DiversifYA: Jasmine Warga

jasmineToday, we’re so pleased to welcome Jasmine Warga to DiversifYA! Jasmine is a YA author, and all-round wonderful person, who likes surrealist sketches, antique books, old swing sets, and the night sky. (Doesn’t that sound beautiful?)

Her debut YA novel, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES, will be published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in Winter 2015 and sounds AMAZING and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. So add it to Goodreads, and make sure to follow Jasmine on twitter and via her website.

1. How do you identify yourself?

I identify as Middle Eastern American. To elaborate, my father is from Jordan (and I have relatives who live all over the Middle East) and my mother is white American with German, Irish, and Dutch ancestry, but since I present as ethnically Middle Eastern, I’ve always identified as such. (Though it should be noted I also identify as biracial, which has its whole other set of challenges.)

2. What did it feel like growing up Middle Eastern American?

Okay, I’ll start with the positives. To begin, since I lived in a household with cultural diversity, I was exposed to many different types of food, holidays, stories/myths, and customs. I also was lucky enough to visit Jordan during the summers when I was growing up and those trips were very special to me as I got to meet my family that still lives over there. There’s so much history there—the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, Petra—and I feel very privileged that I’ve had the chance to explore such a rich corner of the world. I think those trips helped me gain some confidence in my ethnic identity as they gave me a better understanding of the culture and my family. (And actually, part of the idea for my book came about by imagining what it would be like for me if I’d never had the opportunity to visit the place where my dad grew up and if that part of my heritage had been kept from me.)

That said, I think there were many moments in my childhood where I felt very alone and isolated from the rest of my peers. It’s challenging to feel and look different from the vast majority of your classmates. Additionally, I was often asked about my ethnic origins (i.e. “what are you?”) and when I was younger, this used to make me intensely uncomfortable as I didn’t want to be different from the rest of my classmates, and I especially didn’t want to discuss the ways in which I was different.

Lastly, since the Middle East is such a contentious region of the world, it’s hard to not be pigeonholed into being a spokesperson for the politics of the region. I’m not qualified to speak to various conflicts, but often people expect (and want!) me to have a strong opinion just because of my ethnicity. Also when I was younger (and still now, to some extent), I was frequently asked to explain (and defend) the actions of certain political leaders. Interestingly enough, I feel this same way when discussing American politics with my Middle Eastern cousins!

But as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned to embrace my background. It’s sort of the old adage that when you’re younger, what makes you different makes you embarrassed, but as you grow up, you learn that what makes you different makes you unique, makes you, you.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

In the question above, I already touched on some of the biggest challenges so I’ll focus on the quirks/perks here. So on a superficial level, a huge perk is the food. I grew up eating loads of delicious hummus, zatar patties, ma’amouls, and the like. Funny enough, in preschool, my parents brought hummus as our contribution to the class potluck and no one wanted to taste it because no one knew what it was—times have changed a bit since then!

I’m not sure if this is a challenge or a perk, but I started kindergarten the year Aladdin came out and so everyone was obsessed with my name—Jasmine—and its relationship to the movie and the character. Everyone in my class called me Princess Jasmine and asked me about my pet tiger, Raja. In some ways, I loved the attention, but looking back on it, I think the way I handled it, and the way my classmates responded, is indicative of a larger problem with the American response to the Middle East. We love this idea of a mythical, magical Middle East that is unchanged by progress (technology, scientific developments, etc.) but are intensely uncomfortable talking about the contemporary Middle East. Obviously, what I’m saying here is in agreement with Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, but in general I try to make sure I don’t depict the Middle East as this place that is untouched by time or progress, but rather as the complex, diverse, modern region it is.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Middle Eastern American?

I’m not sure I can answer this question except to say that being Middle Eastern American is the same as being human. We’re all human with our own separate affinities, opinions, and interests. As important as I think it is for people to talk and discuss diversity, I want there to be a greater focus on what makes us all similar, as opposed to what divides us. That being said, I’m not advocating homogenizing all of us at all—but rather the opposite, I don’t want to be homogenized or pigeonholed into one thing just because of my ethnic identity. Essentially I’m just asking for a greater awareness that everyone’s life/truth/worldview is not necessarily the same just because they identify with the same ethnic group or have the same sexual orientation.

What I’d love is for people to remember that all people are people and treat them as such. (You can tell I brought my rose-colored glasses to this interview.) Anyway to sum up my rambling answer to this question, I’d like to cite one of my favorite quotes by Marjane Satrapi, the author of the brilliant Perespolis: “”If I have one message to give to the secular American people, it’s that the world is not divided into countries. The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk together and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.”

(To give some context to that quote, I feel the need to point out she said that in 2005.)

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Obviously, you know the usual things like all Middle Eastern people are fundamentalists, terrorists, yada, yada, yada. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on that because I’d like to think that anyone reading this blog is more open-minded than that. Rather, I’d like to focus on what I think are sometimes the more pervasive (and damaging) stereotypes which are that all the religious people of the Middle East are bad and all the non-religious people of the Middle East are good. This simply isn’t true. It’s a very diverse region and I’d love to see that celebrated more in literature (and in the news!).

BONUS: What is your advice to writer’s writing diverse characters?

(If I’m permitted a prologue to this, I’d like to reference my comment above that everyone’s human and with that said, always strive to find the humanity in all of your characters, make them bigger than their race, gender, orientation. In sum, don’t write types, write characters.)

First, to channel what David Foster Wallace asks you to do in his insightful and famous speech “This is Water”: try and adjust your own default setting, to see beyond yourself. And secondly, to borrow from Junot Diaz, to trust that there is an audience that is willing to read about diverse characters—he once said something along the lines of that if people were willing to read about aliens, he figured they’d be willing to read about Dominicans. I returned to that thought a lot as I struggled to find the nerve to write a non-white protagonist. It’s funny how sometimes those of us who do come from a diverse background, revert back to that scared kid in elementary school that doesn’t want anyone to notice we’re different. Don’t be that scared kid, speak up, share your story—there are people who want to read it.

Also, I’d encourage people to think about diversity in broader terms than just race, sexual orientation, gender identification. For example, in my book, I chose to make my female main character the one who’s interested in science and my male main character the more artistic one. This isn’t revolutionary by any means, but my default setting would have told me to reverse it, and I tried to force myself to think beyond stereotypes and my own personal experience.

Finally, I’d love to take the opportunity to talk about the importance of diverse reading, which I think is as equally important as diverse writing. I’ve been trying to challenge myself to pick up books that reflect truths and realities that are different from my own. For example, choosing to read a book about a romance or love story that doesn’t resemble my own, or read about a protagonist from a different social-economic background, or a character with interests different from me. My goal for 2014 is to be a more diverse reader and I’m hoping that in turn, it will help me to become a writer that crafts stories with greater complexity and diversity.

5 Responses to DiversifYA: Jasmine Warga

  1. This interview is fantastic! I love your perspective and advice, and your reaction to the “Aladdin phenomenon” was familiar to me–I remember feeling both special and uncomfortably singled out whenever I was the representative “other” in my class (in several categories). Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Suuuuuch a great interview! Being biracial myself, I can identify with so much of this, even though my ethnic mix is different from Jasmine’s. I also love the discussion about reading and writing diversity. Thanks for sharing all this!

  3. What a great post! I totally identify with how you felt about your ethnicity as a child and wanting to be just like everyone else.

  4. This is an important post for writers of any genre to read. It’s so interesting to know more about your history and to discover the eloquent depths of your thinking on the subject of diversity. I hope we’ll see each other again when you’re back in the Boston area. In the meantime, I’ll continue to be one of your biggest fans.

  5. Jasmine, this interview is touching and truthful. I couldn’t agree with you more. As a former social studies teacher, I focused on diversity in my classroom. I used lessons of past experiences in the world to help teens form their own opinions of the present world and become future leaders who have open minds.

    My upcoming middle grade novel is one more way for me to try to reach those impressionable minds again. I applaud your candor and cannot wait to read your book.