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Heck YA, Diversity!: Whose Story Is It to Tell?

Author Justina Chen addresses the challenges she faced in writing outside of her own experiences -- and why it was worth doing so anyway. 

Heck YA, Diversity!: Whose Story Is It to Tell?

Welcome back to Heck YA, Diversity!, our series on diversity in YA lit. Joining us today is author Justina Chen, who's received her share of positive and SCARILY negative feedback for writing outside of her own experiences.

The death threat arrived in my inbox three hours after a TV interview for my debut novel. “If you come to Hawaii,” the anonymous email read, “I will hunt you down and kill you.”

Shaking, I read the rant about how I had no right to co-opt what had once been a derogatory Hawaiian word for mixed race—“hapa.” That I didn’t have the right to use the term in my novel, Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies). And that I deserved to die for daring to use that one word.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Before I published the novel, I knew writing across racial lines was politically and emotionally charged. So I asked a few prominent members of mixed race groups if they could read my manuscript for accuracy before it went to copyediting. Even before reading a single word, these women expressed concern that I — an all-Asian woman — could give voice to their experience. The concern was even more pointed than that. Did I — an all-Asian woman — have the right to tell their story?

Never mind that I had two mixed race kids of my own. Never mind that it was with my two mixed race kids when we were surrounded by white teens who hung-twung-wunged us. You know, mocked us in high-pitched, sneering pseudo-Chinese. The operative word here is not mocked, but us. Those teens didn’t just mock all-Asian me. They mocked the three of us. I knew in that moment with absolute maternal clarity that my kids, though half-white, could be subjected to all of the racism that I had endured: the racial slurs. The ugly half-whispered comments. The spitting on the face.

But what could I possibly do to turn back millennia of racism?

As a writer-mom, I did have a choice. I could allow this racist incident to pass me by, note it with deep sorrow and an even deeper sense of injustice, and then move on to the jellyfish counting book I was working on. Or I could dare disturb the mixed race community and write a story that would encompass all kids who straddled two cultures — whether it was racial or interest (math club and rock climber, glee club and football star) or what have you. With my words and through my story, I could assure teens that no matter what cultures they were straddling, they are wholly human, wholly unique, and wholly worthy.

So I listened when the bright and vibrant voice of one Patty Ho began speaking to me, as I hit mile three of my run the next morning. How could I not listen? Patty refused to be quieted. Her story—her experience as teen girl just trying to find her way in a bifurcated life—poured into me. I have never sprinted so fast as I did that morning. All I knew was that I needed to get back home and onto my computer. For an hour, I took dictation for a story that I have lived.

Perhaps I wasn’t mixed race. But I have lived a bifurcated life myself. I have moved through life as a minority in predominantly white communities, white schools, and white countries. I knew what it was like never feeling absolutely, completely at home. 

So while I cannot profess to know with one hundred percent certainty what it is like to be mixed race, I know how it feels to be Othered. That is empathy. In that intersection of your experience and mine is where we find our common humanity. That is exactly what editors talk about: finding the universal in the specific—the intersection of all of us told through one character’s experience.

And so I dared to write Patty’s story, a love letter to my mixed race kids.

Interestingly, in the eight years and four novels that followed, I started “writing white.” North of Beautiful, Return to Me, and my latest, A Blind Spot for Boys, have all featured white protagonists. And I didn’t just write white. I dared to first write about a white girl with a port wine stain on her cheek. And notably, not a single person has written a single peep about my “right” to write white. Read that last sentence again because it is still a little startling to me.

If I had censored myself from writing that first novel featuring a white teen girl, if I had questioned whether I had the right to tell her story, then what would have happened to the countless girls who have taken the time to write to me after reading North of Beautiful, all of them echoing this sentiment: “For the first time, I could look in the mirror and like what I saw.”

And think of the few girls who wrote epic-length emails to me because, at last, they found themselves in a story:

I felt ugly and out of place because of my birthmark. When I read your book, I cried in the second chapter. I even had to put it down because it was scary.... it was like I was reading my entire life in this book. Everything the girl went through was an exact reflection of my life. Your book really changed my life. This book really made me look at Terra's point of view and apply it to myself. That I too am beautiful.

As authors, we have to dare to write straight across the bright lines of race and gender and ethnicity to tell the story that we know deep in our gut must be told. We accept the call to write the Other story with exquisite care and we do everything humanly possible to make sure every word is right. Then, we hold our breath because our One story is not meant to be the expression of Everyone’s story.

And so we must dare to release our stories. And we do this because we, as authors, have to dare to use our God-given talent and imagination to express with words what it is to be human — to reach through the page to our readers to say: You, too, are seen. You, too, are known. You, too, are beautiful.

Thanks for stopping by, Justina! Check out her website, or find her on Twitter (@JustinaYChen).