I’m Kristen. I’m a mixed-race author who writes books with mixed-race characters. Yes, I know my last name is Simmons and doesn’t sound very Japanese. Yes, I know Kristen doesn’t either. Yes, I even know that while many people have called me everything from “tan” to “exotic,” I don’t look “very Japanese.”
But guess what? I am.
All my life, this has been something I’ve encountered. People would ask my father when I was alone with him in public if I was really his daughter because we didn’t look alike. (For the record, he’s Caucasian.) Then, when I first started telling people I was Japanese, the questions turned to, “But not completely Japanese, right?” Because to them, I wasn’t.
I am the third generation born in this country. Some of you may have heard me talk about my great-grandmother, who I wrote Pacifica after. She was in Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, and was taken by the FBI to an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas, where she remained to the end of WWII. Her son fought for the American army, while my grandma was “returned” to Japan, even though she was not born there (she had been born in Hawaii). As a result of Japan’s role in WWII, my family absorbed an enormous amount of shame over their people’s role in the incident, despite my great-grandmother’s internment by the US. My mother was not allowed to learn Japanese. She was not immersed in Japanese culture. When she had me, there were few cultural references to pass along.
So when people asked if I spoke Japanese, or observed different traditions, I shook my head. I said what my mother had taught me to say — what her mother had taught her to say after the war. I am an American.
I am an American, just like you.
I grew up on a cattle ranch in dusty Nevada. My mom made rice with chicken broccoli casserole. The most Japanese I know comes from Styx’s Mr. Roboto.
But still there were questions. Why didn’t you learn Japanese? Why didn’t you go back to Japan? (As if I started there?) In jobs, employers asked me to fill out diversity questionnaires that others did not have to fill out. They couldn’t ask outright if I was of a different race, but if I marked the Asian/Pacific Islander box then they reached their diversity quota. A co-worker once brought me a statue of the Iwo Jima memorial because it reminded them of me. Once, at an Asian Heritage Month celebration (put on for my benefit, I’m convinced), I was asked to share cultural stories and wear a kimono. I didn’t have either.
(Besides a healthy dose of Japanese bathroom ghost stories, shared with me from a non-Japanese friend.) (I did not share those at work.)
And then when I became an author, I decided to write about people like me. Chase from the Article 5 series is mixed race. Aya from The Glass Arrow is mixed race. Ty and Lena in Metaltown? Both mixed race. Guess what? There’s a reason Ross Torres in Pacifica can’t speak Spanish, and that his best friend Adam knows more about Ross’s culture than he does. I didn’t go into the mechanics of my characters’ racial backgrounds because living with that information was not my experience. I didn’t know my cultural history, why should they? What I did know was my personal history. A story of heroism and shame. Of trying to figure out who you are when it baffles others. Of never being enough of who people want you to be.
I wrote stories for people like me.
And nobody questioned them. But they still questioned me.
Since becoming an author, I’ve been told that I might sell more books if I used my Asian name (for the record, this never came from my publisher or agent). I have been told it might help sales if I take off my glasses in pictures so people can see my eyes. I have been told my stories, including one based on my great-grandmother’s experience in a Japanese internment camp, are not #ownvoices.
I don’t have a “Japanese name.” I can’t see my hand in front of my face without my glasses. And okay, it isn’t the first time I’ve been excluded from something because I wasn’t Japanese enough.
I have gotten good reviews and bad reviews throughout my entire career. I am lucky to say that I have published thirteen books, but with that comes the rollercoaster. Some people like them. Some people hate them. That’s absolutely fine — I mean that with all respect and sincerity. Once a book leaves my hands, it’s a reader’s to do with what they will. But recently a professional trade review stated that my newest main character, who is mixed race, is an attempt by me to gain “diversity brownie points,” and that she is an example of “ill-conceived tokenism,” and wow. That hurt.
It hurt because Brynn is not the first mixed-race character I have written. It hurt because a person of mixed race does not write a mixed-race character to somehow earn “brownie points,” but rather because they want to see themselves on the page. It hurts because people have treated me as an example of “ill-conceived tokenism” all my life.
I never knew the depth of my Japanese culture because I was steered away from it. Due to life circumstances, my characters have been steered away from their cultural histories as well. They talk about this — the reasons why they don’t know who they are. Brynn does in The Deceivers, but sometimes, that still isn’t enough.
This publication, when pressed, agreed that they couldn’t speak to my intentions with my mixed-race character, and reworded their review. But I still find myself hurt, and offended that these kinds of assertions made it into a review in the first place, and had to be pointed out. That an organization meant to encourage a thirst in literature is shoving readers away from a book with a mixed-race character because of a perceived lack of cultural depth, when this is an issue many mixed people face all their lives. That reviews asserting intention of the use of race as some marketing scheme are leveled against POC authors instead of true critiques about the story itself.
I don’t think my experiences are terrible. Far worse things happen to people every day. I know. I was a practicing social worker for ten years prior to this author life. As such, I’m obligated to stand for people who can’t, and to be a voice when others are silenced. I will wear that mantle proudly, and absorb any shade tossed my way. But I have not done such a great job standing up for myself.
And now that I have a mixed-race son, I need to stand for him, too.
This is more than a book issue — this is a life issue. This is how we see ourselves and how we evaluate those around us. As you do both, I urge you to be thoughtful.
Who you are is so much more than a trend, or a checkbox on a questionnaire. You are a collection of experiences, and worthy of your own story. You are a whole, even if someone else wants to break you down into fractions.
You are enough, just as you are.
Kristen Simmons is the author of the Article 5 series, THE GLASS ARROW, METALTOWN, PACIFICA, and THE DECEIVERS (out 2/5/19). She’s worked as a mental health therapist, a Jazzercise instructor, and a shoe salesperson. Currently she lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her family, where she spends her days writing and drinking too much caffeine. Learn more about Kristen and her books at www.KristenSimmonsBooks.com.