Here’s another installment to my Who Tells Our Stories photo / interview series highlighting diverse readers and the diverse stories that represent their identities! Today I’m interviewing Alexandra about diverse literature and how she connected to the book she has chosen to be photographed with.
(A FULL EXPLANATION FOR THE PHOTO SERIES IS AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS INTERVIEW.)
Book title: American Panda by Gloria Chao
Can you describe your identity? (Ex: race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, mental illness, disability, body type, or religion, etc.)
I’m a Chinese-American Christian female.
How do you connect with American Panda? Are there elements of the story that accurately represents your identity?
American Panda was the first YA book I read that starred a Chinese (actually, Mei is Taiwanese but SO CLOSE) American teen such as myself. Although my personal experience is completely different from Mei’s in American Panda, I couldn’t help but feeling a strong personal connection. It was like watching a close friend stumble through all these experiences.
I know you mentioned that there any other books that you feel represents you. Can you name a few?
Yes! before American Panda, the only two books I read that featured east Asian characters were To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (YA, Korean-American), and The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan (historical fiction, not YA, Chinese). But more recently, I loved The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo for its Asian-American representation in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where I grew up. I felt a really strong connection to TWYMMF (despite being Chinese-American as opposed to Korean-American like the MC) because it was the first time I saw a gawky Chinese immigrant as the male lead.
If you had read these books, at a younger age, how do you think it would have impacted you as a reader and person growing up?
As a child, I wanted to hide and ignore my Chinese heritage. Bringing Asian snacks to school brought rude comments, and I never felt I truly belonged. It felt normal to see predominantly white characters in books and movies. If I’d read these novels as a child, I probably would’ve felt proud of my culture. I wouldn’t feel as out of place for my smaller eyes and dark hair. I would’ve understood where my parents were coming from and why they are the way they are.
What does diversity in literature (or any other form of media) mean to you?
Those who don’t understand the need for diverse literature either have: 1) never seen themselves in literature, or 2) have always seen themselves in literature. Up until this year, I also didn’t fully understand the importance of diverse books for the former reason. Of course, diversity is important, but I didn’t really grasp how important until I realized what I was missing out on. American Panda was the first book where I finally saw things where it went beyond “It’s just a family thing” or “It’s just an Asian thing”. For the first time, it felt more than “It’s just a culture thing”. In some weird way, seeing parts of my culture in a book made it more real and more valid. And that’s something so important and indescribable for everyone. EVERYONE should be able to see that their race, gender, religion, sexuality, mental illness, etc etc etc is valid and real. Everyone should be able to see themselves represented in books and other forms of media. If not, people will feel as if they’re being erased from existence – and oftentimes, they themselves are doing the erasing, as I did as a child by trying to hide my heritage.
Thank you, Alexandra, for being apart of my photo / interview series! I’m so glad that I was able to meet you, in NYC, and have you be apart of my series. Your opinions and insight about diverse literature are important to me and others, and I hope others realize that as well. Thank you so much!
PHOTO LOCATION: Barnes and Noble, 5th Ave, New York, New York
Who Tells Our Stories: A Photo Series Explanation
I was inspired to create a photo series on my Instagram that features diverse readers holding books that represent their identities (e.g. ethnicities, sexualities, race, gender, body types, MIs, disabilities, religions, etc.) in a positive light. I wanted to create this series in order to highlight the need for diversity in literature. I also wanted to show others how diverse novels can positively impact someone who finally feels represented in a way that doesn’t use harmful cliches or stereotypes.
Each photo, in this on-going series, will include an interview with the reader to discuss the need for diversity in literature and how the reader identifies with the piece of literature they have chosen (if they feel comfortable disclosing that piece of information).
I came up with the title Who Tells Our Stories for the photo series because it is a spin-off of the Hamilton lyric “Who tells your story”. Because the Hamilton is such a diverse form of art, I wanted my photo series to reference that striking lyric because we need diverse authors to tell diverse stories in a respectful way. Marginalized readers should be able to see themselves properly represented in literature, and I hope this photo series highlights that need to others.