Monday, September 11, 2006

A multi-cultural 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 multi-cultural 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 change 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 multi-cultural, 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 multi-cultural author.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Grace. I am a big fan of your books (as Alvina can confirm as well) and really loved YEAR OF THE DOG.

A question I've been pondering for a few days now: Is a book "multicultural" when written by a non-person-of-color? Are the forthcoming titles Sold by Patricia McCormick and The Shalamar Code by Mary Louise Clifford considered "multicultural" by publishers, librarians, teachers? Or are "multicultural" books only those by writers/artists of color?

Anonymous said...

The characters in your picture books could have been of any culture and they wouldn't have lost their charm. (Of couse, Olvina had to be hen!) And our love for Year of the Dog was mostly due to the sense of the warmth of family. It was a multi-cultural story and SO much more.

But I hear you - when a critique partner said my multicultural book was "marketable", I had a difficult time finding the compliment there. Marketable wasn't exactly what I was aiming for.

I am glad you found your balance.

Anna Alter said...

It kind of seems like "multicultural" is a label that marketing teams use to appeal to educators... but by no means does it define every aspect of a book, or the way a story is experienced by the reader. When I read your books I don't think "ah now I understand the asian american experience," I am more concerned with the individual characters and their evolution.

alvinaling said...

Pooja--good to see you here! I personally think a book is "multicultural" even if written by a non-person-of-color if the book contains "multicultural" themes, but I wonder if a book written by a person of color that contains no "multicultural" themes is still considered a multicultural book? (such as Grace's Olvina Flies or Jack Lopez's In the Break)? Perhaps not...

I sometimes struggle with Grace's dilemma as well--did I get my job in publishing because of affirmative action, even though it wasn't an official policy? My company is dedicated to diversity, which is great, but it does give you pause--the typical issues that always come up, and one of the arguments against affirmative action. But as one of my college friends once told me, "Diversity is all-important." And it is, in every aspect of people's lives.

But I digress...although I don't want to be labelled simply or only a "multicultural editor," or "Asian editor," I also don't hide the fact that I embrace multicultural submissions, because one of the big reasons I decided to pursue children's book publishing was because I saw a need for more books featuring children of color.

We all come to our lives and jobs and pursuits from our personal perspective, and none of us can deny our own identity and the role it plays in our career.

But I'd love to hear the perspective of others! Don't be afraid to offend...

Grace Lin said...

for me, I think a book is multi-cultural (is there a hyphen in that, you'd think I'd know this by now) by the content, not the author. I don't think "Olvina Flies" is a multicultural book at all, multi-species perhaps, but not multicultural.

Agyw said...

I think on a basic level Grace, we all have the inner struggle of being worthy. Worthy of our readers, our job, our family, our friends. Sometimes we can bring out those concerns and attach a bright label. Like she got her job because of "who" she knew, or whether money or advantage paved the way. To a small extent, there will ALWAYS be those little advantages, whether writing on a timely subject, or being able to call a famous author friend, (like Ally Sheedy, love her, but really would she have been published at twelve years old if mom hadn't been an editor? Does it negate the book-- I still love it, She was Nice to Mice). In the end it becomes all about the work, doesn't it?

Our Westbrook library has Ugly Vegetables from when it was first printed. I used to take out that and many other "multicultural" books for G when she was little (now I own a good deal of them), for the same reasons she had dolls of different fleshtones. I wanted her to be aware there were many ways to view the world, and because there were some differences, the similarities were stronger.

Being aware of a need (and many people call that "marketable" so when I use the word, I'm actually thinking "need")and helping to fulfill that need isn't selling out in my eyes. It most certainly doesn't lessen the accomplishment (that's like saying when they invented the pacemaker it was a sell-out. I'm sure the developer had many advantages such as a great med school, funding, etc., but it doesn't lessen the need or accomplishment. Is that a good analogy?)

My seven year old is fascinated with Chinese culture (at four our staff at our favorite restaurant always gave us great service, because the first thing out of her wittle mouth was "Ni how", now sure of the spelling). She LOVEs your books. We read Okie Dokie Artichokie AGAIN last night (that and Sixteen Cows, are her favorites)and she came upon the bookmark you'd inserted (this was from the Robert's Snow book bag, auspicious that, I never win anything, and I felt so dwarved and out of my element, weirdo-me asked for a sign, then I won a bag full of books-- it works for me!) When she found out you have a chapter book, she got all excited, so NOW we have to get that one too, so she can read it. She also didn't know you were Asian-American, though we'd read your books, so when I showed her your picture on the jacket, she thought you were very pretty.

I like that very much. For all of the things we hang our hat on. It's my kid and kids like you, you really have been accepted. Your art is fresh, your stories fun often with a point, without being preachy. And D gets to broaden ALL her definitions, and some of the fears SHE wrassles with become less, because you've sat on those feelings of "unworthy". My point, and I'm sticking to it, got any velcro?

Agyw said...

okay, that wasn't supposed to be kids like you, though I suppose you're still a kid and there are kids like you. It was supposed to be MY kid and all kids. Sheesh. I need more coffee. Rough night!

P.s. I'm a bit guilty of magical thinking (looking for a sign and all) and I get the weirdest things out of your word verification prompts. One day it was an admonition to BIC, another it was not a nice thing but it involved a few fs and u's and q's and K's. Todays is no different. What's up with something that comes out as it's the fact without the punctuation, spacing or vowels? Arrrrgh, I'm going mad I tells ya!

alvinaling said...

"Being aware of a need and helping to fulfill that need isn't selling out...It most certainly doesn't lessen the accomplishment."
Well put, Agy.

Oh, and in the "official" pinyin, it would be spelled "Ni hao."

How great!

Lisa Yee said...

I have been struggling with this for a while, and am going to give a speech about it at the ALA Joint Conference for Librarians of Color luncheon next month.

But basically, I am a multi-cultural author, just like I am a female author, and a working mother and so so so many other things. I don't like labels that soley define us. Unless, of course, it's something like "fabulous chick."


iRead Taiwan and Beyond said...

Hi, Grace,
This is Irene, a Taiwan girl in UK to study children's literature. I met Alvina last year for SCBWI Taiwan and TIBE bookfair. (Hi, Alvina, if you would be here!) I really like your point, Grace, as I am going to write my dissertation on multicultural children's lit by Anglophone Taiwanese authors/ illustrators as examples. Actually, it is really hard to say what is multi-cultural and what is not, esp. in USA, because the majority of residents are immigrants. So you can say everything is American culture, or all are multi-cultural! Recently, some scholars claim "Monkey King" is a part of American canon, for more and more people know this story. Ethnically Chinese American are surely American, so from this case the line of multi-culture is blurred.
However, be it multi-cultural or not, if there is something worth to be preserved and transcended to children, please write them down! Children around the world who can read in English also need and want to know more about cultures. I do believe understanding each other's culture may bring world peace and conciliation of misunderstandings. Don't you think so?
I have ordered your new book The Year of Rat, and hope I can analyze Rat and Dog and understand multiculture more! And look forward to your new works! (PS> I am in the year of pig, and it's a pity that there is no book about this year :P)
ATB, Irene