What Diversity Means to Me

SHADOWS ON THE MOON by Zoe Marriott
The latest post in Ellen Oh's diversity blog series is by author Zoe Marriott.

g This post first appeared on Hello Ello, the blog of friend, critique partner, and on-the-verge-of-ruling-the-universe author Ellen Oh, who was kind enough to invite me to share my thoughts on diversity. I’m cross-posting here a couple of weeks after my original post went up on Ellen’s blog because I believe in the importance of the topic and want its presence on my blog as well, but you should definitely read the entire series, which is outstanding, thought-provoking, and written by a slew of authors who deserve every second of air time they get.

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I’ve wanted to write a children’s book since my days as a preschool teacher – my first love was actually picture books, although I write middle grade novels now. One of my favorites back then was Peggy Rathmann’s OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA, and it still amazes me to think that years later the editor of that book, Arthur Levine, is now my editor.

I later took a class in picture book illustration at UC Berkeley that was taught by Julie Downing, which was when I discovered that picture books are REALLY HARD. I was easily discouraged back then, so I spent the next 10 years daydreaming about writing children’s books while pursuing other things.

It was only when my daughter was born in 2006 that I realized I was at a crossroads. I could succumb to the notion that raising a family meant surrendering my long-held dream, or I could choose to test my mettle and truly commit to pursuing my dream. Thankfully, I chose the latter.

I mined a lot of my own childhood interests in doing so – my comic-book geek past, my feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement during my school years, and the bonds of friendship between early teenage boys. But I was also strongly influenced by my present reality as a husband and new father, and that’s largely why a girl turns out to be the alter ego of Captain Stupendous.

It’s also why my characters represent a variety of ethnicities, because thinking about the reality that my daughter had just entered made it impossible to do otherwise. During my teen years I was almost exclusively surrounded by people of white European descent, and that left its mark on me, but my daughter is growing up in a far more diverse and challenging slice of society than I did. I wanted to write a book that reflects her reality, which is now my reality. I’m honestly not sure if I made that choice for her benefit, or for mine, but it felt like the only valid choice I could make.

Ellen asked me why I think books like mine are important to our kids. I have some trouble thinking about my book in terms of importance. I hope kids will think my book is entertaining and funny, and that it’ll provide a way for kids to temporarily escape from whatever struggles they’re going through, as books so often did for me. I hope reluctant readers will give it a chance, have a good time reading it, and use it as a gateway to other, different books.

I do also hope that kids of mixed ancestry and post-immigrant backgrounds will look at my book and recognize something of themselves in it, even if my book isn’t a piercing examination of those aspects of their lives. In fact, I hope that readers will find value in the fact that GEEKS isn’t about being a mixed kid or the child of second-generation parents, because I strongly believe that those kids can (and should) have stories that are as goofy, adventurous, lighthearted, and superpowered as anyone else.

What does diversity mean to me? It means complexity. Acknowledging diversity, comprehending it, and incorporating it into our worldviews is challenging. We have to be self-aware, so we can perceive own shortcomings. We must have strength, because without it we’ll be unable to contain and manage the anger that an unjust world so often provokes. It’s vital to continually learn from the people around us, because the alternative is to live in a destructive state of societal isolation. And we must be vulnerable in our hearts and generous in spirit, because it’s only then that we can love and trust each other in the face of such constant exertion.

It doesn’t make things any easier that the definition of ethnicity has expanded beyond ethnicity to include sexuality, gender, socioeconomic level, education, and more. The world can feel like an increasingly complex place, and the effort required to engage with it in a truly inclusive way is not insignificant.

That can be very discouraging, and some people clearly view it as a reason to entirely dismiss the concepts of diversity and inclusion, but they’re wrong. It’s vital that our individual mentalities evolve to match the increasing complexity of the world, because I believe a simplistic understanding of it is dangerous. An unwillingness to grapple with that complexity can directly contribute to the horrors of racism, religious hatred, misogyny, and homophobia.

What does this mean for me as a writer? Well, it means being vigilant about my creative choices, happenings in the industry, and the stellar example being set by other authors like Matt de la Peña, Mitali Perkins, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who are champions of diversity as well as champion authors. It means   engaging in meaningful dialogue whenever possible, and taking meaningful action whenever necessary.

It probably means my books will evolve over time, and that my current interest in writing books that are silly and entertaining will expand to include topics that are more explicitly concerned with diversity, at least in terms of my own life experiences. I have a book in me, somewhere below the surface, that will explore brotherhood, multigenerational families, life as the child of immigrants, and the shifting nature of adolescent identity. I need to grow into this idea, but one day I’ll have both the chops and the fortitude to write it.

That’s not to belittle the books I’m currently occupied with, however. GEEKS is chock-full of superheroes, giant robots, and slam-bang action scenes. It’s not heavily focused on my protagonist’s ethnic identity, and that’s good too. As I said earlier, I think every kid on the planet could use a few laughs and a few daredevil adventures once in a while.

My protagonist is named Vincent Wu. He’s half-Korean, as is Polly Winnicott-Lee, the girl he has a mammoth crush on. My own children will always be able to look at my book and find characters with an ancestry similar to theirs, and I’m grateful that Arthur A. Levine Books put that half-Korean boy right there on the cover for everyone to see. GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES won’t change the world for anyone, but it might introduce a hint of needed complexity for someone.

It could even provide a note of affirmation for a kid who’s struggling to find his or her place in the world, and that might be a legitimate way to illustrate the shift from a simplistic worldview to one that’s more complex and complete. An isolated and alienated boy explores the world through books, and over time he starts to understand that the world is more vast and multifaceted than he previously suspected. As a result, this terribly lonely boy, who’s always believed that the world has no place for him, starts to believe that maybe it does have a place for him after all.

Wouldn’t that be glorious? Wouldn’t that alone justify all the effort we expend in the name of diversity?

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3 thoughts on “What Diversity Means to Me

  1. This is a thoughtful, inspiring and fun article, Mike. Agree that it would be “glorious” if your book could “provide a note of affirmation for a kid who’s struggling to find his or her place in the world”. Can’t wait to read it!!

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