When I was seven, my family moved from Sydney to Hong Kong. I remember my first day at school. I remember the teacher asked a girl called Randee to look after me. I remember that Randee had brown eyes and black hair and that she was half Filipino and half English. I don’t remember that when I arrived home later that day, I announced happily to my mum that there were other kids just like me in the class. My mum does remember this, probably because it made her sad. Up until that point, she hadn’t realised I was aware of my difference—I had never voiced it to her before that day. In Sydney, we’d lived in South Hurstville, which, in the eighties, was a typical middle-class suburb. My grade one class was predominantly white, with a handful of kids from migrant backgrounds. I had friends. Apart from one incident at a birthday party when a kid called my dad Mister Ching Chong, I had never experienced outright racism.
Years later, on my first day at university in Melbourne, another brown-eyed brunette approached me. ‘You’re half-Chinese,’ she said. It was not a question but a statement. When I said yes, she grabbed my arm, smiled and declared, ‘Me too!’ I later learned she had gone to school on the Gold Coast—meeting another mixed race person was something of a novelty for her.
When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I was lucky to have a couple of friends just like me. It made me feel less alone and less vulnerable to bullying. But not all children enjoy this luxury. They may be the only black, or Asian, or disabled kid in their class. For them, the only way they will encounter people just like them is through what they read and what they see on TV and in the movies.
In an interview with The Guardian, British author Malorie Blackman reflected on the books that had influenced her as a child. They were the same books I had read growing up: the Narnia series, Little Women, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Agatha Christie. Malorie said she ‘loved seeing the world through other cultures, other religions, other colours.’ But when it came to writing her own stories, she wanted to ‘write books about black children where race had nothing to do with the story – just doing all the things white children did in stories I read as a child.’
The need for children and young people to see themselves reflected in what they read is one very strong argument for diversity in literature. But there is another, perhaps even more important justification, and that is the need for readers to empathise with characters who are different to them. After all, as Blackman so eloquently states, reading is an ‘exercise in empathy.’
Furthermore, if our art doesn’t reflect the community in which we live, then it risks being inauthentic. Australian comedian, Nazeem Hussain, jokes that ‘if you ever wake up in a hospital and there is not one brown or Asian doctor in that hospital, you should probably get the hell out of there. Coz you’re not actually in a hospital; you’re just on the set of a mediocre but well loved Australian TV series.’ Nazeem is talking about television, but this kind of criticism could easily be directed at Australian books and movies.
In the United States, there is a social media campaign called We Need Diverse Books. In her 2015 essay published on the Wheeler Centre website, Indigenous author and illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina reflects on the movement and its relevance to Australia. When commenting on the lack of accurate Indigenous representation in Australian literature she writes ‘we need diverse books because a lack of diversity is a failure of our humanity.’ I would have to agree with her.
When I started writing short stories, I didn’t make a conscious effort to write about identity or multiculturalism. As a person of mixed race who has lived in two very different cultures and has married into yet another one, it kind of just came out as I was writing. Nowadays I’m pleased that my stories reflect the diverse society in which I live, but the reality is, I wouldn’t have known how to write them any other way.
Melanie Cheng is a writer of fiction and non-fiction from Melbourne. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Overland, Sleepers Almanac and Seizure, among other publications, and her story, ‘White Sparrow’, was published in Shibboleth and other stories, published by Margaret River Press. In 2016 she won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript for her collection of short fiction, Australia Day, to be published in 2017 by Text Publishing.