Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Skin Not Your Own

Originally posted on the Diversity in YA blog by Laura Goode

I like to call my YA novel, Sister Mischief, the world’s first interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens. It’s hardly news to anyone reading this blog that young adult literature has historically suffered a dearth of queer protagonists and strong, whole characters of color. Including those identities in my novel was important to me, but as a white woman who’s in a committed relationship with a man, part of me wondered, am I entitled to borrow these skins?

While I was writing SM, I thought a lot about a phenomenon I’ve come to call the Good White Person Syndrome (GWPS). GWPS involves not just being a honky with positive values about race, but more sensitively, figuring out how to convey to others, especially people of color, that you are not a racist like Bad White People are. To be a GWP, you must banish the following phrases from your vocabulary:

“Some of my best friends are [insert non-white ethnicity here].”
“Can I touch your hair?”
“[Insert non-white ethnicity here] babies are SO ADORABLE.”
“No, but where are you FROM?”

Politically correcting your language, of course, doesn’t make you a GWP, and neither does living in a major urban area, donating to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, listening to hip-hop, or hanging pictures of solemn-faced brown children that you took on your trip to Mexico, India, or Kenya in your living room. The tricky thing about GWPS, I’ve realized, is that it comes from a more familiar infection commonly known as white guilt.

The reason white guilt angers me, though I’ll certainly confess to feeling it sometimes, is that it only addresses a racial dialogue retroactively. A feeling of guilt comes from a perceived failure to do something that you know you should have done, past tense. White guilt is a resignation, an apology, a slinking-off, a statement that you’re not capable of promoting equality for all people by acting, speaking, and thinking in an identity-positive way, and that’s why I’m not interested in it.

What I am interested in is white responsibility: a forward-looking, anticipatory outlook on identity politics that communicates what can I do? rather than what have I failed to do?

From this sense of responsibility, not guilt, emerged one of my favorite people who doesn’t really exist, Rohini (Rowie) Rudra, co-heroine of Sister Mischief. I knew I wanted SM to include a major character of color, and the process of making Rowie Bengali Indian began from a series of questions like what racial identities other than whiteness are most familiar to me? What ethnicity could a 16-year-old girl living in a predominantly white, affluent suburb believably be? What values or characteristics about family, education, class, and upward mobility is a heroine raised in this area likely to embody?

These are dense, complicated, and in some ways uncomfortable questions that reach back to my own experience of growing up in a predominantly white, affluent suburb. In answering them, I feared homogenizing the Asian-American experience into a big, unoriginal, model-minority tangle of good grades and strict parents — Trisha Murakami highlights these recurrences in Asian-American YA characters especially well in “Spotlight on Asian American YA,” I think. That said, the questions themselves also speak to the closeness and generosity I’ve been shown by a number of South Asian women in my life, and it is to them that my debt is owed. Here, watch me violate my own GWP injunction, but it’s just true: some of my best friends are Indian. In fact, my first non-Caucasian friend was Indian. Long story short, I felt as though I had the best chance of not falling on my honky face in writing an Indian character.

Writing Rowie took a lot of research: from other South Asian authors (Jhumpa Lahiri, if you ever read this — thanks a bunch), from endless Google searches about Vedic astronomy, common Hindi and Bengali words, and the love story of Rama and Sita, as well as from my friends’ anecdotal contributions, which were much more valuable. Some friends donated a mispronunciation of “windshield wipers”; others donated their angst over body hair. I remembered a story from a childhood friend who thought she was adopted just because that’s what the only kids who looked like her were. Slowly, holistically, Rowie became an amalgamation of my own stories and the stories other people had been generous enough to share with me, and she became as real to me as any character I’ve written: a smart, complex, pissed off, ambitious, and self-aware teenage girl who eschews yoga, likes her samosas with ketchup, and prefers jeans to saris. In other words: an American.

For some reason, even though I don’t identify as a lesbian (though for a variety of reasons, paramount among them my solidarity with my GLBTQ loved ones, I do identify as queer), writing a lesbian character didn’t cause me nearly the same anxiety that writing an Indian character did. I think it’s this anxiety about imagining a racial experience not your own that leads so many white authors to write one-dimensional BBF (brown/black best friend) characters, who only show up to support the white protagonist in a time of need, ask exposition-inducing questions, or basically prove that the protagonist is not a BWP. Because of my irritation with the prevalence of the BBF phenomenon, it was really important to me that Rowie challenge Esme’s preconceptions about her, express frustration with her whitewashed surroundings, and exhibit an identity beyond a talent for math and science.

Both within and apart from racial identity, every character in Sister Mischief feels alienated in some way, like an outsider in an insider’s world. In fact, the fundamental conflict of Sister Mischief’s paean to female friendship is its heroines’ search for sameness in collective otherness. All four primary characters represent my effort to portray a certain way of being women that exists completely beyond race: an unbridled way, a fearless and smart one. Together, they find that the only antidote to the alienation they share is to collaborate and aspire together, to question everything, and to choose each other as sisters.

It’s no coincidence that it’s Rowie who asks what I consider the most important question in Sister Mischief, and maybe in all of YA: “What the f*** is normal, anyway?” As I imagined her, it was Rowie’s job to pose the challenge implicit within that question. My job — my responsibility — was only to give her the microphone to ask it. My biggest wish for the young, diverse generation of girls that Sister Mischief reflects is that they continue to ask that question relentlessly, continue to reject the premise of one “normalcy,” continue to strive against BBFs, GWPs, BWPs, and the myths they propagate — until none of their voices can be obscured by these myths any longer.

Laura Goode is the author of Sister Mischief. You can also read some of her other stuff here, here, and here. She was a spelling bee kid.

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