Yes, I do know AAPI Heritage Month ended yesterday, but this is me resisting white supremacy that gives February to Blacks May to AAPI and relegates Pride celebrations to June. This is me saying that all day, everyday, we can learn about, promote, celebrate and cherish our stories. May is over, but AAPI heritage continues.
There’s a saying that “the show must go on” and despite so much that is weighing so heavily, I had to continue with this series. People have written important essays weeks ago to be posted for AAPI Heritage Month and it doesn’t really take much to find how relevant their words can be.
Still, here I am an African American woman, putting all this energy into celebrating Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but can we talk about the strained relationship between these communities? Can we make sure everyone realizes that both these groups face an everyday hatred that stems from the same place? Can we remember the strength of our collective power? We call out White folks to have our backs, but we have to call black and brown brothers and sisters, too. There is strength in our collective power. And, did we all take note of the many books mentioned this month? We’re not being anti-racist if we’re not reading books that don’t look like us.
Reading feeds our anti-racism because it informs and uplifts us. It empowers our imaginations and forms a collective consciousness around a set of ideas. It is a form of resistance when done intentionally.
Today, Sayantani DasGupta writes about joy as resistance in Asian American children’s stories. I appreciate the opportunity to examine these books from a different stance and I also appreciate the concept that joy is resistance. Joy is resistance.
Are you familiar with Sayantani DasGupta? She is a pediatrician by training, but now teaches at Columbia University. Sayantani is known to most of us as the New YorkTimes bestselling author of the critically acclaimed, Bengali folktale and string theory-inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond books, the first of which—The Serpent’s Secret—was a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, a Booklist Best Middle Grade Novel of the 21st Century, and an EB White Read Aloud Honor Book. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books, and can be found online at sayantanidasgupta.com and on Twitter at @sayantani16.
No More Sad Brown Girls: Why Joy Is Resistance In Asian American Children’s Stories
Many children’s authors have horror stories regarding their first novels. First publications are often preceded by years of tears and rejections.
It took me years to get my first novel, a fast-paced middle-grade fantasy based on Bengali folktales and string theory, published. In this way, I’m no different than many authors of all different backgrounds. Yet, like many other authors of color, the reasons for which I was getting rejected often skated on the absurd. There was the ubiquitous “I didn’t resonate with the story,” but far more frequent was a different, racially loaded sort of rejection.
Although gatekeepers like editors and agents liked my fictional voice, the suggestion was frequently to steer away from fantasy and write a realistic fiction story about my immigrant daughter protagonist’s “cultural conflicts” with her South Asian parents. I felt the pressure, from these rejections and from the successful Asian American books I saw in the adult and children’s markets, to write a story about brown girl suffering, a story which ‘taught cultural lessons’ about my community to the mainstream and perhaps could be trotted out during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In other words, I felt the pressure to write a story that somehow performed cultural pain and reinforced stereotypes of South Asian parents as sexist, conservative and oppressive. But that was not the story that I ultimately wanted or needed to tell.
In my “day job,” I teach in a graduate program in Narrative Medicine as well as an undergraduate center for the study of ethnicity and race. My areas of inquiry are around race, gender, and representation. Through not just my children’s fiction writing, but my academic work, I know that stories matter. Stories are the ways that both just and unjust policies, laws, and actions get framed. Historically, genocide is often preceded by “really good story” in which friends and neighbors get re-cast as parasites, infesting insects or criminals. On the other hand, stories told by and about marginalized communities bring to the fore not just our concerns, but our power and humanity. In my work, I often teach about the way that brown women are Orientalized and Othered, made into unfathomable and exotic spectacles in need of saving from their own communities. Scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously wrote about the trope of “white men saving brown women from brown men,” a trope that masks imperialist and colonialist actions behind pseudofeminist agendas. “Saving” brown women – whether of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent – from “the veil”/forced marriage/child labor/sex trafficking/etc. while effectively silencing their own voices and agency is hardly a form of solidarity at all. The question becomes, as my colleague Lila Abu-Lughod writes, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” Yet, there remains a kind of Western fascination with brown (and Black, and East Asian, and Indigenous) women’s pain, insofar as that pain evokes a saviorism and reinforces stereotypes about our ‘backward’ or ‘oppressive’ communities. This fascination seeps into children’s literature as well.
When I was younger, I was convinced that I would never be able to write the great South Asian American novel of my heart, because the only examples I saw of such novels were always tales of sorrow, suffering, or “cultural conflict.” These were stories awash with adjective-laden descriptions of spices (Turmeric! Cumin! Cardamom!), mangoes, and monsoon rains. Within this schema, a story about a galaxy-hopping immigrant daughter from New Jersey who fights demons while cracking sarcastic jokes seemed, well, lightweight, unimportant, and certainly, unpublishable. Because I didn’t have a story to tell of forced marriage or sexist immigrant parents, I figured that maybe no one would want to hear my story at all.
My early experiences in publishing confirmed these suspicions. Fortunately, I eventually found the perfect publisher and the perfect editor for what eventually became my Kiranmala the Kingdom Beyond series. Since the publication of the first story in that trilogy, I’ve happily witnessed the publication of more adventure and fantasy stories starring children of color, stories which don’t trot out their pain and suffering as a history lesson or as cultural show and tell. This is not to say that stories of pain and suffering in communities of color aren’t important to tell, but that when such stories are still preferentially published, recognized and awarded as ‘serious literature’ over stories of joy, adventure, power, and fantasy, it reflects a problematic cultural bias. More than bias – it reflects a voyeuristic hunger on the part of perhaps well-intentioned mainstream gatekeepers to subconsciously reinforce their stereotypes about our communities while feeling good for having read our stories.
Children of color, like all children, deserve stories of joy and humor, adventure and mystery. They deserve stories in which they get to be happy and powerful, with supportive parents and communities behind them, believing in their ability to change the world. When the world wants to see brown girls crying, our joy can be a form of important resistance.