Even though it takes me a while to answer, I do like to read the reader letters I receive as soon as I get them. Most of the time they are encouraging, which is always very appreciated when I am struggling with projects (authors have very fragile egos, recently I had a nightmare that the publisher published the advanced copies of my book using my horrible first draft). So, I admit I was a bit taken aback when I received a letter that was more concerned than complimentary about my book "Lissy's Friends."
Here is part of the letter:
Although the children love the book, I am writing you out of concern for how the character Lissy was portrayed. I recently read the article Not for Sale by Tracy Lai where the author write how racism is perpetuated on Asian American women through having them described as "being desirable" (in the work place) because they are cute (as in doll like), quiet rather than militant and unassuming rather than assertive...I read your press about being a multicultural book author, and in the end there is a paragraph that states you write about the Asian American experience, and that you believe books erase bias. In reading your book to children, I feel that I may unjustly perpetuating a stereotype that has been used to subjugate Asian American women; no matter how innocently it was portrayed. I do wonder if this book was written about a shy white boy or girl, if I would feel as strongly.
I admit, the grumpy part of me felt just like throwing the letter away (now that I think of it, this whole blog post is more on the grumpy side, which I apologize in advance for) and chalking it up to another learning experience. The truth is being a "multicultural" author/illustrator is always a slippery slope. Authors are human. We create books and characters with the hope that our words express our true intentions. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we make mistakes. I'm willing to admit to certain books of mine have even failed; I just have to live with it and try harder the next time around.
But the more I thought about the letter, I began to feel that, in this instance, I wasn't sure if I agreed that the character of Lissy was a failure on my part.
In the book, Lissy is very shy and creates friends out of her imagination with origami. When her origami blows away and is discovered by other children, she is able to make real friends. The character of Lissy is actually based on my niece, who used to be extremely shy among strangers, often hiding when addressed by one. In fact, most of the characters in my books are based on myself and I was definitely more shy than outgoing as a child (and still am). And one of the books I have swimming in my mind for the future features a shy, Asian protagonist. Should I change her because of the fear of perpetuating a stereotype?
And my answer is no. Because before I am a multicultural author/illustrator, I am an author/illustrator without the adjective. I am aware of the adjective, I am sensitive to it, but I also know that I need to write a story that is authentic to myself first. I'm not saying I won't write about a boisterous Asian character, but I do have to write the voice of the character that is true to me. To me, it seems unfair (and not to say stifling!) to think that I have to be limited to what kind of characters I wish to write about because of my/their race.
And it also seems to be asking a lot of any author for the character in their book to be indicative of an entire race. As I mentioned in my booktalk of Little Pear, No one book is supposed to be representative of a culture.
So this was my response:
To address your concerns about perpetuating stereotypes--personally, I only feel that the book perpetuates the stereotype if it is the only book with an Asian character in your library. Just as there are shy white children, there are shy Asian children (I was one of them). One book should not and cannot define an entire race. My suggestion is to include other books with Asian characters in your children's reading--which would then show Asians with a range of personalities. Just like how it is in real life.
I didn't have the time, but if I did I would've included a list of books with unshy Asian characters, like Jenny in Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding, and books with non-Asian shy characters, like Disappearing Desmond. That is a great book, by the way. If "Lissy Friends" offends you, please go get that one instead. Unless shy cats offend you too.