Kirk Quilaquil
original art by Kirk Quilaquil, posted with permission

A while back I was having a conversation with a writer friend, Christina Fernandez-Morrow. Although she has always been a voracious reader, she was explaining to me that growing up, she wasn’t very interested in the fantasy genre. Christina explained that given the challenging circumstances of her young life in an urban inner city, the “upper-middle class lifestyle” depicted [in realistic fiction books like The Babysitter’s Club] was fantasy enough for me.”

I consider myself bicultural. I am of two worlds, two cultures. I have my Korean culture, the culture of my parents, which largely influenced my upbringing, values, and sense of self. Also, there is my American culture, specifically that of growing up in the 1980’s, born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. Bicultural people inter-mingle two cultures on a daily basis.

As I look at the stories that I want to write, most of what I know and feel in my bones is the bicultural experience. As we advocate for diverse books, my passion is specific in that I believe we need more stories with characters of color who are not a) in a far off land or b) transplanted immigrants. There are so many vibrant kids growing up and reconciling two (or more) cultures. We need more of these stories to make it to the page and in the hands of readers.

I think back to what Christina said and, for me, historical fiction served as this kind of fantasy experience. When I was small, I would gravitate to books about girls my age growing up on a prairie in the 1800’s or a red-headed orphan having adventures on a picturesque island in the early 1900’s. As a young reader, it was aspirational. I placed myself in these stories, overlooking the anachronistic problems. I was Anne Shirley’s other best friend (not as pretty as Diana but more clever and fun), and in my mind my being Korean-American and still being me were not wholly incompatible with that world. Even though I knew there were no Koreans living on Prince Edward Island at that time, it didn’t matter. More than being Korean-American, I was me, and I knew I would be a great best friend to this heroine. As a reader, who I was didn’t disqualify me from this world because it was being me that mattered with a love of similar things, not being hyphen-American. I wanted to know these worlds and be a part of them, and I loved how stories let me join.

Thinking about Christina’s and my anecdotes makes me realize that for a lot of young readers, reading often fulfills a powerful desire to be a part of a world that is fascinating and different but out of reach. As one who writes stories with bicultural main characters, I realize that the challenge ahead is even greater than I thought.

How can I write stories with main characters who are people of color and make their bicultural world as alluring to readers who are not ‘of color’? As much as historical fiction was for me? And middle-class babysitters were for Christina? And as fantasy worlds are for the many?

Maybe I could take cues about writing intriguing cultures and aspirational worlds from fantasy writers.