It’s my stuff, too.

A little background: Diverse Energies is a young-adult anthology of dystopian stories featuring racially, ethnically, and internationally diverse heroes. My story, “Gods of the Dimming Light,” is about an American kid of Indonesian descent caught up in the apocalyptic events of Ragnarok. Ragnarok is an account from Norse mythology of how the world ends. Right?

In the course of ceaselessly scouring the internet for the tiniest crumb of a mention of my name, I came across a review of Diverse Energies. The reviewer didn’t like my story much at all, which is perfectly fine. Okay, well, it’s not perfectly fine, because I want every single human on Earth to love every single thing that I do, but it’s okay if they don’t, honestly.

What I am not okay with is this part of the review:

“…  if we’re going to use mythology in a story featuring a non-white protagonist, does it need to default to a Western one?”

I didn’t “default” to anything. Instead, I made a deliberate choice to play with Norse mythology. Why? Because I wanted to. Because I dig Norse mythology. Because I think the ideas and characters and stories and aesthetics of Norse mythology contain a whole big box of fun and interesting stuff, and I enjoy playing with that stuff.

My protagonist in “Gods of the Dimming Light” is an American kid, born and raised in San Diego, California. His parents are from Indonesia. By unlikely coincidence, I’m an American guy, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. My parents are from Indonesia. I’m quite proud of my Indonesian heritage. I’m a little indifferent toward my Dutch heritage. I am critical of America in many ways, but I’m also extremely happy to be an American and very grateful to the country that gave my family a home. None of these feelings contradicts the others.

My skin is brown and my parents weren’t born here and I love a good nasi kuning, but why shouldn’t I play with Western culture? I’m a product of it. I grew up watching American television, reading American books, going to American schools, dropping tokens in American video games in American arcades in American malls. If Norse gods and myths can find a place in American stories, then those are my stories, too. To insist otherwise is to make me a mere spectator to my own culture. It means an Indonesian-American kid can’t pretend to be the cowboy. It means she can’t imagine herself as an elf in a Tolkien-ish fantasy. It means Idris Elba can’t play Heimdall in Thor. The push for diversity should not preclude an Indonesian-American kid from playing in the Western sandbox that he grew up in.

Not for a second do I believe that this is what the reviewer was trying to do. Based on the whole of their review, I do think they want more diverse characters and settings. As do I. And, as a guy whose parents are from Indonesia, I think imagining myself in the stories of Western culture is one of many ways to embrace diversity.



7 Responses to “It’s my stuff, too.”

  1. John Wiswell

    I googled my way to the review to read the full context. The full paragraph is even more more questionable because he posits the claim exclusively on excluding characters of certain races from participating in certain cultures. That is shameful, and if it has merit, he certainly didn’t unpack it. He ends on your quote, which if anything needs a lot of support to not be purely offensive.

    I was on your side to begin with, but you win the argument regardless with, “If Norse gods and myths can find a place in American stories, then those are my stories, too. To insist otherwise is to make me a mere spectator to my own culture.” You’re exactly and painfully right. If it’s in our culture, then it’s all of ours or none of ours. Though it does now make me wonder about the nature of individual liberty and pursuit of art regardless of what cultures you’re allegedly allowed to associate with.

  2. Teri Hall

    Nice. I think sometimes that we are getting way too far into what someone out there (who? I’m not really certain.) thinks things “should” be, instead of how things really are. There’s room for respect, care, cultural difference, inclusiveness, all without “shoulding” everything. It’s tricky, but it’s do-able and a learning thing every day. Dialogue, not prescription.

    I loved your story.

  3. Will Shetterly

    I’m 1/4 Norwegian, and the idea that some guy with brown skin appropriated the cultural myths to which I have a genetic claim just makes me–

    –wonder who cares more about an author’s biological history than the quality of an author’s work. (Though the cultural historian in me is amused that a couple of American Jews created Marvel’s version of Thor.) (And the pedant wishes they’d kept his traditional hair color.)

    • Greg van Eekhout

      To be clear, the mission of Diverse Energies was to collect stories about characters from a diversity of cultures and be deliberately inclusive of authors from ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse backgrounds. Ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity strongly intersects with biological history. And I think Diverse Energies does a good job of collecting strong stories by diverse authors.

  4. Eleanor Arnason

    Greg — I found this essay via Mary Anne Mohanraj. I love it. You are so right.

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