Diversity is Life
by Melissa Yuan-Innes
May 31, 2022
As a kid, I pawed through books, trying to find variety. I landed on Dinah and The Green Fat Kingdom by Isabelle Holland. I never got seriously chunky myself, but I loved reading about a kid who felt ostracized because her appearance didn’t match the usual gorgeous, skinny, white, blonde cheerleader mold.
True, I walked past Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I didn’t feel ready to face the racism. I did read and reread Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether, though.
Did Asian writers, let alone Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Burmese, or Indonesian writers, fill the children’s shelves of the Ottawa Public Library? Maybe I could have found something if I looked deep enough. Or maybe not.
Once I grew up a bit and started reading romance, I subconsciously yearned to discover first and foremost, women of colour. Next, I searched for non-virginal female protagonists who weren’t 20 years younger than the dude! Did no writer long to write women beyond “spirited spitfires” 18 to 22 years old?
When I started writing for myself, I made sure to write protagonists of all races. Why? Because I could.
Then I read the results of a survey checking who appeared on-screen in Hollywood movies during the year Avatar came out. Vast majority: white. Some: Black. A few: Hispanic/LatinX. Asians were so few and far between, something like 7 percent. The chances of spotting an Asian on-screen was equal to spotting a blue-skinned alien.
Bam! I started writing people of colour, especially Asians. Before, I rebelled against getting shoehorned into the “write about your mother, write about immigration and restaurants” box. Now I grabbed the mantle and said, “If I don’t write about us, who will?”
Note: Writing diversely definitely doesn’t mean stealing someone else’s culture. If you write about the other (a common writing term, although kind of off-putting), educate yourself first, pay for sensitivity reads, and listen to the response instead of assuming you know better because you read it in a journal or your Great Aunt Matilda used to say X.
Break stereotypes. Not all Asians are crazy rich or good at math. Africa is a vast continent full of educated and hard-working people as well as dangerous animals and diamond mines. And guess what, some British people don’t love tea!
Reinvent the world of the imagination. Books, plays, poems, movies, songs, video games—enliven and enrich them by giving more people their say.
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.