When Korean-American young adults fantasy fiction author Ellen Oh visited Hong Kong last month for the 2018 Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival, she fell in love with three things in our city: xiao long bao [“I’m sad I won’t get soup dumplings this good once I go back to the States”], The Peak [“such beautiful, incredible views; Hong Kong’s architecture blows me away”], and the people.
Oh said that unlike back home, she’s felt so safe in Hong Kong surrounded by other Asian people.
“Being in the States after the 2016 election has been really hard,” Oh said. “Hate crime is so much worse. Growing up, I heard, ‘why don’t you go back to your own country’ maybe once a week. It’s so commonplace now, my kids have had far worse bullying, I’ve even had to pull my youngest [a 14-year-old daughter] out of public school.”
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Oh believes that since the Trump administration, those who are full of hate and prejudice feel their hatred and bigotry justified. And social media hasn’t made it seem worse; it’s made it worse.
“It wasn’t this bad before,” Oh mused.
“I think what’s happened is that people have found their people on social media, and they’ve riled each other up into a mob mentality. And when they come out, they’re defensive and angry.”
That is racism on a bigger, uglier scale; but racism on a smaller, more subtle scale is still just as paralysing, because it creates limits where a limit should not exist.
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“Most Asian authors will tell you that at one point in their publishing careers, they’ll have heard, ‘oh, but we already have an Asian story’. As if there’s only one possible Asian story to be told,” Oh said.
She then revealed that even when given a chance, Asian authors are still treated differently.
“My first agent said to me, ‘is English your second language?’ Just because I had a typo in my manuscript. I remembering thinking, ‘what? You never make a mistake?’”
She also feels that because publishers don’t really know what the market wants, they’re reluctant to give minority authors and their characters a chance.
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“(But) books like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, and The Sun is Also a Star were financial successes. So people took notice,” she enthused. “Same with Hollywood, they resisted putting minorities in superhero roles for so long, because they didn’t think they’ll do well. Then Black Panther’s massive success made them realise that’s not true.”
Aside from this shift in attitude,what gives Oh hope is her belief that people inherently want to do the right thing, “but you just don’t know what you don’t know”. And when you don’t know there’s a problem, you continue behaving in a way that contributes to the problem. So it really comes down to educating people. This is where young adults fiction becomes important.
She revealed that she never saw herself represented in books growing up, and she never found a character she could relate or look up to. So she wrote one.
“Younger me would have been in love with Kira,” Oh said of her lead character in her Prophecy series. “She would have felt she had a chance to be a hero and a warrior.”
She’s thankful her industry is open to more diversity now, but emphasised there’s still a long way to go. Which is good, because diversity in books may reduce the hate in Trump’s America moving forward, she believes.
“When you don’t see representation, for yourself or for other people, it’s very hard to learn empathy,” Oh explained. “When you live in a neighbourhood that lacks diversity, you need to be able to see diversity in books or movies. And when you don’t see it there either, that’s when you have people who lack empathy, and when racism and hatred rises – because it comes from a place of ignorance.”
By including more minorities in young adults fiction – whether that’s in terms of race, gender, sexuality, or disabilities – Oh believes kids will grow up understanding there are many more perspectives and ways of living than their own.
“I have a lot of faith in the younger generation,” she said, “if they learn empathy, they’ll be the ones who know it’s not right to hate.”