Taylana the Cat Princess.
Lately every time my mind wanders, it goes limping down memory lane. Maybe it's a sign of early-onset senility. Maybe it's just that time of year when one reflects on one's life. I can't say I've done much reflecting; I've done a lot of cringing, remembering stupid things I've done and embarrassing situations I've been thrust into. But while dodging the specter of my humiliating freshman Latin class or trying to forget how I lost a track meet by two inches of distance on a shotput throw, I stumbled across another memory: my English teachers.
I only had two between 6th grade and senior year; I had the good fortune of being in the AP English & Creative Writing class, which meant the same teacher guided our progress year after year and gave us personal attention when developing our speaking and writing skills. For my freshman through senior years, that was Mrs. N. She was utterly out of her mind - and utterly brilliant. She was the one who shaped my love of reading and writing, and encouraged me even when others admonished me to get my nose out of the books and go do something normal kids would do. Her lessons have remained with me for my entire life, along with her frizzy yellow hair and enormous coke-bottle glasses.
Actually, she looked a hell of a lot like the principal on South Park. Only crazier. A lot crazier. We're not even getting into the incident with the eggs and the beeswax.
No matter how dotty she was, though, Mrs. N was a great teacher...and she saved me from Mrs. L, my teacher throughout the three years of middle school.
Mrs. L was a nice woman, for the most part - in that rather false way that said she was only being nice to her students because it was her job, though she really did work hard at teaching us the foundations of proper English while still letting us have free reign to develop individually. She even tried to stimulate our creativity, which led to our 6th-grade project.
We had to write a book.
Oh, not a full-length book. Forty pages, double-spaced...which was still quite daunting to a 6th-grader. We had a semester to write it. Most of us dove in with eager enthusiasm, chattering about our ideas all through class and completely ignoring Mrs. L when she tried to call us to order. I still remember my book; if I recall, it was called CAT PRINCESS.
I was in 6th grade. Shut the bloody hell up.
My heroine was Taylana. Her mother was a postal worker, just like mine. She was as confused about girls as I was about boys. I was projecting just a little - no, a lot. I was young, and at that age where every story I read cast me as the hero inside the shell of the author's character. So when I wrote my own story, I wrote a story I'd want to be in and a persona I'd want to adopt, with the gender reversed. Taylana had bright green eyes, because I thought mine were too brown and ordinary. She had long, dark hair that didn't need special treatments to be straight, and because she was a girl she didn't have to argue with her mother about keeping it long. She had a black cat just like mine.
And she had brown skin, just like mine - though darker. She was purely African-American, while I'm only part.
There were a few other influences; Occula from Richard Adams' MAIA, along with another story I'd recently read (but can't remember now) about a middle-aged woman who was transported to another world and at some point discovered her real heritage...about the time her inner self transformed her into an angry mother bear. Literally. Thus Taylana was the lost princess of the cat people, who'd been sent to the human world to keep her safe; the black cat was actually her guardian, and could talk to her. She shapeshifted into a panther.
Let me remind you: I was eleven. Maybe twelve.
I wish I still had the story, for nostalgia's sake. Other than a 3rd-grade effort about Dolores the talking hamster, it was my first real work of fiction. Well, it would be if I'd finished it. I failed the assignment, because about two thirds of the way through I put it down with no desire to ever touch it again. It was stupid, it was wrong, it was bad, I shouldn't have even bothered. Or at least...that's what Mrs. L led me to believe. During our progress check-ins, she'd read the stories and offer a little advice.
In my case, her advice was to make Taylana white.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, why is she black?"
"Because she just is."
"She needs a reason to be black."
"Why?" I asked again, confused.
"Because without a good reason for her to be black, no one wants to read about her. Nobody wants to read a story about a black person. Those stories don't matter."
And that was it.
Just like that she'd rendered my character and my story invalid without any consideration of its merit, its worth; all that mattered to her was that the character was black, which made it wrong.
Even worse, she'd rendered me invalid. She'd told me my perspective, my voice didn't matter...and never would. She'd told me that even though I grew up around people of so many races - most of them not white, especially the majority of my family, my neighbors - there was nothing important about the stories they had to tell, real or fictional. There was nothing important about their thoughts, their perspectives, their cultural insight. There was nothing she could ever possibly relate to, simply because of the color of their skin. The color of my skin.
I felt small. I felt transparent, invisible, dehumanized. I was already a wallflower before, but after that I became wallpaper. I retreated into my books, hid my notebooks full of scribblings, and avoided my friends...my primarily white friends, who found plenty to relate to in our common childhood experiences and had no idea what Mrs. L was talking about, or why it should matter. They liked my story, with the unbiased view of the young - but it was too late to change my impressionable young mind, as an authority figure had already told me it was worthless.
It took another authority figure to straighten me out: Mrs. N. She gave us creative writing assignments starting in freshman year, and noticed mine were a bit stiff, unnatural. I wrote about white boys and white girls, not as normal people, but as ideals of what Mrs. L had told me people wanted to read. I wasn't comfortable with them, and she could tell in every word - when I even did the assignments, as I felt like there was no point in even picking up a pen. She tried to work with me, despite my mutinous silence and withdrawn nature. After some patience, she managed to pry an explanation out of me.
And when I finally told her about my misgivings, she laughed.
Not at me, no. At Mrs. L. She also called her a few interesting names I won't repeat here. And then she told me,
"Adrien, who cares what color they are? Who cares what color you are? Every day African-Americans and Chinese people and Arabs and Malays and Latinos and hell Nigerians - everyone's out there having the same experiences as you and I. There's a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl somewhere right now staring at a handsome boy with her heart in her throat and hoping he'll notice her, and just because they've both got brown skin and black eyes doesn't mean she doesn't feel the same damned things as the blonde white girl when she's looking at her handsome green-eyed boy." Then she rapped my knuckles with her pen.
Then she rapped hers. "Ow!" And she laughed. "See? I'm a nutty old white lady, and you're a stubborn mule of a young - wait, what are you?"
"I don't know."
"Well, you've got pretty skin. It's like nutmeg. And mine's like flour. Young dark boy, old pale woman. But the pen still hurt us the same way. And if you wanted to write about it, you'd write it the same way, because we have the same experiences, and they mean the same thing. Exactly the same thing. Your pen smack isn't my broken leg. Do you get it?"
I nodded slowly, though I wasn't sure I did, and wasn't sure I wholly believed her. I'd been burned once already.
"Good." She started to smack my knuckles again, then grinned when I yanked my hand back before she could. "You learn quick. Let's see if you're as quick with a pen. Throw this shit away, don't tell your mom I said shit, and start over. Write stories about people who matter to you, and if they matter enough...they'll matter to everyone."
It took years before I had the maturity to really grasp what she was trying to tell me, but I'd already grasped one important thing: the hand she offered to lift me out of the pit of misconception so I could stand on even footing with everyone else. And what she taught me stuck with me beyond even high school and college, even though I didn't know until five or six years ago that I wanted to be a writer. I'd thought about computer programming for a while, ended up in data analysis before moving on to full-time writing and editing...but thanks to Mrs. N I never stopped writing on the side, whether it was college assignments, fanfic, or random little drabbles of no importance.
And there was always someone brown in the stories - not just because Mrs. N said it was okay, but because it was what I wanted, and most importantly Mrs. N had taught me to stand up for what I felt was right regardless of any authority figure's opinion. Whether the protagonist, antagonist, or supporting cast, there were always brown people as part of the landscape of the story - because brown people have been part of the landscape of my life. We're part of the landscape of your life. You interact with us every day; maybe we're part of your story. Or maybe you're part of ours, and we're the star; that doesn't make the story any less valid, especially if you stop to think about the fact that we have enough in common in our lives for them to overlap. You talk to us every day; you know us. We're your friends, your coworkers, people you pass on the street. We have the same concerns you do, the same joys, the same fears.
Just like you, we read. We write. Yes, there are higher rates of illiteracy among the ethnic population, but we're fighting to change that. We're fighting not only to make our voices heard, but to learn the right ways to communicate our message on common ground.
We're fighting to tell stories that give us a little something more to identify with. We've grown up reading stories where the white person is the star, and anyone dark is a marginalized token that's often stereotyped. Yet we've found something to identify with in those stories; we've found something to love, something that fires our imaginations and makes us want to write our own stories with people like us. People like you, with only a few differences of language, culture, and coloration. We're trying to be recognized as part of the mainstream - because "mainstream" shouldn't mean "white only."
And it doesn't, anymore. Despite some old voices who still insist no one will buy books with an ethnic protagonist, more and more writers are striking out to speak with colorful voices on every page of their stories. Are readers having trouble identifying? No. No, instead they're falling in love with the stories and the characters, because good fiction is good fiction - period. They're proving the status quo wrong.
One day I hope to prove Mrs. L wrong. One day I hope to see Kensington, Akhilesh, Sujit, Hai, Rio, Crow, Akai, Vice, all my rainbowed cast in print - and not just the ethnic rainbow. Grayson, Vee, Marcus, Sebasien, Kira - another rainbow, on the LGBT spectrum; another set of voices who are just as mainstream as the heteronormative ideal.
We aren't any better than you. You aren't any better than we.
We're all the same, but no one asks if there's a good reason for your characters to be white.
So why do we need a good reason not to be?