“Can I go to the bathroom?”
These were my first words of English, and the only ones my parents taught me before I went to pre-school. Priorities, right?
Even though I was born in the United States, I didn’t learn to speak English until I went to school. As a result, my first few years of elementary education were very lonely. I didn’t talk much because I was afraid of mispronouncing a word or being made fun of (both of which occurred on a regular basis).
My isolation wasn’t just due to the language, however. All I had to do was look around the classroom to know that I was different. No one else looked like me.
The word “alien” is a fitting term here. In the disdainful sneer of a teacher’s lips, in the way the boys passed over me when ranking their crushes, I didn’t even feel like a girl. I might as well have been a member of a different species plopped down to live alongside the humans.
I escaped into the world of books, lots and lots of books, libraries full of books, shelf after methodical shelf. But as much as reading was my joy and my solace, it also cemented my feelings of not belonging.
Back then, I can’t remember reading a book with a main character who looked like me. Even worse, I never even tried to imagine a character with the same physical features as mine. In my few years of life, the message that I’d received from the world was abundantly clear: People like you don’t belong in books. People like you don’t belong on the screen. People like you have no place in our collective creative consciousness.
I’ve wanted to be an author ever since I was six years old, but I grew up believing that if I wanted to publish a book, I could only write about Caucasian characters. This wasn’t so much an opinion but a fact of life. Just as the sky is blue. Just as the grass is green. Just as my skin is yellow.
Fast forward thirty or so years, and something happened in the publishing industry. Something exciting and wonderful and ground-breaking, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t completely blow my mind. Campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices emerged, and I learned that I could write about characters who looked like me.
Let me say that again because it was such a revelation: I could write about characters. Who. Looked. Like. Me.
My first thought, of course, was of my bi-racial children. As a parent, I try to give them all the things I lacked as a child. My mother passed away when I was five, so I hug my kids dozens of times every day. I had a single dad and thus was not able to participate in extracurriculars, so I enroll my children in whatever activities they desire.
And now, I can give them the ultimate gift of all: main characters in a book series who look just like them.
The Forget Tomorrow series is set in a futuristic time. It concerns a world where memories can be sent back to the past, and it follows the journey of a half-Asian girl who receives a vision of her future self killing her beloved younger sister.
This story is decidedly not about race. Indeed, the only time I reference race is in the way I describe the characters’ appearances, and this is intentional. In this futuristic world of my imagination, the color of our skin no longer plays a role in people’s feelings toward each other. People are people, no matter how they look. Everyone counts, no matter what their race.
I think this is vitally important for my children to see. I want them to grow up knowing that they are loved and valued and worthy. The biggest gift I can give them is a childhood where they don’t feel erased, an existence where they aren’t pushed to the edges of society. Stories like this help me do that.
This moment in history might have been a long time in coming, and we have much farther to go. Still, I am grateful that we are here now. I am excited that this series is being published during my kids’ childhoods.
I am equally excited about my book that will be released next summer, a YA contemporary thriller called Girl In Between. This novel is about a Thai-American girl who is caught between cultural worlds – and what happens to her when a stalker tries to steal her identity.
If my Forget Tomorrow series was a gift to my children, then this book is a gift to me – and all the girls and boys who look like me.
If I could send a message to my younger self, I would say, “One day, you will have a place in this world – in not only the real one, but in the worlds of our imagination, as well.”