Guest Post: Greg Leitich Smith on Hapa Characters: Asian-White Biracial Representation

By Greg Leitich Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As with a lot of aspects of creative media these days, Disney movies have been criticized for their lack of diversity.

While such criticism is necessary, I think it’s important as well to give praise where it’s due and acknowledge things done right.

So I want to hand it to Disney for featuring resonant Asian-white characters in several of its recent animated movies, something you rarely see in any media.

The characters Hiro and Tadashi from “Big Hero Six;” Wilbur Robinson from “Meet the Robinsons;” and Russell from “Up” are all Asian-white (this in a field that’s largely #whitewashedOUT, and note that all of these films were financially successful).

One of the things about these portrayals that I particularly liked, too, was that while the characters are clearly the products of their backgrounds, their ethnicities were not the be all and end all of their existences.

In other words, they are fully developed characters – persons – with individual wants and needs that have nothing to do with their heritage.

Being of German and Japanese descent myself, I tend to notice this sort of thing.

Portraying Asian mixed-race characters as mainstream with idiosyncratic wants and needs is something I’ve striven for in my books.

My first novel, Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, pokes some fun at the “caught between two worlds” motif: Shohei O’Leary (one of three co-protagonists) is of wholly Japanese descent and has been adopted by parents of Irish descent. Still, he is first and foremost a kid who has to deal with his specific wacky parents.

By Blake Henry from Chronal Engine

In Tofu and T.rex, the protagonist, Hans-Peter Yamada (whose family owns a German delicatessen and butcher shop), has to deal with a vegan cousin who comes to live with them.

Although both Shohei and Hans-Peter are Japanese American, their ethnicity informs their background rather than wholly defines it (like their being Chicagoans informs their backgrounds rather than wholly defining them).

Similarly, the protagonist, Max Pierson-Takahashi, and his siblings in Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time (both Clarion) are, like Hans-Peter, hapa. They’re Asian and white. (Their friend Petra is Mexican-German American.)

Max is focused on surviving encounters with Tyrannosaurus rex and surviving being caught between the contemporary world and the world of dinosaurs (literally),  as opposed to being “caught between two [ethnic] worlds.”

This is all to say, when it comes to animated hapa boys: Good job, Disney.

Now about live-action kids, other identities-intersections, and hapa girls

Cynsational Notes

Check out the educator guides for Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time. See also the Chronal Engine Activity Kit.

Greg is currently booking for fall 2016 and the 2017-2018 school year. Contact The Booking Biz to invite him to your event.

Greg uses the term hapa to refer to someone of biracial (Asian) heritage. He learned it from his mother, who is Japanese-American, originally from Hawaii.

Guest Post & Illustration Giveaway: Julie Chibbaro on Writing in Black & White

Teen Julie

By Julie Chibbaro
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was six years old, my big sister pulled me aside and whispered in my ear.

“I learned a bad word today.”


I asked her, “Is it terrible?”


“It’s awful, horrible.”


I smiled gleefully. She always shared the best bad words, but this one had her worried.


“What is it?” I asked.


She said, “Prejudice.”

She told me it meant to judge someone by their outside skin or where they came from. We lived in a factory neighborhood right next to the projects, where you could find every skin shade in the Crayola box.

We were misfit kids, an unwanted trio, daughters of a mentally ill mother and a violent father. Our clothes didn’t fit, what we had of them, and we ran wild in the empty lots next door. I knew, even at that young age, if I were ever to be judged by what I looked like on the outside, I’d be in serious trouble. From the moment I learned that word, I vowed to make my best attempt to understand people by their inside skin.

With JM, where they met (Prague), and daughter Samsa.

As an adult, I ended up falling in love with a black man. He walked up to me one night on a bench in a foreign country, took out his art portfolio, and showed me the inside of his mind, a gorgeous place to be.

He had pages of drawings – people he watched on the street, scarab beetles he studied in the museum – brilliant renderings that showed me a whole layer of the world I had not known existed.

Over the years, we helped each other grow as artists, trying out different paths and mediums.

Both of us struggled with the labels society put on us, “black artist” for him – he was expected to make art out of his own racial experience, and for me, “woman writer,” an assumption that my writing would somehow be more feminine than a man’s.

We thought if we could examine these labels, and what they did to people, we might come to some answers about why they existed.

I began to create the characters of Ror, a white girl artist who meets Trey, a black street artist (oh, that I have to use labels to describe them!). They both grow up in odd circumstances, making them outsiders. Their shared talent and passion lets them see beyond color, into their true inside skin, the place where they fall in love.

But society’s already gotten to Trey. In a discussion at the modern art museum, while they are looking at the 20th century female Mexican artist (wow, labels) Frida Kahlo’s paintings, Trey relates his beliefs about museums to Ror:

“[T]his place ain’t for us. Not while we alive, at least.”


“How do people get into a museum, anyway?” I wondered.


“You gotta be rich, white, friends with the right people,” he said. “Or you gotta be dead. We ain’t dead yet.”


“I’ve got one out of four,” I said.



“Yeah, but you’re a girl. You may’s well be black like me.”


“Frida Kahlo’s a girl.”



“Married to a famous dude.”



I stopped short. “So that’s what I’ve got to do to get in a museum? Marry a famous dude? I can’t do it on my own?”


“You dream ’bout bein’ in the museum till you dead, Ror. I’ll take bein’ the revolutionary. Let history worry about me,” Trey said.



I didn’t like that answer. Not one bit.

Enter to win print of this illustration below!

Ror confronts the local art supply store owner who tries to encourage her away from doing graffiti with Trey, even though that’s what she thinks is beautiful. She doesn’t believe she can even get into a gallery or museum, not till she’s dead, anyway, because she’s a girl. Jonathan refutes her fiercely:

“There’s plenty of living artists, and they’re in galleries that anybody can go into…look at Audrey Flack and think about what got her there. Go to SoHo. Go down the Village and look at young painters just coming up, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat…those guys started on the street, but they didn’t stay there.”

His words filter down through her, and get her thinking about her own power and the extent of her talent.

Ultimately, she comes to the bottom line question, the main part of art-making that’s in her control: Is this piece of art in front of me the best I can make it?

As a black artist and a woman writer, JM and I struggle to transcend labels, but for Into the Dangerous World (Viking, 2015)(excerpt), we had to look straight at them to expand the range of the story, to actually talk about these concerns we regularly face.

Reality is tough, and prejudice is a persistent monster, but we dealt with it head-on; through Ror’s drawings and her adventures with Trey, we hoped to show our readers the value of digging into the beliefs of the people who surround us, and see what’s really true within ourselves.

 

Cynsational Giveaway 

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