By Lydia Kang
I’m a POC. Person of color. My parents were born in Korea, but I was born and raised in suburban Maryland. Until seventh grade, I was the only POC in my entire grade and for several years, the whole elementary school. In middle school, half the class was Black, but I was still the only Asian student until I hit private school in ninth grade.
Sorry for the info dump, but there is a point, I promise.
When I wrote Control (Dial BFYR/Penguin), I confess that writing POC characters wasn’t a priority for me. My main character, Zelia, is of Jewish heritage (reflecting, perhaps, that half the kids in my grade school were Jewish). Creating the other POC characters (Hex, who is East Asian and Blink, who is a Black French Canadian) took a lot of thought, second-guessing, and work.
I’m jealous of other authors who effortlessly make diversity a priority in their writing. But the truth is, it’s a struggle for me. You’d think that because I was a POC myself, it would be easy to integrate different cultures into my writing.
Sometimes I think that my whole childhood was whitewashed. For years, I was asked if I was Chinese or Japanese, and got used to the funny looks when I told them I was Korean. It was humiliating. Clearly, I was failing some sort of multiple-choice categorization amongst my peers. I was horribly bullied. The books I read had heroines that were almost always white. I resented being different. I hated how I looked. I didn’t tolerate my culture unless it involved food.
It took a very long time before I embraced and loved my Korean heritage. I had to fight to undo the external and self-inflicted internal conditioning that I experienced as a kid.
So for those of you who are putting diversity into your books, I applaud you. But I also want people to understand that just because you’re a POC, writing diversity doesn’t come easily, like we were born knowing what or how to write. I’m still learning, still processing, and still trying hard to un-whitewash my own writing because of the childhood I experienced.
I believe my childhood would have been different if the books I read had more POC characters, and if I’d had the comfort (even fictional) that I wasn’t alone. For the sake of our readers, who consciously or unconsciously see real life and struggles and normalcy reflected in our books, we need to fight the tendencies to keep our characters’ races “safe.”
I promise to keep working on it. If you’re a writer, I hope you’ll work on it too. And if you’re a reader, I hope you support books with POC characters. Because it does make a difference.
I’m living proof.
Lydia Kang is a young adult fiction author, part-time doctor, salt-lover, geek-girl, and hyphen addict. Her debut YA sci-fi novel, Control (Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin) is available now and its sequel Catalyst (Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin) arrives Winter 2015. Visit her website at lydiakang.com.