Challenges My Character’s Face
by Melissa Yuan-Innes
February 22, 2022
Hey, if you want to talk about issues in an entertaining way, I’m your writer.
“I like that Hope feels like a poor student,” said my artist friend Jessica Sarrazin. “It feels real.” She was talking about my main character, Dr. Hope Sze.
As a medical doctor, I’ve spent most of my life in school. And as a child of immigrants, I knew how to pinch a penny until it almost snapped (almost, because then you couldn’t use it anymore!).
So, I know what it’s like to hyperventilate when you count up your tuition plus lodging and realize how much you’re spending even before you eat. To go to a bar and turn down a shot because you realized you were overdrawn. To go to a restaurant and get mad at your boyfriend for ordering a soft drink, because they’re cheaper at the grocery store. Just drink water, you idiot. I mean, my love.
“I don’t ask people’s ethnicities because I’m sick of strangers yelling ‘Ni hao!’ at me,” says Hope in White Lightning. I’ve explored other races, too. For example, I wrote High School Hit List and Indian Time from a Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) perspective, trying to do so respectfully and really capture not only the camera-ready, enjoyable parts of being indigenous, but also truthfully describing custody battles and poverty.
When I spoke at St. Lawrence College and asked students to share their work in exchange for me donating my story to their class reading, Tesha Sunday made my daughter a ribbon dress “because you got it right.” To this day, it’s one of the most wonderful gifts I’ve ever received for my writing. So, you see how there can be great beauty amidst the struggle.
I always write about strong females. Sometimes readers complain that my protagonists aren’t “likeable,” which puzzles me. Are doormats more palatable? Wouldn’t you rather a woman who stood up and gave what for?
I asked Kristine Kathryn Rusch about this, and she sighed and said something like, “I’m waiting for society to catch up with me. In twenty years, strong women won’t be such a hard concept to grasp.”
Still waiting. But it’s getting better.
Now let me talk about the joys I include in my writing, because that’s only fair.
My children. I don’t mention them often, but for example, my son inspired my short story, “What Not to Expect in the Toddler Years,” which is a fantasy story about a mother whose son makes a very unusual friend in day care. I’m so grateful I wrote it so that I can look back and remember my son’s speech patterns and how he’d cling to me.
My dog(s). Roxy the Rottweiler pops up in Human Remains, when she discovers a body in the snow. Like me, Hope has never previously had a dog and is wary at first, but soon she recognizes Roxy’s gentle heart and the healing power of a furry friend who likes to lick.
Medicine. Although it’s unspeakably hard right now—every single worker is burnt out, has moral injury, is sick of cancer surgery delays and unvaccinated protesters—I am still grateful for a career that challenges me every shift, and that connects me with interesting people who make me laugh and think about the world differently.
Which makes me grateful for writing!
Melissa Yi, also known as Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes, studied emergency medicine at McGill University in Montreal. She was so shocked by the patients crammed into the waiting area, and the examining rooms without running water, that she began to contemplate murder. And so she created Dr. Hope Sze, the resident who could save lives and fight crime. She appeared on CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning and recently had so many print interviews that an addiction services counsellor said, “I see you in the newspaper more often than I see you in the emergency room.” In addition to her popular Hope Sze series, Melissa also writes nonfiction about being a physician, and children’s and middle-grade books for ages ranging from kindergarten through middle-school. Learn more about her at her website.