I visited my parents’ house recently, where my teenaged bedroom is still, for the most part, intact. The Green Day and Fall Out Boy posters no longer stretch across the walls, but the bookcase is filled with my favorites from middle school and high school. I devoured young adult books by authors like Sarah Dessen and Meg Cabot throughout my adolescence. I connected to the coming-of-age stories about girls like me, struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in. Before I discovered these treasures, I didn’t care for reading that much. Now, I can’t imagine not having a love for books.
As I reminisced, thumbing through the book spines, I noticed how virtually all these books were written by white women about white women, entangled in heterosexual romances with white men, in middle class suburbia. I pulled out the few books that featured characters of color (usually love interests or sidekicks) and flipped through the pages. Rereading passages, it was obvious to me that these characters were written from a white perspective, too. One in particular stood out to me: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
When I first read Rowell’s book years ago, I was just excited to see a biracial, mixed-Asian character. I didn’t often see that part of myself reflected in the books, TV, and movies that I consumed back then. However, when I revisited this book, the racism jumped off the page. I felt angry at myself for not immediately throwing the hardcover across the room when I first read it, all those years ago. I think I even wrote favorably about the book on a blog at some point. (I’m cringing as I write this. I’m so disappointed.)
Here are a couple of excerpts. Below, co-protagonist Eleanor describes Park’s eyes. Park is half-Korean and half-white.
Park’s eyes got wide. Well, sort of wide. Sometimes she wondered if the shape of his eyes affected how he saw things. That was probably the most racist question of all time.From ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
Yeah, Eleanor. It is. Not to mention, she compares Park’s mother to a China doll.
His mom looked exactly like a doll. In The Wizard of Oz—the book, not the movie—Dorothy goes to this place called the Dainty China Country, and all the people are tiny and perfect. When Eleanor was little and her mom read her the story, Eleanor had thought the Dainty China people were Chinese. But they were actually ceramic, or they’d turn ceramic if you tried to sneak one back to Kansas. Eleanor imagined Park’s dad, Tom Seleck, tucking his Dainty China person into his flak jacket and sneaking her out of Korea.From ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell
There’s more where that came from, including a ton of internalized racism in Park’s character.
In a Goodreads blog post, Rowell reveals that she took inspiration for Eleanor & Park from her father, who fell in love with a Korean woman while serving in the Army overseas. They didn’t last.
What if fate and circumstance and the U.S. government had come together to deliver my father across the continents to his soulmate – and he just left her there. He could have stayed, I thought. He could have brought her back. Omaha is a military town; people bring wives and husbands back from all over. […] So … in Eleanor & Park, Park’s dad gets sent to Korea because his brother has died in combat in Vietnam. He meets his soulmate there. And he brings her home.By Rainbow Rowell on Goodreads
The part that disturbs me about this post is the way she laments how her father didn’t bring a wife back to the States, as if this woman were a souvenir. It gives me the same vibes as that “China doll” excerpt: in both, Rowell strips the Korean women of their agency and humanity, turning them into things that white people can own and take.
How could I let this slide upon my first read? (*Screams into a pillow as the delayed rage hits me.*) Here’s my best guess: I think I wanted to see more multiracial characters in books so badly that I held onto that sliver of so-called “representation” and tolerated the rest. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people who don’t fit perfectly into whiteness have done the same thing with a book, movie, or TV show at some point. We’ve been conditioned to believe that this is just the way it is.
Representation isn’t just about the presence of diverse characters. Writers (especially those who don’t fall into the category of #OwnVoices) must create these characters from a place of deep respect and understanding—and at the very least, grant these characters the same level of humanity and complexity that you’d give to their more privileged counterparts. This sounds basic, and yet, we’re living in a time where books like Eleanor & Park are rewarded with movie deals. Writing harmful stereotypes into books isn’t a trivial matter; YA books play a key role in shaping the worldviews of young readers. I know they did for me.
I may be kicking myself now for my past passivity, but I’m encouraged by these realizations. I’ve raised the bar for myself and for what I expect in others. I can’t suck it up, look the other way, or let it go anymore. That’s not how change happens.