Today I caught an On-demand virtual program and watched Stories from Beyond U.S. Borders: The Young Reader’s Window to the World. The four panelists were children’s and YA authors who all live in Southeast Asia.
The speakers were:
Hanna Alkaf, author of The Weight of Our Sky and the upcoming The Girl and the Ghost, who lives in Malaysia
Rin Chupeco, author of several book including the recent Wicked As You Wish, who lives in the Philippines
Gail Villanueva, author of My Fate According to the Butterfly and the upcoming A Potful of Magic, who also lives in the Philippines
Remy Lai, author of Pie in the Sky and the upcoming Fly on the Wall, who was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore, and now lives in Australia.
Hanna Alkaf was the moderator, and she first asked about identity. She is Malay and Muslim, which puts her in the majority in Malaysia and gives her some privilege.
Rin Chupeco is of Chinese descent but has lived in the Philippines all her life. She’s liberal, pansexual and atheist, so she’s always felt like an outsider. People are always telling her what she’s supposed to be. She feels that books highlight that different people have very different experiences, even within the same culture.
Gail Villanueva is a brown Filipino and looks more typically Filipino. But there is colorism in the Philippines, and she told a story of being mistreated at a bank because they didn’t think she’d be able to afford the product she wanted.
Remy Lai has a complex identity from the many countries where she’s lived. Her world speaks multiple languages, and her main character in her new book does the same, switching back to Mandarin to speak with family.
The panelists agreed that representation is lacking for Southeast Asians. People want one book to stand in for everyone. Then they reject stories that don’t fit the mold.
Gail pointed out that middle class folks in the Philippines are not that different from the U.S. She gets tired of people expecting island huts.
Rin said that people think she’s writing English as a second language, but they speak English in the Philippines.
Hanna has experienced pushback for her very existence in the sphere of American publishing. There’s a perception that she can’t possibly be as good or as deserving.
They all talked about wanting to write books that are just for fun, that have nothing to do with their culture — about a duck, for example! — and that aren’t expected to teach American readers anything, but just be a fun experience.
Southeast Asia is not a monolith. We don’t give that same pressure to educate to American authors. They don’t want pressure to always have to be a window.
In conclusion they asked us to:
Keep an open mind.
Trust us about our own experiences.
Treat us as one of you.
Give us a chance! Let us stand toe-to-toe with American authors.