Let’s picture the typical Wattpad story: a high school romance between a bad boy and a nerd, casting the all-too-familiar Francisco Lachowski and Barbara Palvin. Perhaps Stephen James and Nina Dobrev? Or switch up the two? Regardless of what matching pair we get, it is impossible for one to not come across at least one of these names for a Wattpad story cast. I can’t even count the times I’ve read “Barbara Palvin as …” in the cast chapter of a story. There is no denying that the mentioned names were cast for their good looks, mysterious vibes, or innocent faces, but there is an issue surrounding this that we should highlight: why are they all white?
Before I start, I would like to make it clear that this essay does not aim to hate the actors and actresses for being white or the authors for casting white actors and actresses, but we cannot ignore the fact that the cast for many stories we read are predominantly white. White jocks and white cheerleaders, or white CEOs and white secretaries. I can vouch that more than a handful of the books and trilogies and series that I read as a child mostly featured white main characters. It was only when I grew older that I could finally come across books with greater diversity and began reading novels set in a wide range of countries with characters from various cultural backgrounds. Among these include The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which both ended up being favorites in my book collection.
Growing up, it was difficult for me to find a book with an Asian protagonist to whom I could relate. I found myself trying to relate to characters who were so different from myself, living in different conditions and going through different experiences. As a result, the image of a girl I would write about did not correspond to who I was as an individual. I wrote about girls from Western countries. Girls who were nothing like myself. Girls I wouldn’t recognize in real life, but knew how to describe. It wasn’t because I was ashamed of who I was or because I wanted to be someone else, but rather, it was because all of these stories about non-Asian characters made me feel like this was the norm and these were the stories that people wanted to read. Maybe, Asians were just not interesting enough to the world.
I remember what it felt like to be in a bookstore, only having the urge to buy books written in English featuring white, cliquey teenagers going to American public schools. Reading those kinds of books because I wanted to be like the characters in them. Going home to write ideas in my journal and typing my favorite ones on my mom’s laptop. I can only cringe at the close-minded self that I was as a child. How was I so naive to think that being cool meant being like those white girls I read about all the time?
At the same time, though, I don’t think I can fully put the blame on myself. Yes, I was at fault to a certain extent. I mean, I was the one who chose to read those books, create those characters, and write those stories. Nonetheless, I cannot blame myself for placing those white-oriented books in the bestseller section of Kinokuniya or for hyping the same books on social media and not putting other book selections in the spotlight. Like many others, I was merely a child who wanted to read and experience something different from their own lives without actually doing it. I came to expand my imagination and widen my perspectives, only to be subjected to the lack of representation and the exclusivity of the book industry.
But to my relief, novels like The Kite Runner and The House on Mango Street came around and changed everything for me. I could finally read about Asian children going through their traditional lives or read about something I’d seen in real life. Writers like Cisneros gave me the chance to picture the lives of people I’d only seen on the big screen, but had never seen in texts. I became exposed to ethnicities and customs from all over the world. I was no longer the child who could only write about white characters and Western worlds. For the first time in my life, I could finally write about my own experiences and relatable events, or the issues I cared about. I didn’t have to paint the lives of people who I didn’t recognize; instead, I could read and write about people and places I knew.
Reading Asian fiction or stories about Asian characters made me feel like I was reading about myself. As a child, this wasn’t a luxury I could enjoy. Representation is important for this reason. Children, like my younger self, want to read stories they can relate to. They want to imagine themselves being read by people all across the globe. They want others to realize that children like them, with similar backgrounds, can be famous and recognized, too. We don’t need another Asian sidekick or supporting character; we need stories that accept the fact that we are worthy of being read about.
By Malya Arula Halimun