by Austin Aslan
The Islands at the End of the World
Random House | Wendy Lamb Books
Available on August 5, 2014
I’ve sat with two major challenges in writing THE ISLANDS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, and using the voice of a female protagonist was not one of them. Believe it or not, that came pretty easy for me. The biggest challenge for me was feeling comfortable and legitimate in writing about a Hawaiian main character and crafting a story deeply-rooted in Hawaiian cultures and traditions, even though I’m haole (white) and don’t come from the islands. I’m not Hawaiian, and there’s two problems with that.
The obvious problem is that I don’t “know” the culture. There’s a lot to learn and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll never be an expert, though the book has to feel authentic not only to general readers, but to islanders, as well. The more complex problem is that, as an outsider, I struggle with claiming the right to tell a story set in Hawaii. I’m not only writing as a half Hawaiian when I’m not one. I’m also writing about thorny scenarios involving “sovereign nation” perspectives, and one of my bad guys is pure Hawaiian (though most of my Hawaiian characters are very noble, and I try to make all of my characters, regardless of race, as three-dimensional as possible). This issue has a lot of complexity around it, and I’m most comfortable approaching it with a great deal of humility.
I have a lot of questions about diversity in YA. I've written a book about an epileptic, half-Hawaiian, teenage, girl (four things that I am not). I have no idea what kind of blowback I'm going to get for that down the road, at panels, in industry reviews, media interviews, book readings, on twitter, etc. I was very aware of all this as I wrote, and stayed away from a fully-Hawaiian main character on purpose. A very good decision. But I do still wonder about the difference between diversity in YA in terms of main characters and in terms of authors. Is the conversation about having more authors that are non-white (we should have more, and encourage more, and support more people of color and from different walks of life to write and to write to underrepresented audiences) or is it about having more diversity in main characters? I think there’s a lot of potential for a white author to get into hot water writing as a non-white main character, and I'm sure readers are wary and they're wary for good reason--I don't think many authors pull this off, and when they don't pull it off, it's because they weren't writing humbly with this sensitivity in mind. I spent seven years as a community organizer in inner city Sacramento working with underrepresented neighborhoods and schools, and I received a lot of training and I was fortunate enough to go through a lot of re-programming. I was never really aware of race (which most white people think is the right place to be). But many underrepped groups are never NOT aware of race. And without proper guidance and training white people often have the wrong reaction to this. Anyway, sometimes good training doesn't matter. My neighbor (MY NEIGHBOR, I KNOW) is Leslie Silko. (LESLIE SILKO, I know! McArthur Genius awardee and celebrated author...look her up.) She was excited to read my book, and she did. She really liked it and told me I was a great writer (I SWOONED. LESLIE SILKO LIKED MY BOOK!) but told me she couldn't blurb it for me because I used native Hawaiian words in my text, and SHE would get blowback if she endorsed my book. So, yeah, there will always be critics.
Again, I think the question isn't "Am I allowed to write from the perspective of another race?" Ultimately, I think that any author has the right to tell any story they want to. The better question is: can I "get away" with it? Will my effort be respected? Will the people whose voice I'm trying to assume authenticate my attempt or not? I hope the answer for me is yes but I’ll have to wait until the book comes out to see how it is received in different circles. If it worked, I will be thrilled to have added to a cannon of more diverse YA. Everyone is looking for the next non-white Katniss. I don't know, maybe my character Leilani can fill that role for a time, until she's supplanted by a full minority character written by an author who can more accurately represent her authentic experience. I'll celebrate that moment, for sure!
But at the very least I feel that I’ve approached this dynamic with awareness, humility, honesty, and good faith.