Heidi Heilig is the author of The Girl From Everywhere, a tale through time which follows 16-year-old Nix, a girl who has grown up on a ship that travels through time. Her father Navigates from one map to another — including those of ancient history and even myth and legend – and is determined to journey back to 1868 Honolulu to save her mother’s life, despite knowing that changing history risks erasing Nix’s very existence.
Nix is a biracial woman (Chinese and white), just like Heidi. Nix’s father, Slate, is bipolar (though not stated explicitly in the text), as is Heidi. I spoke with her about writing characters like her, and the joys and difficulties that come with it.
I think it’s fair to say writers tend to put themselves into their characters without meaning to, and then sometimes it’s an intentional choice. How did writing a biracial Chinese/white character come about? Was it an intentional choice, or did you see Nix as biracial from the very beginning?
The Girl From Everywhere was the first book I ever wrote, so almost everything about it originated organically, including Nix’s character. I actually based her quite a bit on my little sister, so I never imagined her being any other race. Growing up in Hawaii – the melting pot of the Pacific – I think it would have been difficult for me to write a story that didn’t reflect the world I knew, which is one with a very diverse and multicultural cast.
That makes a lot of sense, especially when it comes to the the old, ‘you write what you know’ adage. Even though a writer identifies in a similar way as their character, sometimes stereotypes and tropes creep into their writing. At times I’ll catch myself simplifying a character with depression or who identifies as queer, even though I am those things. It’s frustrating to say the least. Did you experience any of this while writing biracial and bipolar characters?
I had a totally different experience with this for the hapa character than I did for the bipolar character. Hapa main characters are, in my experience, very uncommon. It was actually only this year that I read another book with one, and I actually can’t think of any bookish tropes about hapa/biracial folks that I had to wrestle with avoiding.
Conversely, with bipolar disorder, I do find that there is a focus on treatment arcs – either positive or negative – so I really wanted to write a character simply had bipolar disorder without that being the focus of the plot. That said, I find that sometimes people do not recognize the character as having the disorder, since it’s never named in the book.
You make an effort to spread word about other authors who write characters like them. Can you tell me why it’s important to you to support other diverse authors? Particularly diverse authors writing their #OwnVoices and identities?
Oh my gosh yes! To me, my favorite books are windows into worlds I’ve never visited, be they fantasy or history or simply lives unlike mine. And while all authors are imaginative and creative, I believe that people who have actually lived an experience can draw their Own Voices stories from a deep well of knowledge and truth that is more authentic and original than anyone’s imagination could be.
More than that, one way by which I attempt to dismantle my own privilege is to boost the work of others with marginalizations that I don’t share. And we should all be trying to dismantle our own privilege by lifting up others. It’s one thing privilege is really good for.
Absolutely. Unlearning problematic behavior and boosting marginalized voices is vital in making YA, and kidlit in general, a more inclusive and diverse space. That being said, making the decision to pursue Own Voices can be a difficult one. I know authors have spoken about how they want to write characters like them, but are afraid they’ll be turned down, or were turned down in the past. Did that play any part in your choice to write a character that is #OwnVoices? Did you experience any push back from others or your own reluctance?
You know, I’m actually really lucky in that I wrote the book without worrying about or planning on getting published. That idea came after the book was done. So I wrote in a blissful bubble of not giving a f*ck about the market or the state of affairs. And then I was extra lucky to find an agent and an editor who loved the story, believe in me as a writer, and care about changing the status quo.
Luckiest of all though, is that I came to publishing in the middle of a revolution that I didn’t have to start. Organizations like WNDB
and Diversity in Kidlit
and people like #OwnVoices creator Corinne Duyvis
and author/activist Justina Ireland
were paving the way for people like me to bumble in after the momentum had begun.