I have to start by pointing out the obvious: As a white woman, my opinion on this subject doesn’t matter all that much. Some people might even say I shouldn’t get to have an opinion on this. But I do, so… I’m giving it… with this little disclaimer that you can take it or leave it as you see fit.
I actually started writing this as a note in my review of Picture Us in the Light, but then it was getting really long, and I thought I’d turn it into its own discussion post.
I happened across a random comment on Goodreads where someone said they wondered if Disney was afraid to use names that sounded too Asian in Picture Us in the Light, since all the characters have American-sounding first names. This seemed like a strange reason to write the book off to me, especially given the fact that the author’s Asian.
I’ll confess that I wondered about the names momentarily when I started reading the book too—but when I gave this a minute’s thought, I realized this is my own sort of backward racism—like I expect Asian people to have Asian names so that they sound Asian enough for me. What’s that all about?
And, in fact, when I thought through my Asian friends, I realized a couple of things:
- I can easily think of over 20 Asians I know personally who have American-sounding names and only four who have Asian-sounding names.
- When I think about my K-1 classroom at church, the comparison is even more striking: I’ve probably had hundreds of Asian kiddos come through my classroom in the past seven years (we have a large church, and the area has a relatively high Asian population), and I can only think of three with Asian-sounding names—one of whom had just come to America and didn’t even speak English when she first came to the class. The other two are twins.
The book is set in an area similar to mine (suburban—though definitely more affluent). So why would I be surprised that all of the Asian-American students in the book have American-sounding first names? That really shouldn’t have given me even a moment of pause. The fact that it did shows some sort of innate expectation that isn’t based on reality.
And, of course, look at the author’s name: Kelly Loy Gilbert. Hopefully we aren’t going to start complaining that her name isn’t Asian enough! She’s stated that she based the school in the book to her own school growing up. There’s a high likelihood that the names reflect her experiences as well. So, even if the names didn’t reflect my personal experiences, shouldn’t I assume that Gilbert knows what she’s talking about? I guess I’m saying we should just trust that the author knows her own culture.
And we certainly shouldn’t start throwing accusations at Disney without giving it LOTS of consideration. (I mean, if John Smith had written it, sure we could question Disney’s motives, but that’s not the case here.)
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have all the comments about the names found in Sandhya Menon’s books, When Dimple Met Rishi and From Twinkle, with Love. I remember seeing so much backlash about the names. It seems every time a new book comes out, Sandhya has to write a new thread (or three) on Twitter to remind people that she knows her own culture. These are names of people in the real world, and she shouldn’t have to defend them.
Now, of course, Sandhya and Kelly’s characters aren’t supposed to reflect every Asian-American or Indian-American person or every Asian-American or Indian-American life-experience (that’s a whole other topic). This is part of the beauty and diversity of life, and we can and should respect that.
POC authors often have a lot of uphill battles—they’re too cultural, they’re not cultural enough, they don’t fit into our stereotypes of what they should be. Names are just one more issue to throw onto the pile threatening to suffocate a POC author before she (or he) even gets started.
I’m learning that I need to check my expectations at the door.