racial ramblings; balancing my characters

Li Hua/ Elizabeth has always been a struggle for me. She’s my main character, and she’s always been Chinese, and I honestly can not picture how this story would play out with a white main character.

Elizabeth has always been Chinese, but I’m worried that I’m basing her entire character off of the idea of her being quiet and submissive and studious. Which, of course, she is, and I’m not going to make her aggressive just to avoid the stereotype. I think I can avoid this problem by fleshing her out a bit more. She plays the piano and she’s quiet, yes, but she isn’t in STEM. I had her as a civil engineer, but now I’m thinking architect. Maybe dyslexic? How does dyslexia work with reading music? Liz has always been a bit of a self-insert character (hence why I can’t make her Indian- we’re walking a tight line here), and she feels like the person I was when I was young and fuzzy and not yet panicked about the fact that I was only halfway in the world. But Liz isn’t a kid, and she should be more than that feeling. She doesn’t think much when I’ve written her so far. She feels a lot. That’s not really enough.

Strictly from a racial standpoint, I’m afraid of misrepresenting the Chinese-American experience. I originally had her as an international student, but then I would have to talk about life in China and her relationship with her mother and she would speak Chinese and it isn’t my place to write a main character with such a present cultural conflict that I know nothing about. I think the balance is that I can write a Chinese main character, and I shouldn’t whitewash her, but the story can’t be about being Chinese.

To achieve this, I’m introducing degrees of separation. Her name has been Li Hua forever but I am in no way confident that that works as a name. I might just do away with the Chinese name and name her Elizabeth from the beginning- certainly would do away with the confusion of referring to her as Hua/ Elizabeth/ Liz interchangeably- which works well if she’s born in America. I’m toying with the idea of one of her parents being white. I was assuming her mom would be Chinese, but I really like the idea of it being her dad. That draws those relationships away from the Joy Luck Club idea of a distant confused American father and the mystical Chinese mom who doesn’t fit into America. It gives the father dynamic a bit more depth, since he’s the link back to that aspect of her life, and introduces a different conflict with her mom- can her mom really understand the added difficulties that come with being viewed as Chinese in America? She doesn’t really look like her mom- how does makeup and hair advice work when her mother has to figure out how eyeliner works with a monolid? Does her mom feel left out when it comes to Chinese cultural events? Does her dad push to teach Elizabeth Chinese, or did she never learn because he wanted to keep the peace with her mom?

I like this Elizabeth a lot. My real concern with this is that at this point the story is pretty white. Elizabeth isn’t white, I know, but she’s American and not super in touch with her Chinese culture. So besides her, we have Melanie and Clara, both white, and Navin (just invented this name, I’m psyched), who’s Indian. Also Antoine is black, theoretically, but I’m not super pumped about that. I think Clara could be black. I like that a lot, actually. It does bring us into a bit of a dangerous territory of falling into stereotypes, but I’m much more comfortable pushing that envelope. Clara was already meant to play with the slutty bisexual stereotype, since she hooks up with Liz and then Navin and ends up pregnant, but would the blackness be too much? Is it wrong to have the one good black character in this book be a wreck? I don’t think so, because none of that happens because she’s black. Also, black bisexual femme is definitely good. I can see this Clara so clearly. Should her name still be Clara? It fits with the way I see her, as this ridiculously tall gorgeous kind of rich person who’s a lot of everything. Also Navin and Clara sound so good together.

So the racial rundown is this. Elizabeth is half white/ half Chinese. Melanie is white. Clara is black. Navin is Indian. Antoine is white now- maybe a French exchange student, because who else would be named Antoine?

Elizabeth doesn’t need to change, she just needs to be rounded out. This is good.


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