderator, joked that the panel was literally the hottest at AWP since the room was packed and it was extremely warm. The panelists were Sherri L. Smith, Daniel José Older, William Alexander, and Tananarive Due, all of whom had great insights. There was a fair amount of discussion of subverting tropes like the Magical Negro or Female Villain = Bad Mother. Older also talked about different cultures’ relationships with the dead, which gave me all sorts of ideas.

At the end of the panel, I went up to introduce myself to Anne Ursu because she blurbed Sparkers. To my astonishment, she recognized me! Even in my new spectacles. So that was delightful.

From the social justice panel, I went to Non-White Authors Also Worry About Getting It Wrong: Diversity in Children’s Literature. (There was definitely a coterie of folks trooping from one diversity-related MG/YA panel to the next.) The panelists here were Rahul Kanakia, Heidi Heilig, and Day Al-Mohamed. Heidi Heilig introduced herself as “half-Chinese, half-white, hapa haole.” She grew up in Hawaii. I’d heard of her debut novel, The Girl from Everywhere, but I didn’t realize the protagonist was also white and Chinese. Another one for the TBR!

The panel was mostly about non-white authors writing the Self, grappling with having to appeal to a white audience and with feeling a responsibility not to perpetuate stereotypes about one’s own people. I was actually more interested in hearing about non-white authors also writing the Other: Is it different for us than for white authors? Perhaps not, since anyone writing the Other has to do their research? Does being marginalized along one axis make one better equipped to write characters marginalized along different axes? There was some discussion of being “given a pass” (e.g. Kanakia wrote an Indian-American girl–will his portrayal of a teenage girl receive less scrutiny because he’s an Indian-American writing an Indian-American protagonist?), but to be clear, most of the panel was not about these questions.

This was the panel where I took the most notes, and I appreciated that the panelists weren’t afraid to voice uncomfortable questions. For instance: the idea that diversity is a trend is anathema to advocates for diversity in kidlit, but even so, some gatekeepers may well conceive of diversity as a trend, and (according to Kanakia) there’s a perception that straight white authors are “cashing in” on diversity. The question is, what if marginalized authors are too? Even if unwillingly? The idea is disquieting. Personally, I wonder if it doesn’t really matter; as long as a story that wasn’t getting told before is now being told, who cares if the gatekeepers picked this story because they thought it was “trendy”? To give another example, when the A Birthday Cake for George Washington incident came up, Kanakia asked his fellow panelists point blank if they would tell their agents to stop shopping subsidiary rights for a work that had been criticized to the extent that they (the author) had come to believe it was genuinely harmful.

There was also discussion of sensitivity readers. A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a manuscript and offers feedback on the portrayal of a character with an identity that the reader shares but the author does not. For instance, I asked two Deaf readers to comment on Caleb’s portrayal in Wildings. The panelists talked about paying sensitivity readers, the possibility of their telling you not to move ahead, and the importance of getting input early so you don’t pour years into a book only to have someone recommend you shelve it.

I think asking sensitivity readers to give you feedback on your manuscript can be delicate. There’s an inherent power imbalance in the relationship between an author and a sensitivity reader, particularly if the author already has a contract for the manuscript in question. Although I did not offer to pay my Deaf readers, I think offering to pay sensitivity readers is actually the right thing to do (in other words, I was wrong). In particular, you shouldn’t put the reader in the position of having to ask to be paid because they probably won’t ask. You the author should offer from the start. Also, you should recognize that your sensitivity reader may not feel comfortable critiquing your portrayal as much as they’d like to. This is probably exacerbated if your sensitivity reader is also your friend. Either way, the reader can’t force you to change your manuscript or halt the publication process. They risk offering you their feedback only to be ignored or even attacked, so in some ways they don’t have much of an incentive to be honest in their critique. That’s why we as authors can’t use the fact that we consulted sensitivity readers as a defense against later criticism of our portrayals.

The last panel I went to was Writing Sex in YA: Choices and Consequences, with Elana Arnold, Corey Ann Haydu, Brandy Colbert, Carrie Mesrobian, and Terra Elan McVoy. The panelists, all of whom write contemporary fiction, talked about realistically portraying teenage sexuality, books they’d recommend, and things they’d like to see more of in YA (e.g. asexuality, boys saying no). They were very funny and entertaining.

All in all, it was a great day, and I’m so glad I got to go. Next up: the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend!