MY CONTRIBUTION OF THE DAY: A PROCLAMATION TO PUSH THE BOUNDARIES OF WHAT IS SEEN AS DIVERSE IN YA FICTION.
DEAR YA FICTION, NOT ALL DIVERSE TEENS CELEBRATE THEIR CULTURE(S)
By: Sonia Patel
In June, my husband and I took our two half Filipino-half Indian teenagers and their three half Filipino-half white cousins to a Little Simz concert in Chicago. Little Simz, a black rapper from England, delivered nothing less than powerful, feminist bars. Her inspiring lyrics seemed to light up Lincoln Hall’s dimness and hypnotize the eager crowd. My family and I head nodded, deep in the zone. And when Little Simz spit the words “the Philippines” in a hook, our kids, nephews, and niece exploded with pride, their fists thumping their chests then pumping high over their heads. I stood behind pressing my hand on my heart and smiling, overcome with a mix of awe and happiness for them. But then a thin layer of sweat formed on the small of my back. I peeled my shirt as guilt and grief took turns trying to tug the corners of my lips down.
Why can’t you be that proud of being Indian?
You know why.
Sure, but it’s not like you’ve ever been starving or had acid thrown on your face so get over yourself.
But things were bad in a different way.
I don’t celebrate my Indian culture. I never have. I don’t know how to because I was raised around it, not in it. Growing up, it was as if I was an outsider sitting in a dark theater watching our Indian relatives and family friends on the big screen like a Bollywood film. I studied the intricacies of my mom and grandmother’s daily Hindu worship of Thakorji. I noticed the way my mom lent a helpful ear and hand to everyone, despite some of her in-laws putting her down. I plopped down on the sofa next to my mom when she was engrossed in one of her pirated Indian movies depicting perfect, loving families. I was fascinated by the beautiful, intricate saris and gold and diamond jewelry Indian ladies wore to weddings and garba...the delicious, complicated food my mom and aunties made......the emphasis on hard work and education...the sacrifice to help my generation make it in America….
Still I didn’t feel Indian. I felt worthless. What no one knew was that at home, my family’s way of life, our secret culture, was that of isolation, conflict, and abuse.
Now as an adult I recognize the elements of patriarchy, misogyny, and intolerance long present on one side of our extended Gujju network but the culture of dysfunction (COD) at home was its own terrible beast. Simply put, my dad was a charming tyrant. My role was his wife. My mom was his servant. My mom and I existed, voiceless, to accomodate my dad in every way.
Instead of getting a shot at normal teen emotional development, I was in a perpetual state of anxiety to keep the peace at home, and then in my future relationships, even if that meant making poor decisions. Instead of having the opportunity to build my separate identity and self-worth, I learned that my only value was in pleasing my dad, and then men like him who similarly lavished me with attention in exchange for my emotional and/or sexual usefulness. And instead of developing skills to maintain healthy, nuanced peer relationships, especially with girls, I didn’t trust anyone.
Looking back I’ve come to understand that my family’s COD trumped any protective effects of my Indian background. Why? Because the COD was the lens through which I saw everything Indian. And since there wasn’t a single day of my youth that I experienced my Indian-ness independent of the COD, the two became inextricably linked for me. Being Indian was foreign to me yet I equated it with pain.
I’m not alone. Many of the diverse teens I treat who live in COD don’t have strong connections to their birth culture(s) either. Let’s face it—COD is universal. In my office, when these teens reveal their agonizing stories of abuse, neglect, parental drug use, parental mental illness, and/or other severe adverse childhood experiences, their mental suffering is similar regardless of their backgrounds. It’s true that they may manifest some culturally specific variations in symptoms, but there are undeniable commonalities in their negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That and the medically proven trauma-induced brain changes are the same.
In order for youth to survive traumatic experiences that are out of their control, dysfunction can become hardwired in their developing brains. They can become stuck in survivor mode as COD clouds their vision and becomes the blueprint for future relationships, leaving them prone to an endless cycle of repeating and recreating what they’ve endured at home with others. This is largely why the buffering effects of their birth culture(s), such as positive relationships with extended family members or participation in traditional activities and religious practices, can remain out of reach.
It’s crucial to understand that these diverse teens are often alienated from their backgrounds because they never experience it apart from their COD. They are shoved onto different playing fields of development far apart from teens being reared in healthy families where culture isn’t shrouded in toxicity. So to expect all teens, particularly those from cultures stereotyped as nerdy and family-oriented immigrants, to rise above their struggles is unrealistic. More likely these vulnerable teens living in COD may have extreme difficulty making friends. Or, they may choose another family of “bad kids.” They may not be able to set limits with people. They may engage in repeated risky, quick feel-good behaviors (sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.) not condoned by their birth culture(s).
Let’s take fifteen-year-old Kaya (not her real name), a part Native Hawaiian-Filipino-Japanese girl who I began treating recently. She wants to feel connected to her family’s blended way of life but can’t. She’s spent her youth battling recurrent negative thoughts, flashbacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, and worthlessness. Our talk therapy to this point has given her insight into why her neural circuitry hardwired with depression and anxiety—it allowed her to survive the abuse. Her symptoms told her that the abuse was her fault, thus giving her a sense of control in a situation that’s been totally out of her control. It’s my fault. I’m bad. I deserve it. Why else would the people who say they love me the most hurt me the most? Why else would the people who’ve taught me cultural values of family, respect, and honor treat me and each other like this? She wants to feel pride when her family participates in Native Hawaiian activism but ends up feeling disgust. Her profound emotional burdens have denied her the mental free time to be a “regular teen.” She hasn’t dreamt about her future or romance or hobbies or college or achievement or the next party. She can’t help but feel like an imposter at family gatherings and traditional ceremonies. She hasn’t had a fair chance to form strong female friendships. She hasn’t been able to set limits with boys—she’s allowed them to push her around and she hasn’t been able to say no to sex like she wants to. She also hasn’t been able to come out as lesbian though she identifies as one.
This brings me to YA fiction. Obviously teens read for different reasons. Some of my diverse teen patients enjoy escaping the hardships of their lives by immersing themselves in YA fantasy, dystopia, or paranormal. Some are drawn to YA romance. There are some, however, who seek to find themselves in books. But diverse teens being raised in COD have a difficult, if not impossible, time finding themselves in existing YA fiction. At this time most of it celebrates different cultures. Most of it includes at least one functional parent who protects against the occurrence of COD and therefore makes it possible for the birth culture(s) to be appreciated.
Kaya hasn’t found herself represented. How can she when COD has prevented her from experiencing her birth cultures without bias? How can she when she feels distant and, at the same time, repulsed by her birth cultures?
When I was Kaya’s age, I couldn’t find any Indian or Indian-American YA novels. There are some these days but I can’t relate to any of them. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Rani Patel In Full Effect. It’s why I decided to keep writing (Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story, Bloody Seoul, and a fourth YA novel in the works).
Teens living in the complex dynamics of COD may not be able to see themselves in diverse YA fiction, including realistic bestsellers, that happen to be by or about people of their same background. To think otherwise—from my point of view as a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the trenches with vulnerable teens—is short-sighted, minimizing, and insulting to those in the midst of survival and in the most need of empathy from sources outside of the family.
YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way. It needs to depict the ugliness of when COD hijacks birth culture. It needs to represent the unpalatable perspectives of teens who don’t have the luxury of enjoying their cultures and working through typical teen concerns. It needs to embrace painful reality, not just what’s convenient. It needs to champion these types of troubling diverse stories the way it does those stories that make people feel comfortable, content, and less guilty. Afterall, the Kayas of the world are worth it even if they themselves can’t feel worth it yet.
While YA novels are increasingly diverse, safe diversity—with accessible and likable protagonists and their convenient struggles—is usually seen as enough. These unoffending books tend to be championed and more popular. Unsettling diversity, on the other hand, is often frowned upon, discounted, or misconceived.
I’m a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist and a young adult novelist. To me, dismissing YA that’s outside the realm of palatable diversity is like a psychiatrist refusing to treat certain teen patients because they have “too many problems.”
I’ve spent over fifteen years treating diverse teens who suffer tremendous adversity—abuse of all kinds, neglect, parental mental illness or drug use, etc. Medical research proves that youth exposed to these types of adverse experiences have an increased incidence of chronic medical and mental health problems, increased risky behaviors, and less future success. That’s why I’m dedicated to being in the trenches with them, helping them dodge life’s bullets. Hoping to steer them to higher ground.
An example is in order.
Kai (not his real name), a seventeen-year-old Filipino-Hawaiian-Japanese-Korean boy, is sitting across from me, staring out the window. It’s been six months of almost weekly individual talk therapy sessions. I bring up the heavy family issue. Kai presses his lips together. Suddenly he shoots up, a scowl covering his usual poker face. He takes three steps to the large window and slams his head, three times. A pause then three more slams.
I call his name. He glances over his shoulder, his eyes moist. In a gentle voice, I ask, “Will you sit down or should I call the police to keep you safe like last time?”
He punches his head three times. “It hurts so much in here,” he angry whispers, tears now streaming.
“Let’s talk about it,” I suggest.
He glares at me but then sits. “Fine,” he mutters.
That was Kai’s breakthrough moment. It was the first time he spoke about a feeling instead of showing it with alarming behavior. It was the moment we started translating his behavioral language (obsessions, compulsions that were often harmful to himself, bullying, social isolation, alcohol use, and truancy) into English words.
Still, healing took years. Negative coping strategies had been automatically reinforced, and eventually hardwired, in his brain. New, positive brain pathways took time and work to form.
I have personal experience with this. You see I grew up in a dysfunctional Gujarati Indian immigrant family with dark secrets. The opposite of the typical Bollywood family depiction. I started writing to cope. It was poetry and rap at first. It turned into my debut young adult novel Rani Patel In Full Effect.
I struggled with how to portray Rani, my Indian-American main character. In the real way teen survivors of sexual abuse present to my office? Or in a sugar coated way with righteousness, fully formed feminist strength and insight, and flowery perfect prose to make her more appealing to readers?
I decided on real. Real meant raw and flawed. Real meant making her an uncomfortable protagonist. As a reader, you invest time caring about her. But Rani doesn’t have gorgeous words to describe the pain of her abuse, she speaks by recreating her role as an object for men to use and ends up making obviously bad decisions. You want to scream at her. That’s what it like supporting a person working to recover from trauma.
My next YA novel, Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story is based on amalgams of real teen patients. Sorry, but there’s nothing comfortable about walking in the shoes of a depressed, suicidal Indian-American trans boy and a sex trafficked mixed ethnicity girl.
My third YA novel, Bloody Seoul, will be released in July. The main character, Rocky is Korean and has aspects of Kai, other patients, and my imagination. If Rocky kept a journal, his abrupt sentences would reveal his brain’s ingrained survival reactions to the chaos of his mother’s abandonment and his father’s violence—a hard edge, limited empathy, emotional unavailability, and OCD behavior.
My fourth YA novel will follow suit. I can’t stop, won’t stop, introducing troubling protagonists because there are entire groups of diverse youth not yet represented.
YA lit needs to transcend safe diversity. It needs to be enthusiastically inclusive of disturbing realistic novels that purposefully miss the bull’s-eye of acceptability. Even when it’s really hard, we need to try to understand all teen protagonists who engage in incomprehensible behaviors. Even if we don’t agree, we need to try to empathize with them when they make upsetting choices. That is true tolerance. That is true diversity.
I’m passionate about providing psychiatric treatment to diverse teens who are struggling through various hardships. Along the way, these teens make poor choices in relationships and in self-care because that’s how real life often plays out when youth are raised in chaos. It’s important to me that their imperfect journeys aren’t dismissed. That’s why I’m also dedicated to translating their struggles into realistic young adult fiction that isn’t written to please but rather to expand narrow-minded views of mental health issues and diverse life experiences.
Real life isn’t perfect prose. Real life isn’t a perfect plot. Real life isn’t a perfect, happy ending. Real life can be brutal, scattered, mistake-filled, and beautiful. And when these real-life teens embrace their worth and learn to use their voice, they are fierce. They are feminist AF. Like my teen patients. Like Rani.
This School Library Journal blog post lists amazing, diverse feminist YA books. I’m delighted that RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT is on it!
Click on this link:
THIS IS FOR THE TEENS ON THE FRINGES OF SOCIETY I'M HONORED TO TREAT...
The characters of Jaya & Rasa are amalgams of some diverse LGBTQ teens I’ve treated, ones facing horrific situations (sex trafficked, physically/emotionally/sexually abused, bullied, and/or suffering from untreated mental health issues including suicidal thoughts and attempts). I’m grateful my version of their struggles and triumphs has been included on the 2019 In the Margins Recommended Fiction Book List!
“In the Margins strives to find the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody - or a cycle of all three. Our charge is to seek out and highlight the best fiction and non-fiction titles (Pre-K through adult) of high-interest appeal to youth ages 9-21 living in poverty, on the streets, or in custody...Youth feedback is a critical factor in both book nomination and selection.” —In the Margins Selection Committee
These days I’m trying to live by Gandhi’s famous words, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” One of my recent changes…I shaved my head for the second time in my life. I love my bald head and I don’t care if anyone else likes it, I just hope it challenges societal norms. Maybe it will encourage people to think beyond their ingrained assumptions about bald women. Assumptions they don’t usually hold about bald men. Assumptions they feel necessary to share with me:
1. The only possible reason to go bald as a woman is that I’m undergoing chemo. I’m not.
2. Or I must hate men. I don’t.
3. Or I’m lesbian. I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I’m straight because I’m not. I’m queer.
4. Or how did I ever get a husband? Um, love.
5. Or even though I’m bald, I’m still pretty. Stop commenting on my appearance. My worth is not determined by it.
Maybe it will also encourage people to move towards tolerance, acceptance, and love.
I dig this quote from the New York Times article Buzzed: The Politics of Hair : “...because we focus so much attention on the head, especially on the female head, and because this attention is gendered, and because, more than anything, this attention is visible, absent hair on a woman’s head can be read as disruptive to the politics of the male gaze. Looking at a woman’s face, at her hair, has conventionally been an exercise of desire, and of an assertion of male power. Disrupting this convention, disrupting this gaze, allows us to see a different set of possibilities for the female head. The shaved head ‘speaks’ in a different way.”
Check out the full article for more. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/05/fashion/buzzed-politics-of-hair-emma-gonzalez-rosemcgowan.html
It took decades to escape the prison
Of Indian & American patriarchy and I’m newly arisen
Sober from the narcosis of Bollywood heroin: to be a heroine-
long-haired, buxom woman in need of a male “good samaritan”
To save her. To validate her worthiness.
Not so anymore. These days I am my own hero, impervious
To misogynistic fog, walking tall in my Timberlands
Stomping over narrow-minded hoopla, ready to withstand
The negativity that keeps coming when I’m brave & use my well-intentioned voice
To help others discover their truth and choices.
Free from the shackles of giving a fuck what you think
Cuz you haven’t lived in my skin or been on my brink.