As I’m sure a lot of you know, as of 2016-2017, a lot of readers have become more conscientious of the books they’re reading, and have been actively striving towards reading more diversely – something that I’m doing, as well. A lot of authors have begun to respond to this, and have been working towards putting out diverse, inclusive content, taking into account the intersections between race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc.
And while that’s absolutely incredible, in mainstream YA books (especially YA contemporaries), I’m still not seeing a lot of Asian representation.
At all, honestly, if I really think about it.
Quick note: I’m Korean-American, meaning that I’m East Asian, so a lot of my experiences and perspectives are nuanced in that regard. So, when I call for diversity for Asians in books, I need to emphasize that this means for East Asians, Southeastern Asians, South Asians, etc., all of whom deal with different and specific issues. I really want to emphasize this. In no way throughout this post do I mean to suggest that all Asians require the same type of representation in books, or that all Asians suffer from a lack of representation in the same ways.
I can count the amount of YA books with Asian main characters that I’ve read on one hand – and I actually don’t think I can name a single YA book in which an Asian character’s heritage/cultural identity plays an actual part in the book itself. Most of the time, we’re told that a character is Asian (and sometimes, it’s only hinted at), and that’s that – their background or cultural ties doesn’t seem to impact their decisions or the storyline in any way, and I’ll talk more about why I find this both unrealistic and harmful later.
This isn’t necessarily a critique of authors as individuals (I swear I’m not trying to attack them in any way 😅), but it’s worth mentioning that even Asian authors often don’t provide Asian representation in their books – there’s not a main character who’s Asian in Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty trilogy, and while Lara Jean is half Korean, her Korean heritage and culture doesn’t play much of a part in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before duology.
And that’s the thing – as an Asian-American who’s proud of and deeply connected to her culture, as many Asian-Americans are (especially those who are 1st-2nd generation like I am), I don’t want an Asian character to be written in as Asian for the sake of diversity. I want an Asian character whose culture is a part of their lives, whose culture is reflected in some of the decisions that they make/the conflicts that they have – and believe me, there’s a LOT of them.
I want to read about an Asian-American girl who’s frustrated because her male cousin/brother is constantly viewed as superior to her because she’s female, and who’s constantly belittled as a result. I want to read about the hurt that comes with the favoritism of the sons and nephews and grandsons in Asian households, simply because of the sex they were born with and the gender they were assigned to. I want to read about Southeast Asian girls who struggle because they don’t fit into the picture of a pale, skinny, East-Asian girl that the media touts as being the only kind of Asian girl to exist, but come to realize that they have every right to be proud in their identity as an Asian woman, and that they are beautiful regardless of what commercialization + the media says.
I want to read about Asian boys who feel suffocated by the need for hyper-masculinity in Asian households, boys who feel like they’re not allowed to show their emotions or feel anything, boys who don’t want to be restricted by the gender binary, but don’t know how to cross these lines in such patriarchal households. I want to read about Asian teenagers who suffer from mental illnesses, which are largely rejected, discounted, and disregarded in Asian cultures, trying to come to terms with their symptoms and their reality, and how they learn to accept themselves.
I could honestly go on for hours and hours about the very nuanced issues that many Asian teenagers deal with around the world (although I should note that Asians who reside in Western countries are, at least, able to talk about these issues in ways that our counterparts in Eastern countries often aren’t able to). These are realities for millions of Asian teenagers around the world, and yet we get nearly no reading material that incorporates any of it, or accounts for any of it at all. Inclusivity across all fields and spectrums for people of color is extremely important, and something we all should actively call for – but as an Asian-American, this has been my personal experience when it comes to diversity in YA books, and the exclusion that I have personally felt.
How can we change this?
Honestly, it all starts with us, as readers. Demand that books provide better representation, and thorough representation. Actively seek out these books, as they most likely won’t be part of mainstream YA, and support PoC authors, who work to help us connect to characters on a much deeper level. If you’re a PoC, or part of any marginalized/minority group, write about your experiences when it comes to inclusion – share your experiences and your thoughts, and why diversity matters so much to you, because I guarantee that there will be people who feel similarly.
And if you hope to be an author one day, write these books. Write in marginalized voices, write in minorities – consult with members of groups you wish to write about, ask them about their experiences and their stories, verify that you’re getting it right through research and time.
Ultimately, I’m so thankful to be part of such a wonderfully supportive and welcoming community – the book blogging community/booktube community is making such great strides towards ensuring that diverse reads are on the market, and is so supportive of the authors who provide us with these books. Thank you for helping me to realize that my voice matters, and my representation matters.
What are your experiences with diversity in books? What do you want to see more of in YA? Please let me know in the comments, and I hope you all have a fantastic week!