Representation, Diversity & The Great Young Adult Novel

Representation, Diversity & The Great Young Adult Novel

Happy Halloween (a.k.a. my favorite holiday)! I was a “steampunk adventurer” this year at a festival, and it was great. Tonight I have work, but as my office is my house, I plan on dressing up and handing out candy during my breaks.

Halloween has a another special significance for many writers; it’s the day before NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I attempted this feat every year in high school, but to this day I have yet to finish a story within the deadline.

This isn’t to say I’ve never written a book before; when I was in eighth grade I wrote a full-length novel as my “exit project” from middle school. As someone who is notoriously private about sharing my fiction, I almost threw up before school the day I had to read an excerpt out loud in front of my class. But I did it, and a copy of that story likely still sits on the shelf in my former classroom.

Of course, I never did much more with that book. My parents were constantly badgering me to get it published, but I wasn’t happy with my work. It was great for an eighth-grader, but by my third read-through I was already unsatisfied with the quality. I’m a closet perfectionist, and I wanted only something I was extremely proud of published under my name.

Here’s a sketch from my eighth-grade novel of one of my characters, Kindle. He was, of course, named before the Amazon Kindle made its debut.

And as the years went on I had more and more on my plate. In eighth grade, my extracurriculars consisted of thrice-weekly tae kwon do practice and accompanying my parents to grocery stores. I had a ridiculously large amount of time to spend reading and writing. But once I got into high school I joined speech & debate, water polo, and many other clubs. I had friends who lived within walking/biking distance. I still wrote fiction, but that took a back-seat to everything else.

But now that I’m out of school and have less of a social life, I feel the urge to once again write a full-length novel. I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this year for the first time since my freshman year of college. And this time, I plan on winning.

But what am I planning on writing about? My last book was a work of fantasy. I’m still into that genre, but I was always captivated by the idea of the “Great American Novel.” Except I wanted to write the “Great Young Adult Novel.” I was tired of some of the stuff I picked up in the Young Adult (YA) section of the library. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many great YA books out there. Most of my favorite books are YA. (Harry Potter anyone?) But so many have the same basic storyline; the only difference is location and character names. And don’t even get me started on Twilight, which I read against my better instincts. Some friends told me it was amazing. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)

Unoriginal YA aside, I’m also really into representation and diversity in books/media. I don’t think you have to be the same race or in the same situation as a character to relate to them. But let me be clear: that’s not an excuse to avoid featuring people of color as main characters in books or in movies. I spent years thinking I couldn’t be an actor because of my skin tone. After all, as a child, the only characters I saw on TV that looked like me tended to be guest stars with horrible fake accents who were made fun of by the main, white characters. I don’t want other brown and black kids to feel like they can’t be the main character because they aren’t white.

If you don’t believe me when I say representation matters, look at the case of Whoopi Goldberg. She was inspired to start her career by seeing Nichelle Nichols playing Uhura on Star Trek when she was young. Do you know how much we would’ve missed out on if Goldberg hadn’t been watching Nichols, a black woman, play an iconic character on Star Trek? She wouldn’t have been in The Color PurpleGhost, or Sister Act. (Let’s be real, my childhood would have been so much worse without Sister Act.) And Goldberg is just one example of a kid inspired by seeing someone who looked like them on TV.

These days, I see more brown people on TV. Not enough, but more. I’ve also exposed myself to writing by more great brown women writers (Randa Jarrar, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohja Kahf, to name a few). But I’m tired of their books being part of a niche market.

People of color exist in books, but as main characters they’re not as mainstream as I would like. And books featuring characters from marginalized groups (LGBT+ characters, disabled characters, characters of color, etc.) tend to be all about how the main character is, for example, transgender, rather than having a storyline that incorporates the character’s identity into a larger storyline. Stories can be about more than a character’s so-called “defining” characteristic.

I don’t want every book about a teenage girl of Indian descent living in the United States to be about how she rebels against her parents wanting her to get good grades and have an arranged marriage. Because, sure, my parents wanted me to get good grades, but that wasn’t their main focus. And they’ve never, ever said they want me to get an arranged marriage.

These days I’ve grown out of the idea of there being one “Great YA Novel,” but I haven’t lost hope that one day white/straight won’t be the defaults. It shouldn’t be revolutionary that a main character can be brown/black, queer, and chronically ill, but that the story is about going on a quest and saving the world.

With that, I should really be going. This brown girl has her own quest to go on; there are 50,000 words she has to write, after all.

Images: Pexels, Maya Parthasarathy


Politicians’ false statements have real impacts & ‘ignorance’ is not an adequate excuse

Politicians’ false statements have real impacts & ‘ignorance’ is not an adequate excuse

I’m looking at you, Donald Trump.

When I know someone is blatantly lying to me, I’m understandably angry. I have an even lower tolerance for this nonsense when the person lying is a politician on the news. Unfortunately, our presidential candidates are not above making false statements. Fact-checkers have been having a field day with Donald Trump (and Hillary Clinton to a lesser extent); after a week of fact-checking, Politico found that Trump told an untruth every 3.25 minutes, while Clinton made a false statement every 12 minutes. While neither of these figures is good news for voters, it is telling that Trump lies almost four times as much as Clinton.

It’s understandable if someone gets a figure slightly wrong; we’re not robots after all, and politicians have to be well-versed in so many subject areas. But there’s no excuse for extreme exaggerations and unsupported statements. We elect politicians to represent and carry out the will of their constituents, the American people. This means politicians and political candidates have sway over large portions of the population; their supporters are likely to see them as credible figures. False statements can and do have real impacts on the beliefs and actions of real people.

Let’s take recent claims of the presidential election being run questionably. I’ve written about this several times, but the facts don’t back up claims of “rigging” and voter fraud. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. A comprehensive study by Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor, found that out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation occurred. And no presidential election has ever been won by such a small margin.

Still, Trump has called the election rigged on multiple occasions. Basically, Trump is inciting voters to question the results of an election upon which our democracy is based; almost half of voters believe there will be widespread voter fraud, according to a Politico poll. It gets scary super quickly; just read what these Trump supporters told a Boston Globe reporter:

Jeannine Bell Smith, 65, schoolteacher: “We’re going to have a lot of election fraud. They are having illegals vote. In some states, you don’t need voter registration to vote.”

Steve Webb, 61, carpenter from Ohio: “Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure. I’ll look for…well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American. I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Dan Bowman, 50, contractor: “If [Hillary Clinton is] in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it. We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take…I would do whatever I can for my country.”

(For the record, the Trump campaign said in a statement that they “reject violence in any form and will not allow it to be a part of our campaign.”)

I don’t really understand how someone can proclaim an election that hasn’t happened yet is definitively “rigged,” but let’s unpack these quotes anyways:

  • Once again, there isn’t any reliable evidence to support Smith’s claim that there will be “a lot of election fraud.” And you definitely need voter registration to vote in all fifty states. Also, the most basic requirement of voter eligibility is U.S. citizenship, so no, “illegals” will not be voting in the election.
  • Webb said he will “racially profile” people and “go right up behind them.” While he claims he’ll be doing everything legally, Webb has described what is most likely a classic case of voter intimidation. And, yes, voter intimidation is illegal.
  • Bowman has taken it a step further. While he doesn’t actually say he’ll participate in the “bloodshed” he describes happening if Clinton is elected president, his claims that she should be “shot” are chilling.

As much as I wish these people and their words were figments of my imagination, they’re not. Trump should be taking responsibility for feeding his supporters falsehoods that very likely had something to do with how riled up some of them are about the “rigged” election. I mean, they’re literally describing committing crimes against Clinton supporters!

I get that when you see someone as a reliable source of information, it can be easy to become complacent. You might start accepting their words as truth. But we live in an age when fact-checking is ridiculously easy — as long as you have access to the internet and understand how to determine the reliability of sources, you too can be a fact-checker. And fact-checking Trump has become even easier, with many news sources dedicating resources to specifically verifying the candidates’ claims.

I wish candidates weren’t allowed to get away with blatant lies, but the fact of the matter is that many of them have extremely loyal fan bases. So all we can do in the meantime is not accept things at face value, and speak up when someone says something you know isn’t true.

I’ll leave you with this “The Daily Show” video, in which correspondent Jordan Klepper interviews people at a Trump rally and humorously uses their own logic against them. It’ll probably cause amusement and frustration in equal parts.

Image: Gage Skidmore

Reaching for the stars & other clichés

Reaching for the stars & other clichés

When I was in fifth grade, there was a period of time when I wouldn’t turn my homework in. Not because I hadn’t done it; I’d actually finished it far before most procrastinators would even decide to take a look at the assignment. No, my reason for not submitting my homework was that I didn’t think it was good enough.

In reading class, we were assigned a final essay. When I was passed the growing pile of essays, I self-consciously put a piece of scrap paper on the bottom of the stack and passed it on. Of course, the absence of my assignment from the pile did not go unnoticed. My mother got called in for a talk with my teacher, and I was eventually forced to surrender the essay.

Later on, the teacher told my mother that I would’ve gotten an A if I had turned in my essay on time. Instead I got a D+ since there was a policy penalizing late work. (In fifth grade! Apparently our fifth grade teachers were preparing us for life, but even college professors don’t usually lower the grades on late assignments that much.)

That’s me, a few months before all of this drama happened.

At the time I was definitely overthinking things. I’d worked hard on the essay, and I’d fulfilled and even exceeded the requirements of the assignment. The only part of the assignment I didn’t do was actually turning it in.

But sometimes you just have to go ahead and turn something in, even if you don’t think it’s perfect. Of course, it’s best to submit high-quality work. And there are definitely times when an extension on an assignment is warranted. But if you have a lot of performance-related anxiety like me, you’re probably being ridiculous when you decide your hard work isn’t good enough.

There were many times throughout my later school days when I didn’t turn in assignments I had done. But this didn’t help me do better work; instead, it negatively impacted my grades. In eleventh grade, I didn’t submit my math homework for two months straight. That’s a lot of points. Plus, I didn’t get feedback on my work that could have helped me improve. (Not to say my grades were all bad. I did well in most of my classes, and I went on to higher education.)

By the time I got to college, I had made a promise to myself: no matter what, turn something in for each assignment. And guess what? My grades were better than ever. I started to realize that what I thought wasn’t good enough could actually be above average. I was amazed first semester freshman year when my comparative government TA pulled me over and told me I was the top scorer on the midterm. Slowly my self-confidence increased. There were still times when I doubted that an essay I’d done well on was “A” material, but there were also times when I felt proud of myself for how far I’d come.

And that’s me at 17 after getting surprised with a birthday cake at a speech & debate tournament.

Of course, grades aren’t everything. What’s most important is what you learn from the work you do. And boy was I learning so much more. Since I was no longer so afraid of failing, I began raising my hand and participating in class discussions. I even went to see professors during their office hours, something I had been petrified of doing since a one-on-one meeting had the potential to end in embarrassment. I was no longer the quiet kid in the back of the classroom who might not turn in her homework; I was that kid who wasn’t afraid to ask a lab assistant for help when she needed a nudge in the right direction.

Now that I think about it, there is one more part of assignments that I frequently didn’t do: turning them in by the due date. In fifth grade I was offended by the strict rules surrounding late work. But now, I’m thankful. In college, one of my areas of study was journalism. For journalists, deadlines are extremely important; if you don’t turn your story in on time, you could affect the entire publication.

While some of my professors tended to be more laid back about due dates, my journalism professors were the opposite. If you didn’t make a deadline, your story earned an F grade, or in some cases, a zero. It was as if you hadn’t turned anything in at all. But guess what? I’m proud to say I made my deadlines, no matter what it took. And I avoided fact errors, which were also cause for an F grade.

And finally, a more current photo.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this. It might seem like I’m just taking the opportunity to brag about myself. And yeah, I am, kind of. (Can you blame me? I turned my academic life around. I rediscovered the joy of education! But I digress.) Still, there was a point to the story. I’ll express it through clichés: Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game. Reach for the moon — even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. There is no such thing as failure, except for if you do not even try. (I could keep going, but you probably get the point.)

Despite everything I’ve gone through, I’m still a little afraid of starting new things. But I have a lot of things to say, and my journal is no longer enough of an audience for me. (Sorry, journal. It’s not you, it’s me.) My goal in college was to turn in every assignment; my new goal is to keep this blog updated. It took me a while to summon enough courage to write this post. But with each new piece of writing, it should get easier.

So I hope you’ll join me as I navigate the uncertainties of post-college life. I’ll be happy to have you along on the journey.