This fall, authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon organized a tour of young adult authors who incorporate diversity into their young adult literature.
Here's a photo from the tour!
Malinda asked me to guest blog for her awesome site, Diversity in YA Fiction, on the topic of writing transgender characters of color, since I'm cisgender and white--and this is arguably very tricky territory!
Here's that blog:
I Am J is, in a way, a kind of love letter to my partner. It was a road in, an attempt to try to understand him/her (Lo is trans, and doesn’t identify with either gender) and to access his adolescence—his bright imagination, and her pain—in the time before we knew one another.
I have been with Lo for five years, and I wrote the book during an intense part of Lo’s transition. S/he had top surgery while I was crafting the midsection of the book, and we argued a lot during that time. I wish I could say I was the perfect partner, nursing Lo to health, and compassionate to his physical and psychic needs. But really I was scared. I was scared that in the carving away the parts Lo hated, s/he would find s/he didn’t need me anymore. Really, I was selfish. Really, I wasn’t listening. And writing J was a way to listen.
J is not Lo, he’s a character from my imagination, but they do share some characteristics. They embody similar defenses, which cloak a tremendous tenderness and a kind of intelligence of the heart. They both watch everybody around them, with the keen attenuation of someone who’s suffered, and with a conflicting yearning to both belong and be independent. They both have parents from different cultures, and they both grew up in New York (Lo from the age of twelve), continually mitigating the generational, language, and cultural differences between their home and chosen communities.
In this, actually, there’s an interesting story. J had been a nascent character in my head for a long time, before I ever met Lo. In my mind, he always spoke Spanish, probably because I have a foster daughter who’s Guatemalan, and also transgender. J was kind of an imaginary counterpart to my foster daughter, because I met so many of her friends and interviewed them for my first book, Transparent. In any case, all of the transboys I talked to, many of them Latino, ended up falling out of the book—but I wanted to come back to their stories, in a fictional form, with I Am J.
I know this is deeply problematic: I am neither Puerto Rican nor Jewish (J’s parents are these two things), nor am I of trans experience. And issues of representation are fraught and dangerous. The stakes are high, as they should be. I thought about making J white (like me) and a lesbian (like me) and that all would have been safe. But then I had an experience with a book editor that made me stick with the original J-voice in my head, born from the family I love.
This editor came to me after I published Transparent asking if I’d be interested in writing a young adult book about a transgender teenager. I jumped at the chance and gave her fifty or so pages about J. She turned it down. “Why does he have to have so many issues?” she said. “Does he have to be Puerto Rican? Does he have to be poor? Isn’t being transgender enough?”
The implication, of course, was that being white and straight and middle class were the center, the base, the neutral position. Anything else was an issue. But for me, J was the center. Like my lover and like my daughter, the center of my world. Luckily, I found another (wonderful!) publishing house that understood this.
The trick though, is this: I understand, especially when there’s so little published material in a certain area (like trans lit) the pressure is particularly high to represent well, to represent most, to represent both the spectrum and the particular. And then there’s art, which is supposed to break the rules, lest it pander to social control. I just hope to strike a balance somehow and know that J is just one of many thousands of transgender voices to be caught upon the page. This one’s a love letter, after all.