It all began with an article I posted on my Filipino Student Association’s Facebook page.
Entitled “My ‘Get Out’ Moment as an Overseas Student,” my essay is about how my first landlady in New Zealand, a white woman, gradually unmasked her racism to me while I was living in her house, beginning slowly but surely with a series of microaggressions that turned into racial slurs and, eventually, into blatantly hostile behavior. A leading news network in Australia ran this short piece, giving me the chance to finally call my landlady out for the way she had treated me during my first month as a new PhD student in the country. By doing this, I sought to render her and other people who have behaved similarly toward new immigrants accountable for their actions. Finally, my voice had been recognized for its value, and though I expected backlash, I was sure that I was helping those who had once been in my position to feel seen and heard.
Having lived in America and New Zealand, I have grown used to being disbelieved and dismissed by white people whenever I speak openly about my experiences of racism. You are making a mountain out of a molehill, I’m often told in so many words. Maid, illegal immigrant, terrorist, mail-order bride. Why is your country so poor and your English so good? I am expected to invalidate my feelings of hurt and to remind myself, repeatedly, that I’m wrong to feel disrespected. I learn to tell myself that these people who offend me mean no harm. I am told that I must give the benefit of the doubt to those who flatten my humanity by reducing me to a stereotype. They are human, even when they casually disregard my humanity. Like many people of color, I learn to give all sorts of excuses to white people when their failure to acknowledge my feelings becomes too overwhelming, and too difficult to fight.
But while I have learned to expect my experiences of racism to be dismissed and belittled in white-dominated communities, I normally don’t expect the same from fellow people of color, who normally go through these same experiences—almost as though these are necessary rituals of initiation into a world where our existence is erased. This is why I was in shock when my article, which described instances of racism that I felt were pretty obvious to those who have unavoidably experienced it, was mocked and misunderstood in my university’s Filipino student association.
The first instance of microaggression that I cited in my essay was when my landlady, on my second day at her house, said to me, “I do not know how it is in your country, but here we open the windows to let in fresh air.” One doesn’t have to be a genius to sense the statement’s racist implications: that the Philippines is a dirty place, that our air is filthy, and that I have likely grown used to keeping my windows closed. A member of the group immediately replied to my post by saying that I had misinterpreted my landlady’s statement: that indeed, in New Zealand, people open the windows to let in fresh air. He also went on to say that if I hadn’t read malice into her statement, I would have avoided all the other “misunderstandings” that followed my misinterpretation. Never mind that I hadn’t complained, or called her “racist” to her face, when she told me this: all her other actions that followed, like checking on my cooking to make sure I wasn’t preparing something that “smelled,” locking my bathroom door so that I couldn’t use the toilet, hiding my food containers from me, blaming me for making her stove make “weird” noises, forcing me to hose down, squeegee, and towel dry my shower stall after every wash before scolding me for “spending too much time in the shower,” or telling me that I was “so domestic” before asking me if I could walk her dog, were the results of this initial misunderstanding on my part, which unleashed her abusive behavior. But I had been offended by what she said, and because of this, according to him, I had somehow brought on the abuse I received, even if I had kept my feelings to myself.
In response, I pointed out to him that I hadn’t misunderstood my landlady’s statement at all. I had clearly understood the message it was meant to convey: it was meant to remind me of my inferiority and to put me in my “proper” place in her household. I added that his remark indicating my hurt feelings had set the tone of her future behavior toward me was a clear case of victim blaming.
No one in the group came to my defense.
A few hours later, another member responded to my comment with a laughing emoji before proceeding to call my essay “a so-called article.” He said that none of the behaviors I had described in my essay were racist or demeaning: to him, my landlady was just enforcing house rules, and that if she hadn’t done and said these things I mentioned in my piece, I would have failed to keep her house tidy and bright. I don’t know how walking her dog, staying silent when my bathroom door was locked or when my food containers were hidden in a coat closet, or “smiling more” for her whenever I cleaned her kitchen had anything to do with keeping her house tidy and bright. His comment made absolutely no sense: it was clearly meant to belittle my hurt and to cast me as hysterical and unjust in my anger.
I am still trying to understand why these young people were so eager to justify my landlady’s behavior, even going as far as saying that she had behaved fairly toward me. It made me wonder about the kind of abuse they were willing to put up with as new immigrants to New Zealand (since many of the group’s members came to the country as teenagers or young adults), if indeed they found her behavior acceptable.
It didn’t help that a female member expressed sympathy at first in response to my essay, before going on to say, “I know Filipinos who experienced the same with fellow Filipinos too, which just goes to show that this kind of behavior isn’t isolated to any particular group. This doesn’t change that New Zealand is a very welcoming place.” She was condoning my landlady’s racism, implying that because I pointed out how racially charged my landlady’s bullying was, I was singling out white people as abusers while disregarding the nonracist abuse taking place within other ethnic groups. (In other words, if others are doing it toward their own kind, then why call it racist?)
This, of course, ignores the fact that racism isn’t merely a direct attack against another race but a set of institutionalized privileges that are given to one or several ethnic groups to dominate and oppress others. To understand how racism operates in white settler societies such as New Zealand, we must recognize the privileges that white people possess as a consequence of European colonialism and the subjugation of non-Europeans. Though many claim colonialism is a thing of the past, its legacy persists: my landlady possessed immense power in our relationship as a result of her white privilege, and because I was new in the country, and a person of color, she exploited her power over me to belittle me, often with racial slurs, and to bully me. This I tried to explain to the girl, who seemed to have no notion of what white privilege was, and whose understanding of racism was flimsy at best. She did not respond, leaving her boyfriend to defend her honor, and her ignorance, on her behalf.
When I reached out to the association’s president, bringing to his attention the abuse I was beginning to receive, he curtly told me that “he’d deal with it later” before falling silent. This baffled me, considering how he often positioned himself—quite aggressively, too—as an “activist” leader in his posts and in meetings. Due to his claims of being enlightened and woke, I assumed he would see the bullying and tone policing for what it was. But a few weeks later, I received an email from the group’s leadership ordering me to unblock the two young men (which I did to protect myself) so that they could comment on my piece again. If we were to take out the phrase “so-called” from one of their comments, the officers of the group said, the comments of these two men were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” In the interest of allowing a free exchange of ideas, according to them, it was not right for me to block these members from airing contrary opinions to mine. Thus, in the interest of free speech, I had to permit those who had told me that my story was illegitimate, and who had resorted to illogicalities and victim-blaming to justify my landlady’s abuse, to exercise their free speech—even as it delegitimized, and therefore took away, my voice. They ended the email by saying, “None of you are completely at fault,” as though to absolve us of a crime we all shared.
I am still at a loss as to how our leaders came to the conclusion that these comments were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” These two young men had obviously not given much thought to their comments, or to the prejudices inherent in them. Is it thoughtful, reasonable, or objective to call my landlady’s request for me to walk her dog “necessary to keep her house clean and bright”? Is one being objective when one consents to or defends what is clearly abuse? Or does “objectivity” mean a refusal to see the power structures inherent in racial abuse in order to humanize the abuser and “balance out one’s judgment” of the situation?
Perhaps these Filipino student leaders truly believe that allowing racism to persist, even when it is leveled against us, is to take an objective view of the situation by ignoring our feelings of hurt—by becoming “unfeeling,” in other words—even when we experience it first-hand. Perhaps these young Filipino leaders see nothing inherently wrong in these unequal relationships, having accepted them as the natural order of things. The comments our leaders called “well-thought out, reasonable, and objective” were accepting, and even protective, of our inferior place in New Zealand society. If I understood them right, what these commenters hoped to say was that we deserve to be treated poorly by white people. If the leaders of our group had no strong objections to what these two young men told me, it appears to me that they, too, have internalized the kind of racism leveled at me by my landlady, to the point that they have accepted her abuse as a fair and reasonable occurrence, enabling it by consenting to the silencing of my voice.
Denying one’s experiences of racism, and tone policing one’s compatriots who choose to speak against it, is a habit Filipinos have developed from over three hundred years of colonization. To survive, we have learned to disregard our anger, to accept our lower place in colonial society, and to make ourselves small and unthreatening to our white masters. It’s a habit that we carry with us when we move to Western countries. We deny our own experiences of discrimination and gaslight ourselves into disbelieving the facts of our oppression in our efforts to be respectable, uncomplaining, and grateful in the eyes of white people. We think that this will help us survive, when it only results in our erasure, in our disempowerment.
But I will not allow myself to be silenced by my own countrymen. I choose to give voice to my anger, to resist erasure.
My grandmother grabs my wrist and draws me closer.
Over seventy years of lived experience separate us, but when she calls me a child I know she is conjuring a memory, not a body. The child she recalls hasn’t reached puberty; this child is chatty, she doesn’t move as much as she glides. She has brown skin, black hair. It is jarring to hear the biography of a self you only belatedly recognize to be yourself. So I listen to the girlhood image my grandmother paints with my aunt chiming in.
I allow myself to be appraised. Moments earlier, when she opened the front door, she had been stunned to find a tall stranger with blond hair standing before her. Nonetheless, the tactility of my wrist comforts her as she remembers the child she has not seen in years.
“It is her,” she murmurs to my aunt and, with a slight triumph, adds: “My granddaughter is very pretty. Pale. Skinny. Just like her mother.”
In the late 1940s, in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and World War II, my grandmother fled mainland China with her two-year-old daughter and newborn infant. The journey displaced them from Shandong, a northern Chinese province, to Taiwan.
Some fled because they were landowners, some because they were political refugees.
My grandmother was running because her husband had been educated in Japan, a social marker akin to having money or acting bourgeois that would render life difficult under incoming Communist leadership. He was already in Taipei making arrangements for his family’s uncertain future, and it was time for them to join him.
I don’t know how long their crossing took. I know the stress inhibited my grandmother’s ability to produce breast milk for her baby daughter and that another mother in the party generously fed my grandmother’s baby along with her own.
I also know that the refugees understood that if a baby cried and jeopardized the party’s location, its mother would suffocate it. I know my grandmother was spared that task. Others were less fortunate.
These are sound bites of a traumatic experience I can never fully know. In my family, we have little to say about our relationship dynamics, let alone our relation to history. We share mostly silence, a glance, then turn away.
My mother narrated my grandmother’s flight just once. I was in third grade, assigned to present an oral family history. When it was clear that my presentation was longer than any of my classmates’, I felt embarrassed by the anecdotes she had implored me to include, the ugly details that induced shock but not empathy. I was ashamed of sharing a history we wouldn’t learn in social studies class, and I was ashamed of doing so for a room full of white kids.
Now I willfully place my family in history’s purview because it is impossible to extricate our experience from our complicity with histories of politics and violence. For years, we have been curators of silence, perhaps because it was easier to mythologize familial love than to acknowledge the pain we suppressed in its pursuit.
Although we no longer live in those early days of Taiwanese resettlement and assimilation, my grandmother’s consciousness never relinquished the paranoia, fear, and struggle she associates with the period. The war—the consequent exile—never ended; it simply reconfigured the borders of memory.
An invisible war, a domestic war. The family was her ideal battlefield.
In Taiwan, my grandmother eventually raised seven children, who in turn developed their own coalitions and grudges. They lay siege to the skin of trauma so the bruises were raw and splayed across the oceans and languages they traversed to maintain distance. Whether they called home occasionally or frequently, their voices embodied their absence.
They stopped talking to each other, and then they didn’t tell their children about their own family. Family reunions took place, my mother wryly remarked, either at a wedding or a funeral. In fact, the most recent reunion happened at her wedding over twenty years ago, before I was born.
This winter, I flew to Taipei to visit my grandmother.
Over the phone, my mother instructed me to spend an hour a day with her. “She lives in the past. She will want to tell you stories.” At the time, the request sounded reasonable. I was eager to listen, and maybe even to photograph her for a project on diaspora I’d long desired to pursue.
Later, I came to see my mother’s instruction as a coded warning.
My nonagenarian grandmother lives alone because she is incredibly stubborn. Even obstacles to accessibility make no difference. Seventeen steps, for instance, separate the first and second levels of her house. Undaunted, she undertakes them every day.
Because my aunt no longer lives with her, she arranges for a caretaker to assist with household tasks like cleaning, cooking, and shopping. My aunt is my grandmother’s sole child who has neither moved abroad nor left Taipei. Though she is my grandmother’s primary victim, she continues to provide for her mother’s livelihood.
One afternoon, on our way home, my aunt and I intercepted the caretaker, Mei, who was leaving with her bags. She had been fired for purchasing a second package of string beans. Mei had begun working for my grandmother just two weeks earlier, and according to my aunt she had already made the house a cleaner place where the chores were completed and the produce was fresh. As Mei related what happened, my aunt grew agitated.
“It’s an excuse,” she said. “My mother’s old. She wants a reason to fire you.” Mei was the latest of many caretakers to be fired in the past two months. One stole, another roughly handled my grandmother. The reality is, my aunt explained, she refuses to trust anyone.
At the house, my aunt confronted my grandmother, who calmly sipped her tea and introduced me to her friend. “This is my youngest granddaughter.” She beamed, reaching for my wrist. “Look how skinny and pretty she is. Pale. Just like her mother.” The friend agreed.
Meanwhile, my aunt, who wanted my grandmother to rehire Mei, was pleading to an unsympathetic jury.
Quiet, my grandmother let go of me. Then she snapped. Like a downpour, accusations fell on my aunt. My grandmother tightened as she delivered insults in a deliberate, calm voice. Her temper justified her abusive language. “If I had not left China… If I hadn’t ended up with your useless…” My aunt broke down and left the room. I immediately followed.
Even now I shudder. I don’t know how to translate this vulnerability, the devastation of a cycle that is privately witnessed and publicly withheld. What is there to say about family violence, the violence of the family, that has not already been said or retracted?
My aunt did not blame my grandmother. She insisted her behavior was the result of the things she had to do to stay alive, and couldn’t I understand.
If there is a correlation between my grandmother’s cruelty and our fragmented family, I have to wonder to what extent estrangement was the byproduct of the violence intimate among my mother, her siblings, and their mother. I wonder what the lacunae say.
In the war my grandmother has waged in her mind for all these years, what is the current damage count? Who are its foot soldiers? What is expendable?
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel delves into the archives to recuperate events that cannot be recuperated. For Bechdel, coming to terms with her lesbian identity occurs in tandem with learning about her father’s sexual history with men, a fact she learns after his death, an apparent suicide.
Due to Bechdel’s strained relationship with her father, this revelation twists her grieving process. Upon arriving home for the funeral, Bechdel greets her brothers not with the typical signifiers of mourning but with a shared grimace of pleasure. Under trauma, grief becomes a series of distorted gestures. When she returns to school, she cannot convince a classmate of her father’s passing because she bursts into uncontrollable laughter.
The more Bechdel pieces together a narrative, the less its truth can be verified. She knows this neurotic digging will not produce a satisfying answer. It cannot revive the dead.
She digs anyway.
My aunt does not grieve and advises I do the same. I wipe her tears. A devout Buddhist, my aunt has long since forgiven my grandmother for her toxicity. Individuals shouldn’t be accountable to their unconsensual history, she assures me.
In the next room, my grandmother and her friend have resumed their conversation. The confrontation has had minimal effect on either party. We all have a pleasant dinner.
For the remainder of my visit, I minimize the time I spend with my grandmother. Instead of photographing her, I take pictures of the backyard, the staircase she labors up and down, the hallway cabinet adorned in doilies.
When I do listen to her stories, an unbearable wave of nausea overcomes me, for they reveal her resentment toward the fate she was dealt, the life she has survived. The past is, as my mother had hinted, hers, but, in the present, the heaviness is mine, and I excuse myself from her company.
I stopped being a writer; today I have the words to tell you why.
I don’t write because I’m being watched. I turn off the words; I numb the feelings; I avoid the associations; I distract the thinking; I step away from the situation. I am here to document the ways in which I have chosen silence over action.
The first time I went to Friday prayers after moving to Chicago, no one said salaamto me. I thought, “Is this how a Desi gets treated in a predominately Arab masjid?” I remembered Dad telling me about the young, connectionless men at his masjid. He said, “They keep coming and going out of nowhere – they must be spies. No one talks to them.”
He asked me, when I told him about volunteering at an Islamic nonprofit, where their charitable donations went. He said these organizations get in trouble for sending their money abroad and their members get labeled terrorist sympathizers.
I text my sisters that I have a thing to tell them that’s not bad but I feel weird telling them on the phone so remind me to tell you when we all next meet (days, weeks, months?) so whoever the FBI has assigned to read this group text won’t find out (can’t I have some secrets, FBI agent?).
Before we got married, Neema seriously asked me if I was an FBI agent. “You’re perfect,” he said. Too perfect, he didn’t say.
You could say we’re paranoid; but we’ll say we’re up-to-date on our news and have learned our histories. Connection is risk.
I decided to practice radical empathy after Michael Brown was shot. I did not and do not have a hard time feeling empathy for protesters, for rioters, for the rage that leads people into the streets or for the rage that leads them to want objects to burn. I never wrote that I felt this way but I do feel this way and have no difficulty conjuring these emotions (but do struggle to make them disappear).
I practiced empathizing with George Zimmerman and with Darren Wilson and with Timothy Loehmann and with the officers of Waller County Jail and with Dante Servin and with the Baltimore Police Department and with Jason Van Dyke and with and with and with and with and with
I didn’t like it and I succeeded. But that’s a different story.
I am going to qualify here because if I do not you will wonder that having empathy for someone does not mean excusing someone.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed.
I am trying not to stop myself from writing this.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed. That empathy exists as a heaviness in my chest and a shortness of my breath. That empathy pushes at the edges of my heart but I am scared to let it in. I feel it as a failure of my humanity and I fear it as a failure of our humanity. I do not Google ISIS because I do not want anyone to know I Google ISIS. I do not know the stories or motivations or language of the humans-not-monsters who constitute ISIS because I do not think I can subsequently assert their humanity without putting my own into question. Empathy is risk. I am not a monster.
But I will own to being a coward; by now you know this. In my circles we talk about strategies for change: sometimes you want to be a Malcolm and sometimes you want to be a Martin. Mostly I am a chump choking back both my words of violence and my words of peace.
I remember back to my ethics class in journalism school. The question was whether journalists should not publish information that the government asks them not to publish for security. “Well of course,” said the class, “for security.”
For. Whose. Security?
I do not remember agreeing to value our lives more than their lives. I do remember my question knocking up against the insides of my teeth as I kept my mouth shut. I do remember remembering Abu Ghraib and air strikes against civilians and the Pentagon Papers and the people like me who were killed for the security of people like me. I do remember not saying that I thought our allegiance as journalists was to the truth.
I grew out of wanting to argue to argue. I do not hold these ideas as objects in my mind with dimensions I can manipulate and play with. I feel them in my gut and they bubble up as bile in my mouth. I do not want to taste this publicly in our class discussion or over coffee or as a Facebook comment. I do not want the acid that is burning holes in my stomach to sting in polite company. Would you even understand that while I skinned my knees on the same playgrounds as American soldiers and while my livelihood is tied up in American interests they serve, my mouth also prays the same prayers as those Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and Persians we are meant to fear? Maybe you could not understand me but you do suspect me in my skinny jeans and brown skin.
Understand this: I have written. And I have deleted. And deleted and deleted.
I know I am watched. As a consequence, I decided to restrict my speech and my press and my pursuit of happiness. I have been silent, but I have not been blind. I, too, have been watching.
In 2010, I was zealously playing an action-adventure Wild West video game called Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games.
The game follows ex-outlaw John Marston, on a quest to atone for his past and save his family from a shady government agency during the early twentieth century. It is deep, moving, engrossing, and a helluva lotta fun…everything I wanted my own stories to be.
I’d just published my debut contemporary romance under my other pen name, Vicki Essex, when the thought came to me: Why weren’t there more fantasies set in the Wild West? Why were so many magical worlds set in feudal fairytale kingdoms with castles and kings and wizards?
And so The Devil’s Revolver was born. I’d always been a reader of YA fantasy and aspired to publish in the genre. Fueled by hours of playing through bloody gunfights and long horseback rides across a seemingly endless, beautifully rendered landscape, I set out to write my story about a cursed cowgirl and a magic gun.
The question was, would anyone want to read a Western, even if there was magic in it? Despite the number of successful cross-genre stories like the Joss Whedon show Firefly (another inspiration) and Cowboys vs. Aliens (who doesn’t love Daniel Craig?), I realized that getting an audience hinged on two things: characters and world building.
I knew from the start that Hettie Alabama would have a long journey ahead of her. She was hardworking, family-centered, hard-headed—a product of her sometimes harsh surroundings with both boots planted firmly on the ground. She was “mundane,” bearing no magic gift of her own, and her only concerns for the future were ensuring the safety and security of her parents and little sister, Abby. She was also coming of age in a world where women’s roles were still limited, where brutal violence was commonplace, and where justice didn’t always mean fairness or satisfaction.
And then I handed her a legendary long-lost cursed weapon everyone was after.
Building the magical world around Hettie was more challenging than I’d anticipated. The world of The Devil’s Revolver started as one that was basically turn-of-the-century American, “but with magic.” History happened as it had, “but with magic.” Science and technology kept pace with real-life timelines for the most part, “but with magic.” It wasn’t a tough stretch—when you can imagine a spell to make something happen, you can imagine a counterspell to stop it from happening.
I kept the use of magic sparse and practical. When I started, I knew that magic had a price, that it was as precious as gold, nearly as scarce, and dwindling in intensity and supply. Sorcerers didn’t waste magic on frivolities—spells had to be as pragmatic as Hettie herself was, but also life-altering in the same way indoor plumbing might be in a rural household.
What I hadn’t really considered until well into the first draft was just how complex the system of magic would be in this world, and what it would mean to various characters and cultural groups. I couldn’t just appropriate rituals, beliefs, and ceremonies to fit into my story. To some groups of people, these magical traditions were real.
So began my own journey to decolonize my writing. As a result, “magic” in Hettie’s world, as I conceived it, couldn’t be a single overriding tradition, nor could it necessarily all come from one single source as more rigorous standards for world building might require. Every culture has its own forms of magic, whether it’s fortune-telling, prayer, conversing with otherworldly beings, healing, manipulating others…the list goes on and on. In short, “magic” allows us to trust in what is and what can be achieved through various customs or rituals without qualifying its value. Some people call this faith.
The journey’s a long one, for myself and for Hettie. I hope you’ll enjoy The Devil’s Revolver and come back for the rest of the series, coming soon from Brain Mill Press.
When I was a teen, the most relatable young adult book I ever read was The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.
The Outsiders validated my experiences with being out of place among my peers and made me feel that my own story could be valuable someday. However, it also made me conscious of my ethnicity, especially since all of the characters were white.
Inspired by the real-life clashes of two high school gangs known as The Greasers and The Socs, the book is told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old Greaser named Ponyboy Curtis. Published in 1967, the book is such a popular classic that it is required reading for many middle school and high school students.
The Outsiders validated my experiences with being out of place among my peers and made me feel that my own story could be valuable someday. However, it also made me conscious of my ethnicity, especially since all of the characters were white.
As I read more YA books as a teen, I noticed that there weren’t a lot of books with black characters that had the same impact as The Outsiders. Although there were black YA authors like Sharon M. Draper and Walter Dean Myers, I couldn’t connect to their stories. Most of the books by black YA authors that I read discussed socioeconomic issues like teen pregnancy, racism, and rape. While I knew that there were black teens who did experience these things, I wasn’t one of them. I was a nerdy black misfit who felt like no one could see the real me.
Most of the books by black YA authors that I read discussed socioeconomic issues like teen pregnancy, racism, and rape. While I knew that there were black teens who did experience these things, I wasn’t one of them. I was a nerdy black misfit who felt like no one could see the real me.
Besides The Outsiders, the only book that I connected to was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. Not only was Bronx Masquerade written by a black author, but it also featured many characters of color. Written in verse, the book uses the style of a poetry slam to tell the thoughts and emotions of eighteen teens as they navigate their identity. The book spoke to me as a budding poet who was unsure whether or not my point of view was valuable. As the first novel I read in verse, the book showed me a unique way to tell my story. However, as influential as this book was, I would soon forget about it.
Since I couldn’t find any other books I could relate to, I ended up reading more YA by white authors than black. Between high school and college, I read many contemporary and YA fantasy authors, including Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Richelle Mead, and Suzanne Collins. The only black YA author I read was Jacqueline Woodson. She stood out to me because her work included coming-of-age stories with black characters that didn’t feel generic at all. Although I couldn’t relate to any of it, I still appreciated it. Some of her work is influenced by poetry, especially titles such as If You Come Softly and Brown Girl Dreaming.
As a result of reading mostly white YA authors, I started to feel like I could never truly belong in YA literature. I wanted a black character in a John Green romance and a black character who was magical like Harry Potter, but they seemed hard to find. Black teens had experiences that were just as varied and complex as those of white teens, but I kept seeing the same stories getting told and being published. I eventually forgot about Bronx Masquerade because it reminded me of how rarely I could find stories that related to me.
In 2015, I bought Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper after seeing that it was an YA urban fantasy book with an Afro-Latina protagonist. I also discovered the grassroots book campaign We Need Diverse Books and the contemporary YA book Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. All of them would plant the seed for a new relationship with YA books.
Shadowshaper was the most incredible book I’d read in a long time. It combined art and the supernatural for a creative, awesome magic system. It was set in a culturally rich environment that was palpable and interesting. It dealt with real-life issues including colorism, gentrification, and cultural appropriation. To top it off, there was a diverse, inclusive cast of characters that entertained and related to me. Shadowshaper began to reshape my opinion of YA literature by massaging my senses with words and color.
While Shadowshaper changed my opinion of YA fantasy and sci-fi, Juliet Takes a Breath changed my opinion of contemporary YA. I ended up reading the book twice within two months and writing a feature article to help promote it. This book became my best friend, one that I wanted to keep turning to for guidance and empathy. Victor Hugo once wrote that books were cold but safe friends, but this book is one of the warmest things I have read. After reading Shadowshaper and Juliet Takes a Breath, I became determined to find the books I wanted to read as a teen and spread the word about them.
After reading Shadowshaper and Juliet Takes a Breath, I became determined to find the books I wanted to read as a teen and spread the word about them.
Afro YA books matter because black teens need to see themselves in words. They matter because I am feeding myself books I should have devoured as teen. They matter because The Outsiders showed me my worth as a writer, while Brown Girl Dreaming showed me my worth as a black writer.
We Need Diverse Books has been saying what I felt throughout my teens and early twenties: We need diverse books, and we demand them. We demand them, we uplift the authors who write and represent them, and we tell the world about them. We have always been here, and we aren’t going anywhere.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.
Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.
As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books.
I began them when I started third grade. When people ask about formative books, I think first of this series: of these books that I read when I walked around the house, that I carried to the dinner table, that I pored over during recess, and that I bugged my teacher to put on her curriculum even as the school year was ending. But I put off writing about them for a long time as it seems that I can’t bring myself to re-read them.
I still can’t.
Wilder’s semi-autobiographical children’s novels follow the pioneering Ingalls family as they move from Wisconsin (Little House in the Big Woods) to territory that was in reality an Osage Indian reservation in Kansas (Little House on the Prairie). The family then departs for Walnut Grove, Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), where they live in a house made of sod, then to De Smet, South Dakota, the setting of By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. One book, Farmer Boy, follows the childhood adventures of Almanzo, Wilder’s husband, as he tends to livestock, does chores, eats cake, and tries to get along with siblings in upstate New York. The Ingalls family (and the Wilders) sew their own clothes, endure blizzards, illness, and locusts, and still manage to find love, and joy, and adventure with family.
I say that the books are semi-autobiographical because despite the fact that the main character has Wilder’s name and the family travels roughly along the same paths that Wilder’s family did, the novels are very much fiction. Liberties were taken with Wilder’s real life story. And to a certain extent, this is acknowledged. Little House in the Big Woods, after all, opens like this:
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The book has the opening for a fairy tale, with one solid fact thrown in—sixty years. Reception of the series—and certainly my feelings about it when I was young—concentrated on the harsh pioneer life, on details about playing ball with a pig’s bladder or making a doll out of a corn cob. I know I also identified with the setting of the story because I lived in the flat, cold middle of Canada (albeit in a city, in a house with indoor plumbing and heating). I know I also wanted to be resourceful and plucky, like the Ingalls family. I wanted to make my own bread, sew my own clothes, churn butter, and plant things.
(Basically, I wanted to do crafts and ride in horse-drawn buggies—but to have other modern conveniences.)
More recently, however, writers and scholars have turned their attention to the fictive-ness of the books—and to the mythmaking. Some memorable characters, the handsome Cap Garland, for example, are made up. More important, Pa Ingalls’s reasons for dragging his family across large swathes of Kansas and the Dakotas are elided. Pa Ingalls and his family weren’t benign settlers pitting their ingenuity against the dangerous wild; they were invading Native American territories. They had to do it on their own because they weren’t supposed to be there.
Indeed, Caroline’s Fraser’s 2017 book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, looks at the ways that Wilder’s books not only diverged from the realities of her life but made that life into one of the shaping narratives of American identity. The book also examines how Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a follower of Ayn Rand, extensively rewrote her mother’s books, often twisting facts to reflect Obectivist values.
But Fraser’s is only the latest in a series of sources that made me re-examine my feelings about the series. Among those:
Louis Erdrich’s books Birchbark House books, written from the perspective of Native Americans and set at around the same time as Wilder’s books;
Scholar Debbie Reese’s blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” in which she talks about the depiction of Native Americans in the Little House series and in other books. This is just one example.
It was a conversation about Wilder’s books that Dr. Reese shared on Twitter that initially made me question what kinds of books from my childhood I wanted to give to my own child (which I talked about here) and, more important, why exactly I wanted to share them.
Does reading the Little House books lead to a greater understanding of history? Not on their own. Would it lead to my daughter understanding me or my life better?
Would it bring us closer?
If that were true, would this I want this particular story connecting us?
I am at a loss. I don’t know how to reconcile my memories, my newer knowledge, and my feelings about what is best to do right now. I have been told I should talk these issues out with kids, but so far I haven’t mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series to my daughter. I’m not actively hiding them. But I’ve chosen to put different books in front of her and to have her explore what she likes on her own. In any case, it’s likely that she’ll encounter them without my interference. She’ll be older.
By then, I hope I’ll be better prepared to talk about them.