#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.

Sometimes There Are No Words

I had to run to Office Depot over my lunch break today to pick up some supplies. Push pins, masking tape, index cards–typical things I use in project planning. It was a routine visit to a routine store but this time something very strange happened and I still don’t have any words. I still don’t know what I should have said, and I feel bad for saying nothing at all.

After gathering the things I needed from the various corners of the store, I approached the register where a very sweet older lady greeted me with a smile.

“Nice weather we’re having. Glad summer’s finally here,” she said.

“Oh yeah, me too, I’ve been getting a lot of good bike rides in lately.”

She paused her scanning for a second, then continued and looked up at me.

“You know, you sound just like one of my friends. His name’s Michael. He passed away recently.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“He was thirty two or thirty three. Somewhere in there.”

I’m always sad when I hear that someone my age has died. I waited for her to continue, wondering what could have happened to her friend. Death at such a young age is usually fast and unexpected.

“He killed himself. Suicide. I wish I’d had just one more chance to talk to him before he did it. He was always so depressed. I wanted to tell him that there are other women in the world, that it’s not worth it.”

At this point I had no idea what to say. I swiped my card and she handed me my receipt. She snapped out of her malaise and, with a smile, said “Thanks for coming by! Have a nice day!”

I didn’t even say goodbye.

Sometimes there are no words.

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.

A Brief Update

Image

Just busy. Busy going to a writing conference. Busy finishing up edits. Busy going for long bicycle rides in the beautiful weather we’ve had lately. I’ll be back soon enough now that the Dreaded Querying Process is beginning, but for now, I leave you with this. If you ever needed a motivational pep talk to get started on any endeavor, be it creative or business or maniacal evil, here’s your pep talk.

More interesting update to follow when I’ve got this query and synopsis writing behind me. And yes, I know, I promised to write about endings. I kept holding off because I didn’t quite have the ending of my own novel where it needed to be. But now I do. Next time, I promise!

If you want a sneak peek just imagine I’m saying something about “themes” and “circling back to the beginning” here while waving my hands around.

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.

Wedding of a Stranger

I went to a wedding on Sunday. I had only known the bride since ten in the morning and didn’t know anyone else in attendance. That alone is a pretty interesting hook for a story, but there’s something about me, personally, that takes it to the next level.

I’m an introvert. This may come as a surprise, given my background as a project manager, pianist, and Juror #10 in a performance of Twelve Angry Men–the juror with the long-winded bigoted monologue where for a few painful minutes all eyes are on me. The truth is I’m a terrible public speaker, and you’ll generally find me hanging out at the back of a party, sipping a glass of water and wondering how much longer I have to stay before it’s no longer considered rude to leave.

This past Sunday we attended a new church. I’m not sure how familiar the Orthodox faith is to most, but I can summarize my stress that morning with one simple phrase: all children attend service. And I’ve got four of them, the oldest one a mere six years of age.

About halfway through the service, my second daughter grew very quiet behind me. This was a notable event because she’s generally a tornado of a child. I looked back to see her sitting on the lap of a complete stranger. I panicked, wondering what terrible thing she’d gotten herself into now and how I was going to explain this, when my wife told me everything was fine. The lady had asked my daughter to sit with her.

During the announcements at the end of the service, the priest mentioned a wedding at the church that evening. The young lady who had been holding my daughter whispered in my ear that we were all invited to the wedding. I found it strange that she was inviting me to somebody else’s wedding, but as fortune would have it she was the bride. She’d given my wife the same invitation.

When it was time to go, the introvert in me declared that we weren’t going to the wedding. We were tired, poorly dressed, and didn’t know anybody. I did not want to impose on a stranger’s special day. My wife and other children really wanted to go, however, and so in an act of immense willpower I told that introvert inside of me to have a seat.

The wedding ceremony was beautiful. My daughters watched in awe as the bride and groom stood in the middle of the church before the priest. My four year old later claimed to have seen a princess. After the ceremony the bride and groom invited us to the reception.

We sat in the parking lot of the reception hall considering our options. We did not know anybody here. There would be food–food that somebody had paid for without us in the equation. We decided to just run inside, take a few pictures, and leave. As we were getting out of the car, though, the bride and groom arrived and parked beside us. She grabbed up my four year old and carried her off into the reception hall after snapping a few photographs.

We ate, at their insistence, and stayed for all of the events–the toasts, the dance, the cutting of the cake. My children met other children and played until they collapsed from exhaustion, then got up and played some more. I met so many wonderful people and learned quite a bit about the bride and groom–and about myself.

When it was time to go, the bride pulled us aside. She spoke in her Romanian accent, and told us how when she arrived in the States she knew nobody except her fiancé. She felt so alone, and the members of that church took her in just like family. She knew we were new to the area and was simply paying the hospitality and goodwill forward.

And now it’s my turn. Time for this introvert at heart to watch for an uncertain newcomer–to make someone else feel as welcome and comfortable as this Romanian girl made us feel, after knowing us for barely an hour.

Have you ever gone against your own nature to reach out to someone else?