Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Different and Not

I am bracing myself for a fight.

I hope it never comes. I hope everything works out. But here I am, afraid of seeing something most people dream about, that I too dream: the cover of my first novel. I’ve feared it for weeks.

I’m afraid because the main character of SUPERVISION, Esmé, the girl who probably should be represented on the cover in some way, is Chinese-American. And I’m afraid she won’t be. I’m afraid she’ll be unrepresented, changed.

I’m afraid because this isn’t the first book I’ve written with diverse characters. Those books? They weren’t accepted. And these were some of the comments I received: Why does he have to be black? I don’t think that matters. I don’t think that will sell.

I’m not saying my books were rejected strictly because of diversity. But the diversity was something that confused—and annoyed—many literary agents.  They certainly didn’t think it was important, let alone essential. Some agents thought that my insistence on having protagonists who were non-white and non-traditionally abled was holding my books back.

Why does he or she have to be black, or Native, or blind?

Because that’s the character I dreamed. That’s the person I saw in my head. I have to be true to that vision and story. In SUPERVISION, Esmé’s great-grandfather is a Chinese man who moved to America to work on the railroads, with tragic consequences. His daughter—Esmé’s grandmother, who is a major character in SUPERVISION—has an usual gift. Ancestry is a big part of the book. Family. Inheritance.

And ghosts.

That is the teller of my tale, and that person has specific experiences, memories, and interactions with the world. Those need to be examined, represented, and read. And known. And believed.

Because we are all different.

Art: Hector Sos. Source:

I am different. I was born with a hearing loss, an invisible difference I kept secret for a long time. I called it a disability for a long time. I certainly never read a book about a girl like me, not until The Story of my Life by Helen Keller.

Which I read when I was thirty.  

What would it have meant to me to have read a book where the main character—the one you root for, the one you aspire to be—misses sentences and dreads parties and fails spectacularly at the game of telephone and learns to lie and learns to read lips and is called freak and does not meet anyone else like her until she is almost eighteen?

Well, it would have meant I might have stopped hiding a long time ago. I might have spoken out a long time ago.

OR…what would it have meant to me to have read a book where the main character—the one you root for, the one you aspire to be—is Deaf or hard of hearing and has a huge group of friends, and is intelligent and respected and strong?

Everything. It would have meant everything.

I might have stood up straighter. Sooner.

So, I wait.  I ready for a fight—but I hope for the best. And though I can’t show you the face of SUPERVISION, not yet, I can swear to you this, which is one of the compelling reasons we need diverse books for children and young adults: The main character, the one you root for, the one you aspire to be, she’s different.

And she’s also exactly like you and me.