Tag Archives: diversity

Interview with Celeste Lim, author of The Crystal Ribbon

In a story set in medieval China, Celeste Lim brings a young girl of exceptional heart together with the animal spirits of ancient myth to overcome a dark fate. Wed at age eleven to a three-year-old,  Jing’s life seems like a dismal sentence, and yet it is full of surprise and adventure.  In the interest of full disclosure, Celeste began weaving her tale while in my class at Manhattanville College’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing. From the first evening she read aloud, her writing voice captivated  me and I felt certain that her tale was destined for publication. And now that it’s here, I get to interview her!

Would you tell us a little about your writing background and early writing experience?

Growing up in Malaysia exposed me to a myriad of languages at a young age. We learned Bahasa Malaysia, our national language, in class; English was a compulsory subject as well because we were colonized by the British; and I went to a Chinese school because of my heritage. Therefore, what I has been exposed to growing up taught me that English books were written for and about Western people; Chinese books were written for and about Chinese people; Malay books for and about Malay people, and so on. So naturally, when I attempted to write my first English novel at age seventeen, I wrote a story about three fair-skinned, red-haired sisters who live in New York City, a place I’d only ever read about in books and saw on TV. That manuscript has been sitting in a hidden folder on my computer ever since.

How did you come to write Jing’s story?

Your first class focused on writing from our unique reservoir of seminal experience. I remember how groundbreaking it felt to me to realize that I was actually allowed to write about what I knew in a language that was supposedly foreign to my culture. That was a huge turning point in my writing journey and was also how Jing’s story was conceived.

The Crystal Ribbon’s magical creatures or jing, are important elements in the story. Could you explain more about them here? Did the jing characters spark your imaginyation as a child? Do you have a favorite jing?

This is one of my favorite things to talk about! Just like beings such as fairies and mermaids, jing are mythical creatures that sprung from the lips of storytellers, and since then have consistently appeared in ancient and medieval Chinese literature. The existence of jing came from the Taoist idea that through enough spiritual training, anything is able to attain a higher level of existence. Jing are non-human creatures that, after a hundred years of spiritual training, have attained the ability to speak, and a human level of consciousness and intelligence.

Because these ideas are so much a part of our mainstream religion, as a child I took them for granted, being more intrigued by gnomes and fairies. But now I do actually have a favorite jing–the huli jing, or fox jing! Other than being a very handsome creature, it feels like a very complex character, having the potential to be equal parts good and evil, which is why I chose it to be my character Jing’s unlikely friend.

Although Jing’s world contains magical helpmates, she couldn’t escape being sold into marriage at age eleven. At the hands of her three-year-old husband’s family, she suffers many cruelties. Were these scenes difficult to write? Explain how you approached them.

The novel actually started out as a third-person narrative. As a person living almost a thousand years later, I found it difficult to write in a way that helped me connect intimately to those experiences. But when my editor suggested I switch to first person, the barrier seemed to disappear. First person is not my writing strength, but in this point of view, I was forced to experience everything as Jing.  I found that the words in these scenes came easier and sounded more authentic, raw, and immediate.

Although The Crystal Ribbon is set in medieval China, Jing could be a role model for girls today. What qualities do you think serve her best?

I’ll name two of the traits that I admire in Jing, resilience and introspection. I believe her resilience stems from hope, something that she carefully preserved and did not let her hardships extinguish. Initially, her hope might be that things will eventually change for the better on their own, but I think it is her introspection, her constant self-examination, that allowed Jing to discover the strength to change the course of her life.

Having a first book published can be both thrilling and daunting. Since this is your first experience with having a book published, what surprised you about the process?

It was surprisingly less stressful than I anticipated! I am admittedly a bit of a Hermione Granger when it comes to things I’m unfamiliar with. I remember researching and reading up tons about the publishing process and hearing many anecdotes of bad publishing experiences from fellow authors. But fortunately, I have a good working relationship with my editor. I believe that is a huge reason why I feel safe and reassured in her hands.

Diverse Books: Talking About Them Isn’t Enough

It’s not often I get to shout out to wins in diversity by talking about the movies. But those of you who have seen the latest incarnation of Beauty and the Beast will understand – the multi-racial court in the Prince’s palace is a big deal because we all know that’s *not* how it was originally conceived.

Another actor bringing an originally white character to life is Storm Reid, who plays Meg Murray in the new adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time.

It’s great news that book-to-movie adaptations are (slowly) paying attention to the passionate dialogue about the need for diversity.

And in fact, a lot of children’s fiction itself is looking more diverse than ever before. These books are heeding the call of #WeNeedDiverseBooks championed by authors, agents, librarians, teachers, and readers demanding more #ownvoices writers, more non-white main characters.

And yet, in spite of the increasing volume of the cultural conversation, the actual number of diverse books on the shelves is still confusingly small.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, collects annual statistics on the number of books published by and about persons of color. And while their statistics are only a snapshot in that they do not report gender, sexuality, or religious diversity, they are a place to start looking for a picture of where we stand today in the push for diverse books.

In 2016, out of 3200 books published by United States publishers:

  • > 12% are written by authors of color*;
  • 21% are about persons of color, regardless of author ethnicity.

*NOTE: African/African –American, Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific American, First Nation/American Indian, and Latino writers. 

Wait., what?

I know. These abysmal numbers are hard to believe. Because if so many people are asking for diverse books, why aren’t we getting them?

The schism has been explained in part by the much-discussed 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey that revealed a pathetically small percentage of industry professionals are actually people of color.

It’s been nearly two years since that data was released – but the statistics haven’t changed appreciably. We all know publishing moves at a glacial pace, so even if editors snapped up a host of diverse projects in response to that survey, those books won’t be out until this year. So, maybe the 2017 CCBC numbers will be better.

That’s me being hopeful.

Realistically? We’re nowhere near where we need to be – one year isn’t going to close the gap. Which means our mandate is clear: #Ownvoices authors need to keep writing, keep querying, keep subbing, keep banging on the door. Readers need to support books that include the spectrum of skin and hair colors, culture, religion, and places.

I believe we can do this — but we will have to persist.

I’m curious – did those numbers surprise you?

The True Value of Sensitivity Readers

Sensitivity readers used in the publishing of multicultural books have been in the social media conversation recently.   A sensitivity reader, sometimes called a cultural consultant, reads a manuscript from a standpoint of membership in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or spiritual community and evaluates the story for authenticity and makes revision recommendations.
It’s all very Captain Obvious that writers should be checking their cultural research and using a member of that culture to do so. But it’s easy to overlook the deeper value of a sensitivity reader when we employ them only at the end of the process, and only when we are writing outside our racial or religious culture. I have used cultural consultants to help me understand the culture of military families and maritime professions. And I have used cultural consultants to help me more fully understand characters who share my own ethnicity and religion. Membership in the race, ethnicity, or religion of your characters doesn’t automatically
make you an authority on your characters particular situation. There are a multitude of life experiences and ways to live within every racial or ethnic group. Don’t short change yourself in the research just because you are writing from a home culture.
Here are three benefits to consulting a sensitivity reader early in the process of writing a book.
  1. Gain access to research materials 
The best thing you can ask at the beginning of a book research process is “what should I read, see, hear, taste, study, and visit in order to fully understand this aspect of the culture.” A good consultant will know. For example an early consultant for The Turn of the Tide suggested, since a trip to Japan was out of my budget and my questions were ecosystem specific, that I talk to the horticulturalist at the Japanese garden about the flora in my Japanese setting. I could have just read a field guide but seeing and hearing and smelling the trees made all the difference. I’ve made valuable personal connections through research consultants and I’ve gained access to unpublished research and off-display museum materials which did much to round out my understanding of a culture. And because I used a consultant early in the process, I could efficiently make the necessary changes.
  1. Embrace the need for substantial change in your story 
Sooner or later you will come across a topic in your research that stymies you. Written resources don’t mention the information you are looking for. People you interview give vague or wildly disparate information. Suggested contacts don’t return your queries. And sometimes a sensitivity reader will recommend explicitly that you leave an entire topic alone.
Listen. Seriously. Listen.
And change your story accordingly. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about a culture, but there are things within a culture that simply do not belong in your story. And your reader is not making this suggestion to make you fail. She is actually hoping you will succeed and trying her best to help you do so. It can feel like a defeat but really it’s an opportunity to reimagine your story in a way that will make it more respectful and also more robust in its narrative structure.
  1. Open your heart to a change in your world view. 
The joy and challenge of writing fiction is the opportunity to submerge yourself in another person’s experience. If you enter into that work wholeheartedly it can change you. If you have the assistance of a good consultant it can change you for the better. I had a real gem of a consultant for The Turn of The Tide. She is a Japanese language teacher and initially I just asked her to check the Japanese words to make sure I was using them correctly. But we ended up having a much longer conversation because my main character is biracial & she is raising biracial children. And she is from an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She had much to say about the contemporary experience of Japanese American students and the impact of the tsunami not just on the land but upon the broader Japanese culture. I was truly touched by her words and have thought differently about Japanese culture and many global issues, particularly the impact of rising oceans on indigenous peoples in the Pacific, ever since. As for the story, I went back to the beginning with my biracial character and reexamined every bit of internal and external dialogue to make it more reflective of what I’d learned about the grief particular to a tsunami survivor. I didn’t need to change any major plot points but I did uncover the soul of the character in a way I hadn’t before.
So after all that work do I have a bullet proof story?
Nope!
And if you think using a sensitivity reader will exempt you from criticism for the cultural representation in your story, you are going to be disappointed. Because there is no single correct representation of a culture. If I had consulted with a different Japanese person I would have gained a different perspective and made different edits. In my opinion a writer is better served by letting go of the goal that nobody will ever be critical or offended by your story in favor of the goal of deeper, and more specific cultural understanding in order to write your characters and story bravely and whole heartedly.