I just finished up a couple of author appearances for my new kids’ book, The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, and a question that came up at both readings was, “Why did you chose to make your main character Lebanese-American?”
The glib answer would be because I am Lebanese-American, and in all writing workshops you’re taught to “write what you know”. But honestly, in earlier drafts of the book, Maria wasn’t obviously Lebanese-American, and her mother Celeste wasn’t obviously a Lebanese immigrant. I was advised, after the first go-round with my agent, to go ahead and make it obvious.
This advice surprised me, and it went against the grain of my upbringing. As I have shared in another blog Coming out as an Arab American, I was raised to hide my identity. In fact, I had mistakenly thought that it was “better” if my main character wasn’t identifiably anything—so she could be read however the reader wanted to read her.
But at some point between the many drafts, something happened in the writing world, and there began to be an outcry against all-white, all-male author panels. Publishers Weekly has written a number of articles about the monoculture of the publishing world, all across the industry. In their article, Why is Publishing So White (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html), a pie chart shows that only 1% of the overall industry identifies as Middle Eastern.
Luckily, it seems the industry wants to change this situation.
Suddenly it was not such a bad thing to be me, or to let my main character be like me.
So now Maria, like me, was born in the Bronx, baptized at Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights, and then never set foot in another Maronite church again. Her mother makes the same English mistakes my dad made. She eats hummus, and loves pistachio nougat candies, and has a Tante Farida. She speaks more French than Arabic, and more English than both. Like me, she knows how to ululate, but rarely does it, because of its association with terrorism. And she has all the “first generation in the US” values: education is important, you must always work hard, and it is better to own your home than to rent.
Recently my daughter asked me why in so many of the books she loves, the main characters are always white? She specifically mentioned the Harry Potter and Hunger Game series. I said that white people wrote those books, and people tend to write characters like themselves.
So then she asked why, if the main character is a POC (person of color), is that often made into the whole point of the book? As if a POC can only have adventures related to their status—such as a story with a Mexican protagonist is all about crossing the border or all about fitting in with mainstream white America. Why can’t a POC character just be whoever they are and have “regular” adventures, like magic or treasure hunts or solving mysteries?
That was a good question. I struggled to explain without excusing, and then I realized I needed to get more involved in that question myself. Because here I am, a writer, a daughter of a Lebanese immigrant, with Latinx children. There are some really good conversations going on all over the web, social media, and within the industry. I’ve been struggling to catch up, but as a mother and writer, I realize I need to.