Teens First, Asian Americans Second
WALK DOWN the young adult fiction section of any sterile, superbookstore and you'll amble through a cross- section of the lives of modern teens and-marketers' category du jour-tweens. Besides the age-old books about crushes and summer camp are books about 21st century love rituals like hooking up and IMing, like I8P. g8R. ttyl, and ttfn. as well as Summer Intern and Tips On Having A Gay (Ex)Boyfriend. So it should be no surprise that, upon closer inspection, one can find booKs for Asian American young readers wedged between those on school drama and staid classics like Bridge to Terabithia.
But this ain't Generation X's Amy Tan. Many of today's books for Asian American young adult readers tackle the issues of the accent-free American-born, raised in white suburbs outside of the ethnic enclaves featured in pre-21st century young adult Asian American novels. In the new generation of Asian American young adult fiction, heralded by writers like Gene Luen Yang, David Yoo, An Na and Tanuja Desai Hidier, the ethnic identity of many protagonists takes a back seat to typical American teen preoccupations such as social cliques, dating and college.
"The protagontist's ethnicity is not what troubles or defines her," said Carrie Rosten, a stylist turned author of the 2005 book Chloe Leiberman (Sometimes Wong) about a fashion obsessed biracial Jewish Chinese teen growing up in the OC. "What troubles Chloe is not that she is biracial-it is the fact that her genuine interests and passions are ursupported and entirely dismissed by most of the adults in her life."
Lisa Yee, author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius (2003). also stressed that her characters are kids above all else. "They happen to be Asian, and that's just part of the fabric of the story," Yee said. "I get a lot of mail from kids saying things like. 'I'm Asian and I've never read about someone like me before-just a regular kid.'"
Likewise, Melissa de la Cruz's 2005 book Fresh Off The Boat is about a normal teen who just happened to be a Filipino immigrant. "Growing up I loved books like Sweet Valley High, and I wanted to write a book that was as much fun as those books, but would feature a girl who looked like me and had a family like mine," de la Cruz said. "In a lot of mainstream books, the characters are uniformly white, and they don't accurately represent the new America."I think that readers look for stories that speak to them and for them. Amy Tan's stories speak for the type of reader that looks for that, while these other authors tell stories that speak to another segment of readers.
People experience different realities that we, as readers, if we want to benefit from them, should be open to. True, not everything will interest us as much as it will interest others--and frankly, that's the beauty of people's diversity, of plurality, of our differences. It's the different settings, different situations, and different circumstances in both types of books presented in the article that can reach out to all kinds of readers.
And while we're on this topic, the beauty of being readers is that what doesn't interest us now might be of interest to us weeks, months, even years after, once we get some more of life under our belts.
And once we do, we discover that despite the differences, it's the shared human experiences that hold the stories together. If we can identify those shared experiences in the stories we read, well, it's a winning situation for us.
What does this mean for writers? I guess it means that we should write what we know; and what we don't know, we learn so that we will know. Also, don't let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn't read. Or write.* There's bound to be an audience out there, somewhere, as long as there's that shared humanity in the tale.
*Except in the classroom, because the teacher's the boss there. Don't engage him unless he lets you, because he's like a judge holding court in his courtroom. The classroom, like the courtroom, is rarely a full democracy.