Diverse Characters, Universal Themes

Have you been tracking the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign? The hashtag and the Tumblr are lively places to find books withe diverse characters and authors as well as heart felt pleas for more. Back in the beginning of May, when the hashtag started, I had reactions similar to many of the people who use it:

  1. I don’t see many people like me in literature.
  2. I’d like more characters that represent a race/history/culture like mine because I want characters I can really relate to.

Statement 1 is certainly true. Asian Americans? Asian American women? Mixed-race Asian American women? Mixed-race Asian American women in their late-mid-twenties? What if we add in my geographic location, relationship status, or current proclivity towards home manicures?

This brings me to statement 2. I can relate to characters who aren’t like me. Who are of a different age/era/race/gender/planet than I am. Given the veracity of statement 1, I relate to characters unlike me on a regular basis.

This brings me to a different set of statements. I’m calling them the diverse-characters-universal-themes-statements:

  1. I like reading about diverse characters because it allows me to step into someone else’s world/view.
  2. I believe that reading about diverse characters encourages me to forge connections with real diverse people. And I believe that’s something that people could use more of.
  3. I believe that in the specificity of situations, we find universal themes.

Thank you to Sara Farizan, whose book “If You Could Be Mine” I was reading while thinking about this. Reading about a young girl living in Iran, her own relationships intersecting with different parts of the LGBTQ community there made me think about my own experiences between LGBTQ communities and conservative Christian communities in the US. It’s not about sticking to sameness, but finding common ground. I want so many diverse characters represented in literature that their stories become about how all the facets of their identity are important, not just their race or sexuality.

Ms. Kamala Marvel takes off

Kamala soon discovers that shapeshifting doesn’t make her life easier, but it gives her more power, more agency, and the ability to reflect on and create her sense of self.

Tammy Oler


Awesome. That’s, like, the definition of navigating multiple identities, and to have it illustrated (literally) by a teenage, Muslim, female, superhero in the Marvel universe…well, yes, I think awesome really is the word to describe it. I’m talking about Kamala Khan, the newest incarnation of Ms. Marvel. She’s a teenager, a Muslim, a woman, a shape shifter, and a resident of New Jersey. And she’s getting rave reviews.

How great is it to have a major universe (Marvel) do this for an established franchise (Ms. Marvel has been kicking ass since the late 1970’s). It warms my heart to have a popular Asian American superhero.

With Bated Breath

I’m waiting for the release of “The Shadow Hero” by Gene Luen Yang. I’m so excited that I’m just going to reproduce the Tor (publisher) notice:

The Shadow Hero CoverIn the comics boom of the 1940s, a  legend was born: the Green Turtle. He solved crimes and fought injustice just like the other comics characters. But this mysterious masked crusader was hiding something more than your run-of-the-mill secret identity… The Green Turtle was the first Asian American super hero.

The comic had a short run before lapsing into obscurity, but the acclaimed author of American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang, with artwork by Sonny Liew, has finally revived this character in a new graphic novel that creates an origin story for the Green Turtle.


Interestingly enough, Yang and Liew have already published a short series of strips featuring the Shadow Hero in the APA comics anthology “Shattered“, which came out in 2012. It’s a good sign, that an anthology aimed at improving the representations of Asian Americans in comic books is now linked to a full length graphic novel (I don’t know which book went into production first, so I hesitate to say that one caused the other). It’s a sign of continuity and growth. I’m also very impressed with the blurb that Yang and Liew wrote up to promote the book on the Tor site:

Superheroes are about America. They were invented in America and they are most popular in America. Superheroes grew into a cultural force in the 1940’s, when America was growing into her role as a superpower. At their best, superheroes express America at our best. They embody our ideals of courage, justice, and sticking up for the little guy.

Superheroes are also about immigrants. Superman, the prototype of all superheroes, is a prototypical immigrant. His homeland was in crisis, so his parents sent him to America in search of a better life. He has two names, one American, Clark Kent, and the other foreign, Kal-El. He wears two sets of clothes and lives in between two cultures. He loves his new country, but a part of him still longs for his old one.

Superman’s negotiation of identities reflects a daily reality for immigrants and their children. It’s no coincidence that Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane—the creators behind the world’s most famous superheroes—were all children of immigrants.


Yang is a very prolific guy, isn’t he? His twin series “Saints” and “Boxers” was just released this past year.



Summer Reading: Boxers and Saints

Gene Luen Yang has two new books this year, Boxers and Saints. The books act like fraternal twins, looking at Chinese reactions to Western interference at the turn of the 20th century: Boxers from the perspective of a boy who joins the Boxer rebellion; Saints from the perspective of a girl who converts to Christianity. American Born Chinese remains Yang’s definitive work in my mind, but I still tore through both of these in less than a day. Good stuff.

boxers saints yangWhat’s it about? Caught in China’s turbulent Westernization, two young people take different paths– one joins the Boxer rebellion to restore China’s independence; the other searches for autonomy as a woman through Christianity.

Why should you read this book?  If you liked American Born Chinese. Yang does a good job of humanizing two opposite social movements through the eyes of two very relate-able young people. He captures their devotion to their causes as well as their coming-of-age journeys.

Why shouldn’t you read the book? If you really don’t like violence. If you need a happy ending (historically, you know what’s going to happen. The last Chinese dynasty collapses. The country enjoys a few years of democracy, then plunges into civil war, World War II, Communism, etc. The book doesn’t mess with history). If you want to learn about the history of China. History is the backdrop of the story, not the focus.


Both books are available September 10, 2013.

Summer Reading: Shanghai Girls

A year or two ago, I read the first few chapters of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. The promise of a novel that talked about the World War II era from the Chinese perspective–glamorous, modern, Westernized Shanghai’s perspective, and a female one at that!– drew me back to it this summer.

Shanghai Girls Cover


What’s it about?  Sisters May and Pearl live like thoroughly modern women (or spoiled rich girls, depending on your perspective) in Shanghai during the 1930’s, until the Japanese invasion of China turns their lives upside down.

Why should you read this book? If you like stories about complex relationships between sisters. If you want to read about World War II or McCarthyism from a very different perspective. If you don’t know very much about Chinese immigration to the United States but would like to know more. If you liked the movie The Last Emperor.

Why shouldn’t you read the book? If you’ve read a ton of Asian American literature and you’re looking for a drastically different take on the narrative. If you want a romantic novel. If you want a historical war novel.

Summer Reading: Bonanza

Generally I do one book at a time. This year, I’m throwing it all to you as once because… drum roll please… I made a bookmark of some of my favorite Asian American books. Two of them are part of the Asian American canon and some are relatively new. Male and female authors of various ethnicities and personal experiences are represented, as are a range of genres (fiction, memoir, poetry). I’ve read them all and would vouch for each of them vehemently:


Higgins 524-10


Imagine printing it and folding it in half to be double sided. There’s a typo. I know. Maybe that’s why I didn’t sign this piece. Next on my reading list is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. A friend of mine talks about it so constantly that I have to give it a shot. It’s not Asian Am lit, but given that I blogged about yellow face in the movie version, the portrayal of people of color in the original book may be of interest.

Book Review: The Anti-Slavery Alphabet

Thank you, Project Gutenberg. Without you, I never would have seen this book–The Anti-Slavery Alphabet. It was published in 1847 for the Anti-Slavery Fair in Philadelphia(?), and that’s about all I know about it. I wish I knew if it was widely distributed, or if it was actually marketed for children, or if it was some display piece just for the fair. Not even a note on who authored this piece! No matter which way, this book pulls no punches:




That’s Project Gutenberg. Volunteers around the world, working to make well known classics and hidden gems available for the common good.