“Daddy, do you know what me and Obama have in common?” My daughter asked me this question a long time ago, during the McCain-Obama presidential contest in 2008. I remember being impressed that my precocious little seven-year-old with pigtails was even aware of presidential politics.
“No sweetie, what do you and Obama have in common?” I asked, expecting a punchline to a playground joke.
“We’re both half white!”
This was no joke. My daughter just announced her awareness of her multiracial identity. I was driving the family minivan when she sprung this on me. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her sitting proudly in her booster seat, pigtails and all. I started looking for a place to pull over so we could have this conversation face-to-face. I did not want to mess this up.
We had always celebrated my wife’s Chinese origins, her native language, and certainly her cooking. Her parents would visit from China for months at a time, and — living in California — there is a significant Asian population in our neighborhood. We never really talked about race at home. It wasn’t taboo, but it was so obvious there seemed no point dwelling on it, like having two eyes on our faces.
“That’s right sweetie,” I said. “I guess I never thought about it that way.” Now the ball was in my court. My daughter just broached a new subject with me and I wanted her to feel comfortable talking about race with me if that’s what she wanted to talk about. I wanted to say something really gentle and enlightened, but was coming up blank. Was being multiracial a strain on her? Although I am completely of European descent, the cultural differences between my immigrant German family on one side and Italian-American family on the other often made me feel like an outsider in both.
My daughter said, “Daddy, I have a question.”
Kids have a habit of announcing questions like that. I never figured out why. “What is it, love?” I asked, bracing myself for another shoe to drop.
“Is it boring for you to be only one race?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. Why would you ask?”
“When I want to be Asian, I’m Asian. When I want to be European, I’m European. I can be whatever I want whenever I want. You’re kind of stuck, aren’t you?” she asked.
I tell this story not to talk about politics or race, though they certainly are interesting topics. I tell this story to illustrate compelling characters: how a different perspective can feel so foreign and so authentic at the same time. Even someone I should know as well as my own child constantly surprises me and shows me a worldview I would never be exposed to on my own. That’s what really draws me in to a story, great characters that are both strange and totally believable. These traits are even more important than being likable. I want my characters to be the same way for my readers.
I write fantasy, so there are humans, elves, and dwarves running around in the worlds I create. Issues of race (and for YA especially, identity) can make characters so much more interesting, but all too often fantasy fails to go deeper than simple elf-dwarf animosities. I suppose conflict is conflict, but there are more satisfying ways to build tension. Give me a character that makes me see the world in a completely different way. Give me multiple characters who compete with each other and are forced into deeply ethical paradoxes so I’m not sure who to root for. That’s compelling.
When I spent a summer doing volunteer work in remote areas of the Alaskan panhandle, a child, maybe ten, pulled me aside and asked, “In the lower forty eight, is it true that everyone’s driveway is connected?” He asked because the terrain is so rough and mountainous where he lives, the only highway he had ever seen was the Alaska Marine Highway, a system of ferry boats that carries 312,000 passengers and 98,000 vehicles per year. His driveway was not connected to the next village, so all forty eight states being connected was unimaginable to him. It’s been more than twenty years since I was asked that question, and I still remember it. Put that child anywhere in the continental US and there’s a memorable story to tell.