DiversifYA: Kristan Hoffman

KristanKristan Hoffman likes to write about young people going on big adventures in cool places. Mostly fiction — but sometimes not. Her manuscript THE GOOD DAUGHTERS (women’s fiction/multicultural) was a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Her web serial TWENTY-SOMEWHERE was a winner of the St. Martin’s Press “New Adult” contest and is now available as an ebook. Her work has appeared in the Oakland Review, Sugar Mule, and the Citron Review. Find out more about Kristan via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

1. How do you identify yourself?

I identify as a Taiwanese “halfie” — or biracial person — first and foremost. Even as a child, I’ve always been aware and proud of my dual heritage. My dad is “white bread American” from Pennsylvania, and my mom is an immigrant from Taiwan. I like to think that I get the best of both worlds.

2. What did it feel like growing up being biracial?

I guess it felt normal? But that’s kind of a trick answer, because I only know my own experience!

When I was really little, I actually thought that all kids were halfies. My mom’s two best friends were classmates from Taiwan who had also come to America and coincidentally married white men, so their kids were just like me. And even my two other best friends had brown hair and brown eyes, so we looked similar too. It wasn’t until I started school (in my very diverse hometown of Houston) that I realized, “Oh, okay, there are all sorts of people in this world.” And that’s when I started to think about, “If they’re not all like me, then what are they? And for that matter, what exactly am I?”

As I got older, people could tell that I wasn’t just white, and often they would ask what my background was. So being a halfie started to impact my identity — that is, it affected how other people saw me and treated me, and that in turn caused me to think about it myself.

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

For me, the biggest challenge is not feeling like I belong. It never gets me down in a serious way, but it can be frustrating at times. I always thought that I should be able to move smoothly between the two cultures, but instead I find that I am too Asian for the Americans, and too American for the Asians.

Even within my family, being biracial is a double-edged sword. For example, my mom sometimes laments the fact that I can’t really speak Chinese, or that I don’t adhere to Asian values as perfectly as she would like. But on the other hand, she is very proud to have raised an American kid, with all the opportunities, freedoms, and character which that entails.

Despite the challenges of trying to fit in and live up to two different cultures simultaneously, I have always enjoyed feeling different/special in a way that people find interesting (rather than weird or off-putting). Being a halfie definitely plays a part in that, though I’m not sure if it was the chicken or the egg.

As for the perks of being a halfie… I’m so glad that diversity was a built-in value for my life. Because I grew up as a bridge between two worlds, I find myself empathetic to pretty much anyone and everyone, and open to a wide variety of experiences. I also traveled at a very young age, because most of my mom’s family is still over in Taiwan, so once every few years, we would spend an entire day flying over to visit them, stay for a few weeks, and then spend another day flying back home.

One of the quirkiest bits of being a halfie is the issue of food. This comes up a lot in my relationship, because my fiancé (who is an adopted Korean, interestingly enough) was raised in rural New York in a very white community, so he’s all about pizza and apple pie and pot roast. Meanwhile, my comfort foods are noodles and tofu and shaved ice with almond jelly or red beans on top. Needless to say, we have to compromise a lot.

4. What do you wish people knew about being biracial?

I don’t think there’s any one thing in particular that I want people to know about being biracial. What I want is for people not to assume anything.

In life and in fiction, most people understand that one straight white man’s story is not the story of all straight white men. I think we are starting to see gains in that area for straight white women, straight black men, and maybe even straight black women too. But there are so many types of people, who fit into so many categories, and we need to remember that their stories are individual stories too.

Only through collecting a whole mosaic of narratives can we begin to understand everyone in a meaningful way.

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

I haven’t seen too many clichés or stereotypes about being biracial, actually… I think the bigger problem that halfies face is always being seen as “other.” Most of the time if you’re not 100% white, then you get lumped in with whatever the other part of you is, regardless of whether or not you actually feel connected to that culture.

Oh wait! I just remembered a big one: The Beautiful Hapa.

“Hapa” is a Hawaiian term for people of mixed Asian/Caucasian heritage. All my life I’ve heard about how hapas are the most beautiful people in the world — a stereotype that is an extension of, or maybe cousin to, the Exotic Asian. It’s an unrealistic, unfair standard that reduces hapas (especially females) to their physical appearance. But people get away with it because it’s supposed to be a compliment.

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

Well, this might sound ironic given what I just said in answer to the previous question, but I often find that writers don’t address the other-ness of their diverse characters enough. (I know, I know, I’m tough to please!)

In my opinion, every character regardless of race, sexuality, age, etc. should be written the same way — but I don’t mean that they should all resemble each other. Instead, I’m talking about a writer’s approach. Characters should be human, first and foremost, with a core of wants, needs, values, and dreams. The specifics of those traits will then be informed by how each character identifies, where they grew up, who they love, what their skills are, and so on.

When I read about a biracial character, or an LGBTQ character, or even a teenage mutant ninja turtle character that basically seems like any old All-American from the heartland, I get frustrated. It doesn’t strike me as authentic (unless it is exceptionally well-explained — which so far has been never). As a writer, I know how difficult and intimidating it can be to portray a character who is not like oneself, and I make no claims to doing it perfectly. But we have to try, and if we fail, then we have to try again and fail better. We have to do our research. We have to be inclusive. For the sake of our readers, our stories, and ourselves.

Be the change you want to see in the world, right?

Additionally, we need to be supporting diverse writers. I see a lot of talk about the desire for more multicultural or LGBTQ fiction, but then the books that fill that demand are usually written by straight white authors. That’s fine, to a degree, but it shouldn’t make up all or even a majority of the supply. If diverse perspectives are really of value, then more diverse writers need to be invited to sit at the table. And believe me, there is no shortage of diverse writers who are trying to get a seat.

One Response to DiversifYA: Kristan Hoffman

  1. […] I’m over at DiversifYA talking about my experiences as a halfie, as well as my advice on how to write diverse characters. […]