Diversity is in the Eye of the Beholder

One of the frequently asked questions I get about Possess is “Why did you choose to write a non-Caucasian main character?” And since this is the Diversity in YA blog, I thought this was the perfect forum to address the topic.

It all goes back to the beginning, the plot bunny for Possess: teen exorcist. Something about that subject matter just screamed out to be set in my hometown of San Francisco — the fog-blanketed streets, the murkiness of late fall, the oldness of the city, the Catholic heritage. Fantastic! I hold a special place in my heart for the city, especially the neighborhood in which I set the majority of the novel. Even the homes I describe in the book are part of me — my grandmother’s house, my aunt and uncle’s house. My San Francisco.

And if I was going to write about “my San Francisco,” I wanted it to look the way it did in my experience. And that is decidedly not white.

I grew up in suburb of the city and my high school was 40% Asian. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Taiwanese. There was a tremendous range of diversity just within the Asian community. I grew up surrounded by all different types of Asian culture, so much so that I never considered any of my non-white friends to be a minority. Because in my world, they weren’t.

For example, my close-knit group of friends looked like this: Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Armenian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Filipino/Irish, and three white kids — one a mutt, one Jewish, and me, the Irish Catholic girl.

So I wanted the San Francisco of Possess to reflect the San Francisco I know and love. Bridget Liu — half Irish, half Chinese — raised Catholic.

The funny thing is that some of my Asian friends from home kind of looked at me askew when I talked about Bridget. One friend said that she didn’t know any Chinese Catholics. Another said she didn’t know any biracial Chinese like that. Funnily enough, I know plenty of both. It’s all about frame of reference.

I’ve also had some pushback in regards to Bridget’s Asian heritage. In the book, it’s not something Bridget mentions, and I had a reader or two early on comment that Bridget should be more inquisitive about and referential of her Chinese roots.

My argument here is that the Chinese side of Bridget’s family has been in the United States longer than her Irish side. This, too, isn’t uncommon in San Francisco, where Chinese immigration to the area was in full swing by the mid-19th century. Heck, my family didn’t immigrate to the U.S. until 1906! So Bridget doesn’t really feel a connection to China, or Ireland for that matter. Once again, frame of reference.

In the end, the greatest contribution to color blindness I could make with Possess was to treat Bridget as…Bridget. A fifteen-year-old Catholic high school student who just happens to be half-Chinese and can exorcise demons. That’s it. She is who she is. And I wouldn’t have her any other way.

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[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/082211gretchenmcneil.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Gretchen McNeil is an opera singer, writer and clown. Her YA horror/paranormal Possess debuts with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins on August 23, 2011. Her second novel, Ten — YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer — is tentatively scheduled for a Fall 2012 release. Gretchen is a former coloratura soprano, the voice of Mary on G4′s Code Monkeys and she currently sings with the LA-based circus troupe Cirque Berzerk. Gretchen is also a founding member of the vlog group YARebels where she can be seen as “Monday.”[/author_info] [/author]

10 thoughts on “Diversity is in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. Bridget as Bridget sounds like a fab idea – after all, she sounds totally unique unto herself (um, exorcising demons, Catholic high school… check) and those are always the intriguing characters that really, really work. Congratulations on your debut; looking forward to reading this one.

  2. OK You got me, I’m adding this to my TBR list.

    On another note, CLOWN???? My daughter in law is “Notes Jr” registered hair to “Notes the Clown” her father. In fact his face is in the Clown Museum somewhere around the country.

  3. You are so nice. I would be sorely tempted to respond, “You know what? I did the research, and it turns out that Caucasians are not the only kind of human being! From my reading, I think a lot of people don’t realize that non-Caucasians are people, too, but it turns out that they are. Isn’t that fascinating?” I mean seriously, what a bizarre question!

  4. I find it odd that people always assume character in books should be inquisitive about their non white heritage. Why shouldn’t she be inquisitive about her Irish heritage? In my experience, not that many teens in America are all that into their heritage, whatever it may be. I’ve definitely added this one to my TBR list and can’t wait until one of the libraries in my system has it.

  5. I hadn’t heard about this book before, and now I’m dying to read it. I love intriguing, different characters, they are the ones that take me to worlds I don’t know.

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