Until 2018, my book collection featured characters who were like me in personality—introverted, socially awkward, Harry Potter geeks—but not in cultural background or appearance. The distinction is important because the same character traits can be perceived differently through the lenses of different communities. Within a cultural community—whether that be a culture of gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.—there are almost always norms. You’re put on a scale based on how well your personality traits or life goals align with the norms of that community. That sounds a bit like the vein of many a story set in a high school. (What do people think of me? Why can’t I fit in?)
The world around us makes certain possibilities easier or harder. The terms easy and hard embody a story element we like to call conflict—the core of any plot.
As a socially awkward, often socially isolated person, I often learned about myself and other people through books. Books offer little truths—adages that sing to those people who need them. Thirteen Reasons Why taught me that I’m not the only person who is sad. City of Bones taught me that there’s always an overshadowed Simon to someone’s Clary. The Uglies series showed me how young people can make change. The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie inspired my writing voice. None of these books were written for the express purpose of teaching, but they taught me anyway.
Our literary canon, like a good education system, should cater to everyone. The books I read during middle school and high school enlightened some parts of my identity, but never my cultural background, and never my appearance. I had a general strategic mindset of it-doesn’t-really-matter when it came to the Indian part of my identity. That mindset didn’t come about on its own. Young people are exceptionally impressionable, and with the amount of media out there, we learned to draw conclusions based on what we did and didn’t see in that media. I was left thinking, “It’s okay to be socially awkward, but being Indian-American is not an important part of my identity.” When the media around you doesn’t convince you that your culture matters…how are you supposed to convince yourself?
When I began to transform my bookshelf last year, I would look at a book I owned and ask myself, “Where’s the version of this story with a second-generation Asian-American protagonist?”. For the more than 20 million Asian-Americans, where are their stories?
I recently read Marriage of a Thousand Lies, by SJ Sindu. The protagonist is Lucky, a lesbian Sri-Lankan-American woman. Her conflict is tied to the South Asian immigrant culture, so Lucky’s paths to self-expression are very limited. She risks being shunned by her family and community. I compare this to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, in which Simon very conveniently has a therapist for a mother, making his high school peers the only external barrier to his coming out. Comparing these stories stresses how differently the same type of conflict can be experienced in two different cultures, and how necessary it is for multiple types of stories to be represented in our literary canon.