#WeNeedDiverseBooks

I wasn’t going to get into this. There are any number of reasons. I’m no fan of jumping on internet bandwagons. Especially because they quite often turn into internet hate trains, and that’s just not my thing. But I enjoyed sitting back and watching this hashtag on Twitter over the last couple of days.

Then, today, I got a mentioned in a Tweet by a good friend and I started feeling guilty:

He’s right. I should be in this discussion. But not because of RYOJI AND THE RIDDLE MASTERS. I’ll tell that book’s submission story someday–hopefully when it’s en route to a bookstore near you.

No, see, the reason I should be in this discussion is right here:

I have all the kids. All of them.

Yes, that’s quite the assortment of children. Five half-Japanese kids, ranging in age from 9 years old down to 8 months old. The oldest two are voracious readers of all genres. The dude in glasses is starting to get his reading on. The other two love to listen to one of their siblings or parents read to them. Who’d believe a writer would spawn five children that all loved books and storytelling? All right, so now it’s question time. Surprise, there’s a test with this blog post. Two questions.

Here’s the first:

Name a half-Asian hero in popular American literature. Go ahead, you’ve got time. I’m not looking at my watch. You can spend all night on Google if you want. Heck, for that matter, name a full Asian hero. There aren’t that many out there, especially not in children’s literature. While my kids are too young to form a truly complex opinion about the matter, they are definitely starting to notice that the kids in the books they read are usually white.

My kids would love some half-Japanese role models in the fiction they read. It’s more than just changing a character’s physical description in a tale–though that’s always a good start. There are experiences tied up in that racial identity as well that people who are part of the ‘norm’ will never understand. It’s often a very lonely feeling. I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and outside of the one French Canadian programmer I worked with, all my interactions were with Japanese people. Aside from one incident with my boss at the time, there was never any overt racism directed at me, but that wasn’t the problem–the problem was the loneliness. When you go for years not seeing anyone like yourself represented in the media around you, it creates a kind of emptiness inside that’s impossible for me to describe. I’ve heard other people in America who never see themselves speak of a similar loneliness.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the second question. Here goes:

Name a dwarf hero in popular American literature. I can think of exactly one: Tyrion Lannister. There’s also a YA novel starring a character with dwarfism: JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS. In movies we’ve got WILLOW. And… not much else.

“I’m all for diversity, but why in the world are you bringing up dwarfism? Isn’t diversity all about race and gender identity and stuff?”

Go back up there to that picture of the eighty-seven children. See the one sitting on my wife’s lap with the glasses and the rather dapper cap? He’s Noah, and he’s a dwarf. I suppose I could start reading A Song of Ice and Fire to him but at 5 he’s probably a BIT too young to hear of Tyrion Lannister’s exploits. So what are my options?

For a long time I’ve wanted to write a story with a dwarf in it with a prominent role. It’s been hard finding the right one. Dwarfism is tricky because it affects an action-heavy story in ways substantially different (not greater, mind you, just different) than something like skin color or gender. There are specific physical limitations to consider, and I tend to write very actiony things. I couldn’t quite find the right place in RYOJI, though most of that had been written in some state or other in my head since 2006/7.

I’ve recently been working on a new project codenamed CREATUREFALL. Middle grade fantasy set in a world where every seventy years an assortment of crazy creatures straight out of an old 80s RPG rain down from the heavens and cause general havoc. I’ve felt like something’s been missing from my MC in that story. He’s got the typical “kid who always dreamed big goes on to prove to the world he can live up to it” thing going on, but so what? That happens in so many stories.

Then today, while chatting with a friend, it hit me. A way to weave dwarfism naturally into the story, along with all its limitations, with all the emotional struggles, and without it feeling like I’m just checking a diversity box or dwarfsploiting (is that even a word?!).

My main character, a thirteen year old boy named Mako, is going to be a dwarf.

I’ve had several heart-wrenching conversations with my son about things he quite literally will never be able to do, about the difficulties he faces doing everyday tasks that you and I take for granted. I’ve had conversations with teachers and students about how to treat him because the default reaction is “oh he’s so cute! look at the little child!” It’s something I’ve experienced as close to first-hand as one can without being a dwarf. And yet when I see that gleam of distant dreams in his eyes, when I see his wild and hilariously witty personality, I get to thinking that maybe I’m wrong, that maybe even those things that seem flat out impossible he just might find a way to do them.

The answer is not forcing stories to conform to a sort of census-like demographic checklist. Constraining art in such a legalistic way isn’t good for anybody. The answer is not to take iconic heroes and make them gay/biracial/handicapped. That generally just makes everyone who loves those heroes as they are uncomfortable–and there’s nothing wrong with loving our old heroes.

What we need are new heroes. New stories. Authentic stories, told by people who come from places and cultures and identities that are outside the realm of what we’ve got so much of already. Sesame Street did a better job forty years ago of representing American diversity than the entire spectrum of our popular literature does today.

Sesame Street

 

The answer is to be the change we want to see.

Challenge accepted.

Well Hello There, 2013

Yes, yes, it’s been six months since I updated this thing last. But I promise I’ve got some really good reasons.

Second grade, Kindergarten, and Pre-K.

Second grade, Kindergarten, and Pre-K.

After returning from Japan last August, it was a rush to get all the things ready for school. For the first time we had three of the four off for some learnin’, and that required a Herculean effort to pull off–especially considering that in those same 3 weeks we moved across town. And by across town, I mean “nearly 40 miles away”. That may not sound like much, but compound it with jet lag and school preparedness, and you can see how much of a nightmare that can turn out to be.

After that, we had an obscene number of things come up. See, when you have three kids in school, that’s three times the number of events and class-specific festivities you have to attend. And in addition to school, there was work, where I’ve been finishing up a major project–to be launched in the next month!

Then you’ve got the Fall Rush, where you get the hypersonic Holiday gauntlet known as New Hallothanksgivingmas Eve. Once you get into October, the year kind of speeds by until you hit the brick wall that is the cold, dark winter. I don’t know about you, but the first six months of the year seem to take about nine months to get through, while the last six months feels more like two.

And during all of this, my wordsmithing efforts were directed solely at crafting a new novel. And I can say, with some caveats, that I succeeded! It’s done, at 80k words. It’s middle grade fantasy, with a mythological Japanese setting, and it’s tested well with a very small audience and my Most Trusted Alpha Reader.

Artwork by Stephane Imbert.

Awesome concept art by Stephane Imbert.

And now to look back at my resolutions for last year. It wouldn’t be fair to ignore them. Here’s what I promised I’d do in 2012:

1 – Finish writing three drafts.

Well, I finished 2! I finished my multicultural romance set amidst the 2010 tsunami that has died the death of a million edits, and most recently I finished up my MG fantasy. (Yes, yes, I technically wrote The End in the first weeks of 2013).

2 – Cook something new every month.

Failure! While I ended up cooking something every month, and a lot more when my family was in Japan, it rarely ended up being something new. I’ve been too busy to research new, and I feel bad about it.

3 – Read two books a month.

Success! My next post will cover my 2012 reads, and what my TBR pile looks like for 2013. Here’s a preview: CLOUD ATLAS was my favorite last year.

4 – Finish up some of the cross-cultural tales for the blog that are languishing in draft status.

Also success! Not as many as I wanted, but I got quite a few finished. Maybe you can check them out. Perhaps they’ll even entertain you.

Sorry for such a dry post, but I mostly wanted to stick my head above water and say that I’m Alive!

What I’ve Been Up To Lately

I’ve been spending the summer in Japan with the family. Started working on a new project (middle-grade fantasy, Asian-themed), still waiting to hear on some queries from the last project, and just generally enjoying the heck out of  a long break. I’ll be back to regularity sometime in the next few weeks!

 

Happy Birthday

My first child was born in Japan. Getting a copy of her birth certificate will always be a tortuous wild goose chase where the geese have been cross-bred with piranhas and are packing laser rifles. They say you always remember the big milestones in your life with a distinct clarity, and aside from my twenty-first birthday, that’s proven true. The birth of my first child was the most terrifying experience in the history of all my experiences. The terror has only grown with time.

Whenever I tell people this, they smile and nod with that knowing “Yeah, pal, it’s terrifying for all of us that first time around” smarmy look. But looking back at everything that happened, it was objectively horrifying and not simply my emotions getting the best of me.

Before

Before

My wife decided early on to go to a midwifery in Japan. I will forever refer to it as the “spawning vats.” It was this two-story building hidden in a back alley that exuded all the welcoming feelings of a rugged youth hostel crossed with a Soviet-era elementary school. Lots of little spartan rooms with cold tile floors where new mothers would stay with their new babies for a week after birth to ease everybody’s transition into their new roles in life.

The place was run by an ancient obstetrician and associated with a hospital and this was supposed to allay my fears about how dangerous this sounded. Once we had to go to a class that I *think* was supposed to teach us how to not kill the baby. I’d barely been in Japan a few months and my language skills weren’t all that up-to-snuff so I only caught about one in every fifty words the doctor said. Mostly it looked like an inscrutable puppet show to me. I remember it being very hot, and falling asleep once, and my wife jabbing me in the chest with her elbow because I’d been snoring. You know, maybe I deserved the ensuing terror.

The day I got “the call”, I hopped on my bicycle and sped off to the midwifery in this sleepy little neighborhood well north of Tokyo. It was the fastest way to get there as no trains ran close by, calling a taxi would take too long, and we had no car. I got several texts that morning from my wife after “the call” but the one I will always remember simply said “Ouch.”

When I arrived the nurses hurried me into my wife’s room where she was to stay for the week and there was a complete lack of wife in the room. Just me and the bed and the clock. They instructed me to wait, shut the door, and shuffled off with no indication of when they’d be back. I hadn’t gotten a text in a good hour or two at this point. I’m not sure how long I was in that room, but after the minutes faded into half-hours and the half-hours faded into hours and the shadows from the sunlight streaming through the window had moved across at least two floor tiles, the nurses came to retrieve me with a simple “It’s time.”

They took me to a bench in a white hallway lit with a flickering fluorescent light that cast a sickly green glow on everything. Beside that bench was a door and from the other side of the door came the screaming. Not just any screaming. I could pick out at least two distinct voices screaming. Possibly three. My heart went into overdrive as I tried to figure out why so many people were screaming, and why nobody was letting me go in there. One of the voices had to be my wife, but what of the others? Had something gone terribly wrong and the nurses were screaming about how awful it all was? Were there, in fact, eldritch horrors in there screaming with the voices of the damned? I sat there helpless under the lights.

Soon enough they let me into the room and I hesitated for a second. I wasn’t sure I wanted to face whatever was on the other side, but then my wife could be in trouble so I convinced my feet to move. It was a scene directly out of a horror movie. First there were curtains everywhere making what looked like a rather large room feel very claustrophobic. The screams came from behind these other curtains. Another woman had decided to give birth at the exact same time as my wife and the staff were making-do as well as they could.

Second, the room was dark. I mean very dark. The doctor’s theory was that the baby should ease into the world without bright lights, and slowly ramp up the light level as she got accustomed to her new surroundings. Funny, nobody ever thought about a slow ramp for the sound level. A part of the ceiling overhead was unfinished and there were pipes and wires and tubes and all sorts of things you see in a creepy abandoned warehouse hanging up there. And in front of me, behind a curtain, was my wife all splayed out on some chair-like device, gripping onto a bar as if trying not to be snatched away by some awful creature, screaming and giving me a very, very angry look.

And to top it all off, the doctor was standing at the “business end” with a camcorder aimed directly at the action.

What. The. Hell.

We have that cassette tape. For seven years I’ve managed to come up with excuses as to why we don’t need a VCR. Because I know, as soon as we acquire one, my wife will pop that cassette in and I will hear the unholy cries of the damned once more.

After

After

In the end my daughter came out all nice and healthy and they handed her to me and I was terrified that I’d drop her on the tile floor but somehow I survived the encounter. Honestly everything after they gave my daughter back to my wife is a blur. I spent the next week making that bicycle ride 2-3 times a day to visit, always bringing a requested snack from the local grocery store, having fun videotaping this crazy new creature that was my daughter.

But as objectively terrifying as it all was, it was So. Worth. It.

Happy Birthday, Emily. May I live long enough to embarrass you with this and many more stories at your wedding.

Finding Your Voice In A Foreign Land

My knowledge of the Japanese language is entirely functional. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m functionally fluent. If I need to find a bathroom, I can do that. If I need to make special adjustments to a restaurant order, I can do that. If I need to tell my kids to stop chewing on each others’ arms, I can do that, too. I can converse in a rather verbose, if boring and stilted, manner. I cannot, however, write a story. I cannot string together a poem or express complex emotional ideas. I cannot weave a tapestry of words to evoke emotions, to encourage empathy, to fundamentally move a person and leave my mark on them.

And it’s frustrating when I’m in a situation where I have to do exactly that. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, struggling to find a voice in a language I have yet to master, overflowing with emotions to relate but unable to relate them in the right way.

At my sister-in-law’s wedding, they had a slideshow of pictures from the lives of the bride and groom. The first picture of the bride’s life was her as a baby in the smiling arms of my mother-in-law. As related in an earlier post, she died before I ever met her. My first trip to Japan was for her funeral.

All I could think when I saw that picture was how she’d never been able to hold any of her grandchildren like that. How my kids will grow up without their Japanese “ba-san”. How she will never be able to pass on to her daughters that special kind of motherly advice that can only come from one’s own mother.

The next pictures were of my wife and her sister growing up, going through all the various milestones kids go through, with their smiling mother by their side. All these things she’ll never see for her own grandkids, never be able to do with them. I was touched, but at the same time I was standing in the back of the reception hall holding my one-year-old son. I couldn’t break down–it was my job to keep him from breaking down.

But then the last picture came up in the slideshow. The family all stood together, smiling, with a caption whose beauty I can’t exactly translate but is best rendered as: “Her mother watches over her from Heaven.” And that’s when I lost control. I excused myself and walked out of the reception hall and over to the large windows overlooking the city of Nagoya.

It helped that my son chose that moment to go a little nuts, so I had some cover, but that’s not exactly why I left. I’m no stranger to embarrassment–you get used to that marrying into a foreign culture. No, I had to leave because I knew that if anyone asked me what was wrong, why I looked like I’d been chopping onions, I wouldn’t be able to express exactly how I felt. “I’m sad” and “I was moved” are functional phrases. They’re all that came to mind. They’re all I knew how to say in my functional Japanese voice. And they weren’t sufficient. They wouldn’t do the moment justice. So I hid away by the windows, watching the traffic in the streets below for a while to gather my thoughts and let the baby settle down.

As authors, sometimes we struggle to find our own voice. I’m discovering the same is also true when learning a foreign language. It’s my goal to someday be able to tell my Japanese family exactly how I feel in my very own Japanese Ben voice. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s for a good cause.

Family at the Wedding

Actually, five good causes.

Death from Overwork is Forbidden

I noted on Twitter the other day that the chrysanthemum is obviously more important to the Japanese than it is to us Americans because their word for it is simply kiku (菊). I followed this with an observation that they also have a word for “death from overwork”: karoushi (過労死). That word really stuck with me. Here was a culture that experienced this so often they needed a simple vocabulary unit to express it.

During the daytime hours I manage video game development teams. Being the Japanese geek that I am I’ve taken that word and made it part of my team charter: karoushi kinshi (過労死禁止): “Death from overwork is forbidden.” I write it on my whiteboard, I hang posters in hallways, and when people ask me what it means it sparks an interesting discussion–one I know will stick with them every time they come to my office to ask for advice on handling a given problem.

The stories about terrible workplace conditions in the video game industry are fewer than they were 6+ years ago. The industry has acknowledged that months of 80+ hour work weeks are counter-productive and has started taking measures to combat it. I like to think I’ve had a lot to do with that during my tenure across three studios of Electronic Arts. They had one of the worst publicity problems in the industry at the time.

But “death” and “overwork” can apply to far more than salaryman type jobs and shuffling off this mortal coil. Very often we get wrapped up in our own pursuits to the detriment of the relationships we hold dear. For me, this pursuit was writing. It’s been all-consuming these past two years, and I’ve spent all the free time I could carve out between my job and my family writing some books and honing my craft. One night my wife went to bed before me and I stayed up late to get some writing done. The next night, I was really close to finishing some scene or other, so when she asked if I was coming to bed I let her know that I’d be there as soon as I finished up. Two hours later I rolled into the bedroom. Of course she’d fallen asleep, the lights still on, waiting for me.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern with our most passionate pursuits that unknowingly builds barriers between us and our loved ones. Two years later and it’s hard for me to remember the last time my wife and I went to bed at the same time. The worst part of all is that I didn’t even recognize it was happening. No, it was pointed out to me by a friend’s wife–and neither the friend nor his wife know my wife. Yet after I spent just one evening chatting with my friend’s wife, she immediately identified this as a significant problem I needed to address. And she’s right. I can’t believe I went so long without seeing it.

Just like the video game industry. One late night wasn’t so bad. That led to another. Then another. And it all snowballed until the only way to get a game built to budget and schedule was by crunching for weeks or months at a time. There was no malevolent intent, no man behind the curtain–just a blinding passion for one pursuit (in their case, making great games, in my case, writing great books). Like I remind my team that overwork isn’t always the answer, it’s good to have friends (or wives of friends!) there to remind me about the important things in life I’m missing out on or inadvertently allowing to die. Of course this problem will be rectified posthaste with lots of hugs, lots of flowers, and a reasonable bedtime.

過労死禁止。Death from overwork is forbidden. Is there something in your own life that’s suffered as a result of your dedication to a given pursuit? Ever stop to think about it? Perhaps some random blog post by some random guy who talks about random Japanese and writing-related things can spark your awareness of it.

Anything’s possible.

Where’s Ben?

Dude I'm right here!

Dude I'm right here!

If I only had some glasses, I’d look a lot like Waldo.

So where have I been lately? Buried. Sorry for the lack of updates, but I’m neck-deep in writing at the moment. The novel is coming along nicely, just past the 60k mark, and should be wrapped up in another 15k words. Then after a short break the edits begin. I’m trying to have it all tidied up for a conference in May.

In the middle of all the writing going on this month I’ve had some visitors, and to top it all off my family is heading out to Japan next week–for a five month trip. Language boot camp for the kids. Time for them to understand what that Japanese half of them is all about.

It’ll just be me holding down the fort in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

Me and my novels.

Next time I’ll post about endings, both because I’ll have finished this draft, and because I’ve had some interesting conflicts going on about how to end this thing. So many ways to go, and each one has a substantial impact on the tone of the novel. I’m going with my gut. Time will tell if I’m right.

See you guys on the other side of “THE END”!