Congratulations to Claire Curry, one of the recipients of the 2022–23 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships!
We are honored to share Claire’s application essay here:
Books helped to shape my knowledge of the world. Growing up, I devoured books about magical schools, falling in love for the first time, terrifying dystopian worlds, unexpected friendship, and fighting dangerous monsters. But it took 22 years for me to read a book with a protagonist that reflected my identity.
Like me, Jordan Baker from Nghi Vo’s novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful, inspired by The Great Gatsby, is also a Queer, adopted Vietnamese-American. She brings a new perspective to the well-known story. While I don’t golf or live in 1920’s New York, I could see myself in her character and the way her identities intersected.
I saw Jordan navigate the same strange experience of not quite belonging in America. She was seen as normal by family, exotic by those in her social circles, and as a threat by the government. I read this book as I was applying for my passport and ran into complications because of adoption paperwork and complex immigration and citizenship laws. I was confused; I’d always been told that “Vietnamese” didn’t need to compete with “American,” only to learn that was not always the case. I saw this mirrored in Jordan’s story as she saw anti-Asian legislation pass. Her adopted grandmother told her she would be fine but she was forced to leave the country. At the same time, Jordan befriends a group of Vietnamese paper-cutting performers. She looks like them and has the same magical gift. But she’s not one of them, either.
Jordan grew up thinking that Mrs. Baker adopted her because Jordan was her favorite, but then she learns that her adoptive mother took her away from her home in Vietnam. Her adoption ends up complicated by America’s history of colonization.
Her queerness is not a big deal to her, but it is to the people around her. Her identity is something that had to be hidden. It was not defined by tropes; it was complicated, as emotions should be. Her relationships with women are invalidated and overlooked. Jordan is also allowed to be all these identities at once. Her race and sexual identity don’t define her. These things influence her life, experiences, and decisions.
When I picked up this book, I didn’t realize I would find a character whose experiences and inner conflicts mirrored my own. I didn’t realize how important that would be. Books helped shape my knowledge of the world. They showed me how to value friends and family, navigate high school, and save the world if I suddenly developed magical powers. But there were some things they left out. I didn’t see myself in these stories and was left trying to figure out what my
place in the world was and why people made comments about my skin or eyes, about my mother or my name. So it brings me hope to find stories like this, that help people see themselves and allow others to understand a different experience. I aim to publish books that will help others feel seen the way I did when I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. Because she’s the protagonist of her own story, not a sidekick.
In my publishing classes, important conversations have been brought up to address diversity in publishing. And these issues are complicated. For example, Own Voices started as a way for underrepresented groups to finally tell their own stories. This was a response to many published stories about minorities that were being written by people outside of their group; as a consequence, these stories could be stereotypical or inaccurate. More recently, though, Own Voices has become criticized for forcing authors to disclose their identity and defining them with a label. This overlaps with concerns among audiobook narrators figuring out who should be voicing characters of color and how to approach dialects and accents.
Additionally, many common tropes–like queer tragedy or the model minority–are still prevalent and reflect harmful stereotypes. For instance, authors of early Asian American literature had to focus on proving their American-ness and the desire to assimilate. Queer stories had to end tragically to reinforce the hegemonic norm that anything outside of the norm is a sinful and terrible lifestyle.
How do you uplift underrepresented voices without tokenization? How do you convey a certain kind of voice without stereotyping? How do you avoid falling into harmful narrative tropes? I hope that my perspective can contribute to finding a solution with no single correct and easy answer. Identities are complicated and unique to the individual. There is no single correct and easy answer. We need to uplift voices that haven’t been heard throughout all areas of publishing so that they reflect the diversity of the world.
The 2022–23 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships are awarded in honor of Indigo: Editing, Design, and More and poet Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa. Scholarships are awarded annually to incoming students to the Ooligan Press Master’s in Publishing program at Portland State University. Learn more here.