Talking to myself

When I started writing (Pern fanfiction, mind…), I wrote a protagonist who was simply “Red”. I had the impression of her having red hair and nothing else. I didn’t think of her race or ethnicity. She was a daughter of a sea-holder (for you Pern fans) and later, a queen dragon rider. Yet as I wrote on (for it was a novel/la), I still didn’t flesh out her race, simply because I saw her as her.

Fast forward a few more years, I had protagonists and main characters whose race or ethnicity was more or less apparent. But not overt. I didn’t go all out to show or write about their race. The most apparent one is Katherine Riley from my steampunk novella “The Basics of Flight”. She is coded white/British. Yet, responses to her were interesting: she struck readers as stilted, she wasn’t “real”.

It makes me wonder how we, as writers, should tackle race, if race wasn’t the main thing that propels the main character/protagonists. Is race then a skin where the character could wear as default?

I have to confess something. I have always imagined my characters to be Eurasian. Perhaps in my head, I have mixed cultures, cultures that have overlapped and then integrated. Even though my heroines are now clearly Chinese, I always have an impression of my inner headspace as mixed. I am Chinese. But I am also other things. Thanks to the Anglo-Saxon institutions put in place by the British colonists in Singapore, I have the privilege of learning English. Privilege… or bane, as I ended up confused and hating my Chinese name for a period of time. I didn’t look white. I knew I was Chinese, but why was I speaking and writing English. The hanyu pinyin of my name added to this loathing: ‘xiao’ became ‘siao’, the Hokkien word for ‘mad/insane/off-the-rocker.’ I was the subject of merciless teasing. Compounded with the extreme emotions of teenagehood, I hated my name and myself.

My dad tried to pull me out of this self-hatred by asking his close friend who is a geomancer. He came up with alternative names, but they did not resonate with me. In the end, I stuck with my old name.

Plus the fact I went through the tomboy/why am I female stage. In secondary school, I had my hair cut short. I was a tomboy. I thought that being biological female was a problem. Until now, I am nominally heterosexual, but queer. I see myself as bisexual, but I am in a monogamous het. relationship.

Why am I writing this? In the end, I came to the conclusion that I am me. Labels are labels. But they do not change anything inside me. I am wearing a skin that tells the outside word what I am. I am not saying that as a writer, I am not going to tackle the issue of race. I am still going to. Because of race, people have suffered discrimination and persecution. Because of gender and sexuality, people have suffered violence and received abuse. These issues are deep-seated and embedded in societal structures and norms.


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