Growing up in Laval, Quebec, the local kids in my neighborhood were English, French, Jewish, and Greek. My father was Chinese, and my mother was white. We were the only mixed-race kids we knew. There weren’t many families that looked like us. My mother read a lot. She read the Bible and had a love for old English writers like Austen, Bronte, Du Maurier, and Dickens. I must’ve read and re-read the adventures of Pippi, Anne of Green Gables and Meg Murry (the little girl in me is jumping up and down about the movie adaptation of Wrinkle in Time) dozens of times. Stories shape us, inform us and tell us about the world we are a part of. What would it have been like to see someone that looked like me in my school or library books at an early age?
I remember two books that stood out to me as different. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and The Story About Ping. The Snowy Day was first published in 1962. It was about a little African American boy Peter who went outside to play after a snowfall. Keats decided to write the book that reflected the little boys in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Keats inspiration for Peter was based on a little boy he had seen that was featured in a photo essay in Life magazine. Keats said, “there had never been a child of color, and they’re out there — they should be in the books, too.” This book went on to win the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children, and it’s now considered a classic. Writer Bryan Collier said “It was the first time I saw a kid that looked like me. At 4, I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what I was looking at. But I remember seeing Peter, and this kid looked just like me. The yellow-print housedress the mom wears — my mother had a housedress like that, too. Even the pattern of the pajamas — my great-uncle had pajamas like that. It felt so real.”
The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese follows the story of a baby duck that lived with his family and his master on a boat on the Yangtze river. Ping ends up getting separated and lost his family and tries to find them. I had forgotten about this book until I came across it in a used bookshop and it brought back fond memories for me. The people in the book looked like me. There is a power in that.
Writer Junot Diaz said “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” When I read Diaz’s book, This is How You Lose Her, I was blown away by his use of language. He had a way of telling a story in a way I hadn’t seen before.
Indigenous writer Alicia Elliott was twenty-five years old when she came across fellow Indigenous writer Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love. “It was such an intimate and personally revelatory moment—as if she had reached out from the pages, lifted my face and smiled. She can see me, I thought. She can see me.”
When I was in high school, I took Journalism and English classes. I didn’t consider myself to be a real writer back then. It’s an age where you’re supposed to start deciding what you want to do with your life. So, while my classmates were choosing classes that would help get them into Cegep, I was studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that would end up being my main focus for years long after I graduated. If I wanted to be a good Christian, I would use my ambition to preach, and that was that. After high school, my writing life came to a standstill. It would only be in my thirties that I came across the type of book where I started to see a glimpse of myself. I picked up Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Canadian Chinese writer and journalist Jan Wong. Wong grew up in Montreal speaking English, some French and no Mandarin and I related instantly to her and her writing. I had been born in Montreal and grew up in Laval, spoke English, a little French and spoke no Mandarin or Cantonese. Perhaps this was one of those moments that eventually led me back to pursue my writing. What I do know is that her words spoke to me.
There is a sense of home when you recognize stories that reflect parts of you. Parts of you that you had forgotten or lost or given up on. These stories do not have to be identical or perfect or exact, but they do need to be written and exist in the world. Let’s seek out different stories besides the ones that are in the mainstream. Let’s build a supportive, inclusive community that represents all of us and not just one story. Let’s get uncomfortable and do the work and not lean on others to do the emotional labor for us. Let’s do the research and find the books that are not sitting on the best sellers list or the shelf. We’re not invisible. We’ve always been there. Let’s find each other.
Suggested reading recommendations:
20 Black Writers to Read All Year Round
The Festival of Literary Diversity’s reading challenge
108 Indigenous writers to read, as recommended by you from CBC
My Year of Reading Only Writers of Colour by Ayelet Tsabari
A Year in Page Views: Race in Writing and Publishing by Phoebe Wang
Writer Yi Shun Lai offers tips on how to diversify your bookshelves
Tamara Jong is a Montreal-born mixed-race writer of Chinese and European ancestry. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper, Room, and The New Quarterly. She is currently enrolled in The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University.