DiversifYA: Kelly Loy Gilbert

KellyToday on the blog, Kelly Loy Gilbert! Kelly is a) awesome, b) a writer of literary fiction, both YA and adult, and c) author of the upcoming CONVICTION (Disney-Hyperion, Spring/Summer 2014). Doesn’t that  just sound amazing and heartbreaking in all the right ways? <3

Kelly is represented by Adriann Ranta of Wolf Literary and has an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State. She tweets here (follow her!), blog here, and is one of the YA Buccaneers!

1. How do you identify yourself?

In terms of race, the term I most often use is half-Asian. My dad is white, and my mom is Chinese. (My maternal grandparents grew up in SF’s Chinatown and the family eventually migrated a little south to the SF Peninsula, which has a Chinese American culture all its own.)

2. What did it feel like growing up being half-Asian?

Different, at different times, and with different people. When I was around white people I felt more Asian, and when I was around Asians I felt more white. I grew up in an area with a huge first-generation Asian American population (largely Taiwanese American), and the culture was in many ways extremely different from the Asian American background I knew. My grandparents lived here when there was still a curfew on Chinese Americans, when passing down language and culture to your children came at a large social cost–very different from my peers who went every Saturday to Chinese School.

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

Being half-Asian, growing up I never quite felt I fit in anywhere, and I often felt insecure and defense about my racial/cultural identity. I think this makes its way into my writing–often my characters feel in some way marginalized or separate or other or alone. They feel misunderstood, or they struggle to find a sense of belonging, or they feel things deeply.

Conversely, though, I have large extended families on both sides and so I’ve grown up in both an Asian American family and a Caucasian family. So there are times being half-Asian feels limiting, but there are other times it feels expanding.

4. What do you wish people knew about being mixed race?

I can’t think of anything in particular; the experience feels so unique to each individual person, family and situation, particularly since ‘mixed race’ is such a sweeping definition.

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

You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard, “Half-Asian people are always so beautiful!” It’s probably meant to be nice, but it’s still an uncomfortable generalization, and especially one that reduces a complex situation to something so superficial. More than once, actually, people have said, “Half-Asians are always really pretty or really ugly,” which is even more awkward–there’s just no good way to respond to that.

Beyond that, though, there are so many stereotypes about Asian Americans, and the same tired half-conceived caricatures that get trotted out over and over: the mystic wise Asian who speaks in fortune-cookie sayings, the grade-obsessed kid who does nothing but study.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

A character can (and should!) be shaped by his or her background, but that background should never become her whole story. When we do this to our characters we suggest that they’re less complex and less human, and that they’re hindered in some way by their ‘diversity.’ Sure, an Asian American kid can be obsessed with academics, but the problem with stereotypes is they’re stand-ins for real character, and they can speak for a character and take away his or her voice. There has to be more there–as writers it’s our job to treat each character as a complex, fully-developed person who wants and fears and hopes and contradicts herself sometimes, who can’t be reduced to a type or a cliche or a trope.

One Response to DiversifYA: Kelly Loy Gilbert

  1. Great interview, Kelly! 🙂