Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saving The Dreams Of Rainbow Coloured Kids

In an earlier post I confessed something about POCs and MCs in books. This is what I said, verbatim: “No, I don’t care that there is a severe lack of POCs as MCs.”

I need to explain.

NovelSounds posted on the vacuum in the book industry we have because there is a very limited variety of books wherein a POC character is the MC. I read this post among the recent slew of posts I read as part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.
It was when I commented on that post that things fell together about how exactly I feel on this subject.

Where I live, the number of people who read as (ir)regularly as me can be counted on one hand. The concept of Teen/YA literature for them is limited to even fewer number of books written by Indian authors in English about family - forbidden romances against the backdrop of an engineering/medical college. For someone who cannot stand such repetitive stories, such as yours truly, I turned to American/British/Australian publishers.

As a result of my current bookshelf and movie favourites, I know the Miranda rights by heart; I know what constitutes the American breakfast, I can identify bridges and train stations in London, I have an Indian accent but my vocabulary consists of both British English and American words (even though I’m supposed to technically be a “Borrowed English” speaker), I know what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I can recognize an Australian accent; and I don’t find gorgeous enough guys here, thanks to Spanish guys like Jesse from The Mediator series and gay guys like Neal Caffrey (ugh, Matt Bomer you twit). I don’t even appreciate the glamour of the “moochi” (moustache) Indian guys have here.

Hush, don’t tell. Not that I’m breaking any hearts anyway.

The worst part: When I replace myself as Katniss in my dreams, I’m white. Not the Indian version of Katniss the reasonable/indignant/conscious part of my brain would say I’m supposed to be.

There was a reason why I said I didn’t care much about the lack of POC characters. I know, when I’m picking up a book, it’s going to take place somewhere in Seattle, or London, or other places I’ve never been to. So I know I can’t expect people to eat chapattis for dinner, or have their parents fix their life partners for them. I know it isn’t fair to ask J. K. Rowling to make Ron black and Hermione Hispanic, in the name of diversity when they’re people she dreamt up. You can’t give birth to characters whose ethnicity you’re not too familiar with. What if you inadvertently do them wrong?

Then there are the POC writers themselves. Some of them don’t want to cast POC MCs because it would make them look like narrow-minded people. So the only way we can have POC MCs if they come alive in the writers’ heads of their own need to save the world.   I personally don’t want to read books for which writers sat and scribbled bios of their characters THEY WANTED TO HAVE instead of characters THEY NEEDED TO HAVE. As in “I want my heroine to be named so-so, she should have freckles, and green eyes, and short red hair”, vis-à-vis - “this boy came in my dream last night – I wanted to know his story.” Psychology can tell us that when this happens it’s usually a character of our own ethnicity. How could I blame white writers for casting white characters? Should I blame a black writer for not casting a Japanese protagonist? Hence, the second sentence of this post.

Look at me. I’m telling people how a character should evolve when I’ve written – hang on, let me count – ZERO books.

*pauses a moment to strangle yours truly*

That said, I don’t want my kid cousins to think America is full of only beautiful white girls. I don’t want my sister to think black boys can never be a Marvel superhero, only a sidekick. I don’t want myself to have crushes on only the white guys with a spare upper lip and brown messed up hair because they look so dang good in tuxes brandishing an FBI badge.

I totally worship Marie Lu for what she did. She did a tumblr on her inspiration for casting Day as a Mongolian kid (not fully, more of a mixture of different races). She also said that since the Legend series took place in a dystopian universe, instead of ethnic segregation, she chose wealth segregation. That’s logical. Therefore, you can find her book filled with characters of so many different ethnicities that it’s beautiful.

Another confession:
I want to write a book someday. I have never been to the US or anywhere else. Do I set my story in Dubai where I grew up? Or India where I’m living now? If I do, I can guarantee that my audience will be limited as well. Most writers have to confront this problem to write in the first place. You probably haven’t have heard of the Shiva trilogy which is a bestselling series here. I have read of teenaged writers who WROTE UNDER PEN-NAMES so that the book has an international market. There are books featuring POC characters but because the international bookish population can’t relate to them, they come and go like a breeze and gather dust on shelves in their home bookstores.

This is what I have to say: We need diverse books. Period. But diverse books can’t thrive ondiversereaders alone. Books need to be read by everyone, diverse or not. It’s not that hard for me to get into the head of a white kid even if I sometimes simply do not get American high school and teen pregnancies. Similarly, it’s not that hard for the “default kind of readerto get into the head of a Filipino kid saving the world.
Readers, Publishers, Writers, save the world. Maybe necessarily in that order.

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