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May 18, 2018

Why I Choose to Write Multiracial Characters --- Guest Post by Chandra Prasad, Author of DAMSELFLY

Posted by Catherine B
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When author Chandra Prasad was growing up, she didn’t see people like her in American culture. As a mixed-race writer, Chandra Prasad became determined to change that. She contributed to, originated and edited MIXED: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience, and her debut young adult novel, DAMSELFLY, has a mixed-race female protagonist, among other mixed characters. In the following blog post, Chandra Prasad discusses the need for more representation of mixed-race people in books, and how she plans to contribute to this mission. 

 

My father is Indian, my mother a European mishmash (Swedish, Italian, English). Growing up, I didn’t have a term for what my brothers and I were.  I hadn’t yet encountered terms like multiracial, biracial, halfsie, hapa, mixie and a bunch of other colloquialisms that are not quite as polite.  I remember when I first heard the news that a freshman at Wesleyan was putting together a magazine devoted to mixed-race people called Mavin.  This was back in 1998, pre-social media, almost pre-Internet.  Information didn’t travel as quickly as it does now, and I didn’t have a connection, online or otherwise, with many mixed-race people.  So I was thrilled that someone was making a resource that could potentially unite people as well as raise awareness about the mixed-race experience.

I got my hands on a Mavin magazine and for the first time read about mixed-race people.  People like me were not characters in the books I’d read in school or the books I’d read for pleasure.  The existence of Mavin felt like a watershed moment.  I was so moved I even bought a Mavin t-shirt.  It had a Chevrolet El Camino on it—which is half truck, half car.  A symbol of blended identity.  The words “Hybrid Vigor” were emblazoned across the front.  I wore that shirt until it was threadbare.

Now, roughly two decades later, I know a lot more mixed-race people than I did while growing up.  Maybe I know them because I’m actively looking for them.  Or maybe it’s because, statistically, there are more multiracial people among us.  A lot more.  In 2015, one in every seven U.S. infants were multiracial or multiethnic, about triple the number than in 1980, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data.  The 2010 Census showed that the multiple-race population was growing faster than any single-race population, and that it’s on pace to continue.

The multiracial population is starting to enter into the public consciousness in a sweeping way—except, it seems, in books.  Because even now, mixed-race characters barely exist in print.  The Cooperative Children's Book Center has been tracking diverse authors and diverse children’s books for years.  Recently, there has been an uptick in books for and by African Americans, American Indians, Asians, and Latinos.  But in 2016 only 10 out of 3700 books were about “biracial people” (for the purposes of this piece, I am going to count biracial and multiracial as the same, since both indicate more than one race).

With initiatives like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices underway, the demand for inclusive literature is stronger than ever.  So it seems surprising that mixed-race people continue to be underrepresented.  But if you look at history, it’s not.  The U.S. Census only started to allow multiracial people to check off more than one race in 2000.  Only 18 years ago, multiracial people were invisible and unaccounted for in this country.

Then there’s the sense among some in the book industry that the existing diverse classifications are enough.  Why strive to include more multiracial authors and characters if there’s already Asian, African American, American Indian and LatinX kidlit?  Can’t the mixed-race crowd be satisfied with those categories?

In a word, no.  Because the multiracial population brings unique and complicated issues and experiences to the table.  According to the American Psychological Association, multiracial children and racially blended families often experience distinct types of discrimination.  Multiracial youth are more apt to experience exclusion and isolation.  They also lack adequate media representation and mixed role models.  This means that many mixed kids have an unstable racial identity, which can lead to low self-esteem.  At the same time, multiracial kids tend to be particularly resilient and empathetic, perhaps because they often need to straddle multiple identities.

With the mixed population set to triple by 2060, I’m hopeful that the multiracial book market will finally grow.  And I’m determined to be a part of that growth.  In 2006 I originated and edited --- and contributed to --- MIXED: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience.  I still get emails from readers thanking me for creating a book they can relate to.  In my new Scholastic novel, DAMSELFLY, the protagonist is half-Asian.  Two other characters are also clearly written as multiracial.  I’ve decided to always include at least one major multiracial character in every book I write from hereon in.  Kids need to read about people like them, just as I did back when I was growing up.  It makes them feel visible, understood, empowered.

Here’s hoping that the next time The Cooperative Children's Book Center counts multiracial books, the number is higher than 10.

Chandra Prasad’s debut young adult novel is entitled DAMSELFLY. It was published by Scholastic earlier this year.