Even though I was born and raised in the United States, I never thought about the label “East Indian American.” Yes, it's my ethnic origin and who I am, but it wasn't a huge concern for me growing up. I attended a culturally integrated high school. My friends were friends regardless of their race.
In the same way, characters in young adult novels shouldn't be identified by race/color alone but by their experiences as a normal teenager in American culture. What does it mean when an Asian American teen is raised in an upper-middle class White American suburb rather than in their own ethnic circle? An Asian American teen has the same worries as any other American teen. Aren't all teens, boys and girls alike, preoccupied with dating, brand name clothes, social cliques, and popularity, doing well in school, and wanting to get into a good college? In fact, this is all part of the cultural norm, isn't it?
I'm Just A Normal Teen!
For the new generation of Asian American teens, the ethnic identity of a protagonist in young adult fiction doesn't mean the book will make for a satisfying read. Race is not the main aspect that defines the protagonist, it's his/her interests, passions, and obstacles that drive the story. It's the real-life issues typical to the American teen culture that teens relate to. How do we as writers of color create an authentic story for all young adult readers regardless of race?
Between 1980-2000, Asian American protagonists were few in young adult novels, even though they may have featured immigrants and foreign lands. Today's young adult novels for Asian American readers are different compared to the ones of the past. Novels featuring Asian American protagonists are on the rise such as Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and An Na's A Step from Heaven.
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. Lark Pien. Illus. New York: First Second
Books, 2006. Print.
An interesting graphic novel and a very fast read. Yang divides the book into three plot lines and in the end they all come together. These humorous stories capture a unique experience into the Chinese-American culture. His main character goes through a tough school environment, identity crisis, and finally figures out the importance of self-acceptance - examples of universal struggles of a teenager. The comic style illustrations add to this unique story.
Na, An. A Step from Heaven. New York: Penguin Group USA, 2001. Print.
An Na has created a series of vignettes, which give a dramatic portrayal of a Korean family assimilating to life in America. She crafts a believable main character, Young Ju, who struggles between her old Korean and new American culture while enduring the domestic abuse of her strict father. Na's authentic details add richness to the story by exposing readers to the customs and traditions of her characters.
The majority of young adult books take place in the United States, and have become a sensation among the mainstream culture. Many of them deal with the struggles of forming one's own identity, being a part of the American teen experience, and promoting self-acceptance.
But, are White American teens ever going to read novels about Asian American teens? I see plenty of Asian American teens reading and buying books about other White American teens. Do White American teens assume they'll feel uncomfortable reading about a character who doesn't share their racial identity?
Isn't it true writers of color are writing about the same issues found in the more popular young adult books? Why can't we stress "The Modern American Teen" rather than "The Asian American Teen?" Is there a book you think satisfies all readers without race being an issue?