There's this book that I love. It has a royal blue jacket. A red dragon splashes across the front cover and a little pink-cheeked girl sits atop him. She is Chinese. Her name is Minli. The book is written by Grace Lin and it is called Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. When one of my bosses holds up her copy during a staff meeting, I get all excited because what any bookseller worth her salt knows is that we become giddy every time someone is even gazing at the cover of one of our favorite reads. My boss is talking about Winter Institute, an education program put on by the American Booksellers Association, where booksellers and bookstore owners gather to talk (amongst other things) about the art of running a bookstore. This, of course, includes talking about how to sell books. The book my boss is holding at the meeting this morning is one of my favorites. It is a classic take on an age-old fable of wishing one's family to be richer, going on a journey to obtain a fortune for said family, and realizing that there are much more important things in life than material wealth. It is well told. It is beautifully illustrated. It is also by a Chinese author, about Chinese characters, and it takes place--you guessed it--in China. It sells fairly well at the store where I work. People who give it a try tend to like it. My boss was explaining how a bookseller at Winter Institute had said that to sell a book "like this" all one needed to do was say, "It is adventurous, beautiful, and has dragons! There's no need to say what race the characters are. After all, no one wants to buy a book where the main character is Chinese."
My boss explains how this was said in the context of a conversation about bookstores in rural areas, where customers are mainly white. Though, at this moment, no one (myself included) mentions that we are a liberal, feminist bookstore in a Chicago neighborhood and our customers are also mostly white. No one turns to look at me, the only non-white person present at this table that seats my all-white co-workers.
I am Chinese. Not all the way, but definitely visibly so. I am mixed, which is another can of worms if ever there was one. But sometimes during these conversations, I wonder, has my skin lightened a few shades, have the corners of my eyes been released from their upward pull? Has my hair become recognizably brown instead of almost black?
I feel anger and some kind of loss. I feel like my head is full of space and I'm walking around in it by myself without anyone to talk to right when I have the most to say. I feel like someone's been laughing at me and expects me to laugh too, or at least to nod. I feel like my body has been rearranged to look like someone who isn't hurt or shouldn't be hurt or something that I can't quite put my finger on. I feel like I'm all wrong. My boss describes the discussion at Winter Institute, how avoiding talking about the race of the characters is a great way of sneaking some diversity into the diet of a reader. Am I angry because I'm being told to fool customers into reading books with characters who look like me the way a parent sneaks vegetables into the mouth of a toddler? Am I angry because I've spent years mining for books with main characters who remind me even a little bit of myself? Am I angry because I know that there have been customers in the store who have turned this specific book down because they don't believe their child will be able to "relate" to Minli? How did I become the green pea hiding inside somebody else's blueberry muffin?
Maybe I am angry because I wonder what the point is. What happens after the book is read, and perhaps enjoyed? Say the person ends up liking their peas. Say we successfully sell books with "diverse protagonists"? What now? Does that make me or any other Other more visible? Is visibility even the point?
At the end of the meeting we share books we've recently read and loved. I talk about Greenglass House, by Kate Milford. It's a book about a Chinese boy named Milo who is adopted by white parents. I bring it up because I feel like standing on my chair and shouting, "Hey! I'm Asian and I read books with Asian characters! Suck on that!" But it backfires. Like me, Milo is surrounded by white characters. Unlike me, he is adopted. But he and I are constantly wondering about our roots, and if we find answers about our ancestors they are few. My co-workers are touched by my description of the book. How wonderful that a white author has been so thoughtful about her process of international adoption. I guess I hit the nail on the head.